In Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a woman and a humanoid ocean creature fall in love against the backdrop of Cold War tensions. While the Fox Searchlight picture, set for release Dec. 8, went to great lengths to capture its early ’60s period with stark realism, it highlighted the movie’s fantasy aspect as well, according to production designer Paul Austerberry.
In the movie, protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute who lives above a movie theater across the hall from failed artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Austerberry reflected their friendship by designing their apartment interiors to be two halves of a whole. “Her world is water surrounded with cyan, blues, aged texture and furniture shaped with curves, while his place is bounded by gold and mustard colors to signify warmth and empathy,” says the production designer.
Rich detail went into the walls of Elisa’s place, where key scenic artist Matthew Lammerich layered a version of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic “The Great Wave” over patterns of fish scales influenced by Anglo-Japanese wallpaper. “Everything inside her home hinted at water or the ocean,” Austerberry notes.
The concrete-heavy high-security government lab where Elisa works as a custodian is run by an abusive military man, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). For that environment, Austerberry referenced Brutalist architecture from the ’50s to the ’70s. The lab, where the creature is kept in an indoor pool, is a mix of high-tech mid-century design. A myriad of heavy iron pipes (made of styrofoam) line the wall in a rising-sun pattern.
The lab’s interior is imbued with green hues, creating the unsettling mood and “grimy and steamy feel” that del Toro desired, Austerberry notes. The creature, captured in South America, arrives in the lab in an iron lung, according to the script — a cylindrical capsule that took two months to fabricate. “We did more aging to the sets than what would normally be required, but we wanted it to be slightly romanticized as a fantasy fairy tale,” Austerberry explains.
The color teal is spread methodically throughout the hallways and detailed in the tile of the lab to signify the future. It even shows up when Strickland purchases his new Cadillac, “the car of the future.” Strickland’s office is also tied into the theme, with greenish-blue tiles creating the backdrop to the glass-enclosed command center that sits high above the floor.
The interiors of the bathroom in Elisa’s apartment were constructed from aluminum over wood and plaster, allowing it to be magically submerged in water when she brings the creature home.
For other scenes, the visual effects department, led by Dennis Berardi, extended sets to let the storyline breathe, adding a chocolate factory in the distance or the finishing touches to the marquee above a theater.
Says Austerberry: “This was always a passion project for Guillermo. He wanted to do this film before ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising,’ and what we were able to accomplish on a tight budget shows how prolific he is as a director.”