The Shape of Water: Del Toro Likes Digital, Octavia Spencer Quits Period Pieces, Guy in the Fish Suit Deserves an Oscar

High on the list of the greatest contributions Mexico has given to the world, Guillermo del Toro’s monster-fueled mind exudes compassion for what’s grotesque.

He would compliment a vampire on his sharp fangs, a werewolf on his luscious mane, or a witch on that brand new broom, and in his latest film, he has given one of his most spiritually complex creatures the chance to fall in love. Soaked in Cold War fears, The Shape of Water finds Doug Jones once again under the skin of a supernatural being and developing a silent bond with a young woman Eliza (played by Sally Hawkins), ready to reciprocate his slimy affection.

Reminiscent of the somber magic in Pan’s Labyrinth, but filtered through the lens of the 1960s America, his liquid-based romance is populated by a myriad of characters living in isolation- beyond his two mute lovebirds. Richard Jenkins is a homosexual man struggling with the impossibility of pursuing meaningful connections, Octavia Spencer is, once again, an black woman in one of the most oppressive periods in history and in a dysfunctional marriage, Michael Stuhlbarg is a Russian scientist divided between duty and scientific vocation, and Michael Shannon is the embodiment of male egocentrism that explodes when challenged. Not all monsters have scales.

As part of their extensive press tour to promote this awards bound treasure of a film, Guillermo del Toro and his cast shared with MovieMaker their views on a variety subjects related to this story, cinema at large, and their projects ahead.

Michael Shannon and writer-director/producer Guillermo del Toro on the set of The Shape of Water. Photograph by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Guillermo del Toro on Representation in Cinema

I think it’s extremely important that anybody that wants to tell a story from any nationality can tell it. Bertolucci didn’t have to be Chinese to do The Last Emperor. I think that we self-marginalize ourselves by saying, “You can only tell this story.” We tell stories about everyone, and telling stories should not be an act of immigration, or passport, or geography, because then we don’t allow ourselves to access the only joyful thing we have, which is to create. You have Kubrick interested in telling a story about Napoleon, and Kubrick is not French. You have Louis Malle interested in making a movie like Atlantic City, and he’s not American. What are you going to do? I think that the fact that anyone is interested in telling a story about Mexico is great. More stories should be told about Mexico!

Guillermo del Toro on Film vs. Digital

It’s different. First it started as a wave that went to digital, and I got so used to it with Pacific Rim. I can push the colors in a different way. I enjoyed it. Of course, I would go back to film if the numbers made sense for me, and the logistics made sense. I don’t have to change magazines, so that allows me to shoot a little faster, and cumulatively in the day you gain a couple of hours. This movie is a movie that looks like it has the budget of 70 million, and it was done for 19.5 million. Actually less, because as of this week, we are more than 100,000 dollars under budget; we went under that number. We don’t know yet, but it could be 150,000, or it could be 200,000; we’re liquidating it.

Michael Shannon On His Character’s Complex Identity

I didn’t think he was a simplistically evil guy from the beginning; I think that’s in the script. I don’t think we even needed to talk about it. I never had a minute or a second where I thought, “Wow, this character is so simplistically evil.” I think he was written with complexity. I think he’s a very important character, in a sociological and historical sense. I think he conveys a certain aspect of the American psyche that has been around for a long time, but particular during this period, the Cold War period. There were a lot of very strange, uptight people who were worried about things that may not even been real. There was a lot of paranoia; there was a lot of putting on an act of toughness in order to cover up the fact that you were scared about the unknown, of the world at large. I think Strickland is kind of the crystallization of that.

L to R: Michael Stuhlbarg, Shannon, del Toro and David Hewlett on the set of The Shape of Water. Photograph by Kerry Hayes

Michael Shannon On His Favorite Del Toro Movie Besides The Shape of Water

Pan’s Labyrinth, for me. It was really cool, because when we were shooting The Shape of Water, we shot in Toronto during the film festival, and the film festival showed Pan’s Labyrinth because it was the 10th Anniversary of the movie. So here I am, shooting a movie with Guillermo del Toro, and he’s hosting the screening. He comes and says, “It’s very nice to have some of my friends I’m working with here,” and then I sit there and I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, and I hadn’t seen it since it came out, and the whole time I was just sitting there thinking, “I’m going to go to work for this guy tomorrow.” Not that I wasn’t impressed every day going to set with him, but to have that experience of having that film blow my mind again, it just made me feel even more grateful to be there.

