The Shape of Water is the latest film from renowned writer and director Guillermo del Toro. It stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins, and, of course, Doug Jones. The film explores the life of lonely Elisa, a woman who communicates strictly through sign language as she is a mute. Set in the Cold War era, Elisa is a worker for a high security science center and happens upon an intriguing fish-like creature. This sentient creature has been captured from the Amazon and brought to the center to be picked apart and studied. Along the way Elisa finds more than just friendship with the creature, and a unique love story is born. The film just opened at the Venice Film Festival to waves of praise and resoundingly euphoric reviews from critics. Webmistress Diane Shreve decided to celebrate the good news by having a chat with Doug about his experiences working on The Shape of Water as ‘The Creature’.
Doug: Audiences will connect with what they often connect with in a Guillermo del Toro film, which is an underdog who has an authoritative figure over her who is almost inhuman. Her healthy rebellion is what people will resonate with. In The Shape Of Water especially that rebellion is motivated by her attraction and her connection – her nonverbal connection because she’s mute and my character’s mute – to this ‘asset’ or ‘creature’ that has been captured in the Amazon River and has been brought in for testing. They both are beaten down in their own worlds in their own way and they find each other and connect at that level. I think that anybody watching can remember a time, or is going through a time right now, where they feel defeated or that the powers that be out there in the world are too big to overcome. But this movie will give you that feeling that ‘No, no, the little guy CAN win.’
Diane: Was there a particularly challenging scene to film?
Doug: YES, haha! This was a very physically challenging role for me from start to finish. I’ll give you a few highlights. Michael Shannon – who is kind of the nemesis, he’s the villain I would say – who is the lead overseeing this government project, well, he doesn’t like my character at all. He doesn’t like me, he doesn’t want me around, he wants to be done with me as soon as he possibly can. He doesn’t see me as a sentient being, even though I am. He doesn’t see that at all – I’m just a wild animal that needs to be tamed and is all ‘Let’s just slaughter the damn thing and be done with it.’ There’s a scene where I am on a cement block in chains outside of my tank so I’m gasping for air. The longer I’m out of the water, the worse I get. And in this scene he’s poking and prodding and teasing me with an electric cattle prod – you can see a brief clip of this in the trailer. For that scene I had to be strapped in chains around my neck, around my wrists, and I was on my knees crouched on a cement block for DAYS. So that was a toughie.
The other toughies would be when we were actually physically underwater. There’s a scene or two where you’ll see Sally Hawkins and I underwater together. There was a tank with a set built in the tank that we had to gasp for air at the top with an underwater camera. We’d had to hear our action cues through a speaker that aimed down into the water. I’d be wondering if my air was going to run out before they yell ‘Cut!’. I had little fears like that.
We also shot a lot of dry for wet, which would mean hanging on a wire where they put in a water effect later so you have to act like you’re floating. Your whole body weight is being supported by just a couple of points where wires are attached to a harness under your clothes or under your costume. So that can be a challenge with the pressure that it puts on a certain area – if it’s around your crotch, if it’s around your back, if it’s on your hips, whatever it is… My hip bones don’t do harnesses very well. I’m very boney so hanging and being suspended by wires and shooting dry for wet does present its own challenge. Also there was a teeter-totter when you see me in the tank in the lab. It was a cylinder tank in the lab where there’s a glass wall between the outside and me. I also did that dry for wet. I was supported under my butt on this teeter-totter where they could raise it and lower it so I could have that floating effect in there. But I have a very boney ass so sitting on what was similar to a bicycle scene over and over again for hours on end can be like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am going to scream any minute now!’.
So the challenges were physical, but the emotional connection was pure. Once we found that and found our rhythm together Sally and I had a true connection. Rarely have I felt that kind of onscreen chemistry with anybody ever before. She’s magical to work with.
Diane: How does this character differ from Abe Sapien – physically, emotionally?
Doug: Just to clarify to anyone wondering, there’s no connection to Abe and my Shape of Water Creature whatsoever. They are completely separate, completely different movie, different universe.
Abe Sapien is extremely intelligent, well spoken, gentleman-like, and gestures a lot with his hands. He’s very presentational in his style. This creature – or the gill man, whatever we’re calling him – is not any of that. He is a raw animal from the wild. Now he’s intelligent, and he’s trainable, and he can learn things and communicate, but he’s not a refined gentleman like Abe Sapien. So this performance did not come with flourishes and gentile hand gestures, it was much more like an animal surviving. I had to throttle back my physicality quite a bit. The eggs are more of a coincidence than anything else. Abe Sapien liked rotten eggs as a delicacy, this character likes – as you’ll find out in the narrative of the story when he’s talked about by the scientists – pure sources of protein. That’s what he eats. So it doesn’t matter if it’s a plate of meat or a plate of eggs – eggs are a pure source of protein. Period. And they are not rotten. When Sally’s character Elisa brings the creature eggs she has hard boiled them at home so they are not rotten at all. It’s just a protein source and has nothing to do with any other folklore from any other franchise I might have been in before, haha.
