"This film is for those with a deep love of film and love itself."
Such was the video message from Guillermo del Toro prior to the showing of his latest film The Shape of Water at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2017. The film has already taken home the esteemed Golden Lion at this year's Venice Film Festival. An honor this masterpiece more than deserves.
The Shape of Water is brimming with Guillermo del Toro's spirit, who is himself a deep lover of film and love itself. The stuff of movies; suspense, violence, eroticism, humor, joy and even sadness, it's all there. There are also more than a few nods to hard-core movie fans to round it out. Despite the presence of all these elements, the movie somehow manages to come off as quite charming, and even takes on modern-day social issues of race and gender. All in all, the film is of a rare breed that defies genre classification. Indeed, at the beginning of the film the words "A Guillermo del Toro Film" appear on the screen as proof that it is a work only he could produce. It is of the one and only "del Toro" genre.
The Shape of Water is the latest of del Toro’s pedigree, a line of films that tackle themes shared by his earlier works The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.
The story takes place in the early 1960s amidst the Cold War, and centers around Elisa, a janitor at a secret U.S. government research facility in the early 1960's. Every day she wakes to her alarm, fixes breakfast, bathes, shines her shoes and heads off to work where a co-worker lets her cut in line for the time card. At first this mundane routine takes center stage, but soon we come to realize that there is something about Elisa that is out of place, as if she is always gazing at some far-removed dream.
She enjoys her interactions with her neighbor the painter, the owner of the movie theater below her apartment and co-worker Zelda, watching old movies on TV, catching a flick on the silver screen and gazing out the bus window at the scenery passing by, but she remains unfulfilled. We see that she is not unhappy, but that she is a daydreaming maiden searching for something outside the ordinary, much like the young heroine of Pan's Labyrinth. Within a few minutes we understand and empathize with Elisa because, just like her, we aren't satisfied with the ordinary, and have come to the movies to search for our dreams. It's a very clever opening.
Elisa is unable to speak and works at a predominantly white (WASP) research facility as the night janitor. Her friend and co-worker, Zelda, is a black woman, and her neighbor is an unemployed illustrator. They are the underdogs and minorities of 1960s America. Physical disability, race, sex, employment status and income gap all peg them as society's lesser, "night dwellers".
However, del Toro never portrays them as tragic or pitiful figures. Rather, it is the white researchers, with the honorable job of defending the country from an imaginary Soviet threat who, pushed to their limit by the unreasonable demands of their boss and country, appear the pitiful "day dwellers." Scenes of Elisa pleasuring herself in her bathtub, as opposed to the army general's use of sex as a tool to relieve his stress, is another example of the juxtaposition between these characters of the night and day.
The story takes a turn when one day a merman captured in South America is brought into the facility. The U.S. government handles him like an inhuman creature brought in from the fringe. That is to say, just like Elisa and her friends, he too is a "night dweller". For the majority white society, Elisa and the merman might as well be one in the same. They are outsiders.
Always waiting for something to happen in her mundane life, one could say Elisa is a descendant of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. And just as those stories go, Elisa and the creature grow closer, build a friendship and eventually fall in love. Of course, love is never easy, and they are threatened by U.S. and Soviet machinations to use the properties of the merman's body as a tool in the cold war.
"The colossal Hollywood movie machine makes it extremely difficult to take initiative and involve oneself like del Toro."
While a fantastical story, it is also an erotic and at once grotesque adult fantasy with Cold War politics and suspense filled action to top it off. Only del Toro could deliver this kind of entertainment that so masterfully blends his authorship with popular elements, and at the same time be a love letter to creature features of the past.
This achievement is something of a miracle in today's entertainment world. Del Toro involves himself in all aspects of movie making, overseeing the smallest of details, and making first-hand adjustments. A bit of him can be found in every cell of the living, breathing creature we call a film. As evidence he is not only accredited for director, but also producer, original story and screenplay in addition to voice acting, and casting director where he famously cast Sally Hawkins in the role of Elisa after "falling in love at first sight” (for the role). From the preliminary conceptualizing phase, right down to the final promotional materials, such as posters and key visuals, he is involved in every step of the way. It comes as no surprise then that the creative spirit of Guillermo resides in and exudes from every aspect of the film.
The colossal Hollywood movie machine makes it extremely difficult to take initiative and involve oneself like del Toro. It's true though that great forerunners like John Carpenter and James Cameron created their own genres by having a hand in writing, design, casting, cinematography, editing and even music composition. (On a side note, both James Cameron's and Guillermo del Toro's film careers started out in VFX. A happy coincidence, but intriguing nonetheless.)
And independent talents with the same mind frame as del Toro, including Nicolas Winding Refn and Neill Blomkamp successfully deliver their creative vision in an entertaining package. However, it is undoubtedly a struggle for them to flourish in the profit driven environment of Hollywood.
"This trend is even more evident in video games."
The fiercely competitive global video game market is the same. Like the research facility in The Shape of Water, these industries are ruled by the majority opinion of the "day dwellers". To avoid risk and ensure the success of big budget blockbusters, or AAA games, economics and efficiency are given top priority. As a result, originality that springs from creativity, the shape and essence of the creator, are seen as impediments to the marketing driven manufacturing line.
In Hollywood, creators who take on the mantle of director are asked to be a simple delegator of tasks, a director in function and not in spirit. These days in big budget Hollywood, music composition, concept art and other creative elements are all created via similar processes. Tasks are broken up amongst a myriad of staff so that results can be achieved as quickly as possible. In the past, for example, H.R. Giger handled the entire creative process for the creature in Alien, and the results are timeless. That era, though, is behind us. Composers also no longer follow in the lead of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams, but instead "oversee" compositions crafted by a team. Modern film production is about "handling" your part, not about taking charge of the whole.
