The Shape of Water Q&A

Earlier this week, I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a screening of The Shape of Water, the newest fantasy film from director Guillermo del Toro. The screening was part of Film Independent at LACMA’s ongoing film series and featured a Q&A afterward with del Toro, actors Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and composer Alexandre Desplat.

Below, you’ll find some of the best stories and quotes from the conversation, including how a drunken del Toro originally pitched Hawkins on her part, how the music ties in with the film’s visual aesthetic, which scene caused someone to vomit on the set, and the odd relationship between the film and the FX vampire series The Strain.

To kick things off, del Toro spoke about his inspiration for the movie:

One Sunday they were showing The Creature from the Black Lagoon [on TV]. I saw it for the first time. I saw Julie Adams swimming and the creature swimming underneath her, and I felt completely enraptured…I fell in love with Julie Adams, I fell in love with the creature equally, and I fell in love with them in love. I remember saying, ‘I hope they end up together.’ They didn’t. So I’ve been trying to do it one way or another, but in 2011 it gelled, and we’ve been working six years to make it happen.

A few minutes later, the director told a story of the first conversation he had with star Sally Hawkins about The Shape of Water:

GDT: I’m in the Valley, in Thousand Oaks watching Antiques Roadshow. Because why not? (laughs) I got a call from Alfonso [Cuaron]. He says, ‘Hey, Alejandro [Gonzalez Innaritu] and I are going to the Golden Globes. We’re going to the party of CAA’ or whatever. ‘We want you to come.’ I said no. It’s an hour [away]. They said, ‘We’re planning to get drunk.’ I said, ‘Even worse – I don’t drink.’ He said, ‘Well, if you come over, it’s one of those rare occasions where we’ll get drunk and sing,’ and I said, ‘If I’m going to drink, I don’t want to drive.’ They said, ‘We’ll send a car!’ I said, ‘OK, send a car.’ So I get there, and I say, ‘Are we really going to get drunk?’ And they say, ‘One hundred percent.’ So I said, ‘OK.’

Now, my body mass does two things: it takes an immense amount of alcohol to get me drunk, and I also get sober very fast. I don’t get hangovers. So I said, ‘You guys go schmooze. I’m going to go to the bar and get started.’ I don’t like drinking, so I go [mimes throwing back 14 shots in a row]. Now I’m sauced. And they go, ‘Oh, we’re not going to drink.’ (laughs) So I’m leaving. I’m heading for the exit, and I see Sally.

SH: And I was trying to get out of this party that I wasn’t supposed to be at, and I see Guillermo, and he just embraces me and lifts me up.

GDT: And I say, ‘I’m writing a movie for you!’ and she said, ‘Fantastic!’ And I said, ‘You fall in love with a fish man!’ (laughs) And Sally says, ‘Great!’

TSOW apt 1

As you’ve seen in the trailers, Hawkins and Richard Jenkins play neighbors who live in hauntingly gorgeous apartments above an opulent movie theater. Jenkins spoke about the authenticity and wonderfully cinematic look of the sets:

RJ: When I walked into that set, I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. I never felt trapped in it – maybe that’s what it looks like on screen, but doing it, I’ve said this before, but everything in it was authentic and nothing was real. It was the weirdest, most beautiful thing. I looked at it and called my wife and said, ‘This guy speaks in film language. You can’t do this in the theater.’ It was the most beautiful poverty I’ve ever seen. That hallway with red paint, and underneath it’s peeling and it’s green and yellow – all these colors, it’s glorious. To see our apartments, and hers was so different than mine, there was nothing unintentional in either one of them. I mean, nothing.

SH: It was like being in a painting.

RJ: It was. And the way it was lit, I just hated to leave it. I just loved it so much.

Del Toro also explained his intention of how he wanted the movie to look, and cited a few specific influences that inspired him:

The idea was to shoot it like a musical, where there is literally no shot that is static. Every shot is moving. Cranes, dollies, Steadicam – we shot most of the movie on a crane arm. What I wanted was to give the sensation that the camera was roaming free, very much like swimming – especially in the opening. But also, the illusion that the characters were about to break into song at any moment. Especially in the opening, the first 50 shots, I opened it very much like a musical. The idea was to do something that felt like a love letter to cinema. Douglas Sirk, Powell and Pressburger, Minelli. It’s a movie that is passionate about cinema and love, but cinema not in caps. The camera doesn’t go to the floor [of a theater] and you see Citizen Kane or Singing in the Rain. You see those movies that save your life on a Sunday.

