Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is known for blurring the line between fantasy and reality. He directed the 2006 dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth, and in his latest film, The Shape of Water, he once again mixes realistic sets with mysterious monsters.
The Shape of Water is set near Washington, D.C., inside a Cold War government lab. In the midst of the space race with Russia, American authorities capture an amphibian sea creature. They plan to dissect it and see if it can withstand being shot into space.
While the beast, played by Doug Jones, clearly seems alien, its human-like characteristics are striking. Like the creatures in Pan's Labyrinth, Jones wore a meticulously designed suit and his amphibian man was given slight digital modifications in post-production.
Del Toro tells NPR's Rachel Martin, "The beautiful thing about this creature is [it's] sort of the Michelangelo's David of those creatures. He's absolutely gorgeous in every proportion, in every sculptural detail."
American and Russian officials are drawn to the monster for its ability to communicate without words. That's also how it connects with the film's mute heroine, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins.
The characters around Elisa, including her friends, spend much of the film talking at her, even though they understand when she signs back to them. But when Elisa is with the creature, their ability to listen to each other is apparent.
"What is beautiful for me is that every single character that has the power of speech has problems communicating," del Toro says. "And the two characters that [do not have] the power of speech — they are mute or wordless — they are actually communicating beautifully."
Del Toro says he uses Elisa and the creature's connection as a window to how people should communicate with one another.
"The movie is about connecting with 'the other,' " he says. "You know, the idea of empathy, the idea of how we do need each other to survive. And that's why the original title of the screenplay when I wrote it was A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times, because I think that this is a movie that is incredibly pertinent and almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day."
Like many of his films, The Shape of Water was also informed by del Toro's Catholic upbringing. (Today he describes himself as "lapsed.") The sea creature, for example, was inspired by both Catholicism and fairy tales.
"A very Catholic notion is the humble force, or the force of humility, that gets revealed as a god-like figure toward the end," he says. "It's also used in fairy tales. In fairy tales, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title 'The Magical Fish.' And [it's] not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol."
In The Shape of Water and in Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro also flirts with the idea of an afterlife — even though he doesn't believe in it.
"I don't think there is life beyond death, I don't," he says. "But I do believe that we get this clarity in the last minute of our life. The titles we achieved, the honors we managed, they all vanish. You are left alone with you and your deeds and the things you didn't do. And that moment of clarity gives you either peace or the most tremendous fear, because you finally have no cover, and you finally realize exactly who you are."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Time now for a story that forces you to suspend reality - but it's worth it. The story is about a secret Cold War laboratory. A young woman works there. She's one of the janitors who cleans up after the experiments. She can't talk. She's been mute since she was a child, which means it's hard for her to communicate what she sees in that lab - a green, scaly sea creature. He is not good. He is not evil. And film director Guillermo del Toro likes it that way.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: The creature, which is the beast in this "Beauty And The Beast" fable, is not reformed or transformed into a charming prince. The creature has cannibalistic urges. He doesn't get domesticated. He's still an animal.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHAPE OF WATER")
DOUG JONES: (As Amphibian Man, phonating).
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Get them out.
JONES: (As Amphibian Man, phonating).
DEL TORO: Those are the areas of gray that distinguish but yet allow to still function as a fairy tale.
MARTIN: Del Toro's newest film is called "The Shape Of Water." And like so many of his other movies, it doesn't fit into one genre. It's a love story and a musical, fantasy and thriller. And at the center of it all is a being that is both hideous and perfect at the same time.
DEL TORO: The beautiful thing about this creature is sort of the Michelangelo's "David" of those creatures. It is absolutely gorgeous in every proportion, in every sculptural detail.
DEL TORO: The idea is that this is not an animal. It's revealed little by little in the movie that this creature may have divine origin. It may be a river god. And little by little, you get this unveiled in the film.
MARTIN: Besides the creature, there is amazing talent in this film - Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon. Sally Hawkins plays the lead character in this story.
DEL TORO: Yeah.
MARTIN: She is one of the two cleaning ladies in this facility. She has no lines in the movie because she's mute.
DEL TORO: Yeah.
