“There is a kinship with monsters that is entirely sincere and spiritual for me,” Guillermo del Toro said in a recent phone conversation. That’s not a common viewpoint in the American film industry, but it has won him multiple Oscars and might do so again soon, thanks to “The Shape of Water.”
The film, directed and co-written by Del Toro, is a fairy tale romance that manages not to be frivolous or lightweight. It is a stirring fusion of nuts and bolts from 1950s and early ’60s Hollywood: monster movies, spy thrillers, prison melodramas and musicals.
But it isn’t about creatures or guns or jails or song and dance numbers. It’s about people. Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman who expresses herself through body language. She discovers an amphibian with a humanlike swimmer’s body confined in a secret government research lab, recognizes it as someone as lonely as she, and an improbable romance blooms, a fresh and engaging “Beauty and the Beast.”
While it’s set in 1962, Del Toro said that it’s actually about today and perhaps tomorrow.
“Monsters are the patron saints of otherness and imperfection,” he said — important figures at a time when honest emotion about strangers different from ourselves is undermined by cynicism and fear. As a Mexican immigrant, he said, those issues are “very, very dear to me.”
Such fantasy, a central focus of his imagination since early childhood, has been the foundation of his career as a moviemaker.
“Years ago I told a very famous filmmaker friend I had just finished ‘Cronos,’ ” his 1994 debut, an arch twist on the classic vampire tale, “and I was about to make my next movie, and it was equally strange. And my friend told me to be careful and not to be cataloged as a weird filmmaker. And I said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to be.’
“I feel that I belong completely to the creatures I create.”
In fact, he considers film, like vampirism, “both a sacrament and an addiction” that drains the life from him while also giving him a form of immortality.
“It is true, and they both exist and nurture only in the dark,” he said. “To get the call, to become a filmmaker, is to sacrifice your life at the altar of something very strange. It is a brutal fact that what people watch is not only a movie, it’s your autobiography. We trade chunks of our life for one entry on IMDb.” While he feels he would find satisfaction in writing and illustrating books, “you’d never get the symphonic movement and beauty of film.”
In making “The Shape of Water,” he said, his aim was to make a movie for women and men alike. While stories of women falling in love with unusual creatures spread across history and cultures, it’s not an exclusively feminine myth, he said. And it’s one that he felt needed some pointed corrections.
“There are countless stories of men falling in love with mermaids, to give you one example.” Nor are the legends of love across species lines generally positive toward women. “Most of the notion of the beauty and the beast is based, I think, on things that are very dangerous. They try to posit the woman as a character that has to be innocent and beautiful and sort of demanding a pedestal for a perfect princess. And then the beast is forced to transform into a boring prince in order to be able to have a relationship.”
What he’s trying to do in this film is “quite the opposite. I make the character of the protagonist a silent woman that works the night shift in a secret government facility. I tried to make her a beautifully imperfect character, somebody that is extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. But not a perfume-commercial-looking model, you know?” And the beast in his tale doesn’t have to convert into royalty to tell the love story.
Got money’s worth
One of the more remarkable feats of magic in the film was making it for a pittance. With a company of top-ranked actors (including Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg), breathtaking set design and superb cinematography, it cost under $20 million, about one-tenth the budget of his 2013 sea monsters vs. robots action film “Pacific Rim.”
“The original budget was $19.5 [million] but we actually made the movie for $19.3. We were able to save $200,000 at the end of the journey. But the scope of the movie looks like it cost $65 or $70 million. I said to my producer, ‘If we were 19 or 21 and they gave us $19 million we would think we won the lottery. Now we are in our 40s and 50s and we frown on $19 million. Let’s go back in a time machine and make this last.’ And we did.”
While Del Toro is arguably the film industry’s best known dream weaver, he credits Terry Gilliam as “the great fantasist of our time. The vision of his worlds is very complex, very beautiful, intricately constructed, intricately designed and imagined. The design is consistent. He doesn’t design just a good set or a good wardrobe or a good vehicle. He designs worlds.”
He also admires Gilliam’s knack for weaving social insights into his vision.
“He’s very political and I think that fantasy is the most political genre in the world. In a way it’s much more political than a political film because you lower your guard and you discuss things that are absolutes, loneliness, empathy, the other, in complete terms. Terry does that in his films.”
A modern interpretation
The connection between two misfit kindred spirits set during the early days of the American civil rights movement felt like a resonant story for modern viewers, Del Toro said.
“It’s very important for me, because I believe that the more we’re separated, the more we realize there is no us and them. We are constantly bombarded in the media about fearing the other, you know? At the end of the day when we have separated all the others, quote/unquote, we would be completely alone with each other, away from each other. Because there’s no us and them. There’s only us. This is a bit of an illusion we create to separate ourselves. But if we realize that the beauty of the other is that there is something that person has to teach us about life, food, traveling, language, the difference is what makes us grand.”
At the pinnacle of his outstanding career, Del Toro still has some regrets. He spent more than a year preparing to direct a two-part adaptation of “The Hobbit” before delays forced him to depart. He was also set to create an ambitious version of H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” with James Cameron as producer, but the film’s grim tone and extensive budget made the studio back out. And earlier this year, fans of his popular “Hellboy” films were disappointed to learn that his planned climactic third chapter would not come to fruition.
“The only regret I do have is that in 2007, Universal Pictures gave me the opportunity to take the reins of the monster universe. They were offering me four of the movies” based on Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and others in the studio’s stock company of ogres. “I took it for a little bit and then left for New Zealand for ‘The Hobbit.’ I really would have loved to realize that world of gods and monsters. I certainly would have tried.”