“What a morning,” says Guillermo del Toro of a day he won’t soon forget, as his film The Shape of Water leads this year’s Oscar nominations with 13 total nods. “13 is a great number now, and it’s happened to the best movie of mine, that I love. It’s a good club to belong to, you know.”
In December, I documented del Toro’s struggle to write and mount The Shape of Water, and spent time with the director on set. Today, he collects three Oscar nominations personally, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Director. “It’s been such a long journey,” he tells me this morning. “In hindsight, people will say, ‘But of course,’ but every time you take a risky mad dash on a premise like this—or like Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone— when you’re doing alchemy as delicate as this with genre, you never know. It can go either way. There is no hindsight in this. This is a contact sport. You go at it, and you clash with the material. The one thing you learn in a quarter of a century of doing this is there’s no such thing as a sure bet. So this is a really beautiful morning.”
Del Toro saves his most touching words for his collaborators, without whom, he says, he wouldn’t be here. “The way you hedge those bets is to surround yourself with the best people,” he insists. “In the case of The Shape of Water, most if not all of the nominees are first-time nominees. These are people that you’ve met and worked with—in many cases, through the years—and you bet on their capacity and their commitment. And if you arrive alone at this stage, you’re doing something wrong. To arrive with strength is to arrive with your cast and crew. If the movie works, it’s because everyone executed what they needed to execute delicately and committedly.”
Many of his collaborators on Shape came from his TV series The Strain, which shot in the same Toronto soundstage as his heralded film. “I got to see how great the Canadian sound design team were at designing and mixing,” he says. “[Editor] Sidney Wolinsky, who I met on the pilot of The Strain and said, ‘His instincts are great and this is a true seasoned pro.’ One of the things that convinced me to work with him was he worked on Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven. There’s [DP] Dan Laustsen, who I’ve known since Mimic in 1997, and who is one of the best living cinematographers. And [production designer] Paul Austerberry, whose ingenuity in genre movies I genuinely adore.”
Filmmaking is a team sport, Del Toro says, “and I think the most intimate partnerships, and the most sacred ones, are with the actors. On the actors, you stack your full bet. Between you and your audience, the visuals make things richer and make things feel symphonic. But the actors deliver the emotion, the story and the depth. When you write the parts for them it’s like writing a song and hearing the singer you wrote it for sing it for the first time. If you feel elated, there’s magic happening, and that happened with me when I started working with Sally [Hawkins], Richard [Jenkins], Octavia [Spencer] and the entire cast.”
The Shape of Water, won the top prize at the PGA Awards recently, after del Toro took home the Best Director trophy at the Golden Globes. Of the last 10 films that took home the PGA Award, eight of them have ended up winning the Best Picture Academy Award, which stood The Shape of Water in good stead even before this morning’s nominations sweep.
Del Toro’s picture, about a mute woman’s compassion that evolves into love for a creature that lives underwater, also took home the Critics’ Choice Award. But The Shape of Water really started its awards season by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last September.
Producers are J. Miles Dale and del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Vanessa Taylor.