To understand Guillermo del Toro’s core drive and thematic interest when it came to The Shape of Water, look no further than the film’s title. “[Water] takes the shape of everything. It goes through the air, it’s invisible, it’s transparent, but it still has a lot of power,” Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat explains of the film’s central idea.
While del Toro was examining water’s shape in this love story between a mute janitor and a fish-man, the French composer turned his attention to the way water sounds, and the way it feels. Spending time in the Caribbean in his teens, Desplat is well acquainted with the sensation of immersing oneself in warm water—a feeling that feels like love.
So immersed was Desplat in his pursuit of water’s sonic representation that ideas manifested within him without conscious thought, resulting in an opening, arpeggiated melody that rolls forward in waves.
Buoyant and oozing with affection, Desplat’s score speaks powerfully to the metaphor at the crux of del Toro’s film.
At what point did Guillermo del Toro approach you about The Shape of Water? What compelled you about this project?
Three or four years ago we had sushi together, and he mentioned this story of a fish-man and a mute—a love story. That of course left me perplexed, and at the same time impatient, because I believe Guillermo is a true artist. He showed me the film last January, and I was in total shock by the beauty of the film. He’s made something, which I think is the most difficult thing, interweaving reality and imagination and bringing the audience into that world with no effort. It effortlessly takes you into his world, and that’s very rare.
Sometimes, it takes a while to accept what you see on screen, or it’s pure fantasy, but to mix both is really tricky. The way he directed the film is so flawless, with the camera always in motion, the presence of all these classic standards of American musicals. Actually, I was thinking that he had directed a musical, but I still had the music to write.
What was it like to watch the film without music? Having seen the final product, I can’t imagine the film without your score.
That’s where conversations with Guillermo, and my world of sound and music and imagination, came to life. I tried to capture the sound of water—or the feeling of water, more importantly. What does it feel like to be surrounded by warm water? I lived in the Caribbean, actually, when I was in my teens; I went to school there, and the sensation that you have when you put your body into this lukewarm water is something very special.
The way love and water play in the film gives you that sensation, because love also has this warm feeling. When you fall in love, when you see the person you love, there’s something warm that [emerges] inside you. Also, when you miss somebody you love, there’s a longing—there’s a little pain that mixes with that warmth, so it’s all these sensations that come from my experience that I tried to transpose to music.
How did you find your principal melodies for The Shape of Water?
I always say that to compose is to think. Playing is good, it’s useful, but it’s how your intellect puts the ideas together that will bring hands to write or to play. So, it’s really a combination of many things; hearing sounds, hearing layers of counterpoints, of chords.
We were talking about water…I must admit—it was completely unconscious, but the melody I wrote for the opening scene is actually made of waves. I did not do that on purpose, but by being completely immersed in this love and these water elements, I wrote a melody that plays arpeggios like waves.
I could have written another melody that’s not playing waves. That’s why it’s important, before you compose, that your intellect work, and combine with your instinctive emotions that come from watching the film.
Much of the score seems to conjure up the sense that you, yourself, are floating. Was this an intentional effect?
Of course. The movie starts underwater and ends underwater, so the driving force of the film is really clear: it’s water. Richard Jenkins’ voiceover explains that love is like water because it takes the shape of everything. It goes through the air, it’s invisible, it’s transparent, but it still has a lot of power. It’s a force that you can’t stop, so all these words, they make sense, and you try to capture that in music and sound.
It’s not only the chords, not only the melody. Actually, the two melodies—the main love theme and Elisa’s theme—actually merge later in the film, because they are separate at the beginning.
It’s also a matter of sound. How does it sound? How can you put the audience in a state of [immersion] with what is on screen, sonically? I suggested to Guillermo to put together an orchestra that could convey that. There’s some strings, but they don’t really play a major role in that film—there’s only one moment where they really play the theme out loud; the love theme, when she’s trying to find the creature who’s disappeared and he’s in the theater watching the film.
The rest of the time, it’s the flutes, and the accordion, and the whistle that are the elements, because I wanted the sound to be as if you were underwater. When you hear music from underwater, in the distance, there’s something blurred, and there’s an opacity to it. I wanted to find that sensation and emphasize it.
At the same time, I wanted the creature to have a sound that would be coming from South America—and the instrument that I was thinking of was the bandoneon, which is the tango instrument. So, I used the accordion, playing lines with the sound of a bandoneon. The whistle is [Elisa]—she’s carefree, and she can’t talk. But she can whistle, and actually, she whistles in the film.
