Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is an interspecies love story

Director Guillermo del Toro (center) observes Richard Jenkins (left) and Sally Hawkins (right) as they run through a scene. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Master storyteller and director Guillermo del Toro’s latest feat of imagination is creating the movie The Shape of Water, one of the most unconventional love stories of all time — one set at the height of the Cold War and centered on a powerful mutual attraction between a mute woman and an amphibious creature. In a high-security government laboratory, Elisa, a cleaning lady portrayed by Sally Hawkins, lives a life of isolation until she stumbles upon a classified experiment and biological asset dubbed Amphibian Man, portrayed by Doug Jones. The two embark on a winding romance that merges elements from classic monster movies and film noir in a story that is equal parts haunting and enchanting.

For del Toro, the basic premises for the movie were born a long time ago. A native of Guadalajara, Mexico, his childhood was full of ghost stories and fables — influences evident in the fantastical nature of his films. According to del Toro, the idea for The Shape of Water began when he was 6 years old as a love story involving a creature of the water. The film was not conceived until 2011, when del Toro’s longtime writing partner Daniel Kraus broached the idea of a cleaning woman in a government facility secretly befriending a creature held captive as a specimen. Immediately, del Toro recognized the story’s potential to become the next big fairy tale and bought the story from Kraus.

“I knew at that moment that politically and dramatically, everything would fit because I was not entering through the front door but I was entering through the service door into the story,” del Toro told the Daily Trojan.

Each of the roles in The Shape of Water was written specifically for the actors who appear in the film. Elisa, along with her two allies — her black female colleague Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and the gay artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) — represent a triad of characters who are marginalized, whether for their race, sexual orientation or disability, yet powerful nonetheless.

In addition, del Toro does not shy away from the challenges of having two main characters, Elisa and Amphibian Man, who do not utter a single phrase of dialogue throughout the entire film. In the creature, the mute Elisa discovers a sense of comfort, solidarity and love that transcends words.

“Words can lie but looks cannot,” del Toro said. “I wanted characters that could communicate emotion with the audience through looks and love and body language and essence. It’s impossible to talk about love. The idea is that Elisa and the creature have this [muteness] in common; they are not looked at as complete beings and yet they are.”

With the character of Amphibian Man, del Toro wanted to upend the conceit of monstrosity by making him one of the leads and making those who oppressed him the antagonists. The romantic, sensual relationship between the creature and Elisa grounds the story with an edge of a familiar adult reality and allows the creature to express a humanity truer than that of his human counterparts.

“Guillermo creates creatures uncorrupted by the human world,” producer J. Miles Dale said. “We can look at them as a kind of mirror to what we might be ideally.”

The decision to set the film at the peak of the Cold War was purposeful on del Toro’s part, as he saw it as the perfect backdrop for a never-before-seen love story. In 1962, America was on the brink of nuclear war over idealisms put forth by President John F. Kennedy, while sentiments of paranoia and disillusionment persisted across the nation.

“You need to, as a storyteller, choose where they take place and the time they take place,” del Toro said. “[The year] 1962, to me, is the last fairytale time in America, a time in which America kind of groomed itself into what we see as the modern America. It was really a time of great hope for the future. I thought that and the Cold War were the perfect settings to bring a creature from the ancient times and tell a love story in a time of discommunication.”

However, the tale remains timeless for del Toro. It comments on topical issues of today but is set in a bygone era, rendering it a fairytale about past troubled times that encourages audiences to lower their guards and be more receptive to the movie’s message.

“Movies that happen anywhere matter nowhere, but movies that happen any time matter at no time,” del Toro said. “The movie is about all problems today — about demonizing the other, about fearing or hating the other, and how that is a much more destructive position than learning to love or understand.”