Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water Closes the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival

The closing film for the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which seems destined for many Academy Award nominations this season. It also served as an opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Shannon, one of the actors in The Shape of Water, who was present to accept the award and answer audience questions, along with co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays a Russian scientist spy (Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, aka Dimitri) in The Shape of Water.

The idea for the story of a romance between a creature like the Creature from the Black Lagoon film of 1954, [directed by Jack Arnold and starring Ben Chapman (on land) and Ricou Browning (underwater)] was part of The Shape of Water’s appeal for del Toro, a well-known fan of horror movies, whose television series “The Strain” is now entering its fourth and final season.

It was “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006 that vaulted the Mexican director to the ranks of top talents, however, as The Shape of Water went on to be nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year and to win 3 Oscars for Cinematography, Art Direction and Make-Up. The Shape of Water has the potential to take home the golden trophy for all of those categories, plus snag acting nominations for cast members.

THE GOOD (It’s all good)

ACTING:

The Shape of Water

          Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in The Shape of Water.

It is difficult to select just one actor who would deserve an Oscar nomination, but it seems a foregone conclusion that the female lead, Sally Hawkins (Oscar-nominated previously for “Blue Jasmine”), will be nominated, as she has to play her entire role without words. (She is mute—but not deaf— in The Shape of Water). Jane Wyman (first wife of Ronald Reagan) won the Oscar as Best Actress in 1948 for playing a deaf mute in “Johnny Belinda.” The Academy loves lead characters with disabilities (think “My Left Foot,” for a more recent example). It’s going to be hard to argue that she doesn’t deserve to win when she had to play the entire role without speaking.

Then there is the wonderful Richard Jenkins, so good in everything. He played Nathaniel, the dead patriarch, on the television series “Six Feet Under” but has been working steadily since 1974 (80 films to the much younger Shannon’s 40) and is always believable and good. In this film he plays Giles, a gay man who is ostracized in the Cold War era because of his sexual preferences and also because his craft of painting commercial panels is being supplanted by photography. (*Small sidelight: Jenkins is from DeKalb, Illinois and has been married to his wife since 1969) .Jenkins joked (in Toronto) that he kept wondering “who dropped out” when he got the call that Guillermo wanted him for the role of Giles.

All the characters are fighting “aloneness.” Giles (Richard Jenkins) is but one of them.

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Closing night of the Chicago International Film Festival with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water(Photo by Connie Wilson)

Michael Shannon, whom Warner Herzog has called “arguably the best actor of his generation” (Shannon has worked with Herzog three times) is terrific, as always, as bad guy Richard Strickland.  When Shannon is onscreen, he commands your attention and you can only really concentrate on him.

I had the opportunity to speak with Michael Shannon on the Red Carpet and asked him these 2 questions: Citing such films as “Revolutionary Road,”( for which he was Oscar-nominated in 2008), as well as “Bug” in 2006, “Take Shelter” in 2011, “The Iceman” in 2012, and “Nocturnal Animals,” [for which he once again earned an Oscar nomination in 2016], how does he bring himself down to a more normal performance as an ordinary guy, as in the film “Mud”, which was also directed by Jeff Nichols, (a director with whom he has worked 5 times)?

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Michael Shannon in Chicago with Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.(Photo by Connie Wilson).

Shannon’s answer was this: “It’s a job. I’m an actor.  I just show up and do it.” He would repeat that answer from the stage during the Q&A.

When asked what his favorite film was, he said “Take Shelter.” I was surprised to get an answer from him, as often that is a question that actors don’t like to tackle, considering it a bit like naming their favorite child. However, it was clear from his joking-around demeanor that Shannon doesn’t necessarily behave exactly like other actors on the Red Carpet or elsewhere. (He even said as much from the stage later, commenting, “I wasn’t a normal person before I got there, and I wasn’t after I arrived.”)  [The character actor who comes closest to Shannon in tone or style, for me, is probably Bruce Dern in his prime, in films like “Black Sunday” and “Coming Home.”]

