Guillermo del Toro’s new film The Shape of Water offers a dark and whimsical twist on the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Not since Pan’s Labyrinth has Guillermo del Toro created such a dark yet whimsical movie, his latest film The Shape of Water serving as a love letter to his younger self who grew up feasting on monster movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon.

In this shape-shifting confection, part love story, part thriller, part monster movie, Sally Hawkins gives a deeply touching performance as a mute cleaner at a secret government facility who falls in love with an amphibian creature held captive there.

Rather than boning up on sign language, del Toro sent his leading lady a box of Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin DVDs. “I wanted her to watch the way they move because it’s basically a silent performance. I also asked her to look at Audrey Hepburn because I wanted the film to feel classic,” says the director when STACK meets with him at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“I had this idea for a movie about a janitor that meets an amphibian man”

To portray his Amphibian Man, he looked no further than longtime collaborator Doug Jones, marking their sixth collaboration over 20 years. “I never set out to do monster work,” says Jones. “When I first came to Hollywood in 1985, I didn’t think I would be a sitcom star or play the next-door neighbour. I’m six-foot-three, 185 pounds, and fortunately the picture effects people took to me immediately. They were able to build monsters on me, because I’m not too bulky and have a sense of movement.”

Jones’s head-to-toe transformation took three hours in the make-up chair: “Guillermo and I have a shorthand, and it’s a usually a couple of key words. This time it was ‘I want you to channel a little Silver Surfer’, who I played in the Fantastic Four sequel; he’s a little bit of that and a little bit of matador – they’re smooth and graceful and powerful, and you want that with a raw, animalistic performance,” says the actor whose previous films with del Toro include Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak.

The Shape of Water

Reflecting on his childhood obsession with monster movies, del Toro, now 53, says, “I was six years old when I first saw the creature swimming with Julie Adams in the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world, and hoped that Julie would get together with the creature. But they didn’t. For years I tried to do it as a straight homage/reverse on the sci-fi part, but then I had this idea for a movie about a janitor that meets an amphibian man, in a cylinder in a secret government facility – and takes it home.”

The Shape of Water also features Michael Shannon as the government agent who first brings in the mysterious part-man, part-fish creature captured in South America, and Octavia Spencer as Hawkins’ co-worker. Spencer, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Help, was so thrilled to work with del Toro, she didn’t even mind being pigeonholed as the cleaning lady.

“She felt very different to other women because Guillermo allowed me to have a point of view, and not be so subjugated, so even though we were subordinates, they allowed me to have a point of view and be the queen of the domain. So she was the help, but she was the queen of the day.”

The Shape of Water is in cinemas on January 18.

SHAPESHIFTER

Lanky actor and GDT regular Doug Jones has brought a number of memorable creatures to life…

PAN’S LABYRINTH

Jones pulled double make-up duty in del Toro’s masterpiece, as the seemingly benevolent Faun and the nightmarish Pale Man.

HELLBOY

Gill-man Abe Sapien bears more than a passing resemblance to The Shape of Water‘s creature, and could be considered an amphibious cousin.

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER

Laurence Fishburne provided the voice but Jones was the body of the mercurial Marvel boardrider – albeit heavily enhanced by CGI.