Then, we thought, Oh, she’s whistling, waiting for the bus. Let’s use this whistling and make it become her sound, her voice, because it’s so thin, fragile, delicate, carefree, happy at times. And actually, I whistle, by the way. I’m the whistler [heard in the soundtrack].
At times, the whistling sounds strangely like a musical instrument all its own.
I myself am a flautist, so I whistled with a lot of expression—like you would play the flute, with some vibrato. I tried to give emotion without pushing too much, because it’s a movie that is very fragile, on one level. You have to keep the emotions restrained and beautiful and delicate. And I like whistling—it’s fun.
As a French composer, would you say that this score is intentionally French in its instrumentation?
Well, that’s for you to say—it might be. What I know is that Guillermo wanted a European type of score. We could mention Georges Delerue—these type of composers—but for me, it’s the movie that gives me inspiration, nothing else.
The accordion and the bandoneon have existed since the late 19th century. I did not invent the accordion and neither did other composers. It’s been there for many, many years, and I hear accordions playing waltzes in Mexican music, in Italian music. If you listen to Rocco e i suoi fratelli by [Luchino] Visconti, there’s a waltz by an accordion, so to me, there’s no folklore in using the accordion, especially the way I use it in this one. I don’t use the sound of the accordion as a French musette, typical Parisian ‘50s sound. Neither of the phrases that he’s playing are coming from musette—they’re coming from the tango. It’s different.
How did you find variations on your principal themes?
The storyline guides you, and it’s clear in the film that there’s some plateaus that you have to follow, and there’s a climax. There are several climaxes, like in a musical. Musicals are made of several climaxes that keep growing and growing; when you think it’s over, it still continues growing up in plateaus. That’s what I was trying to achieve.
If I would have started the opening scene, underwater, with a full orchestra blasting out and playing the theme— with all the strings and the brass—it would have killed the film. I would have had nowhere to go. So, it’s a matter of sculpting the music and making it take the shape of the storyline.
In del Toro’s films, danger is never far away, and extreme violence can present itself abruptly. What was your approach to the film’s thriller dimension, which is an essential component?
In this movie, the good and the bad are not who we think. In Michael Shannon’s character’s world, the bad are the cleaning ladies, the gays, people who are are alien to his world. The story will prove that he’s the devil, he’s the alien, he’s the non-human.
I decided not to play any theme for Michael Shannon’s character. He doesn’t have a melody; he doesn’t have a motif. He has music very late in the film that starts to show the devil in him, [exuding] so much dark energy. At times, when the general is patronizing him, the music is not playing drama—the music is playing something almost gentle, and then suddenly Michael Shannon’s character shows some feelings. We wanted the audience to feel for Michael Shannon, also, that he suddenly feels that his own great, beautiful world is falling apart.
Would you say there are jazz influences embedded in your score?
There’s a jazz influence in my music in general. In the score, there’s no rhythm section, so I would not consider it a jazz score like the one I did for The Secret Life of Pets, for example, which really is jazz from A to Z. In this one, one could say that the chords of the melody lines, and sometimes the instrumentation, can remind you of jazz, but the only piece of jazz that’s in the film that I wrote is the arrangement of “You’ll Never Know,” that Renée Fleming sings at the end of the film. That’s my arrangement, and that’s the only real jazz moment of the film
Did you have as short a window to compose music for The Shape of Water as you tend to have in your feature film work?
Yes, it’s part of my world, to be able to write music very quickly. Altogether, the writing and recording took me maybe six weeks. When you see a movie, your brain starts working. It’s like on a computer—there’s layers of work happening at the same time.
When the movie’s that beautiful—and I actually think this movie is a masterpiece—it makes your life much easier. You just have to put your hands on it and it takes you anywhere you want.
What was del Toro like as a collaborator on the film’s sound?
He’s a passionate, generous filmmaker. He’s a very sensitive man, he’s full of emotions, and when the music you play to him is right, you immediately can feel the feedback. He’s moved, he’s excited, he’s precise in his comments when something can be adjusted. It’s been a dream working with Guillermo. This movie has been one of my more beautiful collaborations through the years, and I think this movie is in the top, top list of the movies I loved working on, and I’m proud of.