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Accepting his Tribute award after the screening of The Shape of Water in Chicago. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

Shannon was very humble in thanking both his agent, who had flown in from Los Angeles, and his best friend from the age of 14 on, as well as his stepmother. He shared how proud his deceased father would have been (Dad taught at DePaul in Chicago, and although Shannon got his start in Chicago,  he now lives in New York City).

Cast member Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for “The Help,” is also an actress who is reliably good, just as she was recently in “Hidden Figures” and “Small Town Crimes.” She said, in Toronto, that when she heard that Guillermo del Toro had written a role just for her in this film, she said, “Oh, Lord! I’ll play anything he wants. I’ll be a tree if he wants me to be!”

There are no bad performances in The Shape of Water, so take your pick of who you think will wind up with Oscar nods. Certainly Sally Hawkins and possibly both Shannon and co-star Michael Stuhlbarg, the most decent man in The Shape of Water (even if he is a Russian spy)  deserve a nomination and Richard Jenkins is overdue.

The script, written by del Toro with the assistance of Vanessa Taylor (who has worked on “Game of Thrones” and also scripted the “Allegiant” installment of “The Divergent” series) was written with each specific actor in mind all of whom joined the cast. Shannon joked, from the stage, that it was “A little like being indoctrinated into a cult” and said that the experience was “epic and overwhelming and very moving at times.” He added, “Guillermo has such a big heart and it was never more on view than in this film.”

Said del Toro of the project, “I wanted to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times.” He added, “I like to make movies that are liberating, that say it’s okay to be whoever you are, and it seems that at this time, this is very pertinent.”

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Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water(Photo by Connie Wilson).

The basic story was suggested to del Toro over breakfast in 2011 by another of his collaborators, Chicago native and author Daniel Kraus, who has collaborated with del Toro on the children’s series “Trollhunters.” It was a concept that Kraus had been mulling for some time. When he shared his story with del Toro, the director decided that would be his next film. The script was then crafted with certain actors in mind.

Sally Hawkins plays a mute cleaning woman (along with best friend on the cleaning staff Octavia Spencer) in a government lab who falls in love with a sea creature that has been captured somewhere in South America and brought to the lab for study. When it appears that the evil government scientists are going to kill the creature, cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), aided by her good friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) devise a plan to smuggle the creature from the laboratory and, eventually, release him back into the ocean.

The fact that an inter-species love affair begins to emerge between Elisa and the creature is an original idea that I’ve not seen portrayed before. (The only previous similar story I’d ever heard of involved the real-life prosecution of a human male who kept sneaking into the dolphins’ pool to have sex with the female dolphins—not quite the same vibe as depicted here.) Del Toro had said he wanted the monster to “get the girl” this time, after seeing so many films (“King Kong,” “Frankenstein”, etc.) where that didn’t  happen.

The Sea Creature becomes a huge part of the plot, of course, and it was important to del Toro that a real actor play the creature in the suit. Doug Jones, who has worked with del Toro for 20 years (and played a key role of The Ancient from 2014-2016 on television’s “The Strain”) was tapped to wear the suit—which meant that he faced grueling hours in the make-up chair each morning and each night. Even getting the suit on was quite the chore. Jones was the first on set in the morning and the last to leave at night, with at least 4 hours of make-up each day. Del Toro said of Jones: “We’ve been working together for 20 years and he’s done some of the most crucial roles in my movies.  He is one of the few guys who does creatures who is also a full-fledged dramatic actor.  Often those are two separate gifts, but Doug has them both.  He’s a fantastic actor, with or without makeup.”

Finally, four spectacularly intricate suits, each capable of becoming waterlogged, were made for the production by the team at Legacy in Canada. Said Jones, “The suit is super tight and inside it there are actual corsets to make it even tighter.  But we segmented the abdominal plates so that they do give a move a little bit. It’s not solid, so it can create the graceful motions the story demands of Doug. It took 4 people to hoist Jones into the suit and in some scenes Jones was entirely blinded by his prosthetic eyes. The Shape of Water’s visual effects supervisor, regular del Toro collaborator Dennis Berardi, began by creating an exacting digital double of Doug Jones in the prosthetic suit.  “We got to the point where we could do a digital version of the creature that could match up with Doug’s beautiful performance,” he says, adding, “Our hope is that the audience can’t distinguish at all between the digital version of the creature or the Doug Jones version.” (I’d say they completely succeeded.)