If anything else looks familiar to Abe it’s only because I am the 6’3″, 140 lb. actor who played both characters directed by Guillermo del Toro who is the same director for both films. So those comparisons are bound to be made, but there really is no comparison, no connection whatsoever.
Doug: Because of the physical demands, I had to be in the best shape of my adult life. I had to hit the gym with specific exercises to strengthen the movement this fish did have to have. That helped me with the wire work, with the teeter-totter work, with the underwater work, all of that.
I did go through two days of scuba training in case we would have to film underwater far enough that they would want us to stay down there and breathe off the regulator. That way we’d be able to start under water for the take and just stay down there and use the regulator without having to come to the surface every time. So I did two days of scuba training in case we were going to be in deep enough water to do that. As it turned out, we were in a tank that was an eight footer. So because of that we could go to the surface, hold our breath and then come back down. So we ended up not using the scuba training.
But the first day of training, the individual training us did not have the best bedside manner. He ran through a quick casual thing with Sally and me at this big pool. He said, “Yeah, just so you know when you’re breathing on the regulator underwater it’s pressurized, so when you come back up you have to exhale. You have to exhale the entire time coming up because if you don’t your lungs could explode. So anyway, let’s get started and get into the water…” I was like, “Wait, can we go back to this lung explosion part, just a little detail. I just need a bit more information on what keeps our lungs FROM EXPLODING. Can we talk about that before we get in this water right now?” Because then I was terrified to breathe underwater.
Diane: Overall, what were your connections to this character?
Doug: I did connect with him being an outcast. He’s a one off. There’s no one else like him. He’s a freak of nature and he’s being treated as such by all these people who are testing him and poking and prodding him. I’ve felt that way before as the tall skinny goofy guy who walks into a room full of normal people and I feel ‘Everyone is staring at me, oh my gosh’. I can relate to that in a certain way. I also loved and connected with how he looked at Elisa, Sally Hawkins’ character. The way he looked at her was with a purity, and he saw through her oddities and her muteness and her shyness. She may not be a typical little lady. But here’s someone who saw past all that and could see the beauty of her. I would love to think that I can do that with people. And so I did connect heavily to that part of this fish man character. I liked that attribute of him and I want to incorporate that into my real life, yes.
He also had a physical prowess about him that was very confident. This was another reason I had to be in the best shape of my life. I wanted to be comfortable in my own skin in order to crawl into his skin, if that makes any sense. Guillermo del Toro gave me a note about this character. Now mind you, he gave me very few notes about this character. He said, “I don’t want a flourished Dougie Jones performance. I want this to be a raw, real character. I want you to be an actor, not a performer.” I understood. He’s never had that talk with me ever before, so this role for him was not going to be as stylized of a movement performance. Rather, it would be a real character channeling real emotions. That’s what he wanted. And I’ve always done my best to do that anyway, but when taking on a del Toro creature it often does come with some very specific physicality and maybe a performance with a flourish. So this time he did not want that. So that’s why I had to throttle back and trust in my natural instincts that whatever this character’s movement was, whatever he had to accomplish, it could be done with subtlety.
The one physical note that he gave me was, “When he stands out on dry ground, I never want him to be standing straight up and down. I want his physicality and his posture to be a cross between the Silver Surfer and a matador.” If you’ve ever seen a matador, you’ll notice how dance-like they are with their capes around the bulls – how graceful they are, how balanced they are. A lot of it comes from the hips, if you watch carefully you’ll notice that. It’s a very sexy sport to watch – it is. So he wanted me to channel the Silver Surfer and a matador with the confidence of the Silver Surfer, but the muscle movement of the matador. The carriage of the Surfer is smooth and graceful, but the matador is where the sexy hips came in. When you watch The Shape of Water you might see me motivating movement from the pelvis here and there, because of that note. It DID make me feel sexy, not going to lie. Guillermo del Toro did a good job motivating that in me.
Diane: What was your experience working with your castmates?
Doug: When you are playing opposite a list of Oscar nominees and winners it is very intimidating. But also, to play a scene with Richard Jenkins and with Octavia Spencer and with Michael Shannon… delightful. And Sally Hawkins, I can’t say enough about her. She does channel something so incredibly real when the camera rolls she is living and breathing that person and you’re not on film anymore. You’re just living and breathing in that moment with her. Most of my scenes were with her. But everyone in this cast has been decorated with nominations and awards for very good reason, because they are just magical in what they bring to a film. So to play opposite them was an honor beyond belief and I felt like I was very much in over my head. All my insecurities came out, and I was worried if I was worthy to be in their company.
However, Guillermo del Toro told all of us at dinner one night that everyone in the cast he had written the movie specifically for each one of us – all of our roles were written specifically for us. The fact that he got all of us on a lower budget film was rather remarkable. It was proof that the script sang enough to all of us that we weren’t interested in getting rich off the movie, we just wanted to make a piece of art with him. That’s a true testament to his writing and his filmmaking right there.