We Asked Guillermo Del Toro How He Makes Audiences Fall In Love With Monsters
Canada’s favourite adopted filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, calls his newest monster movie a “fairy tale that is sort of Beauty and the Beast, but where the beast never turns into the prince.” The Shape of Water stars Sally Hawkins in a role where she never utters a word. Her character, Elisa, is mute (luckily, Hawkins has one of the most expressive faces in Hollywood). She works alongside Octavia Spencer’s character as part of the cleaning staff in a top secret Cold War-era lab where science’s brightest American minds work long hours trying to beat the Russians at the dark games that both sides are engaged in.
In an effort to win them, the Americans begin to experiment on (read: torture) a creature (Doug Jones in a lot of latex) that they’ve smuggled out of the Amazon, thinking it has the potential to help the US gain the upper hand. While the scientists try to discern whether the creature is a monster or a god (and how that can be weaponized and used against the Soviets), Elisa strikes up a friendship with him that soon turns into a romance.
Yeah, you read that right: this is a love story between a woman and a gilled, semi-aquatic person-shaped river-dweller. So how do you get an audience to buy into that? We wanted Guillermo del Toro himself to reveal the secret to building a lovable monster-man. We’d heard that del Toro had spent a lot of time on the design for the creature that Doug Jones plays, so we asked him how he hoped that audiences would react to the character the first time they see him and how the design of the costume contributed to those intentions.
“The first decision was that we’re going to make a physical suit and a physical make-up because before the audience reacted I needed the actors to react,” says del Toro. “We took three years, two of design and one of execution, to bring this creature to life. The way I wanted audiences to react was to have a changing point of view of the character. When the movie starts it starts with a shock, with a hand hitting the glass. It’s a monster moment. Then you see the creature in silhouette bleeding and approaching the glass and haven’t got a sense of is this creature good, bad, what? Then the creature emerges from the water and blinks. It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful, beautiful shot. A perfect combination of digital enhancement and physical suit.”
And it’s that moment, says the director, where “the audience kind of falls for the empathy of the creature. Then the creature comes out and growls at Sally, and we feel, ‘Okay, it can go both ways.’ Then the next scene the creature is signing back to Sally,” he explains, “so you understand it’s intelligent and that’s where the communication starts.
Ultimately, del Toro wants to take his audience on the same journey his characters are experiencing. “It’s an ever-changing perception. My hope is at the end of the movie you have completely forgotten that this is a creature, you have completely loved him as a character and you want him to fare well; you can completely buy that he’s a divine god, an elemental god of the Amazon and that he has that power and that majesty and that he has enormous beauty and grace. That is an ever-changing perception.”
The Shape of Water also stars Michael Shannon as the film’s complex villain and Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s cat-loving co-conspirator. It’s in theatres on December 8. Check out the latest trailer below and read our TIFF review here.