The Shape of Water: Uniformity is Madness, Difference is Sanity

January 3, 2018
We hear from revered and right-on filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro and his cast about the layers of meaning behind 2018’s most original American movie.

Sally Hawkins, your performance is so beautiful. Could tell us about whether you had to do any extra preparation, mime, dance, sign language – and also, is there a difference doing a wordless performance, or is it less difficult than people might think?

Sally Hawkins: With preparation, there was a lot that I had to learn, with the ASL [American Sign Language]. It’s endless, and it’s a world which you’re creating, and trying to make as believable as possible – to just forget about it, and not let anything get in the way of anything, and just trust that’s it’s there. And she also had her own language, and I love that. But I love the ability to learn a new skill, and to use that, it feels like props.

Guillermo Del Toro: I also gave Sally a gift of DVDs and Blu-Rays, of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and Charlie Chaplin, and I said, ‘you’ve got to watch the greats of Stan Laurel, the way they move, the way they look’, because it’s basically a silent performance. And now and then I would ask her to do homework on Audrey Hepburn, because I wanted the film to feel classic.

SH: Everything’s like a dance, it’s so moving, it’s like she has this inner music, such a rich life.

GDT: But I did want it to feel a little like a musical, in many ways.

Doug Jones, how does someone begin to specialise in what you do?

Doug Jones: I never set out to do monster work, ever. I came to Hollywood in 1985, I didn’t think I would be a sitcom star, to do the movie next-door neighbour. And it was people like Guillermo Del Toro who found that about me. Let me take your mind back, I’m 6 foot three, 185 pounds, the picture effects people took to me immediately. They were able to build monsters on me, because I’m not too bulky, I have a sense of movement in my body. I met Guillermo 20 years ago, I remember doing some reshoots for that, and now this is my sixth film with him. He’s made the mistake of coming back for me so many times.

How many hours in the chair have you done?

DJ: For this one it wasn’t so bad, it was about three hours in the chair, so six hours a day, and that’s for a head to toe transformation, that’s not so bad. But some direction notes he gave me, we’ve worked together so often we have a sort of shorthand, and it’s a usually a couple of key words and a lot goes in. This time it was ‘I want you to channel a little Silver Surfer’, who I played in the Fantastic Four sequel, who was the most subtle strong character I’ve played, he’s a little bit of that and a little bit of matador, so I don’t want you standing straight up and down. I want you to have sexy hips, and matadors, they’re smooth, they’re graceful, and they’re powerful, and you want that with a raw, animalistic sort of performance.

GDT: The great thing is that that comes from animation. There’s Glen Keane, a great animator, who always says, always have a character twist and turn; because they’re never frontal, they’re always a little sideways and twisting.

Richard, was it as lovely as it looks to be able to play somebody who has the full complement of romance, and yearning, and all those feelings that sometimes people don’t get to play after 40?

Richard Jenkins: No one would speak to me on set, but I actually like the character like that. I grew up as an only child, I entertained myself, I daydreamed my entire life. I used to say to my father, who was an only child, ‘I’m bored’, and he would say ‘go watch the ants’. And I used to go outside and watch the ants, for hours and hours, and I would create these worlds. So, I love isolated people, and understand them. So, no, it was good. And you know, and my friend never said a word in the movie, so I had to talk – and I say it again, Sally, you’re so good, but I said my dialogue, and yours.

Credit where credit is due, right? Michael, what touches, what colours, were you happy to bring to this guy, so that he wasn’t a flat-out villain?

Michael Shannon: In my view, he’s not a villain. Guillermo never asked me to play a villain, so in a way, this guy who works for the government in the ‘60s, and he’s struggling, he wants to succeed, he’s got a family, he’s under a lot of pressure, he’s trying to move bodies, this anxiety, this American anxiety, on the surface he’s this kind of bulletproof, and underneath it there’s a lot of uncertainty. And because of that uncertainty it leads to a violence, I think that a lot of times violence is the gestation of uncertainty.

The Shape of Water is a heartfelt movie; Mr Jenkins and Mr Shannon, you usually are known for profound dramas, so how did you feel in this movie, with all the romanticism and the colour, and the costumes, there’s a shade of romanticism in the whole movie.

RJ: You mean dramas like Step Brothers? [laughs].

MS: When I was doing Kangaroo Jack, I went to places that I’ve never gone… When I first met Guillermo and he was telling me about this movie, his energy and passion for this movie was infectious. This was before he even had a script, so I just wanted to go for a magic carpet ride. I don’t have a cynical view of the world, or life, or people, I’m as romantic as anybody, and I welcome you all to find that out for yourselves.

RJ: This movie made me feel like I was in a movie that I’d watch growing up, by great movie masters. And the romance in this movie, whatever it was, never felt cheap, it always felt alive and real, and it was easy to play. It was easy in this movie to fall in love. And I think that’s Guillermo.

Sally, in the times we are living, how do you think we could all learn from your character about accepting, embracing, and loving someone that is different?

SH: My character is without a voice, and is the most dismissible, but whose heart breaks open with love, and is transported. There’s such a power in silence, and truth of heart, and also femininity; and like water, is able to find its way. I never think there’s enough of that. And putting that in the heart and core of the film, and then she is overwhelmed by this strength that she didn’t realise is possible. I keep saying, it’s a cliché, but she is literally able to tear through walls with it. And difference, and everyone has a place – there’s no such thing as little.