MARTIN: And the basis of the love story, of this connection that she has with this merman - the two are outcasts. And that's clear that they feel a connection because of their place in society.
DEL TORO: Yeah.
MARTIN: But you could have made her an outcast in a variety of ways. Why deprive her of speech?
DEL TORO: There's a point, in fact, in the movie to show you that every character that does speak - and many of them speak a lot, you know - when they're around Elisa, basically they're running a monologue.
DEL TORO: And what is beautiful for me is that every single character that has the power of speech has problems communicating. And the two characters that have not the power of speech - they are mute or wordless - they are actually communicating beautifully. The idea for me was to make it a reconnaissance. And love is like that. Love is - you know, words can fool you. Looks cannot - or touch. And the idea with this film is that their connection - as it gets revealed, you see that they have more in common than you would have anticipated.
MARTIN: It is so interesting. As you note, there are so many people talking at Elisa.
DEL TORO: Yes.
MARTIN: There are people who she's close to. She's very close to the other cleaning lady, played by Octavia Spencer. And her best friend is Richard Jenkins. They're close, but they are failing to connect in some way because...
DEL TORO: Yeah.
MARTIN: ...It is just this running of the mouth.
DEL TORO: Yeah, they talk a lot to her. But they don't talk a lot with her. The movie is about connecting with the "other," quote, unquote. You know, the idea of empathy, the idea of how we do need each other to survive - and that's why the original title in the screenplay when I wrote it was "A Fairy Tale For Troubled Times" because I think that this is a movie that is incredibly pertinent and almost like an antidote to a lot of the cynicism and disconnect that we experience day to day in almost every medium.
MARTIN: Can you say more about that? Do you hear a hollowness in how we connect with each other or talk to each other - try to connect?
DEL TORO: Well, yes. The most intimate spaces get invaded by this idea that often there is them, and there's never - them is an illusion for me. There's only us. Right now we are in our terrible twos. You know, we are in a constant tantrum socially. And I find it very, very dangerous because it seems to be destroying and eroding civil discourse that we had worked really hard to create over decades, if not centuries. And the movie tries to show a gentle - very poignant, though - very poignant fable about empathy and love.
MARTIN: Your family is from Guadalajara, Mexico. You were raised as a Catholic...
DEL TORO: Yeah.
MARTIN: ...A pretty strict Catholic. I understand you are - you do no longer identify as a Catholic. But...
DEL TORO: No, no - I'm very lapsed.
MARTIN: ...You are the product of that culture and that point of view.
DEL TORO: Yes.
MARTIN: Does it affect how you construct your heroes and villains?
DEL TORO: Yes, of course it does. I mean, the very simple notion that is both a fairy tale and a very Catholic notion is the humble force or the force of humility, you know, that gets revealed as a godlike figure towards the end. It's also used in fairy tale. In fairy tale, in fact, there is an entire strand of tales that would be encompassed by the title "The Magical Fish" - and not exactly a secret that a fish is a Christian symbol.
DEL TORO: And the idea that he is there being - going through a via crucis, you know, by being tortured, being humiliated and then reveals himself as a life-giver, a life-restorer, a godlike figure - must come from there. But that said, what I do is syncretism. I take the lore and cosmology of the Catholic dogma and beliefs. And I take what I know and learned through the years about an almost anthropological study of fairy tales. I take what I love about cinema, and I take what I love of a genre. And I combine all of that.
MARTIN: There is also, in your work, flirtation with the idea of an afterlife. What is it about that idea that captivates you?
DEL TORO: I believe that we all have access to that moment of clarity, but we don't have it in a supernatural way. I don't think there is life beyond death - I don't. But I do believe that we get this clarity in, you know, the last minute or our life. The titles we achieved, the honors we managed - they all vanish. And you are left alone with you and your deeds and the things you didn't do. And that moment of clarity gives you either peace or the most tremendous fear because you finally have no cover. And you finally realize exactly who you are.
MARTIN: Director Guillermo del Toro - his newest film is called "The Shape Of Water." Thank you so much for talking with us.
DEL TORO: My pleasure. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "THE SHAPE OF WATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.