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 film, 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 film.
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 film’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 film 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.
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, will be up, as she has to play her entire role without words. (She is mute—but not deaf— in the film). Jane Wyman (first wife of Ronald Reagan) won the Oscar as Best Actress in 1948 for playing a deaf mute in “Johnny Belinda;” Oscar loves lead characters with disabilities (think “My Left Foot” for a more recent example.)
Sally Hawkins was Oscar nominated for playing the ordinary sister of Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and this part was written especially for her by Guillermo del Toro. 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 appears in. He played Nathaniel, the dead patriarch, on “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 play 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).
All the characters are fighting “aloneness.” Giles (Richard Jenkins) is one of them.
I have always loved Richard Jenkins in Ben Stiller’s comedy, “Flirting with Disaster,” one of the best comedies ever made. But we can’t forget his work in the television series “Olive Kitteridge,” for which he won an Emmy as lead actor, nor his film roles in “Killing Them Softly,””Norman,” “Burn After Reading,” “Fun with Dick & Jane,” “Me, Myself and Irene,” “Step Brothers” or “LBJ,” to name just a few.
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 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, (with whom he has worked 5 times?)
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.”]
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 and shared how proud his father would have been (Dad taught at DePaul in Chicago, and although Shannon got his start here, he now lives in New York City).
Cast member Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for “The Help,” is also an actress who is always good, just as she was in “Hidden Figures” and “Small Town Crimes” recently. 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 this film, 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 film, (even if he is a Russian spy.)
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. I wanted this story to take the form of a fairy tale in that you have a humble human being who stumbles into something grander and more transcendental than anything else in her life. And then I thought it would be a great idea to juxtapose that love against something as banal and evil as the hatred between nations, which is the Cold War, and the hatred between people due to race, color, ability and gender.” 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.”
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 Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist conceive 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 seen 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 doesn’t ever 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.”
The theme of being alone comes in with the creature, because he is the last of his species. “He’s also never been outside his river, so he doesn’t understand where he is or why. He’s being tested and biopsied all because the government thinks, ‘We’re going to use this thing to our advantage, somehow.’” And the Russians want him, too, if only so that their arch-enemies (the U.S.) don’t have him. The Creature was revered as a god in his original homeland and has some superhuman qualities, such as the power to reflect people’s desires back at them and the power to heal wounds more quickly. “He comes into people’s lives and he seems to expose and amplify whatever is going on inside a human being,” said Jones. Physically, del Toro told Jones that the creature should have the bearing of a sexy, dangerous toreador, but with the fluidity of the Silver Surfer. To make sure he was attractive enough for a human female to fall in love with him, del Toro said, “Every night, I took it to my home and got the female vote: enough ass or not enough ass? Enough abs or more abs? Shoulders bigger or slimmer? It just had to be a creature you could fall in love with.”
Guillermo had encountered Mike Hill at a horror film convention and del Toro set him on a mission (at his own expense ahead of filming) to create a model of the sea creature this way: “He said he wanted me to give the creature a soul. He wanted it to be something a woman could fall head over heels for in every way. So I started sketching a handsome looking version of a fish man, giving him kissable lips, a square jaw and doe eyes and I went from there.” Real-life fish like the tropical lionfish were used as a model for how the creature might eat and for its translucent bioluminescence. Work began on the creature’s facial elements, especially its eyes. “One of the early conversations with Guillermo was that he wanted the eyes to be changeable on set in order to change the mood or look of the creature. Since you can’t take Doug’s makeup off to change them, we ended up coming up with a magnetic system to interlock the eyes. It was the only solution. Once we were shooting, we would change the eyes 4 or 5 times a night.” A working set of gills was especially challenging because “we were dealing with a lot of water in some scenes. The gills give the creature an additional way of reacting without words, and we could use Doug’s breathing to enhance emotions like excitement, anger or affection.”
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 and 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 film’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.)
“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 film, Michael Shannon commented that, “The cinematography is off the charts.” He said that, in his 40 films, he had previously been a Deakins fan, but that the work of Laustsen, a product of Denmark, was essential to the film’s look. Working with monochromatic tones of color, they meticulously shifted light and texture to craft a more modern, yet desaturated look, full of deep-sea tones. Del Toro explained, “I knew I wanted the film to be monochromatic, so most of the palette is blues and greens with amber as a counter-balance. Red only comes in as the color of blood and love.”
Del Toro said, “Dan is a genius with light. He was able to light the film as if it was 1950’s black and white, even though we used color. The light is very expressionistic and full of shadows and I think feels very classic. For some of the underwater sequences, Laustsen harked back to the technique of shooting “dry for wet”, creating the illusion of water. This involved using heavy smoke, wind machines and projection to create a dripping, pulsating atmosphere akin to water, while allowing the actors to work with their eyes open, vital to their expressions.” 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.”
Dan Laustsen has shot more than 40 feature films, television movies and documentaries, both in his native Denmark and internationally. He has won (the Robert Award (Denmark’s version of the Academy Awards) for Best Cinematography 3 times and was nominated for the Swedish Academy Award (Guldbagge) for Best Cinematography. He shot “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “John Wick: Chapter 2.” This was Luastsen’s third collaboration with del Toro, following “Mimic” and “Crimson Peak.” It seems inevitable that this film will and should be nominated in the Cinematography category at Oscar-time.
(*Note: The scene I snapped above with “the 3 Michaels” onstage together came about when Michael Kutza (far right), Cinema Chicago founder asked about each star’s next project and learned that Michael Stuhlbarg is going to play opposite Kevin Spacey in a bio-pic about Gore Vidal. Stuhlbarg said he would be playing Vidal’s gay lover of 52 year. Kutza remarked, “Why doesn’t Spacey just come out and admit that he’s gay?” The 2 actors cracked up. A few days later, amidst some rather unsettling sexual harassment charges from years ago involving a 14-year-old male co-star of Kevin Spacey’s, he did, indeed, admit that he is currently living as a gay man, but said he has, at times, been bi-sexual.)
Sidney Wolinsky, ACE (Film Editor), a graduate of Brandeis University and San Francisco State University, has been an editor on “The Sopranos,” “Rome,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Cards,” and David Chase’s film “Not Fade Away.” He also edited the pilot episodes for “Sons of Anarchy,” “Blue Bloods,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “The Strain” and “Extant.” He received 2 Eddies for his work on “The Sopranos” and an Emmy for the “Boardwalk Empire” pilot.
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). Del Toro said, “I fell in love with the fact that Paul has a very strong opinion of design, meaning he could counter anything I talked about with new ideas. But even though Paul has great ideas, he’s also very practical, and that was important because this film had such a big scope, with complex sets and underwater shooting. He had to be able to orchestrate and manage all that.” 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 “Hugo.”
Another important area for production design was the laboratory where the creature is housed. “We didn’t want a lab that would come off as too sterile and bright. We want you to feel lots of unsettling things have gone on in there and it has some dark history.” 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 ”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 was 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.
Austerberry said, of the apartments of Giles and Elise: “Their apartments are like two hemispheres of the same globe, but we lit each half differently. With Giles, even if the scene was at night, we lit it like sunset in very warm tones. The color coding of Elisa’s apartment is aquatic, with cool lighting and lots of cyan. Hers is corroded by water, while his is not corroded at all. His is full of wood and golden light, very grounded colors because he is the grounding for Elisa, whereas Elisa’s apartment has the magical light of the cinema below it.”
Austerberry shares: “Guillermo brought us an image he had from a photograph competition in India with an old lady in a darkened room with a really aged textured and a cyan blue wall in the background and that became a big inspiration. We talked a lot about the idea that once this was a grand room but, at some point there was a fire and it never got repaired, so it looks very aged with that patina that Guillermo loves.”
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. Guillermo wanted the wall to be stark and subtle, but to tell a little story, if you knew what you were looking for. So, that’s how it became so finely detailed.” 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 film’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?
Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat is noted for his collaborations with some of the world’s best filmmakers, including Wes Anderson, George Clooney (currently on display with his score for “Suburbican”), Stephen Daldry, David Fincher, Stephen Frears, Tom Hooper, Ang Lee, Terrence Malick, Roman Polanski, and Angelina Jolie. 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.
His more recent work includes Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” and “Florence Foster Jenkins”, as well as “The Light Between Oceans and “Suburbican,” out now.
Luis Sequiera has worked with Guillermo on 3 successful seasons of “The Strain” on television. His feature film work includes “Charlie Bartlett” starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Hope Davis, “Mama,” produced by Guillermo del Toro with Jessica Chastain, “The Thing,” “Breach” with Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe, “Carrie” with Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace Moretz and “Thomas & the Magic Railroad.”
With this amount of background on the technical difficulties the cast and crew faced in making “The Shape of Water,” I’ll formulate something resembling more of a review next, but it should be clear that it’s going to be a very positive one for this film that easily could win it all in March.
Closing night of the Chicago Film Festival…26 days of non-stop movie watching, viewing over 40 films and still behind on the reviewing, so stop by as I keep on keeping on. And don’t forget that THE COLOR OF EVIL boxed set series is currently (through November) on sale for half-price as part of the boxed set virtual tour in E-book! Thanks for stopping by; please leave a message about anything you’ve read.