Following in the footsteps of Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar victory as best director for his fairy-tale romance “The Shape of Water” marked the fourth time in five years that the movie Academy’s top prize for cinema craftsmanship has gone to a Mexican filmmaker. It also came in a year that featured both an African-American (Jordan Peele) and a woman (Greta Gerwig) in the directing category, embossing the notion that representation on the big screen begins behind the camera.
Despite the recognition earned March 4 by del Toro, who also won the best picture honor, as well as Disney-Pixar’s Mexico-themed “Coco” as best animated feature and Chile’s transgender tale “A Fantastic Woman” for best foreign language film, these achievements belie a glaring paucity of Latino representation on Hollywood’s top films and in its executive suites. That inequity was underscored by the fact that this year not one Latino was nominated in any of the Oscar acting categories.
Del Toro, 53, acknowledges that the fight must intensify for more inclusion and diversity in a business long dominated by white men, and for studios and filmmakers to begin serving up more movies targeted to Latinos, their most loyal audience, with roles and plotlines that resonate.
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“This is a door. Kick it open and come in,” del Toro said in his Oscar acceptance speech, urging all those struggling to have their stories heard.
Rather than inclusion and diversity simply existing as industry buzzwords, high-profile minority filmmakers — like Ava DuVernay, who along with producer Dan Lin and L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti launched the Evolve Entertainment Fund — are putting their initiative where their mouth is. Del Toro has been striving to realize that kind of change for years. At the most recent Morelia Film Festival, he launched a scholarship program for Mexican animators, 50% of which was funded out of his own pocket, without a sponsor. He plans to announce a second wave of scholarships next week.
“The first thing we’ve got to keep doing is to have visibility and help others have visibility,” del Toro says. “When you check the cast of ‘The Strain’ [created by del Toro] all four seasons have [actors] Joaquín Cosio, Miguel Gomez. There’s Adriana Barraza and Mía Maestro. Two of the three Oscars ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ won were for Eugenio Caballero [production design] and Guillermo Navarro [cinematography]. And Eugenio, that was his first big movie. I had produced a movie with Alfonso for a second-time filmmaker, Sebastián Cordero, called ‘Cronicas.’ Eugenio had done the [production design] and this was a very small movie, but I said let’s go do ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ And you blink and the next thing, he’s winning the Oscar.”
As a producer, del Toro has nurtured directors like Jorge Gutiérrez, whose 2014 animated film “The Book of Life” tapped into the populist possibilities of Mexico’s Day of the Dead holiday long before Pixar’s “Coco” arrived. He gave Argentine filmmaker siblings Andy and Barbara Muschietti their big break with 2013’s “Mama” and lauds what the duo accomplished last year with the Stephen King adaptation “It.” One of the most important things he can do as an artist, he says, is not only represent his culture but angle that culture to give world cinema unique takes on well-worn genres.
“We can tackle any genre or task, and we should,” he says. “When the term ‘Latin’ is used generally, to encompass other cultures no matter where we exist in the geography, it’s mostly used in marketing meetings and areas that are not concerned with representation so much as a market. I think we can use that baseline to actually strengthen each other.”
Del Toro is keenly aware of the power and capital that comes with being an Oscar-winning filmmaker, and admits that his responsibility weighs heavier now. But he also takes a macro view, looking at representation in the executive ranks. “The message that is really strong for studios, and one that they understand, is box office,” he says. “So with ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Get Out,’ ‘Wonder Woman’ — these are movies for female audiences, African-American audiences, and for many years that was a very difficult discussion to have with studios. One project I had at a major studio no longer than three years ago was turned down because it was female-centric. I went to bat for it and literally could not move them one inch. It was myopic. These successes show the studios that fortune favors the bold. People are interested in seeing themselves in a way they haven’t seen themselves.”
That said, del Toro also stresses the importance of avoiding tokenism. A pathway for disenfranchised voices to tell their story is the ultimate goal. “Success is the moment we are color-blind,” he says, “when an actor is cast not because it was written specifically but because he or she is right for the part and the actor has such power and visibility that they can command the lead in any project.”
