Telluride Film Festival Review: The Shape of Water

The film The Shape of Water (2017) is the realization of a fairy tale idea Guillermo del Toro has been imagining since he was a young boy.

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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Fairy tales can be real … if you are Guillermo del Toro.

The film The Shape of Water (2017) is the realization of a fairy tale idea the filmmaker has been imagining since he was a young boy. The first drop of water fell when the youngster watched the film The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1957). The whole film fascinated the young del Toro but one scene in particular started a tide of reactions. Looking up through the water, as the heroine swam above in her white bathing suit and the creature circled in the depths below her, stirred three things. The first was a natural young boy’s reaction to the sensuality. The second was the realization it was the most beautiful, romantic image he’d ever seen. The third was the hope that the girl and the creature would end up together. That didn’t happen. This film is the culmination of trying to rectify that.

Early on, del Toro knew the idea he was striving for had a fairy tale quality. But, knowing the heart of the story does not always lead to the path best taken to get there. He struggled for years to find the outlet where the story would flow naturally. When a friend mentioned he always wanted to see the telling of a story from the point of view of the janitorial staff of a secret research facility, del Toro found the source from which his story could flow. He and co-writer Vanessa Taylor created an intimate, character-driven fantasy story. In order to flesh out a believable reality in such a story, there is a need to attract a great cast. Here, del Toro has an advantage. Richard Jenkins, who delivers an award-worthy, eccentric neighbor supporting performance, observes, “It was very clear in this script that all of the secondary characters have lives outside of the pages, a rarity to find in scripts.”

Script EXTRA: Movie Ideas – Why Didn’t I Think of That?

In a helpful writer/director’s tact, those indicators in the script were bolstered by del Toro, providing access to fully prepared backstories if the actors wished to see them. Some of the actors decided to ferret it out on their own, guided by del Toro’s direction, others embraced the provided insight into their characters, while some even went further in filling in further details to completely flesh out the true-to-life performances. And all these performances were truly remarkable.

Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The Cast

Sally Hawkins overflows with powerful sympathy as Eliza Esposito, a mute cleaning woman in a top secret military research facility, played with exquisite silence. Truly an awards-worthy performance whose only competition may be her own self in her equally powerful title role in Maudie (2016), released earlier this year. The antagonist, Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, was a scenery and candy-chewing joy to watch. Guillermo del Toro relied once again on the perfectly inhuman performance by the anonymously famous Doug Jones as “the Asset” and love interest.

Supporting these leads along with Richard Jenkins’ quirky neighbor are Eliza’s best friend and chatterboxy co-worker, Zelda, played with joyful complaining by Octavia Spencer and the evil scientist with the secret heart of gold (and other secrets) Dr. Hoffstetler played by Michael Stuhlbarg and many, perfectly cast others.

Script EXTRA: Master Class with Director Catherine Hardwicke

The Production

Guillermo del Toro’s attention to detail went far beyond the character development. To have a lead character in full body prosthetics took careful design and planning, a process that took over three years. Luckily his history as a makeup sculptor, working under the great Dick Smith when he was young, allowed del Toro’s hand to guide the whole development with Legendary Effects to assure the right look, feel and performance quality. That same attention to detail throughout all aspects of the project by the writer/director was not a restriction for the art and production teams. It was more an inspiration to take his concise, specific ideas and evolve them into collaborative, fully realized sets and designs.

It is amazing that they were able to pull off so much with an under $20 million budget. They were greatly supported by their production collaborators and studio. They shot between seasons of The Strain on the same lot and using some of the same sets and materials. The producers admit they begged, borrowed or possibly stole the rest of what they needed in order to complete the look and atmosphere of a much higher budget picture.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t spend all their time and efforts furiously. In an unusually generous industry rarity, del Toro gave the cast three weeks of rehearsal, slowly building the characters and story arcs from small ripples to crashing waves of emotional import, collaboratively. Then, knowing what was needed to flow through the emotions of the story, del Toro was able to shoot only the shots necessary, eschewing cover shots when he knew he got what will merge together smoothly downstream.

Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

The Story

When love happens it doesn’t matter the obstacles. Love, like water, flows around all impediments and shapes itself to fill whatever container it finds itself in. The story is set in America in 1962, the last time the American Dream® was believably in reach. A mysterious government research facility with floor upon floor of secret experimental labs, all needing to be nightly cleaned and sanitized. There, our heroine, mute cleaning lady Eliza, “meets” the “Asset,” a creature found and controlled, viciously by the military to study it for strategic advantage. Curiosity leads to discovery, compassion leads to action. The course of the story starts with trickles of intrigue and builds through rapids of action and suspense, giving a wild ride to the audience as they rush towards the waterfall of consequences from the actions taken.

Script EXTRA: Importance of Logical Conclusions in Storytelling 

The film is filled with intricate detail throughout, all tied to a wonderful and fulfilling story. The metaphor of water permeates the screen, seeping into the characters and actions. The use of color, lighting, camera work and set design blend seamlessly into a rich experience for the audience. There is much to drink in, much more than can be gulped in one sitting. The film has a lasting quality, bathed in lots of detail. It is an instant classic, destined to be revisited from generation to generation.

It was a darling at the Telluride Film festival, loved by critics and the public alike, and won the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival. The worst complaint I heard was that they were thirsty for more. It will certainly surge in expectation as the awards season continues and will hit the shores of public opinion with lots of promise. It will not disappoint.

The Shape of Water should be around for ages, after all, love stories, well told, are timeless.

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