Before a take during the shooting of “The Shape of Water,” director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro lets loose a cannon-shot growl that erupts with gusto from somewhere deep within him.
The same could be said of the finished movie, an emotional love story, espionage thriller and monster movie all rolled into one. Its eccentric mix of tones and genres could only come from the vivid, creative imagination of Del Toro.
In the film, Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman at a high-security government facility in early 1960s Baltimore. When agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) — a part man, part fish captured in South America — Elisa feels an unexpected connection.
With the aid of her co-worker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa spirits the creature away from the facility to fully realize their romantic bond.
The movie earned the top prize when it premiered this year at the Venice International Film Festival, going on to also play to rousing responses in Telluride and Toronto. This month it will play the AFI Fest in Los Angeles before opening Dec. 8 (and a week earlier in New York).
The film’s heroes are a mute cleaning woman, her African American co-worker, her gay neighbor, a sympathetic scientist and the South American fish-man she falls in love with. The film’s villains are a military general and a square-jawed family man government agent who in many other movies would be the leading man. The film’s championing of outsiders and misfits is no accident.
“On a certain level,” Del Toro said recently, “the idea is just gathering everybody up who can be represented as the other, quote unquote, all the invisible people coming together to rescue this creature that can either be a monster or a savior or a lover or a god.”
“It was very important for me that with the antagonist, to understand him a little but also see that for him these people don’t exist, they are negated and invisible,” he said. “That’s for the plot aspect of the movie, but more importantly to make the love story about something more than just a couple falling in love. It’s about also being able to see those other people and love the otherness, love the difference.”
It is September 2016, and just a short drive from downtown Toronto is a production facility used for the FX television series “The Strain.” Del Toro and J. Miles Dale collaborated on that show and together are producers on “The Shape of Water.” Inside, through a small lobby, past a few large-scale creature models and around a series of corners that feel like entering some secret world is just that — the set for the top-secret military installation that is one of the main locations for “The Shape of Water.”
Most of the main ensemble is here — Hawkins, Spencer, Shannon, Stuhlbarg and Jones — for a number of scenes that will be shot quickly and efficiently over the course of the day. Many of them also have films playing at the Toronto International Film Festival, which is going on at the same time, and so they have been spending their evenings at premieres and parties, but always find themselves back inside Del Toro’s world.
For all the design and visual detail in his work, Del Toro is hyper-attentive to each actor’s specific way of working. Shannon’s brooding intensity, Hawkins’ withdrawn shyness, Spencer’s open-hearted affability and Stuhlbarg’s quiet stability are all given time and space to shine.
“I’m completely internalized in terms of makeup or effects, creatures, visual effects and camera work, it’s completely second nature on my sets, so I try to make it very simple for my actors,” Del Toro says.
“In terms of the creature, we spent three years designing and executing it, so when it presents itself to the set it is a complete creature. So [the actors] react to it. They are reacting to an actor and that goes a long way into making all those things blend together.”
At one point, as the production breaks for lunch, two chairs are placed in the middle of the set where the creature is kept, amid the fantastical water tanks, old-fashioned high-tech gadgetry and machinery. Surrounded by outdated space-age equipment, Del Toro surveys the empty room around him to explain the specifics of the setting.
“The year is ’62 and the creature and his condition embody for me a moment which is the breaking point in the way America is perceived by itself,” he says. “Camelot is going to end, and the future that was being presented with the spaceship fins on cars is coming to an end.
“But everybody is talking about Sputnik and the space race and automated food processors. It’s a future that is pretty hollow,” he says. “And then all the things that are wrong start bubbling to the surface. It was an interesting moment to me.”
Del Toro eventually leaves to take part in his usual lunchtime routine of checking in on the editing of footage that has already been shot. A while later, through multiple doors and around many more corners, past the soundstage that contains the set for the interior of the apartments for characters played by Hawkins and Jenkins — including a bathroom specially designed for a scene when it will be completely filled with water — actor Doug Jones is in full costume as the creature. Photos and scans are being taken of his look.
As he lifts his more than 6-foot, 3-inch frame up from a folding chair, the effect is startling. Even as certain joints and seams show on the costume, it is surprisingly realistic in its detail. Jones’ eyes sparkle with life even from beneath layers of make-up and mask, his own mouth somewhere underneath the creature’s sculpted rubber teeth.
Jones notes that the three to four hours it takes to be transformed into the character each day actually isn’t so bad — relatively speaking — as he rattles off how much longer it took to embody creatures in other collaborations with Del Toro, including “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the “Hellboy” movies and “Crimson Peak.”
“It’s a challenge; there’s no question about it. Any role that I do under crazy makeup is a role like any other you have to play,” Jones says. “When you’re playing otherworldly creatures, what gets added to that is layers of foam latex and rubber makeup, silicon products and whatever else. Then that emotional state has to come through those layers of makeup. That’s my challenge.”
In the same building but outside the soundstage realty of the movie, producer J. Miles Dale sits in his office. Following the exponentially higher budgets for Del Toro’s other recent films, “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak,” the budget for “The Shape of Water” is under $20 million. Not that you would know from the sets, costumes or makeup during production or the visual effects work on the final film.
“We had a lot of frank conversations about this,” Dale says. “And as you can see, it does not look like a small movie at all. We had to be really smart about it and had some long talks about how we were going to do it. The thing about Guillermo, he’s got high ambition and a big appetite, but he’s also extremely smart in a production sense. It may be 20 [million] but it’s going to look like 50.”
As Del Toro himself would later add, “The point is what’s in front of the camera should look twice the budget.”
It is now September 2017 and “The Shape of Water” is having its local premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival in the historic Elgin Theatre, a location seen in the movie. (Indeed, an excited cheer went up in the crowd the first time the grand interior came onscreen.) The city’s mayor helped introduce the movie, and Del Toro wiped his eyes as he took the stage to a standing ovation along with much of the cast when the movie was finished.
“Frankly, I am too close to everything; the movie still moves me every time I see it,” Del Toro said a few weeks later. “I still cry in the same places, I still chuckle at some of the same places and I still have a great love for it. It’s very, very hard for me to be objective.”
Having come from somewhere deep within himself, this romantic adventure story of lovelorn outsiders finding each still grabs him in unexpected ways.
“I still cry at the end,” he said. “…I still choke up when Giles comes back and says, ‘Whatever this thing is, you need it.’”
This story is part of The Times' Holiday movie preview. See our complete coverage here.