Guillermo del Toro won the Directors Guild of America’s top honor Saturday night at the DGA Awards for his fantastical fable “The Shape of Water,” the latest in a string of prizes that have made his film one of the clear front-runners heading into next month’s Academy Awards.
“This was a movie that was full of many reasons why it shouldn’t work – and those are the reasons why it works,” said Del Toro of the film, a dreamlike, 1960s-set love story between a mute janitor and a fish-man. “And for you to tell me today to keep doing these insane fables that I’ve believed in for 25 years means the world to me.”
The Mexican director of such films as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy,” Del Toro had never previously been nominated for a DGA Award. He took the prize over a strong field that included Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), Jordan Peele (“Get Out”) and Martin McDonagh (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
Del Toro’s win — which comes on the heels of victories for “The Shape of Water” at the Golden Globes and the Producers Guild Awards — may bode well for his chances to take the directing prize at the Academy Awards, where the film leads the pack with 13 nominations. Thirteen of the past 14 DGA Award winners have gone on to earn the Oscar for directing, including last year’s winner, “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle.
Peele picked up the prize for best first-time director, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd in recognition of his work on the provocative, button-pushing horror film “Get Out,” one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films and biggest box office smashes.
“This has been the best year of my life, hands down,” Peele said. “At the same time I’ve had to balance that with the knowledge that this is not a good year for this country. This is not a good year for many of us.
“For everyone in this room, what we do is important, what we do is powerful,” he continued. “Keep doing the only thing we know how to. Keep using your voice. It’s the most powerful weapon we have against evil.”
Not surprisingly given the politically charged tenor of this awards season, issues of inclusion and discrimination surfaced in speeches throughout the evening.
In the wake of this year’s all-male slate of Golden Globes directing nominees, DGA members cheered the diversity of the guild’s nominees. Still, many pointed out how much work remains to be done in the industry as a whole.
“Today we are witnessing a historic cultural shift in our industry and hopefully our society as well,” DGA President Thomas Schlamme told the crowd. “Our guild has been outspoken about our commitment in the drive to more respectful and inclusive workplaces, which includes a world where our members and others can show up for work without any fear of sexual harassment.”
In an opening monologue that sharply skewered those sexual misconduct scandals that have roiled Hollywood in recent months, host Judd Apatow highlighted the intractable gender disparities behind the camera.
“Did you know that only 5% of movies were directed by women in the last 10 years?” Apatow said. “Isn’t that the worst, most embarrassing statistic? And what happens when women direct movies? You get ‘Lady Bird.’ You get ‘Mudbound.’ You get ‘Wonder Woman.’ When you give a guy a movie, you get ‘The Emoji Movie.’ ”
Amy Schumer, one of the evening’s presenters and a nominee in the variety, talk, news and sports category, emphatically echoed that sentiment. “We need to promote women to the very top positions of power — and we need to do it yesterday,” she said flatly.
On the television side, female directors made a strong showing, winning the top prizes in both the comedy and drama categories. Beth McCarthy-Miller won the comedy directing prize for the HBO series “Veep,” while Reed Morano won for Hulu drama series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” thanking the series’ producers and Hulu for being “the rare people who were seeking the opportunity to work with women instead of fearing it.” New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro also picked up a prize in the children’s program category for Netflix’s “Anne with an E.”
Jean-Marc Vallée won in the TV movie and miniseries category for the HBO series “Big Little Lies,” which has picked up a number of prizes this awards season, including four Golden Globes.
Additional winners included Matthew Heineman in the documentary category for Amazon’s “City of Ghosts,” Brian Smith in the reality TV category for “MasterChef” episode “Vegas Deluxe & Oyster Shucks,” Don Roy King in the variety series category for a “Saturday Night Live” installment hosted by Jimmy Fallon, and Epoch Films’ Martin de Thurah in the commercials category.
In one of the night’s more memorable moments, Glenn Weiss earned an award for directing last year’s Oscars ceremony and recounted the behind-the-scenes, split-second deliberations over how to handle the now-infamous best-picture snafu that played out live in front of a stunned audience of millions.
“If your stage manager has to go out [on stage] because things are so wrong, your instincts are to go out and go wide and cover up,” Weiss said. “I looked at it 180-degrees. I thought, ‘I don’t want the headline the next day to say that something bad happened and they tried to cover it up.’ So in my mind, we needed to be transparent and we needed to show what was going on out there, and I was obsessive about getting a shot of that [best picture] card.”