Guillermo del Toro got the idea for “The Shape of Water” in 2011, but he says the project really began at age 6. That’s when he saw the 1954 movie “The Creature From the Black Lagoon,” with underwater shots of the Gill-Man reaching out toward the legs of Julie Adams as she swam. He thought it was so romantic and exciting that he assumed the two would end up together. He was shocked when they didn’t.
“I decided I would someday have to correct that,” he says.
The Fox Searchlight film somehow balances romance, fantasy and social commentary. Another feat of magic: “Shape” re-creates an elaborate world within 1962 Baltimore, on a budget of only $19.3 million. Compare that with some of the $200 million-plus budgets of the past year.
Everything about the movie is designed to be a little familiar but unfamiliar.
That starts with the first shot: Both the first and the last scenes take place underwater and they have a dreamlike quality because the filmmakers employed the rarely used dry-for-wet technique.
“We couldn’t afford huge tank work,” says del Toro. “In the opening and closing, there isn’t a single drop of water. You fill the stage with smoke, shoot it a little in slow motion, and set a fan to move the fabric and the hair. We hung a lot of furniture with piano wires. Then you add little bubbles and fish digitally.
“The opening is so important. I wanted to show this is a classical movie, like Douglas Sirk, so it needs to be a flowing camera, with old-style moviemaking; this is a movie that is in love with cinema. We wanted you to know from the first image.”
The filmmaker was attached to a 2002 Universal remake of “Black Lagoon,” which never happened. But he always loved the concept and in 2011 Daniel Kraus, his collaborator on “Trollhunters,” mentioned his idea of a creature in a lab who forms a relationship with a janitor. Del Toro immediately bought the concept and paid people out of his own pocket to develop a look for the creature. (The script is by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor.)
“If this was the 1950s,” del Toro says, “the hero would be Strickland [Michael Shannon’s character]. Strickland represents three things I find terrifying: order, certainty and perfection. He wants those three, which are impossible and they represent the torture of a life, because no human can have any of them.”
The filmmaker worked with costume designer Luis Sequeira and production designer Paul Denham Austerberry to blend ultra-realism with fantasy elements. “I wanted Strickland to be treated and dressed like the hero. The lapels must fall into place exactly.”
The apartments of Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) were imagined as a huge room that had been divided by a new wall. “The windows that they share are two sides of a single character.”
But her apartment is color-coded in blues and cyan. “You cross the corridor, and Giles’ apartment is perpetually golden light. The other houses, Strickland’s, Zelda’s, they’re all in daylight colors. They are air — golden, orange, yellows. Eliza is water, but they’re air,” he says matter-of-factly.
“The color that we used very pointedly was green. Green is the color of the future. Those pies, the Jello, the lab. That’s color-coded, but it’s also storytelling in a very subtle way. Same with the wardrobe.”
And the music score by Alexandre Desplat conveys all the tension, humor and romance of the film.
Del Toro concludes, “The movie is about love. That’s the one force we’re really afraid to talk about now.”