His latest film, The Shape of Water, which won Best Director at the BAFTAs, went into the Oscars as the de facto front-runner, with 13 nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture, which it won. It's a visually dazzling, emotionally daring, genre mash-up — a romantic, poignant, funny other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning woman, is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment with a gilled monster captured in South America that the Russians are desperate to obtain.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures release also features Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg, and a stellar team of collaborators behind the camera that includes DP Dan Laustsen, production designer Paul Denham Austerberry, film editor Sidney Wolinsky, VFX supervisor Dennis Berardi and composer Alexandre Desplat.
Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the Oscar winner talks about making the film, his love of post and visual effects.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
“It was always going to be a fairytale, but one that allowed me to mix lots of genres and influences, like melodrama and Douglas Sirk, musicals and Stanley Donen, and the comedy of silent movies. Generically, it was a very fluid movie and a love letter to movies, and I always wanted it to have a very magical, other-worldly feel like a fairytale.”
What themes did you want to explore?
“Mostly the idea of empathy and love — love for ‘the other,’ and ‘the other’ is an illusion in many ways. So I wanted to create a beautiful story about love and hope and purity as an antidote to the cynicism and stresses of the world today. And then I wanted to juxtapose that pure love against the opposite impulses of nations, which in this is symbolized by the Cold War, and all the tension in our world between different races and religions.”
Why did you use a mute woman as your lead to examine the theme of love?
“Because the great thing about love is that it is so incredibly powerful, it doesn’t really need any words, and I thought it’d be interesting to have two leads who don’t speak, but who fall in love and communicate in other ways. And when you take away all the usual words, I think it really heightens the love story between them.”
Which classic monster films influenced you?
“A lot of films from my childhood, like Creature From the Black Lagoon, and a lot of sci-fi movies from the ‘60s, but I wanted to turn and twist all that on its head. So instead of the government agent played by Michael Shannon being the good guy and hero, it’s the monster who’s really the hero of the story, not the villain. And all that’s just one strand of a very complex fabric. So I didn’t study any of those monster, sci-fi influences in preparation for the film. I studied Stanley Donen, Sirk, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus, as I wanted it to be more sensual and adult than just a fairytale.”
Why did you set it in the early ‘60s?
“I needed a period that paralleled today and the ‘60s occupy a very large place in the American imagination as there was a lot going on in that time period, with Camelot, the Cold War, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement. And there was both so much prosperity, but also so much division in terms of racism, gender inequality, the politics. So I felt it was a great backdrop for the love story, and that it also obliquely offered a way of addressing some of the problems we face today.”
How tough was it designing the creature?
“It took a lot of work to get it exactly right — two years of developing and designing it with a team of artists and sculptors using designs and clay models, and then one year to execute it. Frankly, it’s the most complicated creature I’ve ever designed because it’s not a monster, it’s a leading man.”
How early on did you start on post and all the VFX with Dennis Berardi?
“For me, post always starts in pre-production as there are certain aspects of it that you need to pin down early even if you don’t yet have the budget for it. This had a very tight budget so we began doing previs and deciding what was going to be the shot in various sequences. And then I also turn over sequences at the end of the very first week of the shoot. I edit every day on set, on the video assist, before I sit down later with the editor, so if you came to the set, I can show you the entire movie up until that day. And that way I can turn over shots to Dennis and the editor as we go so they can start work on them immediately. I think we’re one of the most efficient workflows and post production turn-over machines ever because of that.”
Do you like the post process?
“I love post because it really is the one part of the process where you’re really writing and creating the movie. Before post and production you’re just typing the movie, and then during the shoot you’re just trying to hold the movie together, and then finally in post you have all the pieces and all the letters of the alphabet in front of you, and you start making the film. To be honest, post is the only part of the whole process I really enjoy. I like coming up with ideas and designing, but I don’t really like shooting, writing or pre-production. There’s so much scrutiny over everything and you’re having to deal with budgets and schedules and logistics. But then you get to post and if you did your job right, then it becomes very relaxed and creative. And I’m not the type of director who fixes it all in post, as I already know what the movie is, so it’s the most enjoyable part of the whole process for me.”
Where did you edit and post this?
“We shot at Cinespace Studios in Toronto, and we set up an editing suite at Cinespace, and began assembling while I was still shooting. All the post was done in Toronto, and all the key post people like Dennis, the sound designer, the editor and so on were from Toronto.”
Tell us about working with editor Sidney Wolinsky, the veteran Emmy winner whose credits include The Sopranos, House of Cards and Boardwalk Empire, and who worked with you on The Strain.
“We worked every day on the edit during production, and the big challenge was pulling all the different story elements together, making it all flow and dealing with the final running time. Engineering the movie isn’t the problem as I know exactly what I’m going to shoot, almost down to the frame. But what is difficult is that I end up with a movie that’s two hours fifty minutes long, and reducing the first 20 minutes takes just one day, and then reducing the next 10 minutes takes four weeks of hard work, and then reducing the final 10 minutes takes months and months and months, and that’s the most challenging part of the whole edit.”
With a mute leading lady, sound and music must have been more important than ever to you?
“Absolutely, and I began to pre-plan the music even in the early stages of screenwriting, as I knew exactly what I wanted — a mix of Tin Pan Alley and romantic musicals, and it was all in the script. It told you what you’d hear. And I also knew from the very start that I wanted Alexandre Desplat to score it, and he brings both so much intelligence and emotion at the same time — and normally you get one or the other. And while he can give you all that emotion, he’s never sappy. He has this elegance and he measures very carefully where we have to go musically, and when I saw the first cut with his music, it all flowed so perfectly.”
Who did the VFX work and how many visual effects shots are there?
“Dennis Berardi, whose credits include Fight Club and Sully, founded Mr. X in Canada and they did all the VFX. We had hundreds of shots, some very complex, and while the creature is completely real, we had to do all the micro-gestures like the eyes and blinking and nostrils, and we used a half-mask so we could track the actor’s face and then animate all the gestures. The result is a perfect blend between the real and all the VFX. And we did a lot of VFX work on Baltimore, recreating the city digitally from archival photos, as it doesn’t look anything like it used to. I wanted it to feel photo-real, yet also like a dream or fairytale.”
What was the most difficult shot to do?
“I’d say the whole underwater opening sequence was very challenging to do. We kept adding fish, taking them out, adding distortion to the water, taking it out, and it took a very long time to get it just right.”
The film won several Oscars and got awards season buzz. How important is that to you?
“It’s very important for the longevity of the movie, and it’s extremely flattering when your peers give your film attention. Of course it’s not why you make a film, but the recognition is very gratifying.”