EXCLUSIVE | Guillermo del Toro says making fantasy films ‘essential’ to his nature

February 16, 2018 - 10:17 AM
Director/Writer/Producer Guillermo del Toro on the set of 'The Shape of Water.' (Photo by Sophie Giraud/20th Century Fox)

Ever since he was a kid, Guillermo del Toro has been living in his own fantasy world. At the early age of 8, the celebrated Mexican filmmaker began making short films using action figures and other similar toys.

From then on, Del Toro went on to carve a career out of writing, producing and directing some of the most compelling films that often blur the line between fantasy and science fiction. These include “Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Pacific Rim,” “Crimson Peak,” and most recently, the Academy-award nominated “The Shape of Water.”

In an exclusive interview with InterAksyon, Del Toro, now 53, admits that he prefers to tell stories inspired by fairy tales and mythical creatures. For him, it’s something that has always been in his DNA.

“These are the kind of stories that I’ve loved since I was a child and even throughout my adult life. It’s so essential to my nature,” he declared. “I could try my hand at directing other genres like noir or historical film and all that. But these stories seem to be the ones I like the most, the things that I end up gravitating to.”

From that standpoint, every film that Del Toro makes is very personal to him. And “The Shape of Water,” which took six years to develop, is no exception. The film is an unusual “Beauty and the Beast” kind of love story involving a humanoid sea creature kept in a high security government facility and the mute girl who works there as a janitor.

Del Toro noted that when he first pitched the film to Fox Searchlight Pictures, the studio immediately gave it the green light except for the director’s initial plan to shoot the film in black and white since it was set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War between the United States and the then Soviet Union.

“They (Fox) asked me to consider shooting it in color because it would be easier to show the movie in certain territories. And I took it into account because they were very brave and very committed in getting the movie made,” he pointed out.

In casting the film, Del Toro turned to some of the most seasoned character actors in pivotal supporting roles including Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins, the last two of whom earned Oscar supporting acting nominations for their respective performances.

Guillermo del Toro directs a scene from ‘The Shape of Water’ with cast members Richard Jenkins, and Sally Hawkins. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

For the lead role of Elisa Esposito, Del Toro cast English actress Sally Hawkins who he described as “extraordinarily gifted.”

“I specifically wrote the character for Sally and from the beginning it was my decision to characterize her as mute. It has always been my idea that the two main characters communicate without using words,” Del Toro noted.

As for the sea monster, Del Toro turned to a more frequent collaborator, contortionist turned actor Doug Jones. Jones appeared in seven of Del Toro’s films and is best known for his portrayal of Abe Sapien in “Hellboy” and its sequel, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.”

As a matter of fact, not a few who have seen the movie have wondered if the monster in “The Shape of Water” is in fact Abe Sapien or a character related to him.

“Absolutely not. It’s the same actor and directed by the same director but it’s a completely different story and a completely different design that took three years to create,” the director qualified.

As fascinating as Del Toro’s choice to cast Jones to play the monster when he could have opted for a CGI version similar to the one featured in the recent live action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” was, even more amazing was his ability to make “The Shape of Water” (which cost around only $19 million to make) look like a glossy, big-budget Hollywood film.

“The budget for ‘The Shape of Water” is exactly the same as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ but put them side by side and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ looks much smaller in scale. In my 25 years of directing, I’ve come to find a few of the things that I can do to magnify the scale of a movie,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter how much the budget is, you always want to make movies that are bigger than the budget. You do it by choosing how to introduce the movie with a couple of big sets, you bring the design to the forefront in a way that makes the movie feel stylish and beautiful. And then you find ways to economize to pay for those gestures of scale.”

No less than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the U.S. has finally caught up with critics and audiences in recognizing Del Toro’s genius by honoring “The Shape of Water” with a whopping 13 nominations, more than any other film this year. The film has also been garnered numerous awards and nominations from just about every major award-giving body in the U.S. and beyond.

Regardless of the Oscars’ outcome of which Del Toro is considered a frontrunner, it looks like budget would be the least of his concerns for his future projects from hereon in.

Looking back on the commercial and critical success that he and fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Iñárritu have enjoyed in recent years, Del Toro said that while he is pleased with the all the accolades they have been getting as of late, the recognition did not happen overnight.

“Alfonso and I came to work in North America around 1993 and 1994, from the beginning of the 90s. So you’re talking about more than 20 years. Back when we came in, nobody would imagine that we would be in charge of large franchises,” Del Toro said in reference to “Hellboy” and “Blade II” that he was hired to direct and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” that Cuaron helmed.

“Nobody would imagine that we would be handling huge responsibilities or would be able to even change a situation. I think it happened gradually not just for us but for all Spanish language directors from Spain and Latin America. We’ve been making our way into the industry one way or another,” Del Toro concluded.

As for a possible sequel to “The Shape of Water” for those who might be interested what will happen to Elisa and the sea monster after then film ends, Del Toro said he does not see it happening.

“Absolutely not. I don’t think there’s any interest in that, not from my part. I would not consider it even if the studio asked for it. I would not be interested in being involved,” he concluded.

“The Shape of Water” opens in Philippine cinemas on February 21 from 20th Century Fox.

Watch the film’s official trailer here: