The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival celebrated the five Academy Award-nominated directors – Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) – and honored them with the Outstanding Directors of the Year Award for 2018, at the Arlington Theatre on February 6th. With The Shape of Water, Del Toro has made a fantastical masterpiece that follows the unique relationship between a lonely janitor (exquisitely played by Sally Hawkins) and an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that’s being held in captivity in a top-secret research facility in the 1960s.
During individual panels and a group chat, these directors discussed pushing boundaries in their storytelling and how they are inspired by the work of their colleagues. Del Toro talked about why he’s always been so drawn to monsters, how the bathroom scene came about, what it is about Doug Jones that makes him such a great monster actor, and why The Shape of Water is so personal to him. He also talked about how he got to know his fellow nominees and the impression that their films made on him. Here are the highlights of what he had to say during the Q&A.
Question: Monsters can come in a lot of different varieties and, like people, they can have different sides to their personality. Why have you always been so drawn to monsters?
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: The creature in The Shape of Water, for the first half of the movie, is blank and people project what they want to project onto him. The last third, he comes into his own. When Mexico was conquered, there was a phenomenon called syncretism, in which the Catholic religion of the conquerors fused with the old religion. In my case, that happened with Catholicism and monsters. They fused. When I was a young kid, I truly was redeemed by these figures. Where other people saw horror, I saw beauty. And where people saw normalcy, I saw horror. I realized that the true monsters are in the human heart. It was not their appearance.
The scene in the film where Sally Hawkins fills the bathroom with water is so beautiful. How did that come about?
DEL TORO: That was actually based on something that happened to me, as a kid. I didn’t screw a creature. My parents didn’t have a bathtub, but I dreamed of swimming in a bathtub. We had a glass shower and I stuck towels on the bottom to seal it perfectly. [The water] was up to my chest and I realized that the door opened inwards, so I was trapped like Houdini. I finally opened it and my father was not happy with the results.
You made Mimic about 20 years ago, and you’ve said that it was an unpleasant experience for you, but the one good thing that came out of it was your relationship with Doug Jones.
DEL TORO: There are three people that worked with me on Mimic – my camera operator, Gilles Corbeil, my sound guy in Canada, Glen Gauthier, and my cinematographer, Dan Laustsen – and then Doug Jones.
What is it about Doug Jones that makes him equipped to be a great monster?
DEL TORO: Of the many disciplines of puppeteering and creation, there’s one thing in Japan that’s called Bunraku, in which an actor dressed in black operates a puppet on a black stage. It’s a very beautiful discipline that’s very magical. A good Bunraku artist moves the creature or character, but an excellent Bunraku artist fuses with the puppet, and that’s what Doug does. There’s a rarified performer that can work in a suit. Some great actors are terrible under make-up. And then, out of those performers, there’s the rarest of the rare, which is a guy who can actually act and be an actor under make-up, and that’s Doug Jones. He can do it. One anecdote that’s beautiful is that Richard Jenkins’ first day of shooting was with this creature in the bathtub. He came in and Doug was eating a bagel and sipping coffee from a foam cup, and Richard came to me and said, “What the fuck is this?! There’s a guy in a fish suit! What are we doing here?!” And I said, “Relax!” Doug went into the bathtub and he was talking to Richard in this really folksy Mr. Rogers voice. And then, I said, “Action!,” and Doug instantly started acted. He became a creature that had never seen a bathtub and never said tiles. And Richard said, “Immediately, I was in.”
You don’t see The Shape of Water as strictly a monster movie. You’ve called it the most personal movie that you’ve ever made, and there are real-world issues that you speak about. Why was that important to you?
DEL TORO: The idea that ideology is separating all of us, more and more, in the most intimate spaces. We’re told constantly to fear the other. I tried to say, can we embrace the other? It’s in youth that we draw lines in the sand, and as you age, you want to erase them. We realize that it’s only us. Really, there’s nobody else. I’ve always believed that by creating visuals and ideas, you can take what is fantasy and make it truth. You can make movies that are truthful and that deal with the fantastic as a parable. I’ve done it in Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water, and many others, in different ways. Many of the greatest filmmakers have given us eternal images in the genre of the fantastic, and it’s time that we are part of the conversation, in some way.
You’ve been making the rounds, as a nominated director, this awards season, along with Paul Thomas Anderson, Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig and Chris Nolan. When did you guys first meet?