Michael Stuhlbarg on Preparation for Call Me By Your Name and The Shape of Water

The worlds are very different with Call Me By Your Name; there is a specific time. I’m given that this is a Latin and Greek scholar that’s interested in archaeology and art history. He is a loving father, he is in a loving marriage, he has a sense of humor, but he can also be quite archaic in his dialogue. He finds a lot of joy in what he does. He speaks Italian. I had to learn. You have to absorb that as much as you can as quickly as you can, and see how it affects you’re your own behavior. With The Shape of Water is the same kind of process, but in that case it was a scientist, a biologist, who was born and raised in Russia and who through his love of science and his own natural gift became a spy for the government. But really he is a scientist at heart and a humanitarian, or a creature-tarian in this case. I had to learn Russian for that. These are things that you have to spend on and you have to get them into your body so that in the conveying of them, ideally, it looks as if you’ve been doing it your whole life. You ask a ton of questions and you are hopefully given enough time to learn what you need to do. You think about who these people are. You question what they are going to look like and how they’ll move, all those kinds of things to make them right for the story you are telling. I used to draw all my characters a lot in sketchbooks, and now I have found, in the last number of projects I’ve been working on, that finding photographs on the Internet that are inspiring about who somebody might helps.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water. Photograph by Kerry Hayes

Michael Stuhlbarg On Shannon On His Favorite Del Toro Movie Besides The Shape of Water

The first film of his I saw was Cronos, and I was particularly taken with the mechanics of the heart. That really caught my imagination, and since then, he’s created so many detailed worlds. I admire the gothic nature of Crimson Peak and the world that’s created in Pacific Rim. It’s extraordinary. He’s a master of whatever genre he chooses to explore.

Doug Jones On The Most Challenging Costume He’s Worn For Del Toro

The Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth was probably the most elaborate thing I’ve ever worn for him. The five hour makeup and suit application, I was up on stilts having to clump around, I was 7 feet tall, with ram horns on my head, and mechanics built into my face that were loud, because when they would turn them on, they would go, “whir-whir-whir,” to make the ears flap and the eyes go. So that, and also, rattling off paragraphs of Spanish dialogue, a language I don’t speak. That was the most mind and body-consuming role I’ve ever done.

Doug Jones On Whether Awards Will Ever Recognize His Work

From your lips on its ears! I don’t know if the guy in the fish suit has ever gotten the nomination before, but I would certainly welcome it. I also feel unworthy of even being on screen, let alone getting an award nomination for it, but this movie in particular, I put a lot of myself into it. I literally worked my ass off, so if some recognition comes that way for this particular film, I wouldn’t argue it, but also I’m certainly not expecting it either.

Richard Jenkins on Playing a Closeted Gay Character in the 1960s

It’s something that he’s been hiding his whole life, so it’s fairly second nature to him now. I go back and think of where he is in his life in 1962, to reach across a table and put your hand on somebody else’s hand, that’s a huge risk. That’s really because of the script. Ok, he’s a gay man, put him in 1962, and it changes everything. It changes what he talks about, and who he talks to. That’s one of the reasons he’s alone. It’s easier to be alone, than to be found out or to be outed. It just added another dimension to playing this guy. You were aware that nobody knew you were gay all of the time, so how do you form a relationship with someone you don’t think is gay? This guy wanted connection so much, and he found it. It was there, looking at him! It was like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. It was Sally, but he has to go through all of this to realize it, and I can’t tell you how happy I was, and it didn’t even occur to me until about a week into shooting that it was 1962. It just meant everything. I think it changed the whole movie. It changed how people looked at us; it made us invisible, and that’s what he wanted this movie to be about. Just to push us back to that time. When they say, “Make America Great Again,” that’s the time they’re talking about. That’s it, 1962, and if you were a straight, white man, it was a great time, but if you were anybody else, it was not so terrific.

Richard Jenkins and Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Photograph by Kerry Hayes

Octavia Spencer on Creating Her Own Lead Roles

I’ve had to create [my lead roles], and it’s odd, because doing this film, I saw that it is possible to have a supporting role that was fully fleshed out. That’s the thing about this movie, for every supporting character, you go to their homes and you see their back-story. You see what’s going on in their lives, and we also facilitate the main story, but we get to have our story within the story. That made me hungry for more of that, so I’m developing more of that. I’m producing. We’re in the process, and things are being negotiated, but I’ve sold a couple of things. I’m making that transition now because you hunger for very well rounded, fleshed-out characters. I’ve optioned books that are around women of color, around white men. I want to tell stories that haven’t been told from every aspect, and I’m excited about that.

Octavia Spencer On Taking a Break From Period Pieces

Those are the roles that come, but after Madame C.J., we’re kind of refraining from “black woman who perseveres in a time period.” I just want to do some fun stuff, and have more light on a set, or be stressed about different things, and play someone who closely, well not closely resembles me, but just where I’m not making it all up. Minny and Dorothy and Zelda are people that are masterfully created. I want to play somebody who knows bands that I know, just relative to me. It’s going to be a minute before I do another period movie after Madame C.J. that I’m acting in. I probably will produce things, but it’s really taxing to come home every day, because I also immerse myself in the time period. I don’t come out of the 60s when I’m in the 60s, and it is not fun. It’s not fun to be in this bubble of segregation, because you segregate yourself. It’s not fun, so we don’t want to do that anytime soon. MM

The Shape of Water opened in theaters December 1, 2017, courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. Featured image photograph by Kerry Hayes.

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