Guillermo del Toro Wears His Cinematic Influences On His Sleeve in ‘The Shape of Water’

There are many absurdities to a six-month awards season, but the attempts at tagging Guillermo del Toro with plagiarism charges takes this year’s Harvey Weinstein Prize for most intellectually dishonest campaigning. Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” has 13 Oscar nominations and plenty of momentum going into Oscar Sunday, which clearly places a target on the director’s back. Yet the reason these charges are so ridiculous is that, from Day One, the director’s ode to movies – She. Lives. Above. An. Old. Movie. Theater. – is something he has proudly worn on his sleeve.

Case in point: Many weeks before the “controversy” broke out, del Toro recorded an interview on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast in which he mentioned no fewer than twenty different directors and their influence on the film.

“Frank Borzage is another phenomenal filmmaker I do love and I think I started quoting him in ‘Cronos,’” said del Toro while on the podcast. “I don’t quote in a post-modern way, what I try is to rephrase because I think the art is synthesis. You’re not going to reinvent something new but the way you synthesize what you are made of gives you your own voice, it makes you unique. I may like Jack Arnold and ‘The Creature From the Black Lagoon,’ but this isn’t ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon.’ I like Douglas Sirk, but he never shot a movie with an amphibian. I like Stanley Donen, but blah, blah, blah. It’s the way you synthesize what you are, your history, your biography and your filmic biography that makes the difference.”

In the case of “Black Lagoon” (featuring a amphibian creature) and Douglas Sirk (the window adjoining Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins’ apartments in the film is based on a similar window in a Sirk film), the references are tangible on screen, but del Toro also chronicled untraceable details which reveal how he synthesizes his influences during his creative process. In talking about the roots of his mute heroine Elisa and his collaboration with Sally Hawkins to create a strong character who believably falls in love with an amphibian, del Toro asked the actress to study the performances of Stan Laurel and Audrey Hepburn.

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“Stan Laurel had this [almost] state of grace, purity rather, not innocence, that allowed him to circulate throughout the most outlandish situations in the most graceful way and I said this is Elisa,” said del Toro. “We also talked about Audrey Hepburn. I said when she runs I said give me an Audrey Hepburn which means you throw your torso forward like a heroine in a big movie and the crane meets you… It’s a very silent film, or a very classical film gesture.”

Beyond the silent film references and Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-nominated score, there is a unique musicality to “The Shape of Water.” Del Toro wanted the film to feel like an actual musical and specifically studied the camera movements of director Vincente Minnelli. “I wanted to shoot like a musical where the camera is fluid like water, the camera roaming all the time,” said del Toro. “[S]o that if you met a character it felt like they could break into a song.”

While writing and designing this movie over a three-year period, del Toro said he intentionally listened to music by the great film composers George Delerue and Nino Rota, and at one point an early cut of “The Shape of Water” was temped to Jon Brion’s score for “Punch-Drunk Love.” It’s del Toro’s favorite film by Paul Thomas Anderson, referring to it as being like one extended song, but its connection to “Shape of Water” goes beyond its rhythms.

“One of the few changes that you gain with age is the opposite of wisdom, you gain a sense of being that knowledge it’s just a sense, you almost become younger as you grow older and the more hopeful, even though the world maybe imperfect,” said del Toro. “And I sense that ‘Punch-Drunk’ has that energy and even do a color transition in the movie this is directly a quote from ‘Punch-Drunk.'”

“Punch-Drunk Love”

The Criterion Collection

Del Toro marks the spiritual connection between the two films when his camera follows to different colored raindrops – while Elisa longingly looks out the bus window – that come together. The reference is to the unique color transitions Anderson used in his film.

Although he’s an old movie junkie, “The Shape of Water” director not only is his contemporaries’ biggest cheerleader, he has played an instrumental role in mentoring, producing, and helping behind the scenes in the careers of countless directors. He also draws a great deal from his camaraderie with his peers, so much so he credits them with his decision to make “The Shape of Water.”

“One of the origins of ‘Shape of Water’ that made me do it instead of doing a bigger movie, which I was on track to do, was that I was a juror at the Cannes Film Festival where the Coen Brothers were presidents,” said del Toro. “I was going to do ‘Pacific Rim 2’ and then I had – and this is corny, it sounds Capra-esque, but it’s true – I had such a reconnection with the essence of film at the film festival and I had such a purity of experience and I felt [‘Shape of Water’] is timely, for me it felt urgent to tell it now [after] 25 years of [filmmaking]. I felt this came out from talking to [fellow juror] Xavier Dolan, to the Coens, discussing film in a way that you do when you are in university, or when you were starting, or when I talk to Alfonso [Cuarón] and Alejandro [Iñárritu], and [they] said, ‘look, we know you are contractually going to do ‘Pacific Rim,’ but if any opportunity opened you should do the other one.’”

Jake Gyllenhaal, Guillermo Del Toro, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, and Xavier Dolan were jurors at the 68th Cannes Film Festival

Matt Baron/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Win or lose on Sunday night, what will del Toro do once the multi-year whirlwind of making and promoting “Shape of Water” is over? He’ll be returning to the directors he loves to draw new inspiration and expand his toolkit. Specifically, del Toro will be taking a filmmaking “sabbatical” and talking to two modern day masters, and studying their films, to better understand how they use the language of film.

“I want to do a little pilgrimage and humbly surrender myself to the wisdom of George Miller, and humbly surrender myself to the wisdom of Michael Mann, and say let’s talk about film formally,” said del Toro. “Let’s talk about film, not like we discuss TV or any other storylines – we don’t talk about character or screenplay isolated from the formal decisions – let’s talk about film like you talk about music, rhythm, movement. Let’s talk about film that way you talk about painting: color, palette, composition, vigor of brush stroke. How do we do this on film? Why is it a dolly? Why is it handheld? Why did you cut three times?”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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