Those who know del Toro best view a natural progression from passionate film lover to passionate filmmaker. “His wisdom has evolved, but his essence is the same,” says Iñárritu, who first met del Toro when the “Shape of Water” director traveled 200 miles to Mexico City to help him edit his first film, “Amores perros,” almost 20 years ago. “That’s generosity, friendship and passion for cinema. He still has those same big, round, sparkly green eyes that only a pure and curious kid can have.”
Del Toro’s history with Cuarón goes back quite a bit further, to 1988, when they were working in television together. “He had seen my first directorial effort [in anthology series] ‘Hora marcada,’ and he asked me why the story was so good, because the episode sucked so much,” Cuarón says. “It was the way he said it that I couldn’t help but laugh and laugh, because he was right. It’s so hard to identify change in someone you grew up with. All I can say is that his wisdom has become more acute, his generosity greater and humor more precise.”
Alex Nogales, chief executive of the 32-year-old advocacy group the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which staged a protest at the Dolby Theatre the day before the Oscar ceremony, says that del Toro, Iñárritu and Cuarón — the self-ascribed “Three Amigos” — bear a responsibility to use their power to hire more Latinos on their movies.
Del Toro agrees. “I am an immigrant, like many, many of you, and in the last 25 years, I’ve been living in a country all of our own,” he said in his Oscar speech. “Because I think the greatest thing our industry does is erase the lines in the sand. We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
The journey with “The Shape of Water” this season began with top honors at the Venice Film Festival in September, where the film won the prestigious Golden Lion. Fox Searchlight then segued the film to a North American bow at Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival, which has hosted nine of the last 10 Oscar champs.
“It’s a surprisingly emotional experience that connects directly with our longing,” Cuarón says of del Toro’s Oscar-winning achievement. “I saw Guillermo’s heart sculpted in two hours of film. I rarely cry watching films, except if I’m on a plane at 30,000 feet, where I can cry in the comfort of my seat and no one pays attention. But when I saw ‘The Shape of Water,’ I found myself crying, and I still do every time I see it.”
Adds Iñárritu: “I knew and told him it was his best film. And I love ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ but this is just brilliant, beautiful and delicious.”
The night before the Academy ceremony, where the film was nominated for 13 Oscars, del Toro stayed up late because he wanted to rest all day on Oscar Sunday. He went to Whole Foods, picked up some melatonin, took a few drops and slept until about a half hour before he had to leave for the big show. He mostly just wanted to keep his mind off it for as long as possible.
Though it’s been a typically drawn-out stretch, along the way del Toro grew very close with his fellow nominees. “[Christopher] Nolan I knew already for a while,” he says, “but Greta was, to me, a revelation, the wisdom of her thought process. Jordan is amazingly accomplished. In the media he did before his first film, he really honed the skills; the way he articulates his craft is phenomenal. Paul Thomas Anderson — I’ve been a massive fan for the longest time. We even temped ‘Shape of Water’ with the score from ‘Punch-Drunk Love.’”
That camaraderie is one of the things he hopes to take away from this whirlwind. Del Toro — who is no doubt a film critic in another universe — is an artist in love with his craft, in love with discussing it, dissecting it, debating it. He even plans to take a hiatus soon to start work on a book project analyzing the oeuvres of directors Michael Mann and George Miller.
No matter what del Toro is doing, his is a mind that never stops creating. Arriving at his Variety photo shoot the morning after the biggest night of his professional career, he proves he’s still a movie maestro at work. He knows exactly what the photographer is looking for, what shadow she’s trying to avoid, how to instantly adjust for a stray reflection, before he’s even asked. Even when recounting the two moments he took to the stage at the 90th annual Academy Awards to accept his directing and producing awards, he describes them in cinematic terms.
“It’s like a reveal, and you’re looking out at Steven Spielberg, Roger Deakins, Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann. It encapsulates for me the embrace of the practitioners of your craft, the people who know what a day of waiting in a trailer is, what 10 minutes of doubt costs on a $120,000 day, and that to move the camera on a dolly and a jib are very different things. It’s beautiful imagery.”
Ricardo Lopez contributed to this story.