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THE SHAPE OF WATER

About The Production
THE SEDUCTION OF MONSTER MOVIES

Mixing many genres from lush musicals to suspenseful noir, THE SHAPE OF WATER particularly revisits and reinvigorates the enduring allure of the monster movie playing upon our most primal emotions of fear, abandonment and danger but also curiosity, awe and desire.

Like many, del Toro grew up with the dark enchantment of the classic Universal Studios monsters: the Wolf Man who turned feral against his will, the naive Frankenstein chased by angry townsfolk, the seductive Dracula driven by his unholy appetites, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, an amphibious prehistoric creature who emerged from the sea longing for a companion.

There was something evocative and deeply, strangely relatable about these monsters. They were persecuted by pitchfork-bearing crowds because they were different and forced to skulk alone on the edges of society in remote castles, woods or rivers. All were trapped in a transitional state - part human, part other - which anyone who has felt ostracized can identify with. Perhaps most intriguingly, they were sensual beings, powerless to the unending needs of their bodies and minds.

Of all the iconic monsters, the most heartbreaking of all was the piscine amphibious humanoid from CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). Directed by Jack Arnold and starring Ben Chapman (on land) and Ricou Browning (underwater) as the inimitably tragic Gill-Man, the last of his prehistoric species. At once dangerous and forlorn, reviled and yearning, the Creature touched audiences even as it scared them.

THE SHAPE OF WATER was conceived in 2011 when del Toro and Daniel Kraus, the director's writing partner on his children's book series, Trollhunters, met for breakfast one morning. Kraus mentioned an idea he had had as a teenager, about a cleaning woman working in a government facility and secretly befriending an amphibious man being held captive as a specimen and how she decides to liberate him. Del Toro loved the idea so much that he immediately said he wanted it to be his next movie - it seemed the perfect sort of fairy tale idea he had been searching for. From that meeting, a deal was made for the pair to collaborate together on a novel and for del Toro to write and direct the film. At that point, del Toro was still completing work on his giant-robot/monster blockbuster PACIFIC RIM, but in rare quiet moments, also drawing from classic monster films such as THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, he'd spend time writing the script for the more intimate film that would eventually be called THE SHAPE OF WATER.

In 2014, del Toro self-financed a group of artists and sculptors using designs and clay models to pitch the story from beginning to end to Fox Searchlight. The studio came on board immediately without any hesitation. The following spring, Guillermo and Fox Searchlight begin meeting with potential co-writers to work on the screenplay with him. They ultimately hired Vanessa Taylor who worked closely with Guillermo on both plot structure and character (particularly the multi-layered lead character Elisa).

Del Toro wanted to upend the conceit of monstrosity with a love story that surrenders fully to making the creature the lead and the human forces aligned against him the true forces of sinister darkness. "In a monster movie of the 50s, Strickland, the square-jawed, good-looking government agent, would be the hero, and the creature would be the villain. I wanted to reverse those things."

Del Toro also decided to take his monster movie to a different level: the sensual. He wanted an earthiness to counterbalance the fairy tale and to bring it to the edge of a familiar adult reality.

For producer J. Miles Dale, who has collaborated with del Toro for years, del Toro is one of the few directors with the skill to create creatures that live and breathe with a fully expressed humanity we all recognize. "Guillermo creates creatures uncorrupted by the ways of the human world. We can look at them as a kind of mirror to what we might be ideally," says Dale. "This film is not like anything you've seen before, but it also feels like a del Toro movie. It's so clearly in his voice, but it's also new and original."

For the story's time period, del Toro purposely chose an American era in which epic fears held sway: 1962, as anxiety over nuclear war with the Soviet Union was peaking, and just before the idealistic, future-focused Camelot of President Kennedy gave way to disillusion, mounting paranoia and social upheaval. "There's a lot going on in that time period," says Dale. "There's the Cold war, the Space Race and the Civil Rights movement. And it's all the backdrop for a love story you haven't seen before."

The period is one that is sometimes glorified notes del Toro, without remembering its injustices and stultifying dread of human differences. "To me, this is a time when America stopped - it's a time of racism, of inequality, of people thinking about the brink of nuclear war. In a few months, Kennedy will be assassinated. So in a way, it's a horrible time for love," he comments, "yet love happens."

