A bank holiday labour of love. 1800 people turned up, from all parts of Mexico, coach loads of people to hear Guillermo del Toro speak of cinema, and watching this one totally understands why. This is a translation of the first of three great lectures on cinema he gave at Guadalajara, followed by a subjective selection from the Q&A that followed. It’s possibly an imperfect and certainly a rushed translation. But I did it in the hope that those of you who don’t speak Spanish might be able to understand what Del Toro has to say on cinema in general and The Shape of Water in particular. There’s no one I love hearing talk on cinema more. My hope is that someone else will pick up the baton and translate the other two of what is a series of three great lectures. This is the first.
Guillermo del Toro: The Viceroyal Chair. Thank you. Leonardo García Tsao! Let’s go!
Leonardo García Tsao: There’s something that preoccupies me. Can you hear?
Toro: Can you hear?
Tsao: More or less? OK we’ll speak louder.
Toro: Is this better?
Toro: That means with balls.
Tsao: Where do you keep so many awards.
Toro: I have a big shelf, where we design, and I keep them all there, from the first from Cronos, some don’t have a base, another the trophy dropped off. The one from Havana fell over. There’s a very pretty one I no longer have the base for. I don’t even know who’s responsible. But they’re all there from Cronos to now.
Tsao: You have a pile from The Shape of Water
Toro: Yes a pile. And when we go to design, we move a bit to the side
Tsao: We’re going to talk about The Shape of Water
Toro: Sure. We’ll do forty minutes and open it to the audience for another twenty.
Toro: That’s good.
Tsao: I saw it again recently on a flight. And as an experiment, I saw it without sound.
Toro: That’s what I do on flights. I see films. But without sound.
Tsao: And I realised that the film is told without the necessity of dialogue.
Tsao: It’s practically a Silent Film.
Toro: yes, yes. In fact the very very first incarnation of the film was in black and white and silent. That is the very first time I thought it should be told with pantomime. And then I thought no. Let it be black and white. And then I thought no not even that because I thought two things: black and white was a chess piece I wanted to sacrifice to be reasonable. When we talked about the film we said ‘it’s a film about a mute woman who may or may not be human who falls in love with a man fish in a government lab. It’s a musical, comedy and melodrama and in black and white. So they asked me, ‘could it be in colour’ and to appear reasonable, I said of course, of course. But the truth is that in black and white it appeared to me to be pastiche, kind of postmodern, self-reflexive and I didn’t want it to be. Thus it was very easy to abandon black and white and codify the colours as part of the language (of the film). Now to me, all the films I make, I’d like them to be understood without dialogue. That they could be understood through movement, attitude, acting, colour, light. The language of cinema is something that preoccupies me. This year I’m doing three interviews of two weeks each, it was going to be two, now they will be three with different directors, to discuss their craft exclusively in audio-visual terms. The discourse on cinema has changed a lot in the last few years and what’s discussed are the two things that cinema shares with other narrative forms but that are less interesting on a cinematic level. That is the plot and the characters. That is to say on the most superfluous level. And to me it’s very important to bring in arguments that are super basic. It’s not the what, it’s the how. Kubrick used to say that the level on which cinema lives is infinitely more mysterious and beyond the plot and the story. And I agree with that. I’m very interested in what the film does. A moment in cinema can be a person turning their head, the camera moving in, and a flash of light in the character’s eye. Magic, perfect, completely cinematic. And that is less and less talked about in discussions of movies. There’s talk of what it’s about, what happens to who. Film is rarely discussed on a formal level, that is to say, when we discuss painting, if we talk about a Van Gogh and say, what’s it about? A shitty little room, brother. There’s a bed, a chair. Phhhft! That’s the way we talk about cinema. But the truth is that the vigour of treatment, the composition, the colour, the emotive content of lighting — all that should be discussed in depth about a film — isn’t being discussed. And these three interviews of two weeks, tentatively with Michael Mann, George Miller and Ridley Scott, which I’d like to repeat with other people every two or three years, and what we’d discuss is lenses, dollies, movement, light, editing, the assemblage in editing, the mise-en-scène. To put it in those terms to recuperate that language. Sorry, that wasn’t even a question and I gave you a whole torrent.
Tsao:., no, no, it seems to me quite good.
Toro: …but that’s the idea; and I do that in airplanes. John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre, I see it without sound. To have it in the palm of your hand, enchanted by seeing it, …it’s important to recuperate that.
