While it may not fit traditional standards, director Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water is a fairytale.
The R-rated, 2-hour film, which opens December 8, tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works nights at a high-security government lab.
Her life is changed when she and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), stumble upon a top-secret creature. As American scientists race against the Russians to uncover the creature’s secrets, Elisa learns to communicate with him and becomes enchanted by their similarities, putting her life on the line to rescue him.
While it’s a few shades different than the “Beauty and the Beast” scenario, del Toro says the movie, which won a Golden Lion for best film at the Venice International Film Festival, speaks to universal themes of love and acceptance.
“The movie is about our problems today and about demonizing the other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love and understand,” he says.
Blurring the line between fantasy and the real world is nothing new for del Toro, who is known for films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, which bridge his fascination with monsters to poetry and real-life themes.
With The Shape of Water, however, he was careful to set the story in the Cold War era which, he says, helps the audience take a step back.
“The Cold War (for me) is the last fairytale time in America,” he says.
“If I say, ‘Once upon a time in 1962,’ it becomes a fairytale for troubled times and people can lower their guard a little bit more and listen to the story and talk about the issues.”
While the film features powerful performances, none are more integral to the story than Hawkins as Elisa and Doug Jones, a longtime del Toro collaborator, as the creature.
Audiences might be surprised to learn the two characters never speak. Their interactions are altogether something different, showcasing the power of nonverbal communication between characters and actors, as well.
“I think that words can lie, but looks cannot,” del Toro says.
“I wanted to have characters who were able to communicate to the audience their emotions and their love through looks, touch, body language and essence because it’s impossible to talk about love.”
One particularly poignant moment—a poem recited at the film’s conclusion—almost didn’t happen.
Richard Jenkins, who plays Elisa’s neighbor and friend Giles, was supposed to recite a monologue, del Toro says, when one day, inspiration struck on the way to the set.
“When I have any free time, I say, ‘Let’s go into a bookshop,’” del Toro says.
“I was browsing the shelves and I found this poem in a book talking about God,” he says.
del Toro was so moved that he bought the book knowing it would be perfect for the film.
“It became the most beautiful closing I could have imagined for the movie,” he says.