The futuristic impulses of 60s America play off the primordial creature, recalling Rilke's words "where something past comes again as if out of the future." Says del Toro: "What interested me is that 1962 is a time when everybody was focused on the future, while the creature is an ancient form of the deep past. People are obsessed with what's new, with ad jingles, the moon, modern clothes, TV. And in the meantime here's this ancient force, a creature in love, who comes among them."

CASTING THE NET

Each of the roles in THE SHAPE OF WATER was written for a specific actor -- the very same actors who del Toro asked to appear in the film. "He was honing the script to their voices, rather than vice versa," comments Dale," which is an exciting thing to be able to do."

Del Toro notes that each of the film's characters, no matter their place in society, is grappling with love in different circumstances. "There's a pure love between Elisa and the creature, but government agent Strickland is also trying to love, though we experience that his love is brutal, and Elisa's neighbor Giles is looking for a love frowned upon in that time, and Elisa's best friend Zelda is in love with a man who does not deserve her love. Even the General overseeing the laboratory has a kind of father/son love story with Strickland."

As each was approached, all said yes. "This is a very special film," says Sally Hawkins. "Taking part in it has meant so much to me. It's a story that will forever have a piece of my heart."

Says Michael Shannon: "I was drawn to the picture because I felt it could have hopeful qualities that might inspire people to be gentler with one another -- that's sorely missing right now. It's really a story about how it is worth having love in your life at any cost. Sometimes love requires you to face your fears, or to make sacrifices, but at the end of the day it's worth it."

For Richard Jenkins, the film went beyond even what audiences have come to expect from del Toro. "Guillermo's filmmaking is like no one else, but this film is also unlike any he's done before," he notes.

Octavia Spencer was all but waiting for del Toro's call. "I had met him before I read the script and it felt like I've known him my entire life," Spencer recalls. "As a filmmaker, he's just an alchemist. He turns human themes into something otherworldly."

Concludes Doug Jones, who has worked with del Toro six times: "In THE SHAPE OF WATER, Guillermo goes back to his artistic roots and lets all of his creative juices flow."

THE LONELY DREAMER

"What propels Elisa into the unknown is the power of love." --Sally Hawkins

The journey of Elisa from loneliness and powerlessness to a heroine who takes huge risks forms the beating heart of THE SHAPE OF WATER, made all the more extraordinary because the role is almost without words. Rendered mute by a childhood trauma, Elisa communicates in American Sign Language (ASL), but she is able to express herself effusively when she encounters the strange aquatic creature being warehoused in the government lab where she works as a cleaning lady.

Elisa's rich and brave interior world comes to life via a luminous performance from Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins that propels the story forward at every turn. "I sent a message to Sally in 2013 that I was writing this role for her, and when we met, she told me she had already been in the middle of writing a short story about a woman who becomes a fish," del Toro recalls. "She sent me her story and it was full of insights."

Hawkins has played a wide variety of extraordinary and unique roles: an optimistic school teacher in Mike Leigh's HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, garnering a Golden Globe Award; her Oscar-nominated role as Cate Blanchett's working class sister in Woody Allen's BLUE JASMINE; and most recently as real-life folk artist Maud Lewis in MAUDIE.

Hawkins knew instantly there has never been and will never be a role quite like Elisa. "It's so rare that you get a role that asks you to put it all out there. Where it's about unadulterated expression and words are not needed, and you have the freedom to express so much through your eyes, breath and body. That is Elisa."

Hawkins was del Toro's muse as he was writing. "Elisa is not someone who had a horrible existence until the creature showed up. She was not leading a glamorous existence by any means but she was content. I needed someone who evokes that kind of happiness, whose face is able to express every hue without a word. Sally has that kind of unique energy, so that is why I wrote it for her. Sally is the most genuine, unaffected person and I don't think she is capable of doing anything that isn't emotionally real."

The first read of the script beckoned to Hawkins so powerfully it sparked a few anxieties. "It was so moving. It was interestingly familiar to me, yet it was like nothing I've encountered. I felt like Elisa was a deep part of me, or like I knew her in another life. I also felt it was the ultimate romantic fairy tale. At first I was convinced that Guillermo had the wrong person for the role," she confesses. "It's the kind of romantic lead I really didn't ever think I would play, so it's been a dream gift to me."

Hawkins might have had her niggling doubts that fueled her to go beyond her own expectations but the filmmakers did not. "With Sally, it's all about what's going on behind the eyes," says Dale. "Guillermo knew he needed an incredibly instinctual actor to pull this off, and Sally is able to do so much with the smallest of expressions or gestures, with the way she moves and even the tone of her silence."

For Hawkins there was no other means to doing so except to dive in to the deep end with full abandon, navigating Elisa's blooming courage as well as a florid fantasy life that becomes unexpectedly real - with the most unexpected of partners. Working with del Toro helped her to let go completely and submerge herself. "Being Elisa was an incredibly internal kind of journey, but Guillermo is so inclusive and so values your creativity as well, and that he really helped," Hawkins explains. "He has such a powerful vision that whatever your fears are, he just takes them away and says 'let me worry about that.'"

Her fears were lifted, but the demands remained at a high watermark. "Unless Guillermo can feel your heart, he won't be satisfied," Hawkins elaborates. "He wants to be moved in every frame. But I think that is a kind of gift to an actor. He invites you to rise to the very high level of his imagination."

Hawkins had a steep learning curve to begin with. She began taking ASL classes and dance lessons well before rehearsals began. She also began feeling out the way Elisa moves, her lightness on the earth. "To me, it seemed she is always floating, always in a kind of dance, so I wanted to get at that sort of otherworldly feeling in her physical being," she describes. "Everything about Elisa is so delicate, I felt even her sign language should be delicate and seamless and in sync with her being."

Her aim was total fluency in ASL. "I wanted to learn enough so that if Guillermo wanted to go in another direction, we would be free to play around and it would always be natural to me," she explains.

The sign language and the movement were challenging, but Hawkins says the outsized crux of the role was finding Elisa's "voice" without any physical sound to give the audience. She had to find a more primordial yet effective ways to communicate - especially because Elisa is someone with a lot to say.

Hawkins reflects: "I had to explore all these very different relationships she has with very different people - with Giles, Zelda, Strickland and the creature -- each with such different kinds of chemistry ... but explore all that without vocalizing, knowing that the emotion had to be completely authentic and true."

Part of that authenticity meant digging into why Elisa would risk so much for a creature whose past is inaccessible to her, whose very experience of life is a mystery - and digging into the valor that love unleashes in her. Hawkins says, "She decides nothing can stand in her way. As soon as she senses their connection, not trying to help the creature would be a kind death for her. It just seizes her by the heart and there's really nothing else she can do. She just knows she has to save the day. I think it can overtake you when you're in that frame of mind."

Elisa goes further than she could have envisioned. "I think it takes her by surprise that she has this incredible steeliness," Hawkins observes. "She becomes somebody she didn't know she was, and sees all that she is capable of."

The remaking of Elisa's world starts when she first spies the creature in his transport chamber - and immediately realizes there is something very much alive within. Few details are known of the creature, only than that he is likely the last of his kind; that local people in the Amazon worshipped him; that he carries a marvelous lung structure allowing him to breathe on land, a potential boon for the Space Race; that the Soviet military wants to possess him too; and that, unsettled by his intelligence and physical oddity, the man who captured him believes the creature to be a grave danger to humanity.

But Elisa sees none of that when she sets eyes on the iridescent beauty in chains - to her, he is sheer loneliness and that makes him instantly worthy of her attention.

THE COLD WARRIOR

The man who hunted the amphibious creature deep across the Amazon with relentless determination is Richard Strickland, a steel-jawed, righteous, ambitious government agent who views his unusual quarry as nothing more than a ferocious beast to be manhandled into submission - and a ticket to his promotion.

Taking the role is one of the most sought-after actors of the current era: two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon, renown for the intensity with which he's latched onto psychologically complex roles in such films as TAKE SHELTER, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and 99 HOMES. "Strickland is a guy caught up in the whole mindset of the military-industrial complex, and he is trying to rise up in the hierarchy. The paranoia of the Cold War has become part of him," says Dale.

Del Toro sees Shannon as having mesmerizing contrasts -- exactly what he needed for Strickland. "Michael has the incredible precision of a classical English actor and at the same time the impulsiveness and immediacy of an American actor," observes the director. "He's also capable of giving humanity to the most heinous of villains. I didn't want Strickland to be just the bad guy. I wanted him to be a guy you almost feel for because he is himself a victim of the system and his times. I wanted you to him go through things you wouldn't normally see a villain go through: self-doubt, reflection and despair. Michael has all those moments in the movie."

Dark as Strickland is, del Toro feels a kinship with him, knowing what it's like to traverse through a rigid world. "Strickland is a very sad character to me. He's a guy who started with full belief in his country and in doing the right thing. Then he realizes how little it takes for people to dislike and abandon him. I think this part is autobiographical because the movie business is exactly like that," he confesses. "I've been on the other side of the conversation Strickland has with the General."

The lure for Shannon was the chance to take his own trip inside one of del Toro's intricate universes. "When I met with Guillermo, he said this film was his dream project -- and I thought it would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to be part of his dream project because he is such a big dreamer," he explains.

Shannon expanded Strickland out from the archetype of the sturdy, unquestioning G-man of the 60s. "I think Strickland wants to be strong, invulnerable and devoid of mistakes, with that American gung-ho drive, but he is also broken down by all that. The tough shell he maintains takes a lot of energy and behind it lies anxiety, doubt, stress and fear, which is ultimately revealed throughout the course of the movie."

The stress Strickland feels finds a threatening catharsis in his leering advances towards Elisa, who he otherwise views as his low-status lackey. "I think Strickland is attracted to Elisa because of her vulnerability, and because she can't talk, but also because she's the exact opposite of him. In an alternate reality, maybe Strickland wishes he could be more like her than he is like himself," muses Shannon.

The collaboration with Hawkins had an electric quality from the start, with each etching their characters to the point that the tension between Elisa's buoyancy and Strickland's dread could be cut with a knife. "I've been a fan of Sally's ever since I saw her in HAPPY GO LUCKY, where she really knocked me out, so I was eager to work with her," he says. "It's so challenging playing a part without any spoken lines. Yet she is able to communicate even more deeply like that and it was amazing to see."

Hawkins, too, found the yin and yang contrasts between their two characters a creative charge. "Elisa can see straight through Strickland for what he is and it was just electrifying to play that especially because Michael is so terrifying," she says. "He's like this pressure cooker that explodes -- but Elisa always holds her ground with him and that felt so empowering."

For the creature, Strickland is an existential threat. "Strickland sees my character as a freak and because he doesn't understand me or even tries, he revels in my torment," says Jones. "He's sort of the quintessential bully - the guy who sees something he's ignorant about and wants to push it around. The interesting contrast is that Michael is an extremely delightful person in real life but on film, he finds the darkness of a man as no other actor could. He's so intense, I don't know if I ever even saw him blink!"

Says Shannon of how Strickland views the creature: "Strickland has seen to the creature's capture and he's hoping that will translate into big things. I think the creature gives him a sense of accomplishment. But he also uses him to vent all his most pent-up, poisonous feelings."

Most of all, Shannon enjoyed the creative bond with del Toro. "Guillermo really brings you into the creative process. And I love that he never stops working. When he's not shooting, he's editing on the monitor or listening or thinking. Every atom of his being is always on the hunt for opportunities, because he doesn't want to take anything for granted. That's a good fit for me, because I feel that same way."

Working closely with Strickland is David Hewlett (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) in the role of Fleming, the head of lab security who has no intention of letting things get out of control. As Hewlett describes it, "Fleming is a key part of the hideous government world that this beautiful creature is thrust into. I think Fleming is actually quite a weak person because he stands silent while wrong is going on around him. He thinks he's on the top of his game but he's actually ineffectual."