Tsao: The Shape of Water in the hands of another would have been absurd.
Toro: In fact recounting it, it’s almost impossible not to seem nuts….musical etc. But I repeat. There’s a level of film in which it’s not the what it’s the how, and how you sustain that with faith, style, and balls…or great ovaries. It’s sustained only with that. The faith that the combination of those elements is new, that is to say cinema isn’t chemistry. It’s not a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s alchemy. It’s taking elements that you transform, transmute and return converted into gold. That is why for me, since the beginning with Cronos to now, the basic arguments are the archetypal ones in the film: a man who dies, returns, lives in a box, is affected by light, has to drink blood. For sure there’s nothing new in that. But it’s a box of toys, a middle class Mexican family, etc. etc. The how, and the where, etc. etc. The adjectives are what give a film its personality. It’s a series of actions that I think are brought together by the director. The auteur theory badly understood is that the movie is the act of a single person. That’s nonsense. But the most intimate dialogue between the film and those that make it is done through the director because he’s the only one that controls the pulse of all the other disciplines that are interconnected. For example, when someone says ‘what good photography’, they are also saying what great art direction, what good costuming. I understood this when Guillermo Navarro, when we were analysing how Cronos looked, and we were analysing a scene from The Godfather and Guillermo told me, ‘look at this, the scene is in sepia, and for sure we were using a filter that could be a tobacco, could be chocolate, but the art direction predisposes and presupposes. The colour is white but it’s not neutral. The colour of the walls evokes nicotine etc. etc. If you give me a horrible room with horrible walls….it’s the conjunction of things that matter. It’s all one discipline. The same with the sound design. It’s very important to understand that.
Tsao: you have 13 nominations.
Toro: What I think is beautiful is that from Labyrinth, we arrive as a foreign film but with six nominations. That’s lovely because there’s a level in which the making of, the craft, is appreciated it on an academic level, on a technical level, on an artistic level. And to arrive with your team is the best way of arriving.
Tsao: You have basically worked with three cinematographers: Guillermo Navarro, Gabriel Edelstein, who’s here somewhere, and Dan Laustsen,
Toro: yes, it’s an evolution. The basic things remain. Gabriel, Guillermo, Dan know that the placement of camera, movement, choice of lenses, that’s more me but the light is completely theirs. I had a beautiful moment with Gabriel and Wesley Snipes, where I said why don’t we use an 18mm lens and he said ‘if you want your star to hate you, by all means’. We were going to do a close-up. It’s a film where I used more wide lenses. Also Pacific Rim. Normally I think the relationship with the cinematographer is the most important in a film. Day to day it’s the most intimate. There used to be a lovely ritual that no longer exists, which was to see rushes. You came out of work tired, sweating and you went to see a film on a big screen. It was very beautiful.
Taso:..and well there’s a colour you like very much which is that boggy green that dominates The Shape of Water.
Toro: The way that we classify colours in each films…In Blade Gabriel and I sat down and Gabriel said why don’t we make night yellow and the days blue and I thought it fantastic because for a vampire, night is day and day is night. So we made of night a sodium and for days we did the colour timing in blue. You sit down and codify the film in some way. For example, the red that in Crimson Peak signifies the past, sin; here, red is love and cinema. When she makes love with the amphibian God, red begins to appear on her clothes and dominates. It appears in the drops of water. It appears in the light. Appears on a telephone…it begins to appear. In the cinema, the entrance to the cinema, the seats are red. Finally love concludes – there’s a beautiful symmetry that is very simple which is that when she meets the Amphibian God he’s bleeding from the bottom left and at the end when they get together and he saves her he’s bleeding from the lower right. And it’s a moment of symmetry with the colour red. And she loses the red shoe, which is animated, because the underwater scenes that begins and ends the film are filmed with a process called ‘Dry for Wet’ where there’s not a single drop of water. It’s smoke. It’s smoke and slow-motion camera. So she didn’t have the shoe on and so we animated it along with the bubbles etc. So you continue classifying the film and the blue that was the past, the old world in Crimson Peak, here we only used it in her apartment, because for her it’s important to convey the message that she’s aquatic, that she’s probably not human, she dreams of water, she cooks in water, she finds her morning pleasure in water, and so her apartment is all done in blue, with damp stains, as if it had been submerged. And in fact there’s an engraving of that big wave by Hokusai, that’s rendered through damp stains on her wall. Now that I tell you, you can see it in the film. But that’s the blue. The golden, orange, apple, yellow is used for the rest of the houses. The Bad Guy, Selda, the spy, it’s colours of air and sun. No one else belongs to the water. And green is the future, the future that encompasses the whole world. That’s the way we classified. In the film we classified, colour, form and texture so that they would bear narrative weight. And so that light, camera movement etc would also bear narrative weight. The screenplay for me exists on three levels: the literary screenplay; the audio-visual screenplay that you write with adjectives for camera and sound design, and the last one which is the editing screenplay which is where you write your film with the alphabet you constructed for yourself during the shooting.
