CRASH COURSE: 'The Shape of Water' Director Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water  (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017)

When the 2018 Academy Award nominations were announced last month, I was knocked out by the Best Director category. Comprised of well-known masters like Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, and Christopher Nolan as well as the fresh new voices of Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele, the category could not be more chock full of talent nor the race harder to call–yet one director seems to be taking the lead. The Shape of Water writer-director Guillermo del Toro has swept several of the season’s top prizes so far, having been honored by the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice, and most recently by his peers in the DGA. As one of his biggest cheerleaders, I want to share some background on the director and how his acclaimed fairytale love story came to be.

Del Toro is a Mexican filmmaker known for his highly visual storytelling and penchant for fantastical narratives. Educated as a special effects and makeup artist for film and television, del Toro began his career as a feature screenwriter and director with Cronos in 1993. He came up with fellow Mexican auteurs Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu and has partnered with them to form a company Cha Cha Cha films. His work history has been diverse, having collaborated with companies in Hollywood and Mexico, written stories in both English and Spanish, retold fairy tales as well as comic book narratives, and produced a live action horror series as well as an animated family show on Netflix. In short: he can do anything.

It’s no secret that del Toro owns an entire Victorian style mansion, in addition to his family home, filled with his vast collection of movie memorabilia, including life sized models of some of his own characters, like Hellboy’s Angel of Death or Pan's Labyrinth’s Pale Man. He has even allowed his personal collection to travel around the country for a few years, starting off at the LA County Museum of Art. Del Toro’s influences include classic horror movies such as those of Hammer Films or Universal’s original monster franchise. He’s an avid reader of Gothic fiction, with “Jane Eyre” and “Frankenstein” being a few of his greatest inspirations, as well as Mexican folklore and his family’s own ghost stories. I recommend checking out del Toro’s incredibly curated Twitter account where the director often imparts some of his exhaustive knowledge of art and cinema history.

Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester from Edmund Garrett's illustrations (1897)

Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester from Edmund Garrett's illustrations (1897)

Edith and Thomas in  Crimson Peak  (2015)

Edith and Thomas in Crimson Peak (2015)

Often pigeonholed as a “genre” filmmaker, del Toro is known for his bloody action flicks (like Blade II) and nightmarish fairy tales (like The Devil's Backbone), but these labels don’t do justice to the level of heart in each of his stories. Behind the monster makeup, del Toro has a lot to say about spirituality, love and, dare-I-say, the human condition. When describing his newest film, the director declared, “Fairy tales were born in times of trouble, in complicated times–when hope felt lost,” and in the same statement identified The Shape of Water as “an antidote to cynicism.” What makes del Toro such a master at fantasy is his ability to inject powerful human emotion into the most fanciful or grotesque storylines and set pieces.

Del Toro’s distinct style includes techniques like fairy tale narratives, dreamlike camerawork, and a vibrant and characterized mise-en-scène, including rich color palettes and highly detailed costume and set design. Pan's Labyrinth is my personal favorite and might even be his best film, even if it lost a lot more awards than The Shape of Water. It’s a great example of del Toro’s fondness for folklore-inspired stories, movie monsters, and anti-establishment morality tales. On the less horrific side, del Toro has also written and directed exceptional action movies like the Hellboy series and Pacific Rim. And if you’re as enthusiastic about Gothic romance as I am, I can’t recommend Crimson Peak enough. The highly underrated movie is a perfect mix of high camp, flowy dresses and well-meaning ghosts, making it the most visually stunning work in his filmography. It’s important to note that beauty is never just skin deep in a del Toro film; every gorgeous frame and saturated color exists to propel the story forward. In this way, del Toro has become one of the greatest visual storytellers in the industry today.

Pan's Labyrinth  (2006) 

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) 

After seeking out any of these gorgeous films and immersing yourself in del Toro’s artful fantasy-scapes, you can check out this recent interview with the director. Del Toro sat down with several college outlets to talk about his awards darling The Shape of Water and the interview includes a lot more wisdom and background on the film than I could possibly fit into this post. Don’t forget to follow @SneakPeekTV on social media, where we’ll be keeping up with del Toro’s race to the Oscars.