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Playback: Guillermo del Toro on ‘The Shape of Water’ and Taking a Political Stance in Art

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Guillermo del Toro is flying high this year after the rapturous response to his new film, “The Shape of Water.” Put colloquially, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says he “finally exhaled” with the film. He looked inward and asked himself, “What am I going to do that I haven’t done?” That meant allowing a certain humanity to breathe into his work in a different way than ever before, he says.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

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“It’s full circle in many ways for many reasons,” del Toro says. “It started when I was six and I saw Julie Adams swimming in ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ and the creature is swimming underneath contemplating her. I thought, ‘What a beautiful image.’ Even at age 6 I was enraptured by it and I was enraptured by the love and romance it had. Of course, they didn’t end up together, and it was something I kept thinking about. ‘This was a very unfair movie,’ I thought. They break into the home of the guy and they kill him! That’s a very tragic movie for me.”

From there del Toro drew on the influences of his cinematic upbringing. He conceived a movie with brushstrokes of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and the Technicolor heyday. But digging in thematically, focusing on a movie about “the other” and populating it with those who have no voice, figuratively and literally, the director found a way to address the zeitgeist in some way.

“When you take a stance, in any narrative, it’s a political stance,” del Toro says. “If you tell the story of Waterloo from Napoleon’s point of view, it’s one movie. If you tell it from the person ironing his trousers, that’s another. And that’s what we did. We told a story not through the agents and the scientists, but through the janitors, the cleaning women who had to wipe the toilets, emptying the trash bins, and from that moment, you are already taking a political stance.”

Speaking of a political stance, del Toro’s friend and fellow filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Oscar-winning virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena” is a topic of discussion as well. The project puts viewers in the thick of a Mexico-U.S. border crossing, with an aim toward instilling empathy. Del Toro is struck by the fact that he and his filmmaker friends are again exploring similar emotional contexts at the same time.

“Alejandro, Alfonso [Cuaron] and I often talk about this. It’s strange,” he says. “Ten years ago when we were with ‘Children of Men,’ ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Babel,’ we were sort of thematically doing the same thing. Now, 10 years later, the three of us are preoccupied by the same thing. We believe, firmly — each of us, in our different way — that empathy is not only needed but is urgent.”

Once the whirlwind awards season wraps up — one that has already seen “The Shape of Water” become perhaps the most laureled film of del Toro’s career — the director plans to turn an analytical gaze toward two filmmakers: George Miller and Michael Mann. It’s his way of taking time off.

“I want to memorialize their craft and their artistic vision, because they are two artists who work in a vernacular that is so unique to them. I don’t want them to go un-dissected,” he says. “I want to talk about lenses, camera moves, storytelling through the visuals, because I feel that we need that level of discourse.”

For more, including discussion of his hopes with that stalled “Pinocchio” adaptation and more thoughts on virtual reality, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

Guillermo del Toro photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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