‘The Shape of Water’ Production Designer Paul Austerberry on Crafting a Guillermo del Toro Fairy Tale

     December 12, 2017

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While filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is known for putting together intricately designed films, The Shape of Water is the pinnacle of his career thus far—an immaculately crafted film from top to bottom. The original story takes place in the 1960s, as the Cold War looms large, and revolves around a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) working at a top secret government facility who falls in love with a Fish Man (Doug Jones) that’s being housed there. It’s a story of love, of outsiders, of the maligned and ignored, and it’s absolutely one of the best films of the year.

When I said Shape of Water was immaculately crafted from top to bottom, I meant it, and that certainly applies to the intricate, gorgeously realized production design by Paul Austerberry. The craftsman was originally prepping Pacific Rim 2 as his first film with del Toro, but when the filmmaker switched gears and decided to make The Shape of Water instead, he brought Austerberry along with him.

With Shape of Water now playing in limited release across the country (and picking up accolades left and right), I recently got the chance to speak with Austerberry about his work on the film. He discussed his collaboration process with del Toro at length, how they developed the specific look of the film, bringing the lab and apartments to life in ways that were both rich and full of architectural symbolism, and much more. Austerberry also gave a brief tease of what del Toro’s version of Pacific Rim 2 would have entailed and revealed that he was designing on Fantastic Voyage before del Toro decided to take a sabbatical in 2017.

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Image via Fox Searchlight

While interviews with actors and directors are certainly illuminating, this discussion with Austerberry shines a light on the other vital aspects that go into making a film come to life, and it’s a fascinating and insightful conversation made all the more interesting by the fact that The Shape of Water is, quite simply, a masterful concoction. Check out the full interview below.

This movie is amazing. I saw it back at TIFF and it just blew me away.

PAUL AUSTERBERRY: Fantastic. Yeah, it’s an exciting movie to be part of that’s for sure.

Is it nice to be able to, as opposed to you do the junket and then it’s over, with this being in the awards season, is it nice to continue talking about this one as the months go on?

AUSTERBERRY: Absolutely. These kinds of things, these junkets don’t come often because you don’t get to awards season. Think of all the movies being made every year and there’s not very many that end up potentially in the awards running, so it’s very exciting. Especially when you’re on a small movie, that’s exciting. You’re up against some pretty big things.

Yeah, definitely. Well if I’m not mistaken, this is your first time working with Guillermo so I was just curious, how did you first come to be a part of the project?

AUSTERBERRY: Well, I actually was working with Guillermo in the summer of 2015 on Pacific Rim 2. We worked for about eight weeks. We were gonna do a much bigger budget movie, and we went to China a couple times scouting. Then we did a bunch of designs for that film; we were quite well along in our weeks of pre-pre-prep before we really got going. But I had heard from [cinematographer Dan Laustsen] at the time that there was this movie called “Untitled Fish Movie” that Guillermo wants to be shot in black and white that was his passion project, and I was like wow this sounds really intriguing. I heard the basic premise and when Guillermo decided at the end of that summer, he said, “You know what, let’s do this passion project.” So he moved on from Pacific Rim 2, he let someone else direct it and he stayed on as producer, but then I got to read an early draft of the script of this in the fall of 2015. I was very excited to do it, definitely wanted do it.

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Image via Fox Searchlight

It’s a very bizarre script, but beautiful, and visually delicious. We were challenged by budget; it’s a pretty ambitious little movie. Guillermo and [producer J. Miles Dale] were working on The Strain, and they thought, “You know what, we can put more money on the screen if we wait six months until the hiatus on that show” and basically it’s a Fox production as well, [it airs on FX]. Guillermo said, “The studio sits free, the offices sit empty, let’s somehow save the money from studios and get a really good deal on the studios and offices and funnel that back into the film, put it back on the screen.” And I thought that was really clever. It was really clever producing. And in the meantime I got to read the script thoroughly and I was doing commercials to keep filling the time that was available. I was here in LA with Guillermo a couple times going over some early three-dimensional drawings and things like that that I had of the design of the lab. It was good. The six months was not wasted, the script was more developed. We came in in the late spring of 2016, and we just went right into it. By the time I had my art director on there was only eight weeks of prep. It was a very [soundstage]-heavy film, I think we shot 17 out of 58 days on location only and all the rest was on the stage. It was quite a rapid run.

What were those early, very first conversations with Guillermo like about the design and the idea of this world?

AUSTERBERRY: I mean, he’s a master of history of film. He pulled together visuals and he had some references from certain films. The arch window, for instance, was very important to him in Eliza’s apartment. He showed me a still from The Red Shoes from 1948, and he wanted to incorporate that as part of this grand room above this theater. Guillermo lives a lot of the time in Toronto, so he’s written certain locations into it and one of them was this place called Massey Hall, which is a music hall, not a movie theater—it didn’t have a marquee, we built one outside. But it did have this nice little symmetrical staircase that descended from the center, from above, that he really wanted to incorporate so we had certain things —he had that as a notion, that was a given, so that influenced the design of the interior that was studio built. We had this romantic notion of the late 19th century architecture as the environment for her and Richard Jenkins’s character and we had to decide what to do for the contrast to be the chem facility where she worked.

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Image via Fox Searchlight

We met early and decided we’re gonna go with this 50s, 60s, and 70s brutalist style architecture as the contrast to her sort of a more romantic design space. So we had a basic idea right away at the beginning and that let us develop the different interior sets with those things in mind. Color was very important to Guillermo—ironically, you know, because it was supposed to be a black and white film at one time. I was kinda terrified about that because it takes out a whole tool in your toolbox to help tell a story … mood and everything. Thankfully, as you see in the final product, color was very important for the movie so I’m glad it came back.

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