Empathy for the Other: Guillermo del Toro talks 'The Shape of Water'

Photo: KUTV

(KUTV) When I talked to Guillermo del Toro about “The Shape of Water,” our conversation was dominated by “the other,” or “the otherness,” the sense of being outside of the accepted norm. On the surface, “The Shape of Water” is a creature feature, a film built within the frame of a classic Universal Monster movies where the creatures were often capable of violence, but they were also capable of love or, as del Toro suggests, empathy.

That’s why for me the monster assuage is a cipher; it’s a symbol. It’s an embodiment of, more than anything else, the ‘otherness;’ the beauty of imperfection. But in this case, even more so. We’re not creating a creature, we’re creating a leading man. We’re creating an elemental god from a river. So the beauty of that creature, and the power of that creature and the menace of that creature add three more layers that you need to add to this. But there is an empathy for the ‘other’ in the early Universal Monster movies that is almost completely absent in the modern genre.

Now, ‘The Shape of Water,’ what is it? Is it a thriller, a comedy, a musical? What is it? It’s its own thing.

Knowing that a dark fairytale for adults was going to be a difficult sell, del Toro paid for much of the early pre-production from his own pocket. I asked him what it was about this project that was so pressing. Why did this film need to get made?

His answer gives a deeper subtext to the film. Frankly, del Toro’s personal connection to this story makes an already heartbreaking experience that much more poignant.

There are three films in my case where I have sort of resurrected myself out of a moment that is very, very difficult. One was 'The Devil’s Backbone,' the other one was 'Pan’s Labyrinth' and this is the third. And it came at a really, really, really difficult time in my life. I needed to talk about acceptance and love in a very urgent way. I feel it as an immigrant that has been received by this country, but I still feel there is sort of the demonization of ‘the other’ very present. I needed to talk about the beauty of ‘the other.’ I feel that there’s toxicity in the air, there is cynicism and I need to talk about love without sounding disingenuous or sappy but, yes, emotional. I thought the movie could be an antidote to these things that I was feeling.

Some will see “The Shape of Water” as a silly, inaccessible story about a woman who falls in love with a hideous creature. I saw it as a film about lonely outsiders who deserve to be loved or loved better. I now see so much more.

When I suggest that when he started to work on “The Shape of Water” the world was a different, more accepting place, del Toro corrects me.

If you had been an immigrant, things look a little bit different and you could see that they were underground and that’s the thing they came froth. They were not on the surface, they were hidden, but they were still there, man.

I don’t mind the correction; I appreciate it. I think that there are many who look back on President Obama’s presidency through brightly colored glasses. I thought that things were getting better, that racism was withering on the vine. I forgot to consider the roots, which are deeply entrenched.

“The Shape of Water” is set in 1962, a time that nostalgia suggests was far more innocent, but in del Toro’s film the era’s skeletons are dragged from its closet. Yes, it was great to be a straight white man in the 1960s.

It’s a very divisive time. It is a time of toxic masculinity, gender discrimination, race discrimination, riots, the Cold War. What it is? It is today. It is a perfect mirror, but is also a torturous time to go back because a lot of people when they crystallize the idea of the ideal America, the great America, it is that time. But it’s not the real time. It is the sort of cookie cutter, sort of cleaned up version of that era. It was not that way. I wanted to show that today is then and then is today.

The only thing that Jesus, Buddha and the Beatles agreed upon is ‘All you need is love’ and let’s talk about it, without fear, with as much heart as we can and as much intelligence as we can.

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