Now a four-time Oscar nominee with the spectacular success of his fantastical creature romance The Shape of Water, which took 13 Oscar nominations last month, writer/director Guillermo del Toro will always remember the first time he saw one of his project’s primary inspirations, the 1954 black-and-white monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon.
“Every Sunday, Channel 6 used to show all the Universal monster movies,” the director explained. “It was going to church and then coming in front of a TV, sitting down, and they showed three or four movies all day. It was like an all-day cinema.”
Nominated this year for Best Picture—as one of two producers on the outsized indie—as well as Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, del Toro sat down on Thursday night with co-writer Vanessa Taylor and Deadline’s Joe Utichi to discuss the scripting of one of the year’s most original pictures.
As monster aficionado del Toro tells it, watching films like Creature from an early age was informative in more than one sense, giving him a sense of his storytelling voice in terms of the choices he would—and wouldn’t—make. “I saw the creature swimming under Julie Adams—it was a gorgeous image—and I fell in love with it. Being the first time I had seen a love story at six—what I thought was a love story—I was waiting for the happy ending,” del Toro explained. “But then they harpooned the f*cking creature. I was like, ‘What? This is horrible.'”
In love with monsters for as long as he’s been in love with movies, del Toro had long planned to make a romantic creature feature like none seen before. “I did Hellboy 1, Hellboy 2. I tried to do a love story with Abe [Sapien, portrayed by Doug Jones] on the second one, but it didn’t satisfy me. I really wanted for them to get it on,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “In the Hellboy universe, it was not possible.”
Pitching Shape in its earliest iterations to Universal in the late 1990s or early 2000s, the film only began to crystalize when the director met with author Daniel Kraus for a meal at Toronto’s Sunset Grill. Del Toro immediately latched onto Kraus’ concept of a romance between a janitor and an aquatic god who she takes home, bought the rights to the idea, developed his screenplay and the rest is history.
Sitting alongside del Toro, Taylor recalled her first notions of what The Shape of Water would be. “I got a call saying that Guillermo had a project that he was really, really passionate about, that was very personal to him. It was going to be a smaller film, and would I want to hear the idea?” she said. “Then I came and I heard this idea and realized that it was this great period fairy tale that was really exciting, and was fortunate enough to work on it.”
For del Toro, Taylor became an integral piece of his filmmaking machine, who clarified aspects of the film that weren’t apparent to him early on. “The beginning, the middle, [and] the end were the same, and the relationships were all there, but then Vanessa identified the biggest missing piece. She said, ‘I think the subplot with the Russians should have its own momentum, its own story,'” the director remembered. “That was completely against my instincts, and then I thought A, she’s completely right, and B, I would never have seen it, so that’s a perfect collaboration.”
To hear more from Deadline’s conversation with the Shape of Water writing duo—including del Toro’s impressions on the greatest monsters ever designed—click above.