Guillermo del Toro first came into prominence with 1993’s Cronos, which already announced the arrival of a new talent. After experiencing his first flop with Mimic, mutilated beyond recognition by a certain Harvey Scissorhands, he never strayed from his signature style again.
Admittedly, it didn’t always work. Some of his recent titles missed the mark, and not just because they starred Tom Hiddleston. But after the euphoric response to The Shape of Water, an unlikely love story between a mute woman and a fish-like creature set in 1962 Baltimore, del Toro doesn’t seem to care. “To me, the real horror in life is perfection. That just scares the fuck out of me” – he says when we meet in Venice, shortly before he picks up the Golden Lion. “When the government starts talking about perfection, unity, purity – that’s scary. Me? I revel in imperfections.”
Can I just say something before we start? Don’t believe all that “the studio didn’t let him do the film he wanted” crap – what you see here is exactly how I wanted it to look. So if anybody complains, if your friends complain, just tell them it’s my fault. Look – nobody has fucked with me since 1997. So if you don’t like my movies, it’s my problem. With Mimic, it was the last time somebody told me I couldn’t do something or I had to do it differently. Since then, I had complete freedom.
Was it traumatic what happened with Mimic? You lost the final cut to the Weinstein brothers.
I will say, diplomatically, that it was a great lesson and I am very grateful for it. Mimic taught me how to say “no”. Which is a great fucking word. People who say “no” are the ones that cannot listen to that word. They never hear it! So to say “no” to people that say “no” is great. It was the last time I had any creative difficulties. It would take too long to list all the things they wanted me to change, but I tried to do it on the Director’s Cut commentary track. It took me two hours, and I feel I still wasn’t done.
Would you mind telling me something about the films that shaped you? Last year I spoke to Gary Sherman and he claims, very modestly, that his cannibals-in-the-subway flick Death Line influenced your career.
Oh yes. Death Line is a great example of a socio-political horror movie. It literally talks about the class struggle through a story about cannibals! It’s one of the unsung masterpieces of the genre. In Mexico, that film was called Raw Meat. I went to see it with my uncle and it made a huge impact on me, because the monster was very sympathetic. I believe that genre films should be political, because fantasy is one of the most political instruments to tell a story. In The Shape of Water, I wanted to talk about “invisible” people. Constantly looked down on and yet able to come together if needed and do something against the ones who hold all the power. To me, the act of love is to look. When you see me, you acknowledge that I exist. And that’s the maximum amount of love you can give to another human being.
Which is not necessarily what we see happen nowadays.
What happens when you are fed a certain ideology is that you become invisible. You become a Mexican, a Jew or a gay man – whatever is put in front of you in order to make you disappear and let others treat you like shit. In my movie, the creature is a god. But it’s still invisible to this arrogant motherfucker, because he can’t fucking see it. He thinks it’s some black thing that crawled out of the mud that can be easily humbled and hurt. He doesn’t see the cleaning women, either. I have done Hellboy and Hellboy 2, these big movies about a secret government facility, but I always thought that it would be more interesting to see the people that come there to clean the toilets and scrub the chewing gum off the floor. I wanted to see the world through that point of view, not some glamorous secret agent. The invisible people are more interesting.
You refer to quite many stories here; certain mythologies that we have all grown up with. Could you walk me through it a bit?
First of all, no Little Mermaid – she wasn’t on my mind at all. But there is this classic fable The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, in which a fisherman catches a magical fish and it grants him three life-changing wishes. Beauty and the Beast was a big influence too, King Kong, Creature From the Black Lagoon. For me, this film is a story about someone who recognises an essence of herself in another creature. She realises that they were always alike.
It’s funny that you mentioned Creature From the Black Lagoon, because only few decades ago Michael Shannon [who plays Colonel Richard Strickland] would be a good guy in your film.