Tsao: marvellous. It’s your most loving film. There’s a melancholy in your film that manifests itself in endings that are not always happy. Like in Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak.
Toro: Yes, of my ten films, nine are about loss and nostalgia. And this is the first that has hope. It’s curious because the last five years have been very hard for me in lots of ways. And came a very difficult time for me where I thought it important…I think what there’s a great shortage of at the moment is hope and we needed something to feed the soul. So we began working on this film in 2012. And five years later the film is finished. And during that whole trajectory it was one of the hardest films to make. But I felt that if I could make it, I wanted it to be like a song, like one of those songs that you get in your car, turn the volume up and sing along with it. That’s the effect I wanted the film to have. For it to be a song made up of images, light and colour. And that above all, that there should be beauty. Because I think the voluptuous act of creation is that of beauty and mystery. The two things that generate art are beauty and mystery. It could be in equal measures, in different measures, but if you generate those two things, you’re there. The rest I repeat, what we share with dramaturgie, theatre, television, literature – that’s interesting but much more interesting to me is how film remains very much like music, an art that moves people emotionally,
Tsao: and both exist in time.
Toro. Yes, and moreover if you ask me to explain exactly how it works, I can explain the process of creation but Labyrinth destroys me, The Devil’s Backbone destroys me. This movie destroys me. There are moments in each of my films where I get very emotional. And that’s very beautiful.
Tsao: This has more humour.
Toro: yes, after the Hellboys. But Hellboys are more of an American sense of humour. A genre sense of humour. For example I love the moment where Barry Manilow sings in Hellboy 2. But aside from that, I think this is the film where I have the best casting I’ve ever had from beginning to end.
Tsao: All character actors; no stars.
Toro: On the whole, written for them. I wrote the roles for them. Sally Hawkins, I wrote the role for her. Michael Shannon, the bad guy, I wrote the part for him. Octavia Spencer, etc. etc. Richard, I didn’t write for him. But he’s the first actor I went to. I went to him and said ‘Do you want to do it?’
Tsao: And he’s wonderful
Tsao. And there are moments. I find interesting how you like violence to the face. The face is very sensitive. And in all your films, well in many, Labyrinth, Vidal gets cut a new mouth, in Crimson Peak they put a knife through his eye….
Toro: There exists for me a violence that provokes a sensation has to come from unusual places. In most films people get stabbed and you don’t feel a thing. So you can have the scar like Bruce Willis here on the forehead with the little trickle of blood. Or they shoot you in the shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t matter, you don’t understand. But if you’re stabbed by a screwdriver on the knee… Well, we’ve all hurt ourselves on the knee. Since you have to make a leap of what would it feel like? Because the Bruce Willis type of wounds, are film wounds. But in the armpit, the audience goes, ‘Oh yes, the armpit’. There’s nothing thematic with the face. I just tell myself, where would it hurt me most? Well, there. But in Labyrinth and Backbone, the wound evolves to make monstruous that which was originally immaculate, which was the villain. The three villains – Jacinto, the Captain and Strickland — originally appear immaculate, appear attractive and powerful, and little by little they decompose. In Strickland’s case, the fingers. He tears them like chicken wings. He asked me, ‘how do I do it?’ Do it like chicken wings. In the case of the Captain the decomposition comes from here (he points to the mouth). They indicate, in a very visual manner, without words, the decomposition (undoing) of the villain.
Tsao: in those moments, the audience pulls back. I’ve tested it.
Toro: for me the idea is to sensorially transmit something, or something on the level of emotion, well that comes from those codes.
Toro: There’s also something about bathrooms.