Hewlett especially loved the close-knit ensemble that formed among the actors. "Octavia is a dynamo and I'm a jerk to her character, but she's just so hilariously lovely in every scene, it was a challenge for me not to smile," he comments. "Sally was another plane - I feel it almost hurts to watch her. And then Shannon is able to make every single moment he's on screen compelling and terrifying."

ELISA'S ALLIES

Once del Toro knew he was writing a love story, the characters took shape: Elisa and her two true friends, Giles and Zelda - were always interlinked in his mind. "Together, the three make up a single character for me, as if they're different parts of the same brain. All three are marginal and invisible for different reasons -- one for race, one for sexual orientation, one for disability - and then they get together and give it to the man. The lab thinks they're fighting powerful Soviet spies, but I love that they are really fighting two cleaning ladies and a gay artist."

Before Elisa meets the creature, her loneliness is kept at bay by her neighbor and dearest friend in the world, Giles, an equally lonely, down-on-his-luck ad-man and avid movie musical lover. The character takes on a quietly growing strength as portrayed by Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins (THE VISITOR, LET ME IN, OLIVE KITTERIDGE) -- who says he jumped at the chance to be part of "a beautiful, beautiful story."

Jenkins especially relished his first chance to work with del Toro. "To me, he's like an old master with a vocabulary all his own. He's also like nobody else I've worked with," the actor elaborates. "He creates stories that feel real but also have something more going on, something that speaks to life and art and love. He's totally singular and that's why all of us on set were ready to go to the wall for him."

Del Toro had a gut feeling that there was more to Jenkins than has yet been seen on film. "I felt he could be not just a great character actor but a true leading man. For Giles, I needed someone of great elegance, someone whose symbiosis with Elisa feels second nature. They're not lovers, but they deeply love and protect one another. They are simply one of those pairs of people who know they belong together in the world," describes the director.

As a gay man in the intolerant 1960s, Giles has few outlets for his inner emotional life, which was key to slipping into the skin of a character who chafes ever so quietly against the times. "I told Richard I wanted Giles to be someone both hiding and defiant, a strong guy in a vulnerable position," describes del Toro. "And he was just completely real, completely there, coming to part from the inside out."

With Giles frustrated by an art career seemingly going nowhere, his great escape lies in the Golden Age of movie musicals, an age that was fading by 1962 but the remnants of which Giles hunts for regularly on his TV, with Elisa in tow. "I think Giles loves the idea of a perfect fantasy world," Jenkins observes. "He doesn't really paint as an artist anymore and now he's painting just to try to make ends meet, so musicals are where he lives. That's why Elisa's journey becomes a journey of salvation for him as well."

Indeed, when Giles encounters the creature, the creative fire that had gone out in him reignites. "The creature has an effect on everyone that he comes into contact with," notes Jenkins. "With Giles, there is a sparking of his love of art because of course he wants to paint this remarkable, mysterious being."

Jenkins adored working with Hawkins, especially because they had such one-of-a-kind form of communication between a man desperate to talk to someone and a mute woman. He says of Hawkins: "This is her movie, and I can't think of anyone else who could have played this part. I also think she has no idea just how good she is."

Hawkins felt an equal pull towards Jenkins. "I've always wanted to work with him," she says. "I found him both smart and free. Every take is different with Richard every time, yet each time it's fantastic. He taps into something so vulnerable in Giles. His willingness to go to deep places was a great joy for me."

The only other person to whom Elisa confides is her co-worker Zelda, a veteran cleaning lady at the lab who has come to not only comprehend Elisa but to gossip, share and unite with her. Taking the role of the confidante pulled into Elisa's scheme is Octavia Spencer, an Academy Award winner for her supporting role in THE HELP and a recent nominee for portraying real-life NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan in HIDDEN FIGURES.

It was the look in Spencer's eyes del Toro had in his mind when he wrote the part for her. "A lot of casting for me is in the eyes because 50% of acting is listening and looking. Each character in this film has a certain way of looking and I felt I needed Octavia's eyes," he explains. "She has a very powerful gaze. She is so entirely human and represents the best of what it is to be human with her spunk and her strength and her intelligence. When Octavia looks at you, you feel you are forgiven all your sins."

