Over the past seven years, Guillermo del Toro has worked to bring the love story between a mute janitor and a fishman from the Amazon to life, and now that he’s finally succeeded, The Shape of Water is a contender both for Best Picture and for Strangest Best Picture Nominee of All Time.
It’s also a delight, drawing on Capra-esque elements of the Golden Age of Hollywood to create a magical haze of optimism and innocence and pure love. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the mute janitor who lives above a movie theater and who works at a secret facility where the Cold War-era government stashes Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, with three hours of make-up). It’s Amélie meets The Creature From the Black Lagoon with just a hint of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Here are 10 fast facts about The Shape of Water.
1. IT PREMIERED IN THE THEATER IN WHICH IT WAS SHOT.
The stunning, turn-of-the-century movie theater that Elisa lives above (and drips water into) is the historic Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Canada. As a nice note of serendipity, it’s also where the film played at its Toronto Film Festival premiere. The Elgin (and its sister theater, the Winter Garden) were built in 1913 and originally designed to host vaudeville acts.
2. ELISA’S LAST NAME HINTS AT HER ORPHAN STATUS.
The main character doesn’t appear to have any family connections throughout the film, relying solely on the friendship of her closeted gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her last name suggests that she was abandoned as a child. “Esposito” means “exposed” in Italian and was used as a last name for babies left on the stoops of orphanages or otherwise given up for adoption.
3. HER NAME ALSO OFFERS A CONNECTION TO MY FAIR LADY.
Both Elisa from The Shape of Water and Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) from My Fair Lady are working-class characters who undergo a transformation that allows them to find their own voice. Elisa does that literally in the dreamy musical act where she professes her love, but discovering her voice is largely metaphorical, an act of refusing to remain silent in the face of oppression. The connection is purposeful, too. Hawkins studied Hepburn, among other classic actors, for the role, and Giles has a drawing of Hepburn in his apartment studio.
4. GUILLERMO DEL TORO WAS DRUNK WHEN HE PITCHED THE MOVIE TO HAWKINS.
As the story goes, del Toro was watching Antiques Roadshow when he got a call from Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, asking him to go to a 2014 Golden Globes party with them, promising they would all get drunk and sing together. Del Toro doesn’t drink often, but he needs a lot of booze to get him buzzed, and after downing a bunch of shots, Cuarón and Iñárritu confessed they weren’t going to drink. On his way to the exit, he ran into Hawkins (who wasn’t supposed to be there). He embraced her, lifted her up, and said, “I’m writing a movie for you! You fall in love with a fish man!”
5. DEL TORO GAVE HIMSELF A BIRTHDAY PRESENT IN THE MOVIE.
October 10th is the fated day that the rains will come to Baltimore and allow Elisa to release Amphibian Man at the docks, so there’s a lingering shot on the rip-off daily calendar page for October 9th, which is del Toro’s birthday.
6. THERE ARE SUBTLE NODS TO OTHER OCTAVIA SPENCER ROLES.
Spencer plays Elisa’s smart yet weary friend/co-worker Zelda, a role del Toro wrote for her. The Oscar-winning actress noted that the role was a blend of her roles in The Help and Hidden Figures, adding that she “would have played the desk had Guillermo asked” her to. In one scene, Strickland (Michael Shannon) jokes, “What am I doing? Interviewing the help?” while interrogating Zelda and Elisa—a reference to Spencer’s Oscar-earning performance. Later, he claims that God would look like him, or maybe her, but definitely not Amphibian Man; Spencer actually played God in The Shack.
7. DOUG JONES GOT INSPIRATION FROM DOGS AND MATADORS.
It took three hours for Jones to get into the suit and special make-up to become Amphibian Man, which was actually less than normal for the actor who appeared as the Pale Man in del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and as Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies. Jones told NPR that, in playing a character that cannot speak, he studied the way dogs respond with their heads and bodies to our vocal tones. He also utilized the pelvis-first movements of matadors to create Amphibian Man’s alluring, fluid body language.
8. A CAR ALMOST CRASHED INTO DEL TORO DURING A SHOT (THAT THEY KEPT IN THE MOVIE).
There’s a scene late in the film when Strickland furiously drives to confront Elisa about harboring Amphibian Man. Michael Shannon was supposed to park outside the movie theater, but he rushed from the car without shifting it out of gear, so the car kept going, crashing through a decorative post. “Shower of sparks,” del Toro told The Hollywood Reporter’s directors’ roundtable. “Goes for the second post, and it’s coming straight for the video system. Everybody says, ‘Run!’ Now, I never run for anything in my life! And I go, ‘I am going to die.’ And the car stops at the second and final post, which is anchored to the ground. Everybody was horrified. And I say, ‘Now I can make my shot.’”
9. THE ONLY CHARACTERS WHO DON’T HAVE TROUBLE COMMUNICATING ARE THE MUTE ONES.
One sly touch that reinforces the film’s subtext of connecting with someone different from you is the ease of communication between Elisa and Amphibian Man, despite not speaking a common language. Their relationship comes effortlessly while, as del Toro explained, “every single character that has the power of speech has problems communicating.”
Strickland sees anything beyond giving or obeying orders as weakness; Giles has to muster the courage to convey his feelings for another man (and when he does, it’s disastrous); Zelda talks near-constantly but can’t find common ground with her husband; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) speaks multiple languages, but struggles to find the words to simultaneously placate the KGB and his American colleagues.
10. JONES AND HAWKINS SAID “I LOVE YOU” BEFORE TAKES.
The combination of their innocence and effortless, fiery sensuality was a product of the actors trusting one another, which takes a lot of work. That included taking dance lessons together to get a sense of their mutual physicality, as well as sharing personal insecurities with each other so they could be completely vulnerable. “I was scared,” Jones told the Los Angeles Times. “I think we were both scared. Before almost every take, we’d hold each other, caress each other’s faces, say, ‘I love you. I’m so glad you’re here.’”