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Director Guillermo Del Toro Says 'Shape Of Water' Centers On 'Love Beyond Words'


This is FRESH AIR. "The Shape Of Water," the new movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a fairy tale romance built on the foundation of classic '50s and '60s Hollywood monster movies. It takes place in 1962 and stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works cleaning a secret U.S. government facility. One laboratory also serves as the prison for a strange amphibious creature that was captured in the Amazon by government agent Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon.

The government hopes that learning about the creature's unique biology will provide them with an advantage against the Soviets in the Cold War space race. Elisa is intrigued by the creature, befriends it, and an unconventional romance blooms. But as it becomes clear that the creature will not make it out of the lab alive, Elisa decides to help it escape. Guillermo del Toro's other movies include "Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy," "Hellboy II" and "The Devil's Backbone." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

They started with a clip. Agent Strickland has called Elisa and her friend and co-worker Zelda into his office to suss out whether he can trust them to clean the lab where the secret asset, the creature, is held. Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer, explains that Elisa is mute.


OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) I answer mostly on account of she can't talk.

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) She can't? Is she deaf?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) Mute, sir. She said she can hear you.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) All those scars on your neck. That's what did it - cut your voice box, right?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) She said since she was a baby.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) Who would do that to a baby? The world is sinful. Wouldn't you say so, Delilah (ph)? Well, let me say this up front. You clean that lab, you get out. The thing we keep in there is an affront. Do you know what an affront is, Zelda?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) Something offensive.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) That's right. And I should know. I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way we didn't get to like each other much.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from the new movie "The Shape Of Water" by Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Very happy to be here.

BRIGER: So why did you want to make a movie about a romance between an amphibious creature and a mute woman?

DEL TORO: Well, the idea for me was to try and do a movie that talked about love being beyond words. And actually, the screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are. You know, they can discover each other and their essence through looks, through touch, through presence, body language. And mostly, you know, the urge I've had for the last more than a decade is I feel that the world is turning into a vicious, really nasty place to live because we have enthroned cynicism instead of intelligence.

And every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote, unquote, "the other" as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face in - every day in the news and politics and so forth. So these things were growing as a - I'm an immigrant. I feel these things acutely in one way or another. And it just so coincided that we are on the wrong side of history individually, but on the right side of history for this still to come.

BRIGER: Well, speaking of history, your movie takes place in 1962 at the height of the Cold War right during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You've said before that the character played by Michael Shannon, who's the villain in your movie, if this movie was made back in 1962 he would be the hero.

DEL TORO: Oh, a hundred percent. And the image of the monster or the other carrying the girl on his arms would be the image of horror. And you would never go through the rear entrance of the place through the cleaning women and the employees that, you know, mop and throw the garbage out. You would go out through the front door with a scientist and a government agent. It would be completely different. And I think when you change that point of view, when you go through the rear entrance, when you go through the service door, you know, you take a political stance. Also, when you view of the story from these characters that exist on the margins of that type of story, you're taking another stance into giving them time, voice and presence.

BRIGER: This movie is a fairy tale. Apart from the magical fish fairy tales, obviously, one of the big influences on this movie is the "Creature From The Black Lagoon," a movie that you said was very inspirational to you. When you were growing up, what did you respond to in that classic monster movie?

DEL TORO: Well, when I was 6, every Sunday my family would go to church and then we would watch movies. You know, we would watch them individually on a matinee or on TV. In my case, every Sunday on Channel 6 in Guadalajara where I lived, they dedicated most every Sunday to black-and-white horror films and sci-fi. So I watched them. I watched "Tarantula." I watched "The Monolith Monsters." I watched all the Universal library. And one good Sunday after church, I was kneeling in front of the TV and I watched "Creature From The Black Lagoon." And there was a - there's a beautiful, very simple, very poetic image, very fairy tale-like, of Julie Adams in a white bathing suit swimming on the surface and the creature, the Gill-man, swimming underneath many, many feet below, looking at her.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that scene. It's a beautiful scene.

DEL TORO: It's a gorgeous scene. And I got overwhelmed by it in the way that you get overwhelmed by art. I was 6. I couldn't articulate that it represented love for me, but it did. I so loved the encapsulation of the yearning and all that. And having not seen the movie before, I was disingenuously thinking that they would end up together, you know, and they didn't. And, you know, the logical consequence 46 years later is that I do a Douglas Sirk, Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli-influenced melodrama/musical/spy thriller about them getting together.

