Guillermo del Toro (‘The Shape of Water’): ‘A fairy tale for troubled times’ [Complete Interview Transcript]

Guillermo del Toro has only received one Academy Awards nomination in his career so far — Best Original Screenplay for “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) — but that could be changing soon in a big way. He has recently picked up Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice bids for producing, directing, and writing his latest film, “The Shape of Water.” In fact, the movie is the overall leader in nominations this year with the Broadcast Film Critics (14) and Hollywood Foreign Press (7).

He calls it a “a fairy tale for troubled times” in our recent chat. View the video above or read the complete interview transcript below. The movie stars Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor who falls in love with an amphibian man during the Cold War at a secret governmental facility. Other stars include Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Gold Derby (Marcus Dixon): Okay, Guillermo del Toro. So your new film, “The Shape of Water,” it’s coming out in December so not a lot of your fans have seen it yet. What would say is the plot of this film? Because it’s very intricate, very creative and original. We haven’t really seen something like this.

Guillermo del Toro: The plot of “The Shape of Water” is sort of a simple story. It’s a fable, a fairy tale for troubled times about a woman that falls in love with a creature, an amphibian man, and she’s a cleaner in a secret government facility during the Cold War, 1962, and the plot is simple so that we can then make the characters complex and the interactions thematic weight and we have a lot of fun with it. It’s a movie that mixes thriller, musical, drama, melodrama, creature. It’s a gorgeous sort of movie that is in love with love and in love with cinema.

GD (Marcus): You’ve made a lot of films over the years but this is one of your favorites, isn’t it?

GdT: “The Shape of Water” is my favorite film I’ve done, by far. Then comes “Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak,” “Pacific Rim” and “Hellboy II.”

GD (Marcus): So you have the list already.

GdT: Oh yeah, well it’s my order of traumatic experience. The ones where you suffer but they come out like you want them, those you love. The ones where you may suffer or not, but they come out less like you wanted them, you like them less, but that’s just for the storyteller. The audience can like any of them. I’m okay with that.

GD (Marcus) And can you tell us about the scriptwriting process? You co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor. How long was the process of coming up with the story and the idea?

GdT: The idea has been with me for many decades but then in 2011, December, I knew. A key presented itself, because Daniel Kraus, a co-writer on “Trollhunters,” had this idea about a janitor working in a super secret government facility and I love that juxtaposition, the idea of going into a secret government facility, which I’ve done on “Hellboy” and “Hellboy II,” and finding this creature but it’s not through the eyes of an agent or a scientist. It’s not through the front door of the building, it’s through the backdoor of the building and you go in with the people that clean the bathrooms, empty the trash bins, and I thought that was key. Then I started writing in 2012 and by 2014, I had the whole story with the beats, the characters, the way you see it, except the subplot, the subplot of the Russian spies. That was much, much smaller in the original and I pitched it to [Fox] Searchlight and then we went to Vanessa Taylor, showed her all the pages I had done, the beat sheet, blah, blah, blah.

We meet and then she said, “I think you need to add or expand this layer of the Cold War and the Russian spy and make it more of a character and put pressure on the bad guy, blah, blah, blah” and we started exchanging. And we exchanged files and I would give her my files and then she would rewrite them mercilessly and then I would grab her files and I would rewrite them mercilessly and send them back and forth. We seldom met. It was always, mostly, through the files. Then she worked on it for about a draft and half or two drafts and then I was on my own after that for another year, year and a half.

GD (Marcus): The screenwriting process sounds like it takes such a long time and such a big investment out of your life. Do you enjoy that more than directing or is it just a completely different piece?

GdT: You know, when you have a partner, screenplay writing can be pleasurable but when you’re alone it’s quite brutal and horrible and I think it’s the most daunting part of filmmaking, and yet it’s the most important in a way, because that’s the basis. You’re writing the music. Then you’re gonna execute the music and you have musicians with you, it’s directing and orchestrating. It’s much easier. But writing, the blank page is really brutal, but with a partner is much, much better.

GD (Chris Beachum): The time period of this movie is so important. What led you to this particular time period and what other films did you want to convey within that?

GdT: Well, I chose 1962 because it’s a very important period in which America in many ways started defining its myth. You’re coming out of World War II there’s a huge abundance, the wealth and suburban wealth, you have a car in every garage, TV, self-cleaning ovens, petticoats and hairspray, the space race, Kennedy’s in the White House and there is this myth of greatness, partially created by Madison Avenue and TVs have started defining the behavior of the average American much more so than movies were. Movies take a dive and then TV rises. The ads start changing from being painted ads to being photographic ads and then, it’s very important to me, because that’s the last year of this idealistic fairy tale time in concept because shortly thereafter, Kennedy’s shot and Vietnam escalates and everything starts to disintegrate, but it’s an illusion. If you were a minority, if you were a woman, if you were the wrong gender, social class, sexual preference, 1962 is really hard. And I wanted to talk about now, not about ’62. It’s about now, and I’m using ’62 to obliquely reference this idea of the other, seen metaphorically or as a fable, as a parable, as something that you can either love or hate. And the beauty of the movie is it that it not only speaks of tolerance and solidarity, it gives voice, literally, to the voiceless. It gathers a group of invisible people that rescue the ultimate outsider, which is this creature and they find the beautiful and the divine and the lovable in the other and I think it’s a fable that is very healing for me, right now.

