How Guillermo del Toro defied genre and tight budgets to create The Shape of Water
In a Guillermo del Toro movie, a piece of candy is never just a piece of candy. It’s also a precise shade of emerald, a hue that flows throughout his latest, The Shape of Water. Green is in a nauseating slice of key lime pie. A newly purchased Cadillac. A molded gelatin in a Rockwellian advertisement. It also represents the future, because in a Guillermo del Toro movie, the color green is never just the color green.
For the past 25 years, del Toro has built fantastical worlds of horrible beauty and beautiful horror. His visions — whether it’s a bleak fairy tale about fascist Spain under Franco in Pan’s Labyrinth or a battle royale between giant monsters and robots in Pacific Rim — have come to life because of their specificity. Every detail filling the frame is there for a reason, whether it’s a callback to a cinematic touchstone or a subliminal theme laced into the production design. The layers are essential to the filmmaker’s process, even if the audience may never notice them. “The viewer doesn’t need to know these things, and not knowing doesn’t detract from your experience,” del Toro says. “But for me, it is very important that I know why everything is there.”
The same is true for The Shape of Water (in theaters now), a Cold War-set romance unlike anything to grace a movie screen this (or any) decade. The story follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a shady government facility in 1962, who lives a simple life populated with mostly good people, like her neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker (Octavia Spencer). That all changes when an amphibious creature (played by frequent del Toro collaborator, mime, and contortionist Doug Jones) is brought to the lab as the military’s guinea pig. Over the course of several clandestine meetings, Elisa and the creature form a bond, one she will do anything to protect.
One look at the scaly creature and it’s likely you’ll identify del Toro’s first influence. The story was spawned partly out of the filmmaker’s childhood disappointment with 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, specifically its lack of romance. To this day, he remembers watching actress Julie Adams splash and twirl in the waters just above the Gill-man, believing they had fallen in love. “That was one of the first times I knew that as a person, art could move you,” del Toro says. “It was very strange, but it encapsulated the tender balance of the beautiful and the different that I love.”
There’s no denying the significance of the Universal B movie for del Toro — or for Jones, for that matter — but its overt influence was something they both tried to avoid. Gill-man was already synonymous with the very concept of an amphibian humanoid and overlapped a previous del Toro/Jones collaboration: Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies. The monster’s legacy is why Jones, who also brought two memorable creatures to life in Pan’s Labyrinth, decided not to rewatch Black Lagoon before filming. “I didn’t want to mimic anything,” Jones says. “I didn’t want to have somebody else’s performance in my mind. I really wanted to find this creature on his own, let him live and breathe on his own.”
Remaking Black Lagoon was never del Toro’s intention anyway. He had much grander aspirations. Shape is above all a love story, about the people society marginalizes and the unexpected places the heart can lead someone. And because it’s del Toro, the tale unfolds in thematically rich frames with colors assigned to characters and principles — a visual Peter and the Wolf. Elisa’s apartment is drenched in cyan, connecting her to the water. Red enters into the film later, once she’s in love. And green, of course, is the future, covering every surface of the government lab.
But conjuring del Toro’s dreams is a tall ask, and Hollywood isn’t exactly in the business of financing monster-human romances. Fox Searchlight offered to bankroll the film at $19.5 million, but only if del Toro agreed to abandon his original plan to shoot Shape in black and white. He agreed. “To be disarmingly and horribly honest,” he says, “black and white was a pawn sacrifice. I was not really interested in it, but I knew I needed to appear reasonable. ‘Oh, Guillermo! He’s such a nice guy. He gave up black and white.'”
Even at that budget, the Toronto-set production had to get creative to believably re-create 1962 Baltimore. Fortunately, production designer Paul D. Austerberry (30 Days of Night) visited the Toronto sets of the del Toro-produced FX series The Strain just as they were being torn down. He was able to save some material and repurpose it for Shape. “We had to do a hell of a lot of set builds for a movie without a proper set-building budget,” Austerberry says. He and his team also scoured the city for era-appropriate locations, often finding them in unexpected places. A soundstage set, a University of Toronto building, and a bathroom in an abandoned power station — once its wall tiles were hand-painted green — all became a seamless government lab. (Del Toro is happy to report that he came in $100,000 under budget.)
Ironically, the budget constraints actually helped del Toro relax a bit. His last two big-budget features, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, underperformed with audiences. Not having to deliver a blockbuster this time took the pressure off. “The thing that I did very different from ever before is that I finally exhaled,” he says. “I finally was able to consider films lyrically. I wanted you to come out of the [theater] humming the movie. Not the music of the movie. Humming the movie.”
Watching the film, it’s easy to get the sense that the del Toro who made The Shape of Water is a freer man, an artist with the uncanny ability to put exactly what he dreams onto the screen—and one who’ll do whatever he needs to in order to see it realized. And lucky for us, he dreams in color.
The Shape of Water