Fox Searchlight spent its stage time Deadline’s The Contenders event today with three female-led films. Guillermo del Toro was on hand with his fantasy adventure film The Shape of Water, the story of an unlikely relationship between Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a lonely mute woman who cleans the top-secret government facility that houses a captured “asset” (Doug Jones). “The movie is about the otherness,” del Toro told moderator Joe Utichi. “We live in times that are permeated by hate and fear … and I wanted to make the audience little by little fall in love with the other.”

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For the prolific director, designing the Amphibian Man (Jones) is just as important as the story.

“I started the design three years before production” del Toro said, “and funded the R&D to design because we were not designing a monster, we were designing a living man. … When I make a movie like this, I invest my salary — not only because I’m a bad businessman but also I’m an art collector. I create a terrarium so that the creature can exist in that terrarium.”

The filmmaker said The Shape of Water pays homage to his lifelong affection for creatures. “To me, monsters are different from anyone,” he said. “They’re a spiritual cosmology for me. I saw the creature of Frankenstein when I was a kid and I was transfixed and thought this was a Messiah I can dedicate my life to. They are a thing of beauty for me. If you see my movies, monstrosity exist in the human heart, not in appearance.”

Dayton and Faris
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Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton had high hopes at the early stages of making Battle of the Sexes. “We started this in 2015, which was a very different time,” said Faris. “We thought that it was going to be a celebration of women’s empowerment — that we would be celebrating maybe the first female president.” The film, which follows the moments surrounding the famed 1973 tennis match between world No. 1 Billie Jean King and fiftysomething ex-champ Bobby Riggs. “We knew the story about the Battle of the Sexes, the story we didn’t know was Billie Jean’s personal story, which we thought was an essential part of the whole picture. We wanted to give that intimate view of the character. We made it clear that we wanted to talk about her personal life in an area that she hadn’t presented to the public,” said Dayton, in depicting her King’s relationship with a female.

Although King herself was involved in the production, Dayton said it was important to make the distinction between the two eras. “One of the things we discovered is that Billie Jean at 73 is a fully realized American icon. We’re telling a story of a 29-year-old Billie Jean in a very difficult period. … We had to step away and focus on the 29-year-old version.”

McDonagh and Rockwell
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Director Martin McDonagh was at The Contenders to discuss his Searchlight pic Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. “After the last couple films, I really wanted to write a strong female lead for a film,” he told Deadline’s Anthony D’Alessandro onstage. “I saw billboards very similar to the ones you see in the movie on a bus tour through America about 17 years ago. Once I decided that whoever put those up was a mother, everything about Frances [McDormand] character fell into place.” He was onstage with Three Billboards co-star Sam Rockwell, who lauded McDormand’s performance. “She’s a force of nature. She’s John Wayne but also very vulnerable and warm. … It’s just an amazing performance.”