Guillermo del Toro is a hugger.
SEE MORE: From the August 29, 2017, issue of Variety
Not a facehugger, like those nasty creatures in Ridley Scotts Alien a film whose Lovecraftian monsters both scarred and inspired del Toro when he first saw it at age 14 but a good old-fashioned bear hugger.
The first thing that strikes you on visiting his Bleak House mansion in Thousand Oaks, which is packed with movie and monster memorabilia, is the terrifying, life-size demon that appears to be lunging down the hallway and toward any would-be intruder (a memento from the first Hellboy movie). But a close second would be the big, bearded Mexican who emerges, Bilbo Baggins-like, to hug the latest visitor to his domain.
Del Toros actual home is the building next door to Bleak House, but the monster manor is where he does his best work, preferring to write in a room where simulated rain falls on the windows.
A warm embrace is not the greeting one naturally expects from a man who surrounds himself with creatures although its typical, insists actress Sally Hawkins, who stars in del Toros latest movie, The Shape of Water, which debuts this week at the Venice Film Festival and opens in theaters Dec. 8. Hawkins wasalso greeted with an enthusiastic hug when she first met the director: He opened his arms and literally just picked me up in a huge embrace, she says. This was nearly four years ago, in the middle of a swanky awards-season cocktail party Hawkins had gate-crashed.
Id only just gotten a phone call from my agent like a month before, saying Guillermo was interested in me for the lead in this film that he hadnt written yet, Hawkins says. You dont really believe those things until youre in the room with a director or until youve got the script in your hands.
But del Toro was as good as his word. A few months later, he showed her the beginnings of a screenplay and was eager to get her feedback. From very early in that process, it felt like I was collaborating with him. Thats how he works, Hawkins says.
For del Toro, The Shape of Water represents the culmination of a lifelong dream: I always wanted to do an amphibian-man romance with a human, though he imagined something more in line with Universals classic Creature From the Black Lagoon. But for some reason, he could never crack it. I felt the genre got in the way, he says.
Then one December morning in 2011, while del Toro was meeting with Daniel Kraus, his co-author on the Trollhunters books, Kraus brought up an idea hed been kicking around for ages: a story where a janitor befriends an amphibian creature in a cylinder that reads, Found in the Amazon. It was the eureka moment del Toro had been waiting for. I said, Say no more. I am buying that idea. Thats my next movie! the director recalls.
Actually, he made Crimson Peak next, an extravagant Gothic romance released by Universal Pictures. But del Toro had the solution for his amphibian, switching gears from monster movie to what he describes as a fairy tale that is sort of Beauty and the Beast, but where the beast never turns into the prince.
For The Shape of Water, which he set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, hed create a monster movie where the creature gets the girl. As a kid, watching Frankenstein or Creature or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I was always rooting for the monster. So I always wanted to see that movie, del Toro says. If we had made a normal movie, in the scene where the beast carries the beauty in his arms, the hero would be the square-jawed, beautifully tailored white-man savior [Strickland, the menacing government agent, played by Michael Shannon]. Here, its the fact that we see him from another point of view that makes him the villain. For me, stories are interesting if you change the point of view.
He tried a similar flip in the relatively big-budget robots-versus-monsters saga Pacific Rim, opening the film at a point where the humans are in downfall. It was not the typical beginning of a movie; it was like the end of a sequel, he says. But when it came to English-language projects, del Toro had never taken such a big risk.
After the relative disappointment of 2015 Halloween release Crimson Peak an uncompromising atmospheric period romance whose $50 million budget forced Universal to misrepresent the film as a horror movie, which it wasnt del Toro learned a valuable lesson.
I understood The Shape of Water needed to cost under $20 million, because that allows them to market it for what it is, he says in this case, a one-of-a-kind hybrid of monster movie, spy movie, comedy and musical, where the romantic leads are a gill-man and a mute janitor (technically, neither character can speak).
To help hit that budget, del Toro made an unconventional commitment from the beginning: I said, except for taxes and guild dues, my entire salary goes back into the movie to buy time, sets, whatever and it did.
Hed made the same deal on Pans Labyrinth a decade earlier and stresses that both projects took him years to develop. The only real money I made on Pans Labyrinth was when I sold the apartment I had bought in Madrid. Although [the studio] returned my salary just before the Oscar ceremony, he says. The way I see money at 52, my kids are adults basically, I dress like s, I drive a four-year-old car, I have all the rubber monsters that I need. You dont make these movies to buy a ranch in Santa Fe; you make these movies to tell a story. Its not that I came out flat on this movie; I invested. And I invested in a story that I think of as an antidote to the times were living in. Everything is so sordid and horrible right now, but this movie is not shy about talking about love and beauty and the good things in life.
To get The Shape of Water made, del Toro paid for pre-production out of his own pocket, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop the creature. He hired Mike Hill to sculpt a clay model and artists Guy Davis and Vince Proce to design the sets, then invited Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley to Bleak House to hear the pitch, which she and co-president Steve Gilula greenlit before the script had even been written.
We have a list in our heads of master filmmakers who were desperate to make films with, says Utley. Guillermo positioned it as a return to a smaller, more personal style of filmmaking.
After Crimson Peak, del Toro didnt want to be tied to a studio, and he chose his partner carefully, consulting with his friend and fellow Mexican filmmaker Alejandro G. Irritu, whose Birdman won best picture in 2015. I went to Searchlight for a reason. I think their marketing is impeccable, he says.
Just as del Toro wrote The Shape of Water for Hawkins, he had a specific actor in mind to play her amphibious co-star: longtime collaborator Doug Jones, a lanky, 63 performer he met 20 years ago when shooting pickups on his first English-language feature, Mimic.
This was a tough role for me physically. I had to exercise subtlety, says Jones, who also played the chilling Pale Man in Pans Labyrinth. Here he was being asked to embody both a romantic lead and a feral, unpredictable creature.
Also, there was the matter of the love scene.
The director did not want to shy away from sexuality in his film. It seemed hypocritical to tackle this movie and not talk about that dimension, del Toro says. To me, sexuality is political.
Hawkins says that whereas every other character views the gill-man as a monster, hers recognizes something very familiarin him; she almost recognizes herself in him.
At the time the film is set, their forbidden love is reflected in the racism and homophobia shown in other corners of the story.
I didnt want to do a movie about 1962; I wanted to do a movie about now, explains del Toro, who says hes going to do one or two more big movies. And then my pledge is to dedicate myself to the smaller movies, because frankly thats what I want to do.
When pressed, he says hes not through with the big canvas, despite that vow.
Ridley Scotts Alien prequels sidelined his plans to adapt Lovecrafts At the Mountains of Madness, and Universals Dark Universe strategy doesnt suit his Frankenstein dream project, a long-form telling that necessitates at least two parts.
I know what big movies I want to make, del Toro says. I have them targeted, and its no more than three. He maintains hes going to try not to do them consecutively. And for the rest, Im going to do the weird, smaller stuff that is at odds with any trend.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero