Fresh off his Golden Lion win at the Venice Film Festival, director Guillermo del Toro bowed his latest feature, “The Shape of Water,” at the Toronto International Film Festival on Monday night. It was a special kind of homecoming for the Mexican filmmaker, who now lives in the Canadian city and filmed much of the feature there.
The lush fairy tale, starring Sally Hawkins as mute janitor Eliza, toiling midnight hours at a secret facility who falls in love with a “monster” being kept there (playing charmingly by Doug Jones in a full-body fish-man suit), is a full-force expression of del Toro’s own creativity, and one that just so happened to partially shoot some of its crucial scenes in the same theater where it bowed during the midpoint of the festival, the historic Elgin Theatre.
Partially a love letter to the power of cinema, mostly a full-scale movie romance for the ages, “The Shape of Water” already looks poised to go down as one of del Toro’s best — and most representative of his skills, a tough two-fer — but that’s only part of the joy for the director.
For del Toro, it was all about making his own choices, with a well-placed expletive (or eight) highlighting his giddiness over the material. In a high-spirited Q&A following the TIFF premiere, the filmmaker and his cast took to the stage to answer a few questions, with del Toro himself often serving as both moderator and subject.
“The ideas I wanted to put in the movie, the reversal…to make the image of the creature carrying the girl a beautiful one, as opposed to a horror image,” del Toro explained. “And make the guy, that is usually the good guy in the ’50s sci-fi movies, with a nice suit and a square jaw, I wanted to make him the bad guy.”
Said square-jawed baddie is the nefarious Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, who brings the creature to Eliza’s lab and then sets about a plan to destroy him. But it’s not just Eliza who is compelled by the character — and her own goodness — to save him, and it’s those people who inspired del Toro, including characters played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.
“They are invisible people,” he said of those character. “Everybody that rescues the creature is invisible to the eyes of the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant guy. Everybody.”
It’s Hawkins’ wordless Eliza that drives the film and its emotion, however, and del Toro approached her charm with a surprising model in mind, albeit one with some serious twists. For one, he didn’t want “to show another Disney fucking princess,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted to show somebody real….In ‘Hellboy,’ there was a line, ‘we like people for their qualities, but we love them for their defects,’ I think that’s love.”
When asked why Jones’ character is never named — even the film’s IMDb page just calls him “The Asset” — del Toro offered up some insight into that part of the process, one that only helps further reflect the elements that feed into other characters.
“The creature is something for everyone that is completely different,” he said. “For Strickland, it’s a dark, slimy thing that came from South America. For Sally’s character, it’s something that she recognizes her nature and her essence in. For the Russian scientist, it’s something that reconnects him with what made him a scientist. For Giles, there’s a beauty and an innocence…I wanted to keep the creature open.”
Del Toro has been actively working to make “The Shape of Water” for six years, though he’s been open about tracing his desires to make monster movies run all the way back to his childhood, and every detail of the film was picked with precision, including its now weirdly prescient time setting.
“I set it in 1962 specifically, because when people say, ‘let’s Make America Great Again,’ they’re dreaming of that era,” del Toro said. “It’s an era where the cars had jet fins, the kitchens were automatic. Everything was super-great if you were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, but it you were anything else, you were fucked. It hasn’t changed that much.”
But “The Shape of Water” offers an alternative, and del Toro is hopeful that its message will carry over, even in dark times.
“I think when we wake up in the morning, we can choose between fear and love. Every morning,” del Toro said. “And every morning, if you choose one, that doesn’t define you until the end…The way you end your story is important. It’s important that we choose love over fear, because love is the answer. Silly as it may sound, it is the fucking answer to everything.”
“The Shape of Water” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. It will hit theaters on December 8.