CINEMATOGRAPHY

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Michael Kutza, who founded Cinema Chicago 53 years ago (longest-running competitive film festival in North America) presents star Michael Shannon with his Tribute award on the closing night of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival in Chicago on 10/26/17. (Photo by Connie Wilson).

The Shape of Water’s shadowy atmosphere drops the audience into the depths of the story and Dan Laustsen’s creative cinematography was essential to achieving del Toro’s vision. During the Q&A following The Shape of Water’s screening, Michael Shannon commented that, “The cinematography is off the charts.” He said that, in his 40 films, that the work of Laustsen, a product of Denmark, was essential to The Shape of Water’s look and he was the best he’d ever seen.

Del Toro said, “Dan is a genius with light.  He was able to light The Shape of Water as if it was 1950’s black and white, even though we used color.  Said del Toro, “We did a lot of research on how to do dry for wet well, from how many frames per second to use to how you can create floating particles.  We knew the key was to create a video projection of caustic light on the characters that is very operatic.” Laustsen put the much-loved Arri Alexa digital camera to work and used Arri/Zeiss Master Prime lenses, which allowed for maximum precision. “Guillermo wanted lots of camera movement, and he likes very precise movement, so we worked with all kinds of cranes, dollies and Steadicams. It was very exciting.”

It seems inevitable that this film will and should be nominated in the Cinematography category at Oscar-time.

PRODUCTION DESIGN

Paul Denham Austerberry, with credits on such films as “The Three Musketeers” and “Amelia”, as well as “Assault on Precinct 13” and “Resident Evil: Apocalypse” was brought in to design the sets, including the period apartments of characters Giles (Robert Jenkins) and Elisa (Sally Hawkins).   Sally Hawkins said, “The sets were like stepping into a painting. That’s what it felt like, to me.” ( In both cinematography and sets, I was reminded of Martin Scorsese’s  elaborate “Hugo.”)

Another important area for production design was the laboratory where the creature is housed.  The creature’s room is a maze of pipework, ducting and cylindrical chambers. “For the creature’s compound,” said del Toro, “I wanted it to feel almost more medieval than modern, to add to the fairy tale feeling.”

Interestingly, the pipes that you see that look like heavy cast iron pipes are really all done out of Styrofoam.  Said Austerberry, “That set was such a complicated jigsaw puzzle.  We were working on it right down to the wire.  On top of everything else, we had to design everything to endure lots of water and steam and for a huge lighting job as well.” He had in mind Brutalist architecture, the concrete-heavy, function-based style that flourished from the fifties to the seventies.

Then there was the capsule, which was described as an iron lung in the script. “I pulled lots of historical references to iron lungs. There was one in particular that Guillermo loved.  He loved the color, the shape and the language of the materials.  It was one of the first things we designed actually, because it took over 8 weeks to make.  The idea is that the chamber is on wheels so it can then be attached to the larger pressurized cylinder in the laboratory to transfer the creature.”

The Shape of Water

Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler in The Shape of Water in Chicago on 10/26/2017. (Photo by Connie Wilson)

The ”command center” where Michael Shannon’s evil boss Strickland looks down from above was researched from fifties wall murals.  His office floats above the command center, overlooking the minions who work for him through the glass via an early closed-circuit camera system that we based on 1960’s TV studio set-ups.  “When you see Strickland behind this wall of images, it really speaks to how he sees himself as above everyone and privy to all information he can take,” Austerberry reflects.

Several scenes take place in the laboratory’s bathroom and locker room. These were shot in Toronto’s massive Hearn Generating Station, an old power station that has become an icon of a bygone industrial age.  “We looked at Hearn because it has tiled rooms. Unfortunately, the tiles in Hearn are cream and Guillermo was like, ‘We can’t have that color in this movie,’ so we ended up still using the location but hand-painting every tile to be in our color palette,” Austerberry relates.