So what does this film have to do with the FX series The Strain? According to del Toro, The Shape of Water “looks like it costs 65-60 million,” but he said it ended up only costing $19.5 million. Part of the way they were able to make the movie look so great for such a small amount of money was because of some creative producing involving the sets and crew of The Strain:

GDT: [Producer J.] Miles [Dale] came up with a brilliant idea, because the budget was so tight all through the movie. We were doing The Strain, and one of the ideas was to time the movie to shoot in between seasons and utilize the same stages that The Strain has and some of the metal structures of the sets of The Strain. And keep continuity with the entire crew of The Strain – wardrobe designer, production designer, set decorators. That was brilliant, because that way we were getting all of the momentum of The Strain, and we would keep the sets for them, keep an eye on them by doing a movie, and since it was Fox and FX, that was doable. But we got easily a couple of million dollars worth of studio space [out of it].

As for the score, Alexandre Desplat spoke about composing the movie and trying to find an aural match for what del Toro was doing visually:

GDT: When we first met about this movie was 2013, and we had done Rise of the Guardians together, and I said, ‘I want to talk to you about a movie.’ And we went to a sashimi restaurant. (laughs)

AD: The opening of the film was the key for me. That’s where I spent hours watching and trying to enter into that world. I knew that if I could enter into the world with notes, I could bring music to what was on screen and it would become…as if the music opens the curtain. Obviously, Guillermo chose me because I’m European, I think, and the music I write is restrained and captures love that’s on screen, but inside the film it’s invisible.

We worked a lot on trying to find the warmth, the sound of the water, how will it sound? As if the music was recorded underwater. Of course we can’t do that, but by putting together instruments that would not be together – you hear twelve figures, electric piano, a whistle, and all of that is like if you were underwater listening to music in the distance. Something that is blurry, but very soft and very warm. I realized, frankly, not as I wrote it, but the melody of the opening is made of waves…all of that together creates a color and texture that only belongs to Guillermo’s movie and brings all of the characters together.

The Shape of Water trailer

Warning: The next paragraph and response features a very light spoiler for The Shape of Water.

There’s a dream sequence in the movie in which Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor and Doug Jones’ fish man creature engage in an extended and elaborate ballroom dance number. Del Toro said that scene only took half a day to shoot (impressive, considering one of the dancers was in a fish man costume!), and the cast spoke a bit about the challenges of making that scene work:

DJ: We were brought in three weeks early to do some dance rehearsal. The challenge was to take two non-dancers and make it look like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and one of them was in a fish suit.

GDT: And what we did in the dance, what we did was break it down so the steps of Fred Astaire were Sally’s, and you were Ginger Rogers.

DJ: I was doing it backwards and in heels, yes.

GDT: Not backwards and in heels – backwards and in flippers. (laughs)

SH: It was dreamlike. You want to perfect it, you want to get it. We’re not dancers, but it’s this fantasy sequence in her mind and it’s just so special and so odd and unique and wonderful, and I loved it.

GDT: We had 50 musicians, right? They come into the gig in the morning, they’re tuning their instruments, and in [walk] in a lady and a fish man. I said, ‘I bet this is the weirdest fucking gig you’ve ever done!’ (laughs) There were a couple of the moves that were very elaborate, so we hired a super thin dancer who was practicing and practicing…here comes the suit, he does one or two pirouettes, and he proceeds to projectile vomit in absolute exhaustion. He’s like, ‘I can’t work in this suit.’ I go, ‘Doug!’ (mimes waving him over)

DJ: I had to double for my dance double.

And finally, producer J. Miles Dale talked about the early conversations he had with del Toro about making this movie, what it stands for, and how it fits in with the filmmaker’s larger body of work:

As we got into it, he said, ‘This is a fairy tale for troubled times.’ As you know, Guillermo’s movies are often fairy tales or parables or those kinds of things, and when we started talking about the themes and how it was really a love letter to love, and the importance of love over hate, and love over fear, with everything that’s going on these days, and how it’s so easy to be ironic or cynical and look smart, but it’s hard to wear your heart on your sleeve and be earnest and not be afraid to be called corny or sappy, and I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve gotta make that movie.’

The Shape of Water arrives in limited theaters on December 1 before going wider on December 8, 2017. You can read our full review here.

Header image courtesy of WireImage and Film Independent

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