When she read the script, Zelda caught Spencer's imagination, especially as a woman who would have had little power, agency or recognition in those times, but proves to have a heroic streak she never had explored. "Part of what's beautiful about this movie is that it is about the invisible people, the help. Even amid all this intrigue involving the government, spies, scientists and the creature, I think it's very interesting that at the forefront of the story you have a cleaning crew," Spencer points out.

Spencer zeroed in on Zelda's strengths, which are tested in the course of the film. "Zelda is very opinionated and does not have a problem expressing herself," Spencer muses. "I would say if Elisa is the heart of the film, Zelda is kind of the muscle at least in their world of the cleaning crew."

There is also a symbiosis that occurs between Zelda and Elisa, with each bringing a strong suit the other needs. "My character's always talking, whereas Elisa uses her silence. Together we become one stronger unit, and with Sally that all happened in a very seamless way," Spencer says.

Hawkins and Spencer have an off-screen friendship that translated perfectly into Elisa and Zelda's tacit affection. "Octavia's a dear friend so it felt natural and right to do this with her," says Hawkins. "Octavia's super smart and very, very funny and I love that she does not allow Zelda to ever be a cliche. Instead, her incredible heart comes out as you see Zelda going through a transformation of her own."

When it came to her initial encounters with the creature, Spencer purposely avoided even looking at early drawings - she wanted her reaction to be spontaneous. "Guillermo was so excited to show us all sketches of the creature, but I didn't want to see anything until my character has to see it. I like to experience things in real time," she explains. "When I did finally see it, it was just ...wow, with the gills and scales, it seemed incredibly real."

The creature frightens Zelda enough to keep her distance, even as he magnetizes Elisa. "I think most people fear the unknown," Spencer comments, "and Zelda is all about keeping her job. She knows the cleaning staff is not supposed to pay attention to the secrets there. So she tries to ignore the creature, seeing him as more a 'thing' than a person, until she realizes her friend is in love and that changes everything."

A third character plays a hazier role in Elisa's life: Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the marine biologist tasked with studying the creature's distinct lung structure - who for better or for worse becomes aware of Elisa's furtive link with the laboratory's top secret captive, and misinterprets her intentions.

Portraying the man of science torn between duty, country and his admiration for the creature is Michael Stuhlbarg, known for a diverse range of roles including in the Coen brothers' A SERIOUS MAN, Woody Allen's BLUE JASMINE, Danny Boyle's STEVE JOBS and HBO's BOARDWALK EMPIRE.

After seeing him in several of those, del Toro had written down Stuhlbarg's name as someone with whom he wanted to work. "I saw in him the ability to transform from a killer to a saint to a tragic figure and I knew he could create a composite character like Hoffstetler, who is on the one hand a very capable spy and on the other a compassionate, altruistic scientist capable of real sacrifice," he explains. "He's the guy with the strongest principles because he takes an enormous risk to do what's right."

Hoffstetler is beset by clashing agendas. "He has a complicated history," Stuhlbarg notes, "but his first love is science and as he becomes more fascinated by the creature, I think he also falls in love a bit with him as well. They're both alone and maybe they recognize that in each other."

To give Stuhlbarg a lot to chew on, del Toro offered him a deep dossier on Hoffstetler. "Guillermo wrote for me this whole beautiful biography of who he thought this man was. It started from his youth in Russia, the kind of training he would have gone through to be in his position and also his passion for marine science," Stuhlbarg explains. "He is caught between the Soviets and the Americans who care more about stopping the other from getting this magical creature than learning from the creature. But Hoffstetler realizes what he wants most is to save the creature's life."

Stuhlbarg was by no means fluent in Russian, which triggered a rapid-fire series of lessons in what is widely perceived as one of the globe's most perplexing languages to pick up. "I'd actually taken Russian for six weeks in college and spoken Russian here or there in plays. So I was a bit familiar with the flavor and rhythm, but it was a long learning process. When production began, I was one of the first main characters to have a speaking scene and it was in Russian so it was trial by fire. I just threw myself in and it seemed to fly. I was delighted that I could to find a way inside Hoffstetler while doing so."

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