This process is akin to the factory line assembly of industrial goods. What's important is making sure the appropriate cogs and screws are assembled just as the manual indicates. At no point is the manufacture of uniquely shaped triangle or square cogs required. Sure, this kind of process guarantees a functional product, but something new, something unlike anything anyone has seen, something original; that's the kind of thing this process won't yield.
This trend is even more evident in video games.
In AAA games, the division of labor is well established, and there are almost no "directors" that like James Cameron or Guillermo del Toro can take charge of both direction and creation from the initial planning stages all the way through to release. In fact, there is no desire for this kind of director. This is one of the traps the current game industry has fallen into. The assembly line process and digital manufacturing are an efficient pair. As a result, the "director" only need be a delegator of jobs, just as in major Hollywood film making. A director that takes part in planning, conceptualization, production, script, music, and even promotion is only wasting time and resources, and is inefficient. It doesn't benefit the corporation either.
This line of thought, which may sound correct to some, is a big mistake. And from a different angle, this may also lead one to the false conclusion that efficient digital creations don't have authorship, and are mere products, while only painstakingly crafted analog creations can be considered creative. Analog or digital is merely a question of methods and tools. How they are used is what defines the difference between a mere product and a creative work; the difference between copycat products and truly original creations.
Films and games are forms of entertainment that require a significant investment of the user's time. There must be love from the creator there. A human with a soul must deliver love through their creation to an unfathomably large and unseen audience. To succeed, every ounce of their creation must be imbued with the creator's soul. At the very beginning of this movie made "for those with a deep love for film and love itself", on-screen text reads "A Guillermo del Toro Film", but it's not for the sake of vanity; it's a statement and a signature stating who's love and soul is in the creation. It's pride and responsibility towards the creation.
It's the same reason I put "A HIDEO KOJIMA GAME" in my works. I want to deliver a game with the love from a man named Hideo Kojima to an audience that has "a deep love for games and love itself."
Hollywood might be a bit better than the current game industry, as it recruits talented directors from the indie movie scene, even if just as "industrial process directors." As I've mentioned several times in past articles, lots of directors have been called to direct movies in universes such as Star Wars or Marvel, and many of them have functioned as job delegators without being able to show off their true talents or authorship, the reason they were hired in the first place. Their plight is the same as the merman brought from the South American "night" into the world of "daylight."
These directors are night dwellers with original dreams (films), who were supposedly hired for their talent to dream, but have that talent crushed by the ways of the Hollywood day dwellers. It should be added that the creature in The Shape of Water, who like our independent directors, is unappreciated by its captors, but worshipped as a god in its South American home.
Is there only day and night then?
Is there only art (authorship) or entertainment (business), major and indies? Del Toro and a handful of creators with a similar mindset have tackled the worlds of day and night, major films and indie films, but not without their fair share of difficulties along the way. Looking back on del Toro's filmography, it's evident that his path has had its ups and downs, to say the least.
Del Toro went from Cronos (director and writer; Mexico) through which he met James Cameron, to his first USA funded movie Mimic (director and writer; USA) and Devil's Backbone (director, writer, producer; Spain), to being hired as director for a major Hollywood film in Blade 2.
After Hellboy, he directed, produced and wrote Pan's Labyrinth (Mexico, Spain, USA), and then a few years later he released Pacific Rim to a global audience, a film he directed, produced and wrote. He has made his way back and forth from indies to majors without ever sacrificing his authorship or creativity.
Between these movies, he had many very difficult experiences as well, such as the cancellation of At the Mountains of Madness, stepping down from directing The Hobbit and Pacific Rim 2, and the cancellation of PT, a game we were working on together. But these difficulties, and overcoming them, is what led him to the success of The Shape of Water.
Hollywood is undoubtedly a difficult environment to see one’s authorship through. However, that environment has changed with the rise of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, as well as smartphones and tablets; which are dramatically evolving the means of reaching an audience. It is becoming increasingly easy for creators to directly deliver their works into the hands of their audience for films and games alike.
Direct distribution represents a glimmer of hope, but not salvation for all creators or creations, because it's simply an answer to the question of environment and tools. Be it big budget Hollywood or independent film, the miracle of creation can only reside in the creator.
Would Terminator directed by anyone but James Cameron be Terminator? Would Studio Ghibli still be Ghibli without Hayao Miyazaki? A system built on the logic of the daytime alone can't give birth to an "original creation" in the truest sense of the word. And for creators that work with only the methods of the night, light will never shine on them.
Then why is it that Guillermo del Toro can pass back and forth between night and day? This is because of his deep love for films, and because somehow, films love him too. I can't think of another way to put it. The Golden Lion that he was awarded at the Venice Film Festival embodies this, and is a symbol of hope to creators devoted to the creation of films and games.
Del Toro's tough experiences on both sides has taught him the strengths and weaknesses of the night and the day: that is the key to his success. He hasn't become a day dweller though. He brought light to the night, and gave us a world rich in creativity that goes beyond being a mere product. He showed the masses the shape of the night.
The story of a voiceless girl and a merman is also a story of creation, "The Shape of Creation."
This is a film for those with a deep love for film and love itself, by a creator loved by films.
Hideo Kojima, best known as the game creator of the Metal Gear series, became an independent game developer at the end of 2015 after releasing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. He established his own studio, Kojima Productions, and is now making PS4 game DEATH STRANDING, starring Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen,