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If you’ve ever attended one of Guillermo del Toro’s lectures or listened to one of his audio commentaries, you’ll know that hearing the filmmaker pontificate is one of life’s great pleasures. With his inviting yet scholarly style he is at all times acutely analytical, always honest and forthright as he delves as deeply into his own films as he does into the works of others. His encyclopedic knowledge is inspiring rather than intimidating, demonstrating a breadth of recall that can occasionally leave one spinning, just trying to keep up.
In this exclusive chat with Birth.Movies.Death. following his triumphant run in Venice with The Shape of Water, we explore everything from his earliest memories to his most recent challenges, finding out along the way just how profoundly his latest film reflects not only his childhood obsession but also what he believes to be a foray into a different focus for his filmmaking.
What was the first monster you fell in love with?
My two favourites are Frankenstein's creature and The Creature from the Black Lagoon -
one which struggles with Agon, one which doesn't.
At what age did you first get scared watching a movie?
The only time I've gotten scared was on TV, never by a movie monster. The first time I was in the crib, I couldn't have been more than two years old. I saw an Outer Limits episode called “The Mutant” with Warren Oates. Later I got scared again to the point where I pissed my pants on an episode called “The Doll” on Rod Serling's Night Gallery. I literally lost control of my bodily functions and started peeing and screaming.
Was that in retrospect a thrill, or was it something that you then avoided?
Well, according to my analyst, it's both! [laughs] Fear is really desire, right? What those fears represent for me at such a young age is buried in the catacombs of my psyche.
Is it unfair to think of The Shape of Water in some ways a confession of this fear and desire?
It is in some ways very confessional. But Hellboy is very confessional, Devil's Backbone is very confessional, Pacific Rim is confessional. I make movies where at least one character should hurt you to expose something of their character.
What was the kernel of the idea for Shape?
It was watching the Creature [from the Black Lagoon] swimming under Julie Adams when I was six. I had three experiences: first, the awareness of Julie Adams which I couldn't put into words, a beautiful, poetic moment. Then I had Stendhal syndrome, where I kind of almost fainted over how beautiful the scene was in my mind. The third moment I had was when I innocently, watching it for the first time at age six, I hoped they’d end up together! Of course, that doesn't end that way.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was an off-shoot of King Kong in a way, same sort of dynamics. When the creature carries Julie Adams, it felt like it was a wedding, a crossing of the threshold. I wasn't thinking anything sexual, I was six, but I was thinking love, Love, LOVE! I drew the creature obsessively the first decade of my life, like from six to eleven. My grandmother used to have all of my drawings in a little box of drawings of The Creature - eating ice cream, bicycling, flying kites, you know? When she died, somebody threw them away.
It seems like it's such a pure connection, both to your adult filmmaking and your childhood.
Oh, it is. Shape is really is my favourite film for that reason. It also is the one that risks the most.
What was the reason you wanted to make The Shape of Water now?
Every character I'm in love with represents pieces of the way I see and think about the world. I was set to do Pacific Rim 2 and had Shape of Water already developed. I was four years into the process and then came to a crossroad where Legendary could let go of Pacific Rim or they could sustain it or delay it six months. It was a matter of making full salary on Pacific Rim or zero money in the next three years for a movie that really needs me. You can get really comfortable at 52 and then you lose your fire.
Alejandro [Iñárritu] and Alfonso [Cuarón] were instrumental in this. They said, ‘What are you thinking?’ and I said, well, I haven't sold Shape of Water completely. It's a really difficult movie and I'm very afraid of the tone and I need to balance all of these things. And they said ‘Do that one!’ Motherfuckers.
Alejandro was very eloquent. He said this movie is entirely me. It was a risk because I've never spoken about love and sex and beauty in this way and always gone for either the too light or too dark. This movie is the perfect balance between, like Giles says [in the film] about the burning chocolate factory, ‘tragedy and delight.’
Shape is a film that worships flaws.
In my personal relationships the only thing that is a destructor is control. When you experience the mask of perfection it destroys a relationship. If you are with someone that cannot see you for who you are, it's very difficult, and I've experienced it personally and professionally.
Richard Jenkins said it very nicely. They asked him ‘How does Guillermo direct actors?’ He said, ‘Well, he watches everything. He doesn't go in saying you can only give me this specific thing.’ He's right. An actor is part of the tone of a movie. If you think of a movie that is being played like an instrument, you can hit the perfect note or you can improvise and you're going to have a little range. You let the actor play and find things you wouldn't have thought of. That's allowing the imperfection of art. It's collaboration, it's accident, it's a beautiful clash. The myth of the director is you know exactly what you want.
How then do you avoid become paralyzed with the infinite choices?
You don't because it's craft. I've been doing this half of my life. If you don't know a little bit about directing by now, you don't know. You identify the stuff that works, the stuff that doesn't. You often hear a songwriter [talk about some] great song and it came fully formed in about three minutes, right? It's the same thing with a movie. You circle it and circle it, and all of a sudden when it comes it comes completely formed. But you know everything as a range, not as an equation. The movie exists between this bar and that bar - and I mean musical bars, not drinking bars! You let the actors play within those bars.
Is there a moment that proved radically different from how you originally envisioned it?
There's a specific example on Devil's Backbone. That is my second favourite film - Shape is my favourite film, then Devil's, then Pan's and then Crimson Peak. Originally, the ending of Devil’s Backbone had the ghost of Casares came to the door, the kids turned around, Carlos saw Casares was a ghost, nodded like saying goodbye and turned around and walked with the kids to the desert. That day had been a very difficult day. We had no more time or money. We had shot five scenes including the murder of Conchita, the arrival of the car, and the sun was about to go down. My DP said we have 45 minutes to do five shots. I said, ‘Okay, we do the first one which is the master, a sort of a Searchers shot with Casares in silhouette. The camera is pushing and I'm listening to the music in my earphones and [thought] that's the ending! I can't top that.’ The DP will always say, ‘Look, get the [other shots] in the bag and you'll change your mind in post-production.’ I said, ‘I don't need it, let's go. And we left.’
Can you think of a time where you genuinely felt stuck?
It happened on Hellboy once with Ron Perlman in a very silly moment when he was hitting a dumpster from four stories. He couldn't do the right grunt and the right roll, but that was neither here nor there. But on Cronos I had a profound disagreement with the main actress and I was too young and too stupid and too inexperienced. She saw the part completely differently. I don't want to be indelicate and go into details, but I can tell you if I had directed that movie now, I would have listened to her and negotiated the reality of the character and got a better performance. As it happened, the character is cut out of the movie by twenty minutes.
So with experience you get better tools to be able to communicate your vision.
The greatest mistake in this world is preconception. You're not ruled by your storyboards, and if something happens that is more interesting, more alive than your plan, then you go with that.
Cue Hitchcock’s belief, apocryphal or not, about being disappointed when he finally started making the film and having to actually deal with the process.
I don't believe that. It's a good quote, but it's not a good rule.
Are there always really three films for you: the film in your mind, the film on set and the film in the editing bay?
Of course, it's entirely true.
Which vision of those three do you traditionally prefer?
Your first date is with the idea on the page. Your second date with the idea is with the actors or camera; there's a bunch of people, it's a party, it's like a wedding. Then the honeymoon happens in the editing room. You strip everything that is unnecessary and you get to it.
Have you had any divorces after that honeymoon?
Mimic. There was the movie that I wanted to make and the movie that it is. But the other day I made peace with it. A guy who was installing a new TV grabbed Mimic and put it on and I was like, ugh. Then I started watching it and [noticed] the one battle that I won was visual on camera and the audio. That movie looks like I wanted it to look, the camera moved the way I wanted it to. No matter how silly the character or the screenplay got, I still think there's moments of good stuff in that movie. I still like the killing of the kids, I love the attack into the subway car, there's some good stuff, there's some terrible stuff.
What does it mean for you if somebody describes a film as del Toro-esque?
Sometimes when people describe what I do I don't see it. The stuff that is conscious is what people don't notice that have to do with camera style and storytelling.
Is it part of your process to delve into a series of movies while you're writing? Or is your encyclopedic knowledge just so vast that you can just check these scenes without going back to source?
With Shape I knew I had nine months to clear the soundtrack. I spoke to Alejandro and he said to me I think it would be wise that the more obscure the movie, the better it is. The only one that is sort of famous is Little Colonel with Shirley Temple; the rest are really not well-known. Alejandro said that gives the movie a reality even in the fantasy. If everything is heightened, then tonally you're screwed. I followed his advice and looked for specific movies that were in some instances kind of crappy, like the dancing horse number with Betty Grable or the beautiful but cheesy stuff in The Story of Ruth and the bouncing giant ball in Mardi Gras.
Does your brain work that way, where you remember years after you've seen the film that dancing horse?
Oh no, I saw a lot of new ones. Little Colonel I remembered because the dance steps that Bojangles does, the dude is fantastic. As for the other stuff I told Fox to send me their entire catalogue of songs. It was a nightmare to clear because you have one deal with the composers' guild and one deal with the producers' deal and they were separate deals, but we cleared them all.
One of the most intimidating things about talking films with you is this vast recall from an amazing span of cinema history. Are you truly word perfect, picture perfect with your recall of these films?
There are important voids in me. What I know I know very deeply, or try to, but there are huge gaps. I love talking to Quentin Tarantino, Kim Morgan, Elvis Mitchell, John Landis - there are guys that really know their stuff.
I guess what I'm saying is, can you close your eyes and see every shot in a Hitchcock film?
No, but most every shot of a particular sequence I can. And I can remember stuff that then I find out is not there.
When did that happen? When did you first realize that you had a proclivity, it's not just memory, because this is something far more specific. It's the ability to articulate and contextualize that information, not to simply mimic it, but to use it as tools.
My father won the lottery when I was four and we left the house that I inhabited as a baby, that place where I saw my first Outer Limits episode. The other day we were driving through the street in Guadalajara and I told my kids, ‘This is the house I haven't been in for 48 years.’ I said, ‘I bet you I remember it perfectly!’ We stopped, I rang the doorbell and I said, ‘Hi, I'm Guillermo, I lived here.’ They went, ‘Yeah, we know you lived here, come in.’ I knew what was going to be around every corner.
Is that the key component of your gift?
The only artistic act is synthesis. Nobody is inventing something new. We're not inviting any new seasonings or any new condiments to a banquet. The way we combine sweet and sour, that is your gift.
To stretch the metaphor, have you ever sat in the cinematic kitchen and thought, I don't know what the hell to cook?
You can't just make scrambled eggs again and you are pressured to make something special.
Listen, Shape was pressure. I normally yell and scream once in every movie, maximum twice. In this movie I yelled and screamed about ten times about everything. It was a very horrible shoot in terms of pressure because we were trying to make the movie for $16 million and it was over $19.5 million. Doug Jones in the suit was in agony. When somebody made a mistake and Doug was there, I would lose it. I remember one day, in a very silly scene, I got paralyzed because the prop was wrong. It was a cooked lobster at the Russian restaurant scene. We had very limited budget and cooked the lobster once. It came and it was presented in the wrong place. I said, ‘I can't shoot it like this because he needs to cut in to it and say it's so sweet and then eat it.’ I tried to be a good boy and work with what I had and finally I lost it and I said, ‘No, we're shooting it tomorrow with the proper prop.’ But I lost it. Of course, you can get frustrated by the smallest thing because you're human, you're not a machine.
Have you ever lost your line on an actor? Where as the project went on, they got further and further away from where you were?
Only in Cronos with Margarita [Isabel]. Other than that, no. I normally have a really good bond with my actors, even with Wesley [Snipes]. We had an understanding at the beginning of the shoot. He said, ‘Look, I want to shoot as efficiently as possible because I really want to DJ.’ I said, ‘Done, let's do it,’ because I can do it. I can prioritize the star and then shoot with the doubles, etc. But even then we had our screaming matches, full on in front of the crew, then go to the trailer and work it out. But at the end of the movie, we really liked each other.
How do you assemble a cast? For Shape this seems even more critical to the success of the piece.
With Pan's Labyrinth, I wrote it for one actor, Sergi Lopez. Devil's Backbone I wrote it for two actors, Federico Luppi and Marisa Paredes. Crimson Peak I wrote it for Jessica Chastain. Shape I wrote it for four actors: Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Doug Jones. I watched everything they've done - with Doug it's easy - but I wanted it to be so tailored to their voice, to what I think they could do. I presented it to them and said I made this for you.
How you would describe their voices? How are we not seeing them in the way you're seeing them?
Sally did a series called Fingersmith for BBC which is a Victorian novel. She falls in love with another woman and they make love and there's a crime involved. What I loved about it was that the sexual and physical part of the affair. The love was not titillating, not perverse or prurient. It was just so beautifully organic to their essence. Then I saw Happy Go Lucky and I saw her do a blissful state of grace that charms you. Then I saw Submarine, where she can be in the background looking and she becomes of enormous interest in the foreground. Then I saw Blue Jasmine and I was blown away because she can do basically everything!
So you watch films and think, ‘This is somebody that I want to write for?’
I was watching Submarine with my kids and asked what do you think if I write the ‘The Fish Movie,’ as I used to call it, for her? Sally is one of the most beautiful human beings on earth - gorgeous, luminous - but the beauty she has is on her own. She's not a Chanel model turned actress. I like that beauty, I'm charmed by it and I think she's someone that understands and celebrates sort of the difference.
So when you watch any movie…
…Oh, I'm casting. Every time.
When did this start?
Oh, I was casting in my head when I was 15. The actor that I had in mind when writing Cronos before Federico was a guy called Arturo de Cordova and he was dead! I'm watching TV and I'm casting. [That’s how] I cast Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. [I picked] Idris [Elba] from Luther. I thought he was an American actor when I saw The Wire and I wonder how did he do the London accent? Nick Searcy in Shape plays the general I saw in Justified, and so on and so forth.
Finding Doug was obviously a no-brainer.
There are a lot of really phenomenal suit performers, but I think that there are very few people that can be real actors. Two things happened: first, the most majestic moment is at the end when the creature rises and you realize he is a God. The way he carries himself is like Silver Surfer perfect. Second, Sally actually got a crush on the creature. She really would get really nervous when Doug would come in in the suit.
Another filmmaker may have made the creature entirely CGI.
For sure. This movie is 90-plus percent physical. I think there are five shots where we did a digital creature. [Effects company] Mr. X came up with a beautiful system they called morphing - the term is not new, but they said we're going to morph in and out of the suit. If I needed a blink or a frown, you could have 12 frames of a blink, and then reproject the geometry.
You could have gone the mocap route instead.
I think it's great to see people that understand it like the Planet of the Apes movies that do it perfectly, or Peter Jackson on King Kong, but I don't know how to use it as a tool. I'm very remote to it and I'm a guy that comes from physical effects and I like my picture to be there.
What drew you to cast Octavia?
I don't think you have a good actor that doesn't know how to listen, or a good actor who doesn't know how to look. And if you look at the eyes of Shannon, Octavia and Sally, they're three ways of seeing the other actor. Some eyes have compassion, some eyes have wonder, some eyes have a really rough edge like Shannon’s.
Octavia I think has the most amazing eyes in the history of film. Zasu Pitts had amazing eyes. Bette Davis has amazing eyes. Silvia Sydney, amazing eyes. Octavia is blessed with an amazing way of seeing the other actors. She's so alive and you know what she's thinking through her eyes. I wanted to write for her a character that was the queen of the roost. She controls everyone beneath the structure of power - the guys that assembled the machines, the cooks, the other cleaning ladies. She reigned, but she was somebody that was trapped in an impossibly bad marriage, and the fish creature makes her realize this.
Then there’s Michael Shannon.
Shannon, I met with him again and I said, ‘I'm writing this for you, it's not ready yet, but I want you to know that I'm going to come to you.’
When did you fall in love with Shannon as a performer?
I think it was Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. I thought if he can do those two things, he can be vulnerable and crazy. Then I saw him in Bug. I saw him obviously like everybody in Superman, and I thought he was the most interesting to watch in that movie. I wanted a whole movie called Zod, you know?
Shannon is as precise with his record and his continuity as an English actor to the point where in the editing room we would say, ‘This guy is uncanny.’ But at the same time, he does little changes from take to take that keep it completely alive.
One of my favorite Shannon roles is this small cameo he does in Loving where he shows up as the photographer and just quietly watches.
He does this gangly, loving (no pun intended), very human guy. Yeah, what I wanted [for Shape] was a guy that you could be afraid of, but there's a moment in the movie where you see his point of view a little. You understand why he is under pressure and I said that it is very important that he can bring vulnerability to that moment. If I'm going to reverse the paradigm of the creature feature and I'm going to show the creature carrying the girl in its arms, and it's going to be an image of love, and if I'm going to have the square-jawed hero in a nice suit with a gun be the bad guy, I need somebody that really can believe that this guy is right.
