With ‘The Shape of Water,’ Guillermo del Toro Realizes a Lifelong Monster Dream

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Guillermo del Toro is a hugger.

Not a facehugger, like those nasty creatures in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” — a film whose Lovecraftian monsters both scarred and inspired del Toro when he first saw it at age 14 — but a good old-fashioned bear hugger.

The first thing that strikes you on visiting his Bleak House mansion in Thousand Oaks, which is packed with movie and monster memorabilia, is the terrifying, life-size demon that appears to be lunging down the hallway and toward any would-be intruder (a memento from the first “Hellboy” movie). But a close second would be the big, bearded Mexican who emerges, Bilbo Baggins-like, to hug the latest visitor to his domain.

Del Toro’s actual home is the building next door to Bleak House, but the monster manor is where he does his best work, preferring to write in a room where simulated rain falls on the windows.

A warm embrace is not the greeting one naturally expects from a man who surrounds himself with creatures — although it’s typical, insists actress Sally Hawkins, who stars in del Toro’s latest movie, “The Shape of Water,” which debuts this week at the Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters Dec. 8. Hawkins was also greeted with an enthusiastic hug when she first met the director: “He opened his arms and literally just picked me up in a huge embrace,” she says. This was nearly four years ago, in the middle of a swanky awards-season cocktail party Hawkins had gate-crashed.

“I’d only just gotten a phone call from my agent like a month before, saying Guillermo was interested in me for the lead in this film that he hadn’t written yet,” Hawkins says. “You don’t really believe those things until you’re in the room with a director or until you’ve got the script in your hands.”

But del Toro was as good as his word. A few months later, he showed her the beginnings of a screenplay and was eager to get her feedback. “From very early in that process, it felt like I was collaborating with him. That’s how he works,” Hawkins says.

For del Toro, “The Shape of Water” represents the culmination of a lifelong dream: “I always wanted to do an amphibian-man romance with a human,” though he imagined something more in line with Universal’s classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” But for some reason, he could never crack it. “I felt the genre got in the way,” he says.

Guillermodel Toro’s Bleak House is filled with genre film artifacts
Dylan Coulter for Variety

Then one December morning in 2011, while del Toro was meeting with Daniel Kraus, his co-author on the “Trollhunters” books, Kraus brought up an idea he’d been kicking around for ages: a story where a janitor befriends an amphibian creature in a cylinder that reads, “Found in the Amazon.” It was the eureka moment del Toro had been waiting for. “I said, ‘Say no more. I am buying that idea. That’s my next movie!’” the director recalls.

Actually, he made “Crimson Peak” next, an extravagant Gothic romance released by Universal Pictures. But del Toro had the solution for his amphibian, switching gears from monster movie to what he describes as “a fairy tale that is sort of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ but where the beast never turns into the prince.”

For “The Shape of Water,” which he set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, he’d create a monster movie where the creature gets the girl. “As a kid, watching ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Creature’ or ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ I was always rooting for the monster. So I always wanted to see that movie,” del Toro says. “If we had made a normal movie, in the scene where the beast carries the beauty in his arms, the hero would be … the square-jawed, beautifully tailored white-man savior [Strickland, the menacing government agent, played by Michael Shannon]. Here, it’s the fact that we see him from another point of view that makes him the villain. For me, stories are interesting if you change the point of view.”

He tried a similar flip in the relatively big-budget robots-versus-monsters saga “Pacific Rim,” opening the film at a point where the humans are in downfall. “It was not the typical beginning of a movie; it was like the end of a sequel,” he says. But when it came to English-language projects, del Toro had never taken such a big risk.

After the relative disappointment of 2015 Halloween release “Crimson Peak” — an uncompromising atmospheric period romance whose $50 million budget forced Universal to misrepresent the film as a horror movie, which it wasn’t — del Toro learned a valuable lesson.

“I understood ‘The Shape of Water’ needed to cost under $20 million, because that allows them to market it for what it is,” he says — in this case, a one-of-a-kind hybrid of monster movie, spy movie, comedy and musical, where the romantic leads are a gill-man and a mute janitor (technically, neither character can speak).

To help hit that budget, del Toro made an unconventional commitment from the beginning: “I said, except for taxes and guild dues, my entire salary goes back into the movie — to buy time, sets, whatever — and it did.”

“As a kid, watching ‘Frankenstein’ or ‘Creature [From the Black lagoon]’ or ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ I was always rooting for the monster. so I always wanted to see that movie.”
Guillermo del Toro

He’d made the same deal on “Pan’s Labyrinth” a decade earlier and stresses that both projects took him years to develop. “The only real money I made on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ was when I sold the apartment I had bought in Madrid. Although [the studio] returned my salary just before the Oscar ceremony,” he says. “The way I see money at 52, my kids are adults basically, I dress like s—, I drive a four-year-old car, I have all the rubber monsters that I need. You don’t make these movies to buy a ranch in Santa Fe; you make these movies to tell a story. It’s not that I came out flat on this movie; I invested. And I invested in a story that I think of as an antidote to the times we’re living in. Everything is so sordid and horrible right now, but this movie is not shy about talking about love and beauty and the good things in life.”

To get “The Shape of Water” made, del Toro paid for pre-production out of his own pocket, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the creature. He hired Mike Hill to sculpt a clay model and artists Guy Davis and Vince Proce to design the sets, then invited Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley to Bleak House to hear the pitch, which she and co-president Steve Gilula greenlit before the script had even been written.

“We have a list in our heads of master filmmakers who we’re desperate to make films with,” says Utley. “Guillermo positioned it as a return to a smaller, more personal style of filmmaking.”

After “Crimson Peak,” del Toro didn’t want to be tied to a studio, and he chose his partner carefully, consulting with his friend and fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, whose “Birdman” won best picture in 2015. “I went to Searchlight for a reason. I think their marketing is impeccable,” he says.

Just as del Toro wrote “The Shape of Water” for Hawkins, he had a specific actor in mind to play her amphibious co-star: longtime collaborator Doug Jones, a lanky, 6’3” performer he met 20 years ago when shooting pickups on his first English-language feature, “Mimic.”

“This was a tough role for me physically. I had to exercise subtlety,” says Jones, who also played the chilling Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Here he was being asked to embody both a romantic lead and a feral, unpredictable creature.

Also, there was the matter of the love scene.

Del Toro directs Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in “The Shape of Water”; top right: Ron Perlman as Hellboy; below right: Doug Jones in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

The director did not want to shy away from sexuality in his film. “It seemed hypocritical to tackle this movie and not talk about that dimension,” del Toro says. “To me, sexuality is political.”

Hawkins says that whereas every other character views the gill-man as a monster, hers “recognizes something very familiar in him; she almost recognizes herself in him.”

At the time the film is set, their forbidden love is reflected in the racism and homophobia shown in other corners of the story.

“I didn’t want to do a movie about 1962; I wanted to do a movie about now,” explains del Toro, who says he’s going to do one or two more big movies. “And then my pledge is to dedicate myself to the smaller movies, because frankly that’s what I want to do.”

When pressed, he says he’s not through with “the big canvas,” despite that vow.

Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequels sidelined his plans to adapt Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Universal’s Dark Universe strategy doesn’t suit his “Frankenstein” dream project, a long-form telling that necessitates at least two parts.

“I know what big movies I want to make,” del Toro says. “I have them targeted, and it’s no more than three.” He maintains he’s going to try not to do them consecutively. “And for the rest, I’m going to do the weird, smaller stuff that is at odds with any trend.”