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‘The Shape of Water’: How Guillermo Del Toro Made a Fantasy Blockbuster for Under $20 Million

Here's five key ways a careful approach to craft and preparation were used to squeeze the most out of every dollar.

“The Shape of Water”


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Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, “The Shape of Water” is a one of those period pieces centered around a magical fable that requires the type of world building and technical artistry Oscar voters love. The film references classic Hollywood films of previous eras, but surprisingly doesn’t come with high price tag of an impeccably designed fantasy film that shot for 58 days, 41 on a soundstage.

“A lot of people in the industry don’t believe us, they say no, no, it cost more than $30 [million],” said del Toro in an interview with IndieWire. “Two or three people say, ‘Tell me the truth.’ It’s $19.5 million — actually, that’s not true. We did it for $19.3 million, because we [recently] tallied it up and we got $200,000 change to give back.”

Del Toro was raised to be a fiscally responsible filmmaker coming up in a Mexican film industry that doesn’t allow for waste. Starting with his short films, he learned visual and make-up effects – having even studied with the legendary “Exorcist”  make-up artist Dick Smith. In the years leading up to his 1993 breakout “Cronos,” he even ran a production company specializing in animation, compositing, and makeup effects.

“We did [everything] efficiently with very little money,” said del Toro. “And that discipline stays with you, you plan it, you know your technique. I studied the classical effects from classical films. I don’t know only the new techniques, I know the old.”

For “The Shape of Water,” the 53-year old filmmaker would use every tool in his kit to pull off the amphibian love story.

Showmanship and Gestures

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón Directors Alejandro González Iñárritu, left, Guillermo del Toro, middle, and Alfonso Cuarón, right, pose for photos before a press conference held by the Caravan for Peace, in Los Angeles on . The caravan is traveling across the country to promote the alliance of the US and Mexico to fight the drug warDrug Caravan, Los Angeles, USA

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón

Hindsley/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It was while producing and helping his friend director Alejandro González Iñárritu that del Toro had an important revelation about a film’s scope relative to its budget. On “Biutiful,” Iñárritu spent $5 million on a small, intimate film that would normally be made for significantly less. The director then followed it up by stretching a reported $17 million budget to make “Birdman,” a film with the scope and ambition of a film three times its budget.

“I really thought at that moment, budget is a state of mind,” said del Toro. “You know what you have and using it for ambitions that far exceed the budget. [It’s] showmanship, at the end of the day it’s going back to the classical way of moviemaking, doing physical sets, doing physical makeup effects, and doing what I call gestures, which means if you have a group of friends and you invite them to dinner twice early in your friendship, you’ll be ‘the guy who buys dinner.’ The same happens with an audience: If you do two or three big flourishes in the movie, early on, the movie gains a scale and they say, ‘Oh, it’s a big movie,’ and then you can go slow.”

A perfect example of this was the opening shot of “The Shape of Water,” in which the camera floats through Elisa’s apartment (Sally Hawkins), which is completely underwater. Del used an old film technique known as dry-for-wet in which no water is actually used. All set dressing and actors would be suspended using wire — as if floating in water — and the room was filled with vapor atmosphere and caustic lighting, while large fans combined with slow-motion cinematography simulated the feel of objects moving in water.

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THE STRAIN -- "Extraction" - Season 4, Episode 8 (Airs September 3, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured: Rupert Penry-Jones as Quinlan. CR: Russ Martin/FX

“The Strain”

Russ Martin/FX

Del Toro also is a master of using his productions to borrow from each other.  Working with the same collaborators on multiple projects, he will often use a week on one project to test out something for another. With “The Shape of Water,” he took advantage of when his FX TV series “The Strain” — which had stages in Toronto where he shot the film — would go on hiatus.

“We didn’t start until the spring of 2016 because of scheduling and trying to keep the stages and office spaces from ‘The Strain,'” said production designer Paul Austerberry. “It was a very challenged budget and that was very smart producing to wait for that window where we could basically get free stages, free office, and I got a whole toolkit of parts from sets from ‘The Strain’ that were going to be destroyed, so I scavenged all kinds of stuff.”

