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Guillermo del Toro Calls ‘The Shape of Water’ a New Type of ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, and Michael Stuhlbarg brought an air — nay, a wave — of beauty to Beverly Hills’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater at Wednesday night’s premiere of “The Shape of Water.”

Co-written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, the sci-fi fairy tale tells the story of Elisa (Hawkins), a mute woman in 1960s Cold War America who falls in love with an amphibian man that is the subject of a classified government experiment.

“The idea was to create, through fantasy and science fiction forms, a new type of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which the beauty is someone you can relate to — not a perfect princess,” said del Toro, who also directed and produced the film. “And the beast doesn’t need to transform to find love.”

He continued, “The creation of the creature demanded a lot because we were not creating a monster; we were creating a leading man. That required a little more sophistication in the execution of the suit, the makeup, and the performance.”

Hawkins said when she got the call from her agent saying that del Toro wanted her to star in his film, she said yes even though there was no script yet.

“This was about three years before it even came into reality. I thought the role might go away to a bigger, more sparkly star. But it didn’t go away,” she said. “After not hearing from him for a long time, I bumped into him at a mad party by some sheer coincidence. He was drunk — and he never drinks! He picked me up in his arms and said, ‘You are going to do my film!’ And I said, ‘Of course! I already said yes! I don’t even have to read the script. I’m there.'”

Although the movie is full of fantastical elements, its message is far from distant, said Spencer, who plays the role of Zelda. “It feels very relevant, unfortunately,” she said.

She added that the most difficult part of getting into character was stepping into the time period: “The ’60s were not a time for people who look like me. I’ve played women from that era. What was refreshing was that even though Zelda is African American … I got to be like every other woman,” Spencer said. “She felt quite contemporary.”

Composer Alexandre Desplat said his approach to scoring the film was driven by an intention to keep viewers feeling like they are underwater.

“When you hear music in the distance while swimming, it sounds muffled, warm, and strange,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to create.”

Producer J. Miles Dale, who previously worked with del Toro on “The Strain” and “Mama,” said their budget was smaller this time around.

“Relatively speaking, this was a smaller movie. ‘Crimson Peak’ was probably three times the budget of this movie, and ‘Pacific Rim’ was probably 10 times the budget of this movie,” Dale said. “He’s got a big appetite for resources. … It is a period movie, so we had to be smart with how we spent our resources to keep true to the vision.”

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, a longtime fan of del Toro, said his biggest takeaway from the film was the impact of abused power and “the role of ideologies in disguising reality and making people suffer.”

The Shape of Water” bows Dec. 1.

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