The idea was to reverse that. The creature carrying the girl into the water, just like on its poster, is usually an image of horror. But now, she is smiling. It’s all about taking these familiar images and twisting them to what I think is the story that I want to tell. It makes no difference if it’s a literary piece of folklore or if it comes from a 1950s movie. I want to stay somewhere in-between. The whole Twilight phenomenon was interesting to me because it proved there were so many young girls who found it hard to talk about their emotions. For them, it was much easier to embrace these feelings with a vampire as a romantic lead rather than a common boy. But vampires always had these two sides about them, which was especially visible in John William Polidori’s story The Vampyre. He took Lord Byron as a model and made him a monster and a Byronic dandy. I am doing something similar here, but unlike Polidori I am not using it as an escape. I am using it as a tool to tell the story.
For a while, people were speculating if The Shape of Water was some sort of weird prequel to Hellboy. I for one ended up talking to my editor about how similar the creature looks to Abe Sapien.
The design is entirely different! It took me three years to design this guy, and it took me six months to design Abe Sapien. Having created both I can tell you with full authority that they have nothing in common. In fact, Abe Sapien and the Creature From the Black Lagoon were two things we consciously decided to stay away from. This creature is on the screen for about an hour. Next to a real person, it’s touching her skin. You need to be able to make it exist in the same world. Hellboy exists in the world which is completely fantastic. There are troll markets and everything is sort of heightened. And here is another thing: Abe Sapien moved in a very studied way, a bit like C3PO in Star Wars. This guy? He is very animalistic. Early on, I said to Doug [Jones]: “Imagine a bullfighter. You have to stand like you have a steel rod in your back, almost like a predator.”
Why did you decided to make this story so openly sexual? Even in The Beauty and the Beast, the attraction is rather spiritual. Unless it’s a porn version, which I assume we don’t want to delve into here.
I didn’t want it to be black and white: I wanted my heroine to masturbate within the first few minutes of the movie. It was very important for me not to have another Disney princess. There are two takes on what you are referring to by mentioning The Beauty and the Beast. One is puritanical, which means there are no sexual elements to the story until he turns into a prince and then maybe they will fuck. The other one is very perverse, kind of kinky. I wasn’t interested in either of them. I wanted to say: they fall in love and, by the way, they fuck.
You always wanted Sally’s character, Elisa, to be mute?
I didn’t want to make a drama where people spoke about their emotions. I wanted to move beyond words and show a connection that was immediate. To me, love renders you mute. If you fall in love, no matter how much you talk about it, you just can’t express it. You can say ‘I love you’ all day long and it still doesn’t tell you how it feels. Elisa can express it only by singing. And she is mute, so she goes into this black and white fantasy. When I talked to Sally, I said: “You should watch Charlie Chaplin, Howard Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The important actors for you are the silent comedians, because you will work with your eyes and your face.”
What I found interesting was how quickly all the characters made peace with Elisa’s discovery. After a while, everybody treats this creature normally.
I am Mexican – we accept the weirdest shit. There is this moment when Richard Jenkins looks at him and is shocked about it. But then he says: “He is beautiful.” Richard’s character is gay and he can’t talk about his love openly, so when she tells him: “He sees me for who I am and not for what I am not” he gets it. For me, that’s love. Love is when somebody looks at you and doesn’t see what you lack. Doesn’t see that you dress like shit or are too fat, no – they see you for the miracle that you are. It makes you understand that it doesn’t matter how love arrives. It just does, and suddenly you can fall for a person of the same sex, of completely different religious beliefs or race. That’s the essence of the movie. That’s why it’s called The Shape of Water. Love and water are the two most powerful things in the universe and they both have no shape until they find a vessel. Then they can become a jar, a flowerpot, whatever the fuck you can think of.
When I talked to Richard Jenkins, he said you remind him of Frank Capra. Would you agree with that?
We live in times when cynicism and scepticism wins and if you make a movie that has a darker ending or a cynical ending, you look more intelligent. But I believe in love. I believe in the madly, truly and deeply, so I can understand what he means. People think of Frank Capra as this corny filmmaker, but when you see Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe or whatever, the dark scenes in those movies are super scary. George Bailey running through town in It’s a Wonderful Life and finding his house destroyed is one of the scariest horror movies in itself. So I do identify with Capra in the sense that he can find the light. But first, he needs to layer the darkness really, really thick for it to shine so brightly.
The full interview was published in Episodi.
Guillermo del Toro
Oscar-winning Mexican film director, screenwriter and producer. Loves monsters. Really, really loves monsters.