BRIGER: You got it all in there, that's for sure.


BRIGER: So that's a beautiful scene that Julie Adams is swimming on top of the water and the creature is about 10 feet underneath her. They're swimming parallel. But he's looking up at her. I don't think she knows that he's there.

DEL TORO: She is unaware.


DEL TORO: Yeah. It was a beautiful unrequited love image. You know, quintessentially romantic, quintessentially fairy tale, quintessentially B-movie monster. And the multiplicity of that moment, the beauty of it really floored me. And I started drawing the creature after that when I was a kid. I would draw the creature riding on a double bicycle with Julie Adams having an ice cream, a triple-cone ice cream. You know, and I really - he's one of my favorite creatures from the Universal catalogue.

And they come to symbolize for me so much more. Like, this creature is not - for me, this is not an interspecies movie. It's a movie where a woman falls in love with an elemental god of the water. The creature is not a slimy monster from a B-movie. He's the shape of water. He's a representation of a river, of the water as a force. And he's gorgeous. He's - we jokingly used to say, we're going to create the Michelangelo's David of amphibian men.

BRIGER: Let's talk a little bit about the creation of your creature, the design, which I know is something you're passionate about. What did you want to convey in its design?

DEL TORO: You know, because it's a god of the river, I wanted to - for it to have majesty and beauty. So I got inspired a lot by Japanese engravings, for example. There's a series of engravings in Japan about a fish that is called "The Great Carp" (ph). And carps are very revered aesthetically in Japan, and the way they rendered the skin and the scales of the creature - of the fish was beautiful. And I used that as one of the bases, and the others were salamanders, reptilian, blah, blah, blah. But in - to organize it so you could look at it and go, that's a beautiful creature, and that is gorgeous - he's not a monster. It is the other, you know? He's not a human, but it is an absolutely exquisitely design - a swimmer's body. You know, we sculpted the face also very, very carefully. We did X number of permutations on the lips because if you imagine, the face is very...

BRIGER: Yeah, it has nicer lips than a carp (laughter).

DEL TORO: Yes, much nicer. You cannot - and they need to be human, and at the same time, they need to be kissable, you know?

BRIGER: Right. Well, I don't want to get too prurient here, but, I mean, the relationship between your creature - elemental god - and Elisa - it's consummated.


BRIGER: And you actually have two of your characters - played by Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer - do a little bit expository dialogue about fish anatomy. So, you know, were you sitting...

DEL TORO: And how it works.

BRIGER: Yeah, how it works - were you sitting around with your creature designers, discussing the mechanics of this interspecies sex or...

DEL TORO: We actually did. If you watch the movie again and you pay attention to the concerned area, you would see that mechanically, we designed it to work the way Sally describes. Now, the beautiful thing about this movie - and this is important to say - is that it is a movie that talks about love and talks about sexuality in a way that is very human, very encompassing, almost healing and emotionally beautiful. And we juxtapose the extraordinary and the ordinary in a way that I'm very proud of. We have an extraordinary creature, a river god, but we keep it in a bathtub.

And, you know, there is nothing prurient in the movie. We talk about many facets of human sexuality - alone and not alone - in a way that has not a fetishistic, not a prurient, not a wink-wink, nudge-nudge type of approach to this. It's very, very, very natural, very quotidian. And we start with the protagonist alone in the bathtub. And it's not seen through the fetishized, super-stylized gaze of moviemaking lovemaking. It is very naturalistic. And the moment she and the creature get together is done almost like a painting. It is so poetic and balletic that, you know, you never see anything shocking except the notion.

BRIGER: Well, it's like a very classic movie where you fade to black.

DEL TORO: Yeah, we literally draw a curtain.


DEL TORO: But what is beautiful is then what do we do is that is the extraordinary. And then the next day, we have the ordinary where she is sharing a morning chat with her friend, and she says, how was it? And they can talk about how it was, you know?

BRIGER: Well, you're also taking this idea of a fairy tale to its adult and natural conclusion. Like, you know, the - like "Beauty And The Beast" or "The Princess And The Frog."