The apartments that Austerberry designed for Elisa and Giles sit atop a classic bijou-style movie theatre.  To forge the exterior, he used Toronto’s Massey Hall, a designated National Historic Site of Canada, which was designed in neoclassical tradition by architect Sidney Badgley in 1894.

The walls were a major focus, and an exhaustive quest led Austerberry to a vintage Anglo-Japanese wallpaper pattern featuring little curves that subtly resemble fish scales, similar to an ancient Japanese engraving.  He then merged that pattern over a faded cresting wave reminiscent of 19th Century Japanese artist Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print, ‘the Great Wave off Kanagawa.’

“We had a scenic artist paint a beautiful version of the Great Wave in textured plaster and then we just layered and layered and layered over it until it’s basically gone, but you still sense there’s this shape of water on this wall. All of the walls in the apartment were created as “wild walls,” meaning that they were all on quick releases so that they could be moved at a moment’s notice to accommodate a roving camera.  In addition, the windows each had to be plumbed for the deluge of rain that leads up to The Shape of Water’s climactic moments.

The most challenging set of all was the modest retro bathroom, which is Elisa’s oasis from the world and becomes the creature’s refuge and the site of their deepening romance. “Our sets are generally made out of wood, Styrofoam and plaster.  But for this one we had to make everything out of aluminum and Bondo, instead of plaster, because it all would ultimately be submerged in a tank.  At one point we actually lowered the sets slowly into the tank so that you can see the water rise.  It was all very, very tricky to pull off, Austerberry describes.

With this kind of attention to detail, does anyone doubt that an Oscar nomination will follow?

THE MUSIC

Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat is noted for his collaborations with some of the world’s best filmmakers. He has garnered 8 Academy Award nominations.

Among his film scores are “The Girl with the Pearl Earrings,” “The Queen,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo,” “Philomena,” “The Imitation Game”  and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which won the 2015 Oscar for Best Score, “Unbroken,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and “Suburbican.”

It should be mentioned that Elisa and the sea creature have a lovely waltz scene, that made me think, immediately, of “La La Land.” It also has the mute Elisa very quietly whisper-singing the lyrics to the song “You’ll Never Know Just How Much I Love You.” (“If there is some other way to prove that I love you, I swear I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now.”)

VERDICT:

See this one. You’ll be sorry you didn’t at Oscar time. It’s likely  it will take home the gold statuette.
(*If you want to know even MORE about the difficulties with filming this amazing movie, check my blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com for those details, which are too lengthy to include here.)

Notable Quotes:  “If I could go back to when I was 18, I’d advise myself, “Take very good care of your teeth and fuck a lot more.”

  • “It’s just Baltimore. No one likes Baltimore.”
  • “You cannot, any under circumstances, kill this creature.”
  • “Count these stars. There are 5 of them. It means I can do whatever I God damn want.”(From General Hoyt)
  • “All that I am, all that I’ve ever been, brought me here to him.”
  • “When he looks at me, he sees me for who I am, for what I am.”
  • “If we do nothing, neither are we” (about being human & trying to save the creature).
  • “He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.”
  • “I don’t know if he’s a God. He ate a cat, so….” (Richard Jenkins after a small mishap with the creature)
  • “Life is but the shipwreck of our plans.”

Genre: Drama/fairy tale
Length:  119 minutes
Writer/Director:  Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor from an idea of Daniel Krause, Producer).
Cast:  Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
Music:  Alexandre Desplat

 

 

About Connie Wilson

Connie (Corcoran) Wilson (www.ConnieCWilson.com ) was the Quad City Times film and book critic for 15 years and has continued reviewing film uninterruptedly since 1970. She also publishes books (31 at last count) in a variety of genres (www.quadcitieslearning.com), has taught writing or literature classes at 6 Iowa/Illinois colleges or universities as adjunct faculty, was Yahoo’s Content Producer of the Year 2008 for Politics, is the author of It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, and writes on a variety of topics at her own blog, www.WeeklyWilson.com.

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