GDT: I think that uniformity is madness, and difference is sanity. I think perfection is madness, and imperfection is sanity. I think that if two people are the same, one is lying. And I think that’s why we wanted to make her silent, because love renders you speechless. When you really fall in love, words have no size enough to grasp.

Why you think it is that, right from our earliest fables, there has always been an inextricable link in our stories between love and monsters?

GDT: I made a movie that is one of my favourites, that is not the one that people will think of when they think of me, which is Crimson Peak. I adore that movie, and it’s about how love makes monsters of us all. Because I think that you are never as certain or as afraid as you are when you fall in love. The two things are overwhelming, and it’s an emotion which is unique and healing, and when you think about the only way we can express in words what we feel emotionally when we are in love is by singing. Telling someone you love that person more than anything in the world, you can say it over and over again, it doesn’t work. But if you sing, the emotion is there, and that’s why we sing. But I think that visually, and storytelling wise, the closest you can come to a song is a fable, or a fairy-tale. Because the stories aren’t just now, it makes it eternal. Because you’re going to go for larger truths, and make them fresh, without debasing them with familiarities. I spent my years studying fairy tales for Pan’s Labyrinth. I found that there were about 30 or 40 basic fables, and one of them was the Magic Fish. Which was about a fish that emerges from the water, concedes three wishes to a family, exposes their truths, and heals or destroys their lives, depending on the way that you read. And I thought, oh, that archetype is going to work, because they are so primal, we cannot explain them. When we get to the heat of it all, there’s something inherently human to it all.

Can you talk about being a Mexican filmmaker?

GDT: I believe in roots, I don’t believe in geography. I think that geography is bullshit that people invented to keep us apart. I think that government is controlled by geography, race, preference, so many ideas that are completely unnecessary. I believe that when you’re born in a world that, from a satellite, Mexico and the US, it looks the same. It’s a chunk of earth. And I believe that, no matter how much you try, you can never deny where you’re from. Your roots go straight to your gut, and anchor you to the earth. So, when people say, ‘what is Mexican about your movies?’ I say ‘me’. Because without my head, my gut and my balls, my movies wouldn’t exist. Because they come from those three fucking sources. I don’t think this would’ve been a Swedish movie, but it’s just a special brand of madness that makes Mexican creatives creative. I think that is more important than having nationalistic values. I am a citizen of a country every time I am there, and I feel loved, and I love it. I’m a momentary citizen of that country. And I cannot be in a country that I do not feel that – I am at home in Mexico, I am at home in Canada, I am at home in a few places in the world that I love, and I think that the one thing that we need to reclaim as storytellers, is to have no shame. Because when I see Bernado Betrolucci tackle the story of the Last Emperor of China, I say, ‘why can’t I do whatever I want?’ Because when I went to America, after my father’s kidnapping, they kept giving mariachi, toreador, and drug dealer screenplays. The first act of racism is against ourselves, which we should not have. We should be shameless and free to tell whatever story we want. And then you have a home.

You talk about the troubles you have faced with studios; it’s difficult making a movie, but it’s more difficult making a fantasy movie like this. How hard has it been for you throughout your career?

GDT: Well, no one has been good to me since 1997. But everything you don’t like about my movies I have known on my own. One thing I learned on Crimson Peak is that, if it had not cost more than $50 million, it would have been marketed for what it was. A gothic romance, with some crazy stuff. On The Shape of Water we’re in a relationship with Fox Searchlight, which has been the best relationship I’ve ever had with a studio. And it came from me taking them through the story, and the design team in 2014, and I basically said, ‘I want to do a semi-musical thriller about a janitor who falls in love with a fish man and takes him home, done in black and white’. And they said, ‘great, not black and white’. And I said, ‘okay’. And they said, ‘this is what we can spend’, and when they gave me the number I said, ‘can that include my salary’, and they said yes. So I said let’s do it. Because a budget is a state of mind. James Cameron once said to me, earlier in my career, ‘There are people that make $10 million dollar movies, and they look like thirty. And then you give them $80 million dollars and it looks like three.’ The key is how big can you go? You should always exceed your budget. The difficulty I had is the genre, I have chosen a genre that normally is not looked upon in the same regard as other genres, but I have never wavered in my choice. This is who I am, this is what I do, this is why I do what I do and that’s it. And I’m going to go to the grave doing what I do.

Guillermo, what do you think about the possibility that this could be a healing film? Can any film really affect the zeitgeist of how fucked up this world is right now?

GDT: Well, Steve Soderbergh said something when he retired, which was ‘the entire canon of Shakespeare cannot fix this fucking world’. But I do think, individually, there’s a saying, ‘if you can heal an individual, you can heal a generation’. And I do believe that film does have the power to do that. I have experienced it so many times too, when you read the lyrics to a song, or hear the music to a song, they don’t make as much impact as when you hear the song, and with the singer that was born to sing that song. And in those moments, you experience the sheer power of love and creation, and you have that Stendhal Syndrome, in which you surrender, and it feels like a life. It provokes an insight that you cannot put to words. And when a movie connects that strongly, that is possible. It has happened to me. I have felt, many times in my life, on the brink, and I’ve been pulled back by movies. So, if this movie does that for anyone, not everyone, because that’s impossible, but even if it does it for one person, that’s great. That’s why we do this, to connect on that level that is beyond words, beyond religion. It is its own medium. And this answers also, sometimes the question, sometimes with the new media, downloading, streaming. film is film, it is its own medium, and this movie could not exist or be born in any other medium. And it tries to do that, and it remains that way.

The Shape of Water is in cinemas January 18, 2018

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