You are still toying with the adult, in terms of the emotions, and the slightly childish interest in ooze, such as when he pops the pus on his fingertips and eventually rips them off.
You do what other movies wouldn't do. When they make love, people would have gone into a full montage or this and that. I thought let's keep it beautiful and simple and elegant and distant but brave and adult. What I did want was the scene the next day, where the girls talk about how was it? Sally describes it in a beautiful way how the creature… deploys. [laughs]. I thought, ‘That's what I want to see, the moments that normally are not in the movie.’
When discussing sex with a sea creature you’re probably going to ask about the physics.
One thing you must assume is that in any new couple after making love, somebody on both sides is going to ask, ‘How was it?’ If I succeeded at this, then that act needs to be the consequence of love and the consequence of emotion. No matter what you do, if there is no perversion in you and it's consensual, there's no perversion. On the other hand, Shannon, who is supposedly in this Ken and Barbie marriage, is really perverse.
The most perverted is the normalized, white Anglo-Saxon protestant, where everyone else is in their own ways at least culturally distant, an outsider or a freak, whichever way you want to look at it.
They are more at peace with who they are. [These are] invisible people joining together to free the most invisible of them all, which is the creature. The spy cannot be seen because he's not Bob, he's Dmitri. He doesn't see the cleaning ladies, they are invisible because they are cleaning and they're ladies. The closeted gay artist is also out of fashion already is double invisible, he's invisible in his craft and who he is. And finally, the creature, to Shannon, is a filthy thing, while to others he is a god and an object of love.
Whatever one thinks of Shape, it’s easy to see that it’s a film that could have collapsed into something risible. Were you more worried about this film than most in getting the tone right and bringing the audience along with you?
You know how I felt about Crimson, about how they marketed it. It was marketed like a lawn garden bag, and I made a Gucci bag. Everybody complained that it doesn't work. I mow the lawn and it doesn't fit in this stupid Gucci bag! On Crimson Peak I had the certainty that we had something that people would respond to. In Shape every fucking day was a high wire act and there was not a day when I could relax. Tonally the movie is so difficult. I would look at Jenkins and go, ‘Well, I don't know, I like it, but what are we doing here?’ One thing that you learn is that the thing that most resembles success is failure. The closer you feel to failure, the more scared you are. Yes, you have a chance that you will fail, and then you have the chance that you may succeed.
I always quote Spinal Tap: there's a fine line between clever and stupid.
Well, and that is key. Look at Christopher Guest - If you watch something like A Mighty Wind or Waiting for Guffman, the music is almost good, the dance numbers are almost acceptable. It’s because he controls that tone so perfectly.
Shape won the top prize at Venice. Does that kind of success change how you see the film?
Yeah, it's a huge sigh of relief. The first day the film showed anywhere in the world, we got a standing ovation. And that happened only with Pan's Labyrinth, in Cannes. It heals a lot. I don't want to be a crybaby, but on many levels, personal, professional, my last couple of years have been really rough on me.
You had a few big things get away.
Well, I had great things happen. I got Troll Hunters finally off the ground, which I'm incredibly proud and happy with. I got to produce stuff, I got to direct a movie that I personally loved, blah, blah, blah. But the reality is that it's been rough and landing here does give me a little bit of breath and I can relax a little -not in self-satisfaction, but honestly in thankful and very humble release. I can go, ‘Okay, I may do a couple more.’
I'm taking a sabbatical year, because I need it. I'm not directing until, best-case scenario, the end of the year next year. I think that's what I want to do this year: read a lot, watch a lot of movies, and think.
Give us homework, professor, while you’re on sabbatical - five movies that we should also watch over the next year.
One I like is The Arcane Sorcerer [Pupi Avati, 1996]. There is an amazing drama called Random Harvest [Mervyn LeRoy, 1942] that a lot of people don't know but was revealed to me and I think is so beautiful. There’s The Reckless Moment  by Max Ophüls, which is sort of his Hitchcockian thriller with James Mason. Another, Wild Boys of the Road  by William Wellman – it’s a train-hopping, kids in The Depression-era [film]. Then there's an amazingly surreal, beautiful Fritz Lang movie with Silvia Sydney and George Raft that is a gangster love story musical with music by Kurt Weill, I think it's called You and Me . Lang hated it, thought it was a terrible movie. I think it is a very good movie!
I'm in a period of discovery, I'm talking to people I admire and like about these movies and watching them together.