Double Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro on how his mer-man film The Shape Of Water madethe ultimate splash
OSCAR DOESN’T DO genre. It’s the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, not the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Fantasy. Guillermo del Toro changed all that with his achingly romantic The Shape Of Water. It entranced the Academy, and made it the most unlikely Best Picture winner in years. After all, it’s about a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a fish-man. Del Toro, who won Best Director too, talked to us, exclusively and movingly, about what that night meant.
The success of The Shape Of Water was astounding, because it’s the kind of movie we keep being told the Academy doesn’t recognise. What, in your opinion, changed their minds?
Well, it was a love letter to love and a love letter to films — Douglas Sirk, Stanley Donen, Minnelli, Wyler. Or at least, that’s the way I saw it. There was no postmodern cynicism. I was not “above” the material. I was promiscuously in it.
And strangely, as I travelled the different circuits promoting the film, the people over 50 reacted so strong to this. They felt the genuine passion and the reverence for the classics and for cinema as a force. Some of the strongest reactions came from people like, say, Eva Mariesaint, who had worked with Kazan and Hitchcock, or Billy Friedkin, a modern master, or Barbra Streisand. Screening after screening, the Academy members — supposedly traditional — gave the film many an ovation and much, much love.
Were you confident from the start that it was going to be a contender? You’ve said several times that this movie saved your life, and that it was your most mature work.
Not at all. Many a movie I have made has been made thinking: “This is the last one I make,” and giving it my all. But this movie was the opposite of a safe bet. It was a folly. [Fox] Searchlight agreed to finance it, but we were given a third of the budget that even sounded possible to meet the ambitions of the film. But Miles Dale [producer] and I were determined to deliver a movie with scope and beauty for $19.5 million. We ended up delivering it for $19.3 million and change. But that was because I had, amongst other things, put in all my salary minus Guild minimums.
But the movie, I thought, was going to be an arthouse movie that would fit and make sense of many if not all the themes and characters in my movies. In a way it would bridge Hellboy or Pan’s Labyrinth or Devil’s Backbone. And it came from a place of great hurt. I was at a very, very difficult emotional moment when I made it. The shoot was also the second-hardest ever — only second to Mimic with Miramax. No-one was imagining it would make almost $200 million worldwide. I thought I was investing in doing something the way I liked it. I used my own money from the very start, when I bought the basic premise from Daniel Krause in 2011. I didn’t want to have the money be tied with any studio. I thought I needed the freedom to walk away.
Going in, did you think you had a good chance of winning both Best Director and Best Picture?
I learned with Pan’s Labyrinth that it can go either way, no matter what the odds are. And the last 60 days of campaigning, some tactics get real hard and dirty or supporters get bored. You never know. But the DGA [win] had happened already so I had hopes for that, because my peers had appreciated my craft. The directorial work is alchemy and at the risk of sounding silly, it can only be truly fathomed by other directors. That’s why the best interview ever is the Truffaut/hitchcock book. Then, when the Best Director
Oscar went my way, the explosion of love in the room was like a healing wave.
What was going through your mind when the film won Best Picture?
Well, the perspective no-one can imagine is when you climb the steps. Before that you are seeing what the audience is seeing, but then you turn around as you reach the stage and boooooom! Spielberg is there and Michael Mann and Chris Nolan and Tom Hanks, and they were all applauding. The love for the film was also there in a moment that was not televised: when I re-entered the room with the first Oscar there was a spontaneous ovation again. Many of the aches of my life were healed that night. It’s a curious thing
— I never thought I would be so overwhelmed with that emotion.
You double-checked the envelope, just to make sure…
Well, you know, what with the La La Land of it all! Now time has passed, what do these Oscar wins mean to you?
Before the film was finished,
I decided I was going to take a year off from directing. And I have done it. I decided to do that because my father was dying and I wanted to be by his side as much as he needed me. Several times during the campaign trail I travelled to my father’s side and spent nights holding his hand, helping him pull through. Until he didn’t. But I was there when he needed me. I stayed by his side, without it being a thing done while my mind was on a film or a fiction. I am grateful that he saw the Oscars and that I was able to mention him and my mother, both there and at the Globes. My father was a businessman all of his life — he had worked hard since he was seven and he raised us very tough regarding money and discipline. And he thought film was a folly until Pan’s Labyrinth and then The Shape Of Water. He held the Oscars and smiled. He had oxygen being fed to him by tubes, he was full of pain medications, but he smiled and said, “God, they are heavy.” That alone does it.
Now, I have used the time immediate to the Oscars to activate two scholarships for young Mexican filmmakers and activated an animation centre that will open next year and helped with the local cinematheque in my home town. I thought that the momentum needed to be used in that way.
Where are the statues right now?
They are in my bedroom, on the mantle, by the side of a stack of books — Mark Twain, Bierce, Saki — and all my notebooks and storyboards and under a picture painted by Basil Gogos, which is a portrait of Forry Ackerman [founder of Famous Monsters Of Filmland]. I see them every night as
I go to bed. And I smile.
Clockwise Guillermo photographed del from Toro, left: exclusively for Empire in LA on 20 November 2017; Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) gets close to an amphibian man (Doug Jones); Del Toro at the Academy Awards; Eisa daydreams about her mer-man.