As should be clear by now, monsters are anything but monstrous to Guillermo del Toro, whose Venice hit The Shape of Water from Fox Searchlight portrays the surreal love affair between mute military-base cleaning woman Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a captured psychedelic fish-man (Doug Jones) against the backdrop of Cold War America.

“To me, monsters are different from anyone,” said the Mexican director at Deadline’s seventh annual The Contenders awards-season event last month. “I’m not being facetious, this is not a line. They’re a spiritual sort of cosmology for me, a thing of beauty. You see in my movies that, for me, monstrosity exists in the human heart, not in appearance.”

Del Toro takes his monsters so seriously that he began work on The Shape of Water’s creature design some three years before production started, paying with his own dime. “It took us two years to design it, and one year to execute it,” he explained. “I funded the R&D and the design stage because we were not designing a monster, we were designing a leading man, y’know? When I make a movie like this, I invest my own salary, not only because I’m a bad businessman but because I’m an art collector [and] I want to have this hanging over my mantelpiece. And I think the creation of the atmosphere – the sets, the wardrobe, the creature – for me, this is not eye candy, it’s high-protein. It tells you the story.”

For all his interest in style and surface detail, del Toro recognizes that no fantasy can fly without putting a heavyweight cast in place first. In the case of Shape of Water, Britain’s Hawkins, the breakout star of Mike Leigh’s 2008 realist drama Happy-Go-Lucky, was always his first choice for Elisa.

Check out our conversation above.