The Toronto International Film Festival welcomed back the return of its honorary resident this year, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, with the Canadian premiere of his new feature The Shape of Water as part of their Special Presentations series.
Set in 1962, The Shape of Water hearkens back to 1950s creature features like The Creature From the Black Lagoon with its story of a deaf janitor (played by Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a mysterious aquatic creature (played by regular del Toro star Doug Jones). The creature is unfortunately the prisoner of the U.S. government – with its operative played by Michael Shannon – and is set to be dissected and studied. Del Toro is no stranger to bizarre love stories and finding the beauty in ugliness. His past works, like The Devil’s Backbone, Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth are all about the intersection of love, beauty, and the grotesque. During TIFF’s press conference and after the movie’s premiere del Toro – introducing himself as “the Mexican Michael Moore” – did a Q&A alongside the cast to discuss the film’s placement in our current political world, and remaining faithful to his Mexican roots.
On Why He Set The Shape of Water in 1962
We tried to make [The Shape of Water] as close to an indie movie as we could with a Mexican in the middle. For most people this thing started two years ago. If you’re Mexican and cross the border it never went away; it depends on who you talk to. It’s like cancer. We have a tumor, but it’s not like it started with that tumor. I set it in 1962 because when people say ‘make America great again’ that’s what they’re thinking of. America was looking at the future, the space race; everything was great if you were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. It’s crystallized into a carrot that’s carried around, it’s a false memory.
Searching for Allegory in Storytelling
It was important to be as allegorical as we can without stomping the story. It’s there and built as a reflection of what can be done. I do hope the world lasts [long] enough that we can start repairing it again. The pendulum swung back 30 years in the last year and a half. It’s very troublesome…but it’s a sign of reality. Let’s stop fooling ourselves and get to work on fixing it ourselves.
How The Shape of Water Differs from Other Fairy Tales
The ideas I wanted to put into the movie [was] the reversal…was to make the guy who is usually the good guy in the ‘50s movies with the nice suit and the square jaw was make him the bad guy. So everybody who rescues the creature is invisible to the eyes of the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant guy.
On Staying True to His Mexican Roots and Filmmaking
I believe in roots. I don’t believe in geography. Geography is bullshit someone invented to keep us apart. Governments control us by geography. When you’re born in the world, from a satellite Mexico and America look the same. No matter how much you try, you cannot deny where you’re from.
When people say “what’s Mexican about your movies?” I say, “me.” It’s just a special brand of madness that makes us make alebrijes that’s more important than having nationalistic values to me. I’m a citizen of any country where I feel love; I’m a momentary citizen of that country. I’m at home in Mexico. I’m at home in Canada. The one thing we need to reclaim as storytellers is to have no shame. When I went to America they kept giving me mariachi, drug dealer [stories]… you wouldn’t give that to Cronenberg.
My Hispanic roots, my Mexican roots come with me all the time. The main thing for me is when I was a kid I wanted to make movies with monsters, and I’ve never betrayed it. The important thing for me, as a Hispanic, is just to exist as an example of a very deranged fat fucker…and for other crazy [future filmmakers] in Latin America to dream about fables, fairy tales, and not be tied [down].
On Why Latin America Lacks Genre Filmmakers
I think realism is amazing, but not every filmmaker has to be realistic in that sense, just be emotionally realistic. Many of our… governmental help for filmmaking [in Latin America] says it’s only valuable if it’s social drama. I say no there’s art and beauty and power like in the primal images of fantasy and parable.
On Directing Another Film in Mexico
Yes, in fact secretly each of us have talked about that many, many times. We need to do it with the right story, and I want to very much. The stories don’t come to you because you want them, they happen. Sometimes they come to you at breakfast…you never know. The talent is recognizing them. I have a couple stories set in Mexico that are incomplete, I can’t finish them. It’s a mystery for everyone. It will happen, hopefully.
On the Film’s Overall Message and Acknowledging Difference
We live in a time where it’s super easy to give credence to fear and hatred. When we see the standard and ideology that we get of what is normal and what isn’t, it’s the most fucked up thing in the world because it makes it impossible. Perfection is the thing that makes us all unhappy. Imperfection and loving it is what makes us happy. [I always say] uniformity is madness and difference is sanity [and] a relationship is made of differences. It’s why Mexicans serenade each other because that’s the only one to convey the impact of love. We wake up in the morning and we can choose between fear and love. We are bad and good everyday, but the way you end your story is very important. It’s important we chose love over fear because love is the…answer to everything.”