Toro: Yes, well I love their design. From Cronos, where there was clearly an onanysm. Jesus Gris locked up in the bath. But as a room, in terms of image design, it’s always fascinated me: the mosaic, the porcelain, the colours. Almost all the bathrooms I make are green. Almost all. Who knows why. Maybe my grandmother’s was green. I don’t even remember.
Tsao: In The Shape of Water it’s very important; the bathroom is where they make love for the first time.
Toro: And that why she doesn’t….I thought it important…Two things that are very clear, the egg, which tells you I offer you that which was loneliness. And the fact that she’s Latina. Because when you’re chamaco for the first time in the bed where she was alone something interesting happens, when she suffers her loneliness she’s Latin, it’s woven in with images from Hellboy, Labyrinth, Backbone, Cronos. It’s of a piece. And in some ways The Shape of Water incorporates, rounds off.
Tsao: Yes it brings it all together.
Toro: Yes, it rounds off the other nine. And thematically I tell you if you see the mixture of characters, you can see them in Backbone, to conquer a common enemy; it’s in Hellboy, there’s already a love story with an Amphibian man in Hellboy 2;
Tsao: Yes, there’s a similar character
Toro: Yes in the cylinder, it’s completely the opposite in design. But like a first cousin. An amphibian man is an amphibian man is an amphibian man…Just as when you design a gorilla everything’s going to go back to King Kong, this goes back to Creature from the Black Lagoon. That’s the DNA.
Tsao: The difference is that Julie Adams never surrendered to him. And here yes.
Toro: This is what provoked the whole film for me. When I was young in Channel Six they had a show, ‘Cine permanencia voluntaria’ on Sunday, they usually screened films from Universal Studios the whole day. And it was Sunday. So it was usually Church and movies. And I would sit on my knees to watch the film and I was watching Creature from the Black Lagoon and I saw that beautiful image and I was very moved. I started drawing it. I drew it obsessively with crayons, eating an ice cream with Julie Adams, taking a bike ride with Julie Adams, dancing with Julie Adams; and my grandmother kept those drawings for a long time; and then my grandmother died and they threw them away. They asked me, what do you want of your grandmother’s? The drawings. And they said, ‘we threw all those papers out’. And I said well in that case no. There’s nothing. I kept two or three photographs my grandmother had. There are not too many photos of my childhood. I kept two or three, not very edifying ones but there they are. In one of them I’m wearing cowboy boots and reading the newspaper. And in another I’m dressed as a torero. I don’t know what happened there. And in another I’m a vampire.
Tsao: When did you decide to put in a musical number? Because that’s an extremely risky move.
Toro: extremely risky. The same elements that constitute failure constitute success narratively. That is if you’re not scared of what you’re going to tell, it’s very likely that it won’t provoke emotion in anyone. And that was risky. One is aware of which moments will prove powerful because the day we were going to shoot it you ask yourself ‘what am I doing?’ We arrive and there are fifty musicians from Toronto in white dinner dress and a Man-Fish and a woman in evening dress. Is this the weirdest party you’ve ever seen? And there’s a moment where your faith tells you ‘no it’s fine’. But I’ve had moments in other films where you get to that difficult moment and people don’t react well. They react badly. I’ve had moments where my calculations have failed me. And it’s really terrible. You’re in a roomful of people and all of a sudden you feel the bad reaction. When we screened the film for the first time. This moment came. There were two moments that were very difficult, three. We can call them hinge moments. Spielberg explained it beautifully. The place where two train carriages are lined is a place where no one thinks is important. But without them, the train wouldn’t move in the same direction. They’d be separate entities. There are three important hinge moments. One is when the creature first peeks out of the surface of the water and blinks. That’s a moment if we make it well, light it perfectly, you believe it’s organic. An organic creature. That’s one. And then you can believe what follows, the egg, the salt etc. The second moment is where she takes off the dress, enters the room and closes the curtain, we spent more time lighting that scene than on anything else. If you put too much light, it’s funny. Too little light and it’s too aesthetic, if the lens isn’t wide enough, if you’re too close, etc. We spent almost three or four hours on this, which in a film of this size is a lot. And the last hinge moment is the dance. I wanted to shoot it old fashioned, but not black and white, like with Stanley Donen where the camera rises and falls, swoops around. Because normally George Stevens would have chosen a wide shot and let them dance. But here I had to participate because it’s the moment where she’s full of joy. It’s a moment where she who can’t speak, want to say how she loves him, and like a good Mexican, what one learns is that to talk about love one has to sing.
Tsao: it’s the first time in a fantasy film where the monster gets the girl.
Toro: I don’t know if it’s the first one.
Tsao: Mel Brooks did it in Young Frankenstein
Toro: What happens is that the uniqueness of the film, which is very difficult to explain, is that the elements that are combined are not usually elements that go together. Never. ‘What films did you see to prepare for this’, they ask me? Melodramas. By Douglas Sirk and William Wyler. Why are you going to watch monster films? What’s lovely is to act counter-intuitively. I’m going to make a very melodramatic story of a Man-fish and a mute woman. Three elements that shouldn’t go together but that for me is like Japanese umami, the conjunction of flavours that form a whole. That is to say if to make a fantasy film and you consult fantasy films, you create an echo. Who does it very well is Ridley Scott, who to make a science fiction film like Alien consults horror movies. The counter-intuitive is extremely valuable in creation, what I can tell you is that it’s the only domestic melodrama, musical, spy film, comedy about a man fish and a mute woman. Those are the ones that are worth doing. The ones that no one else will make
Tsao: Well let’s move on to take questions from the public.
Here my translation ends but I enclose a summary of some salient points:
‘If you see one of my scripts, it’s fragmented, almost like a poem; that is to say everything that is put in a script, as maestro Jaime Humberto Hermosilla would tell us, every adjective in the script has to be an adjective that has to be proved by or referenced to the camera or sound. Period. ….I put shot/reverse shots etc that give a rhythm to the page. Also you construct the set in relation to what you’ve written so, say, a wall can move to allow the crane in. Planning exists so that improvisation can take place. Everything is completely storyboarded.
You create a system in which you can be free. The only condition is that at the end of the discussion, I’m right.’
‘I wanted the Fish-Man to eat the cat as is his nature and that to happen before the love scene, because as in every relationship, the sooner you eat the cat, the more real the relationship.’
‘There’s a reason I’m here today; and that’s youth; the new generation. I believe the only thing one leaves of value is a path. All we do loses importance….but if I left a path where someone could turn to the right, that would be marvellous.
He tells a story where someone says, ‘Why would I want a Mexican if I already have a gardener.’ Then recounts the ups and downs of his career where he spent almost a decade without filming.
When they ask me what’s Mexican about your films, I say ‘Me’. Virtues and defects are exactly the same. There’s a zen saying ‘the obstacle is the path’….There’s a vocation that’s totally Mexican…You could make films wherever and it’s point-of-view is going to be your point-of-view. How are you Mexican? How are you not? If I suckled here for 33 years before leaving how the hell am I not Mexican. I mean that’s it. One thing is to have roots and another to have a passport. I’m Mexican but I have a passport.
He talks about starting a film school saying; the first thing to ask, is what can I do with the means I have? What can my friends and I do with the means we have? And begin with that.
For me the best education in cinema is to make films with pals. And to see movies.
We must create opportunity here. If they don’t offer it to us, we must create it ourselves.
We spent three years designing the creature. We began in 2013. In 2013 I began to pay out of my own pocket to two sculptures that made 12 variations on the creature, reptilian, more fish, amphibian, and combining those various characteristics we made various models and then combined aspects of each to come up with a creature we could present the studio in 2014. I showed it to friends. I had dinner with Iñarrítu and his wife Maria Hilaria and I asked them what they thought. And Maria Hilaria said I wouldn’t kiss him. The body was fine but the face wasn’t. So I hired another sculptor Mike Hill and we spent weeks sculpting only the face, moving the eyes…The face is extremely simple: it’s two eyes and a mouth. But the mouth had to be sculpted an infinite number of times so that it would be sufficiently human but wouldn’t look too exaggerated
There are many more questions but I’ve run out of time. I hope people find this useful…The eyes. It’s like an emoji. If you turn them too much one way, they seem malevolent, if move here it’s too neutral and seems cold, this way they’re alien. If you separate them, he doesn’t seem intelligent. If you join them together also. …in design you learn one thing: the silhouette is the most important element. And you sculpt three times. In traditional materials. Then in painting which should be counter-intuitive to that of the sculpture. …and lastly you paint with light.
I began writing the script in 2012 and finished it in 2016 so it was four years.
When we speak of faith and hope, which sounds like a Sunday sermon, we must also speak of rage. Rage is very important…Rage is a potent element for youth and creation. Rage is a condition that must be cultivated and is a key aspect of faith.