DEL TORO: Yeah, but what I find very contentious about those fairy tales is that they are all pivoted on perfection and transformation, meaning the princess needs to be an innocent - a perfect innocent, you know? And then it sort of embodies a male idea of the female role. And, you know, she needs to be pure and altruistic, and she doesn't seem three-dimensional to me. She doesn't seem complex. And we take care of it in the movie in many ways, including showing that she has her own sex life in a lonely way - or in alone away, but not lonely, you know? And we also give her a life that is not grand, but very fulfilling.

And we don't transform the creature. We don't transform it into a boring prince at the end of the movie so that they can be together forever. He stays in its carnal form - an animal. And he still has a very controversial diet of raw protein that includes cats, you know? And he doesn't get civilized and eat a cat with a fork and a knife.


DEL TORO: It still is what it is because to me, if we're going to talk about love, we're going to talk about understanding, not transformation.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Guillermo del Toro, director of the new movie "The Shape Of Water." We'll get back to the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Guillermo del Toro, director of the new film, "The Shape Of Water." He also made "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy."

BRIGER: I want to change the subject for a second. I want to talk about Bleak House. Not the Charles Dickens novel, but you have...

DEL TORO: We can talk about that one, too.

BRIGER: Well, let's - I want to talk about this other one. You have two houses in Los Angeles, neither of them that you live in, and they house your collection. They're called Bleak House one and Bleak House two. Can you please describe what you have in those houses?

DEL TORO: Well, actually, I do live in those houses now because when I come from Toronto, I stay there.

BRIGER: I see.

DEL TORO: You know, what it is, is - and you can access, if you Google it - or we put out a book called "Cabinet Of Curiosities." But what it is, is I am surrounded by the characters I loved as a child. There is a small Gill-man altar for the "Creature From The Black Lagoon." There is - Frankenstein is all over the place, the creature of "Frankenstein." But the main purpose of it was to create a library. So I have 7,000 DVDs and Blu-rays. I have thousands of books - thousands - and roughly 15,000 comic books or something like that, hundreds of books about different art movements - the symbolists, the dadaists, the Pre-Raphaelites, the impressionists - you know, that I consult before I start every movie.

So I said, OK, I'm going to get my own space because I'm 40-something. I want to live in a space that I designed, that is for me. And I got a house and created my dream house with secret passages, sliding bookshelves, a room that is called the rain room where it rains 24/7. Rain is a rarity in California. So I have a false window with a theatrical projection and surround sound of distant thunder and rain. It's very soothing for me. And that's where I write. And then eventually I had to buy the house next door.

BRIGER: Well, I love the fact that, you know, it seems like you filled up one house and you're like, well, better get another one.


BRIGER: Let's get a sequel.

DEL TORO: Yes, yes. Well, and the two houses communicate through the backyard. So I have...

BRIGER: The houses are next to each other, got it.

DEL TORO: I have a cabin in the back that is dedicated to Japanese culture. I have a gazebo that I'm going to turn into a writing office, you know? It is - I think that the only measure for me of happiness at the age of 53 is, do I live the way I want, you know? And right now, I can say yes.

BRIGER: So my producer, Heidi Saman, read that your camera is always in movement. You're using cranes a lot and...


BRIGER: ...Steady cams. Is there a reason behind that?

DEL TORO: Yes. It's not only a lot. It's constant, meaning the last time I used a tripod was in 2001. So for 16 years, the camera is always moving. Now, sometimes it moves very little. There's jibbing, pushing, dolling laterally. But it's because I think that - I think film has more to do with rhythm and movement and things that you cannot put in words than people give it credit for. And my camera needs to be like a musical movement.

In the case of "Shape Of Water," I want it to feel like a song. I wanted people to come out of the movie humming the movie. And that the movie had that energy, that the camera fluid - was fluid like water, but also like it was a musical because there's a lot of the movie that is shot like an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. The camera is always meeting and roaming and in favor of the characters being met in a choreographed way like they're almost going to break into song any minute. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a lullaby. This is a song, you know? And now and then I do crazy symphonies.

BRIGER: Guillermo del Toro, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

DEL TORO: No, my pleasure. And it's always great to be here.

GROSS: Guillermo del Toro directed the new film "The Shape Of Water." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


TOMMY WISEAU: (As Johnny) You are tearing me apart, Lisa.

GROSS: ...That's a now-famous line from a film considered one of the best worst films ever made, "The Room." I'll talk with James Franco about directing and starring in the new film "The Disaster Artist" about the making of "The Room." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAVIER NAVARRETE'S "THE REFUGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Briger