These are very troubled times. In fact the screenplay read, “The Shape of Water: A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times” and it’s because I find that we can talk about anything cynical or skeptic, and it sounds super intelligent but the risk now, the really risky thing is to be emotional, whether it’s through social media or in interactions one to one. We’re very guarded. We’re very afraid of emotions and I wanted to make an emotional movie, a movie that was like a healing tonic for the skepticism and the rage that I think we have socially, and the way we look at each other with suspicion, and you don’t wanna tackle these topics frontally, because then it becomes… you see any argument on social media, it’s, “Bam, bam” and it’s out. There’s no way to find a middle point and I wanted to do it through fairy tale because when you say, “Once upon a time in 1962 there was a mute woman,” and then people lower their guard and accept the discussion no matter what persuasion politically they are.

GD (Chris): So much of the movie rides on the fact that you chose Sally Hawkins, somebody that has to convey all these emotions and everything without talking. What led you to her?

GdT: I wrote the movie specifically for Sally, for Michael Shannon, for Octavia Spencer and Doug Jones. And I chose Sally because I saw her in many movies and originally I saw her in a beautiful Victorian thriller called “Fingersmith” and she fell in love with another woman and they had a beautiful affair and I thought the way she did it was so natural, there was no wink-wink, no titillation. It was done as part of her character and I thought that is the way to tackle a story like that because it should just be organic to the character, it’s not a thing. I was very impressed, and then I saw her do a secondary part on a movie called “Submarine” and I saw her, the way she looked, and I thought, “She’s perfect,” because most people think actors deliver great lines and they deliver dramatic stuff but in reality for me, an actor listens and looks, and when they listen to another actor and look at another actor, that’s the most value resource in an actor.

So I wrote it for her, speechless, mute, because to me, love renders you speechless. And it was not about what they said to each other but how they recognized each other. This creature which is an elemental god of the water, sort of recognizes an essence in her, and she recognizes herself in him and there is a beautiful possibility of magic and then when I talked to Sally I gave her a Blu-ray set with silent comedians, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, [Charlie] Chaplin, and very importantly I said to her, watch Stan Laurel from Laurel and Hardy, because this guy can do a state of grace without conveying it verbally, and she studied them and her behavior is unlike any other character in the movie. No other actor does that. She seems out of place a little, and very special and I thought it was very important for her to do it without words.

GD (Chris): Your friends, Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [G. Iñárritu] have both won Oscars in recent years. First of all, what was your reaction as they were picking up their Oscars?

GdT: The best. I mean, the best, because there was a moment when we all were nominated and “Pan’s” won three Oscars and it was “Children of Men” and “Babel,” where we all felt, the trhee of us felt sort of a historical weight because we felt, Jesus, for Mexico it would have been great to win Best Director, Best Picture or Best Foreign Film. We got other things but not those, and then when Alfonso got it, it was like an exhalation. Yeah, done.

GD (Chris): And Alejandro has so many now, he could let you borrow one.

GdT: Alejandro has a whole row, and the great thing about friendship is good things happen to friends as if they happen to you. When Alfonso won my mom called me from Mexico and she said, “Your brother won.” And she was so happy.

GD (Chris): What would it mean for you to join their group and get your first one.

GdT: It would be great. Look, what is great for me, and it’s very important to make the distinction is that, the two times my movies have been in the conversation, they have been in the conversation in their own terms. I haven’t had to make the life of Beethoven or a movie like a super-realistic social drama to get here. I’ve been struggling for 25 years, a quarter of a century, to try and make genre movies that are art, that can show that they are valuable parables, that they are valuable, artistic ways of expressing beauty and power cinematically, unlike any other genre. So to be here again after “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in the conversation, in the mix, with a movie like “Shape of Water,” that’s what is meaningful for me. I do labor in that genre that is still a little prejudiced. Some people like it, some people don’t, before seeing the movie. And I’m fine with that. So that is in the hands of the gods. I feel comfortable just being here.

GD (Chris): Because you’ve got two friends and more than that that are in the industry, that do what you do, do you all reach out to each other as you’re working on something, “Hey, I wanna get your opinion on this,” or when you have the final product you can’t wait for them to see it?

GdT: Well, I have probably five or six director friends and we do reach to each other, Alfonso, Alejandro, Jim Cameron, J.J. Abrams. They know they can call me and say, “Would you read this?” Or, “Can you see my cut?” The deal we have is if we are in post-production, you can tell me anything. You can be brutal. You can say, you can point to a $150,000 VfX shot and say, “Really horrible.” But if the movie’s finished, we say “Great job.” (Laughs). We never mention it again.

GD (Chris): As long as it’s in process, you’re welcome to any opinion.

GdT: Yeah, and we give it. We are very brutal (laughs). Very brutal with each other. Sometimes I think it is the most valuable thing because we live in an industry where you can easily create a bubble of people that say how great everything is, and then you get lost. I think it’s valuable to have that in the same way I think it’s valuable that I still go to Ralph’s at Pavilions and I do my own grocery shopping because it doesn’t allow you to go nuts. It’s easy to go nuts.

GD (Chris): Well congratulations, you’ve got a great one on your hands. It’s something that’s original and creative and nothing else out there like it.

GdT: Thank you, and I really hope people both enjoy it as a healing little fable and are moved to think, as a very, very strangely political allegory that is very needed right now.

GD (Marcus) And before we go can we just ask, what is your next project? What can people look forward to?

GdT: Well, for the first time in my life — I’ve never done it — I took a year off directing, because this movie is still very painful and very close and very beautiful and I wanted to enjoy seeing it take its first steps into the world and then take a moment, read a few books, smoke a pipe, I don’t smoke, but I may start, and think about it, because we go so fast and I want to live a little. So if you see me around, I’m living.

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