The Shape Of Water is a woman-monster myth, says director Guillermo del Toro

Director Guillermo del Toro's The Shape Of Water, featuring a woman-beast pairing and magical realism, finds favour with critics and festival audiences around the world

There is an unusual love story at the centre of the fantasy movie The Shape Of Water. Yet, while its pairing of woman and non-human creature is strange, it is not so strange that it stopped the Oscars academy from awarding it 13 nominations - the most of any film this year.

Director Guillermo del Toro, 53, spoke to The Straits Times on the telephone last week, a day after the nominations were announced.

"It's incredible. It's the validation of a journey that started in 2011. It's been a long, long journey," he says.

He was speaking from Tokyo, where he attended the premiere of the movie, which stars Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg.

Its nominations run the gamut, from Best Picture to Best Actress for Hawkins and Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Jenkins and Spencer respectively. And Best Director for del Toro.

"I've been doing this for 25 years and I know enough to know that this is not normal," del Toro says about the strong positive reactions the movie has garnered from both critics and festival audiences around the world.

The Shape Of Water opens in Singapore today.

He credits a large part of the film's acclaim to the mood of the world at the moment, or the zeitgeist. "It's the story finding a footing and it's also the zeitgeist. Sometimes, you make a good movie and people don't see it and you have to be philosophical. So when you make a good movie and people celebrate it, you have to remember not to go crazy."

"This is beautiful, but you should not take yourself too seriously," says the helmer of commercial hits such as the comic-book movie Hellboy (2004) and its sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), as well as less successful films such as his previous work, the Gothic Victorian romance Crimson Peak (2015).

One painful lesson that he picked up from the relative lack of success of Crimson Peak was that when a movie has big stars, lots of special effects and a major budget - its budget was US$55 million, compared with Shape's US$20 million (S$26 million) - the bar for financial success is set much higher and the tolerance for risk much lower, causing regrettable decision-making by him and executives in the marketing department.

"I was too ambitious and made a movie that was too expensive to recuperate... It robbed me of the power to market the movie in the way it needed to be marketed," he says. Crimson Peak starred A-listers such as Jessica Chastain and Tom Hiddleston and its trailers and advertising sold it as a mainstream horror movie.

Shape's cast was drawn more from the pool of respected, but far less famous talent.

In the film, set in Cold War-era 1960s, Hawkins' Elisa is drawn to a creature imprisoned in a laboratory where she works as a cleaner, a woman ignored and belittled by her male bosses, including the operative Strickland, played by Shannon.

The creature, played by Doug Jones in costume, is, like her, mute. She is fascinated by this and makes overtures to him in spite of his fish-like appearance and, gradually, falls in love with him.

What sets this human-creature love affair apart is that it takes the story further than, say, the Beauty And The Beast tale or other folk tales such as the ones found in China, illustrated in horror films such as A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).

Shape is different in that the relationship becomes sexual and the creature stays true to his nature - he does not change into a human shape, nor does he adopt human habits. And he enjoys raw meat, as certain pets find out too late.

The myth of a woman-creature pairing is very old and found in many cultures, says del Toro. "Whether it's Zeus taking another shape in Greek mythology or any shape-shifting god in Asian mythology, every country has that story."

Because he wanted to make it a more realistic adult romance, he had to tread cautiously around the human-animal fetish that lies below the surface of those myths. He did not want that fetish to be a dominant theme, distracting viewers from the sweet story of two lonely souls who find each other in difficult circumstances.

Strangely enough, he found that "the key was to do it in a Latin American way," says the Mexican film-maker. "You take the fetishistic or grandiose tone out of it by doing it in a way that feels everyday and homey."

The tone of Latin American magic realism suited the telling of this love story. He made the coupling "poetic and simple" - the act is implied, then talked about later.

"When you are director, you are the sum of our influences and your experience, and that is all rooted in your land," he says.

His use of magical realism, seen in films in which characters slip easily between the worlds of the real and supernatural, can be seen in his Hellboy movies and, most famously, in his breakthrough work, the Spanish-language wartime drama Pan's Labyrinth (2006), winner of three Oscars.

The other difference between Shape and myths is that the woman takes the lead, subverting the trope of the male creature pursuing the woman through various means, such as by proving he has human kindness.

"In my movie, the woman seduces the creature," says del Toro. And, what is more, he makes Shannon's character of Strickland, the film's villain, a replica of the typical 1950s movie action hero, a character who finds greatness by killing the monster.

"It's not accidental," he says of how Shape's characters are Alice-In-Wonderland versions of good guys and villains found in classic horror movies, such as Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

"I am trying to show that love is fluid, like water, and takes the shape of whatever it needs to take."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2018, with the headline The Shape Of Water is a woman-monster myth, says director Guillermo del Toro. Subscribe