By Dan Cunningham and James Mottram

“I’m a tree that gives a certain type of fruit, and that’s the fruit I give.”

Singular, fantastical throwaways like this sum up Guillermo Del Toro to a tee – from Pan’s Labyrinth to the Hellboy films, the director has never been shy of a challenge. His new film The Shape Of Water is no exception to the Del Toro rule –  a sci-fi fairytale set in Cold War-era USA that has all the hallmarks of the visionary filmmaker.

In a panel discussion at the Venice Film Festival, Del Toro riffs on the beauty, brutality and monsters in his latest work, which took out the Golden Lion award for best film.

“These things need to exist in my movies, side to side,” he explains. “Pan’s Labyrinth is beautiful and brutal, and to me, they need to be side to side because the way I discovered beauty and brutality was very organic when I was a kid.”

The Shape of Water is probably (or definitely) unlike any movie you’ll see in 2018, and it’s a testament to Del Toro’s love of cinema past.

“There is a beautiful tradition of the amphibian in B-Movies,” he says of Shape’s character Amphibian Man, as played by GDT regular Doug Jones. “I happen to love them all.”

Del Toro’s entry into this tradition might sound like a daring proposition for Hollywood: a dark, interspecies love story set against a backdrop of cold war paranoia certainly raises a few flags. Miraculously, Fox Searchlight came to the table with only one concession in mind:

“I wanted to do it in black and white,” says Del Toro of the initial vision for the film, which would have paid homage to his beloved B-movies. “They said ‘look, it’s a political movie, a love story between a woman and a fish. Can you just make it in colour?’”

Fox’s intervention might have been for the best, with the film’s vibrant aesthetic, not to mention its amphibian love interest, regularly praised by critics and audiences alike.

“It was the longest gestating creature,” says Del Toro, no stranger to creatures in his films, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim, Mimic, etc. “It started in 2013 and didn’t end until we started shooting. We repainted and re-sculpted all through those years.”

While the film treads romantic and B-movie territory, The Shape of Water is very much a Guillermo Del Toro joint.

“There’s many ‘beauty and the beast’ stories, some of them are very puritanical and they have no sex until the beast becomes a prince, and others are too geeky and perverse and it’s all about the sex. To me, neither of those two sides was interesting,” Del Toro explains.

“I wanted it to feel like a love story that includes sex. But I’m not going to make it kinky or perverse. It’s just… they screw. I think people confuse purity with innocence. For some people, if you put sex into it then you cannot have the purity of a love story. But for me, you can and you should.”

Del Toro’s fascination with the monstrous pervades his films, but he believes this has no better place than in a fairytale for modern audiences. “I think that the most dangerous thing in the whole world is perfection. Only fascist, nationalistic, manipulative ideological and corrupt motherfuckers invoke perfection, and imperfection is never better represented than by monsters.

“The supreme act of love we can do as humans is to see each other…. That’s the maximum act of love. Monsters present themselves exactly as they are.”

The cold war period setting was also a deliberate move on Del Toro’s behalf. “I very conscientiously said I didn’t want to make it about 1962. I want to make it about now,” he explains.

‘When America says let’s make America great again, they’re dreaming of 1962. They’re dreaming of the time when we were going to have super factories and automated robots. Agriculture was going to be fantastic. We’ll have super highways. There’s a fantasy of wholesomeness that is eminently white. The moment Kennedy is shot, the dream collapses. It was a particularly important year for me to set the movie in and say, remember those problems we have in ‘62? Racism, sexism, classism. Guess what? All these things are still here.”

But ultimately, the artistic vision in Del Toro’s work has less to do with monsters and politics, than it does about doing things on his own ‘fucking weirdo’ terms.

“There are a hundred reasons that a financier or anyone else should not try this movie. And those are the hundred reasons why I want to make it,” he explains.

“I’m too genre for the art film, and I’m too artsy for the genre film. So, I exist in a way and in a place where I can breathe artistically, but it is not easy… I could have 20 movies rather than 10 made, but I’m very stubborn about what I do and why I do it. I never make it easy on myself. Never, never, never. I come up with an idea. Then I go with three ideas that make it really hard to make, from every angle. Artistically, narratively, and financially.”

It’s a marriage. So you’d better marry someone you can live with.

The Shape of Water is in cinemas January 18, 2018.

Read about the press conference for The Shape of Water here.

Read The Shape of Water review here.


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