Prepare and Narrow

Richard Jenkins, director Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins on the set of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Guillermo del Toro on the set of “The Shape of Water” with Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins.

Kerry Hayes

To make “Shape of Water,” del Toro put up $100,000-plus of his own money and, with a small team of collaborators, designed the world of his amphibian love story before pitching it to financiers. “This is the reverse of what I did on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’” said del Toro. “Instead of pitching for the three years, trying to find the money, I developed for about two years the look of the movie so that when I pitched it, they knew the story. I [could] take them beat by beat, and they could see the world, and most important they could see the creature.”

The love story and visual world of “Shape of Water” stems from the creature. Getting the key element right over three years of prep — from sketches to build — allowed del Toro to design and build the visual world around it. “Imagine we are running a zoo, so you are creating a habitat for the creature,” said del Toro. “The movie is a habitat. If you see the design globally, the design of a movie is like a bullseye, the center of the bullseye is the creature.”

According to Austerberry, who is Oscar-nominated for Best Production Design, del Toro clearly laying out the parameters of the film’s look is what allowed him to do is his job in only eight weeks of prep. By the time Austerberry came aboard, the need for Elisa’s apartment to feel like a water habitat, the ’60s concrete style of the lab, and the film’s very specific color scheme were all established.

“When you are already narrowed down to a certain window then you can, with our limited time — eight weeks of prep, which is low for what we did — it narrowed the slice of the piece so you can focus and hone it, fine-tune it, and get very specific in the detail,” said Austerberry. “Restraints and direction is vital to execute this level of craft in that amount of time.”

The Feel of Water

“The Shape of Water”

A perfect example of how Austerberry and the other department heads could “drill down” to bring incredible sophistication and detail to the film was in dealing with film’s water theme. Shooting in water is expensive, especially with sets as locations. Del Toro knew that Elisa’s bathroom, where his two leads fall in love and make love would be the one water-based set he could not fake. “I knew the plastic curtains and the way their bodies move was like a dance, you can’t reproduce that with wires,” said del Toro. “So the only thing we could afford was to sink the bathroom set.”

Dry for wet techniques could be used for big scenes at the beginning and end of the film, Austerberry would focus on making Elisa’s apartment feel and look like it was shaped by water from having been flooded decades before. Cinematographer Dan Lausten and Austerberry would collaborate to make the lights from below create water lighting schemes, with the warped floorboards motivating a caustic light from the movie theater below. And on the last day of shooting, they would submerge the bathroom set in a water tank for a key scene in the film.

Camera Movement

Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water”

Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchligh

“I wanted to shoot like a musical where the camera is fluid like water, the camera roaming all the time, [not] a single standing shot in the entire movie,” said del Toro. “Dolly, crane, sometimes a steadicam — so that if you met a character it felt like they could break into a song.”

Precise and musical camera movements like those in “The Shape of Water” are time consuming and must be accounted for in pre-production. Del Toro, at this point in his career, is like Spielberg or Scorsese in knowing when and how to capture the emotion he wants based on the type of camera move.

“The more you know the tools, the more you know what tool you need,” said del Toro. “For example, you can follow and sit down with a character with a crane in a different way, very fluid, you have curved movements because the vectors cross differently than with a dolly. There were big, big movements on the technocrane in this movie that were across hundreds of feet and they are invisible. Now with $19.5 million, the normal solution would be don’t hire a techno, don’t hire a steadicam, do it as static as you can and that was one of the challenges because you know musically, rhythmically that movie needs it. You know it as a director, and then you finance what you are using with your DP. You have to be careful, you only call the techno on the days you need it. On ‘Pacific Rim,’ we had two technos on standby everyday.”

Meanwhile, Austerberry carefully designed the sets so he could quickly move walls to accommodate del Toro’s planned camera moves. “We rigged the walls on chain motor so they could vertically go straight up because we had to do it quickly,” said Austerberry. “I planned out on the computer in 3-D because you have to make sure walls went out and came back in fairly quickly, because we don’t want the crew to wait for us.”

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