Classic movie monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon have long been cornered with feeling human, but always end up as victims of tragedy as they are never accepted by society.
In “The Shape of Water,” a mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) doesn’t run from the seemingly frightful amphibious creature (Doug Jones) she meets at the secret government laboratory where she works.
“When he looks at me, he doesn’t know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am,” Elisa said in sign language about the ancient creature in the film.
Writer and director Guillermo del Toro treats his monster as a lead in a sort of retelling of the fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” though neither character magically transforms to amend the imperfections that befall them in society’s eyes.
“They are not looked at as complete beings, and yet they are,” del Toro said in a conference call. “This elemental god from the Amazon that is as much a singularity as she is.”
“The Shape of Water” has not only received high praise from critics and early Oscar buzz, but del Toro, who is the mind behind “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “Pacific Rim,” said his latest film is also his personal favorite work to date.
And del Toro has had “The Shape of Water” on his mind since he was six years old.
“Every time I thought about it, I thought about subverting the usual structure, which was a scientist on a boat, government agents on a boat going to the Amazon, finding the creature. I was thinking to use that as the basis, and it never seemed to gel. It really left a lot to be desired for me,” del Toro said.
In 2011, turned his concept into a compelling storyline when he met with Daniel Kraus, his co-writer for the film, “Trollhunters.” Kraus shared an idea he had in the works: A janitor working in a secret government facility befriending an amphibian man.
“I knew at that moment that, politically and thematically, everything would fit,” del Toro said.
Set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, del Toro described the time as the last fairytale era in America, where an obsession with the future permeated through the fear of nuclear war.
“The movie is about our problems today and about demonizing the other and about fearing or hating the other,” del Toro said. “That is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand.”
The unique nature of this love story didn’t discourage del Toro while making the film because he felt that their body language toward one another was more telling than any romantic line could be.
“I think that words can lie, but looks cannot,” del Toro said. “I wanted to have characters that were able to communicate to the audience their emotions and their love through looks, touch and body language and essence.”
When Hawkins was cast, del Toro said he gave her a Blu-ray kit of silent film actors Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy films as influences for her unspoken performance.
“Her eyes are more hungry for emotion. Her body and her sentiment vibrates through her body, and it is really quite a powerful scene because she cannot talk,” del Toro said.
Jones has been acting behind creepy costumes with del Toro for 20 years, starting with “Mimic” along with the “Hellboy” films and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” This time, Jones was constricted by the suit of the amphibious creature while also being a romantic lead.
Del Toro praised the evolution of Jones over the years, culminating with his newest work. When they first met, Jones was a trained mime, but he cemented himself as an actor in del Toro’s eyes during “Pan’s Labyrinth” when he was able to portray many entirely different characters.
“My admiration for him grew because he really made his character (in “The Shape of Water”) distinctive. They were not just the same characters, the same gestures, the same energies,” del Toro said.
Del Toro said the film is about isolation and communication, which can be seen in the supporting characters as well: Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in her marriage, Strickland (Michael Shannon) who wants to control and silence everyone around him and Giles (Richard Jenkins) who often misunderstands Elisa.
“The Shape of Water” seeks to change perspectives on the classic monster trope and gives it the fairytale twist that Frankenstein and Dracula might have longed for.
The film comes to theaters everywhere on Dec. 8.