Cultivate both the artist and the fighter, Guillermo del Toro tells aspiring directors

Bryan Huang
Lead Producer, Editor
Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” received 13 Oscar nominations.

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water”, may have 13 Oscar nods to its name, but even the experienced Mexican director had several anxious moments before the list of nominees was out.

“We were all sipping coffee, and with every nomination we would jump with joy. Then we started counting them, and we realised there were many, and it was a sense of huge relief, gratitude, joy… great emotions,” del Toro told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore over the phone from Tokyo on Wednesday (31 January).

The 53-year-old, who in the same interview fondly remembers being called “Del Totoro” after his interactions with child actress Mana Ashida on the set of “Pacific Rim”, admitted that he could not sleep while waiting for the announcements.

“The first thing we did right after the nominations was to get on a car to go to the airport, so I didn’t have the chance to talk to anyone right away,” he said. “By the time I arrived at the airport, we were already doing interviews about it… It was a little anti-climatic, because I couldn’t even call my mum or my dad.”

The film, about a mute janitor who falls in love with a mysterious sea creature, is in the running for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Sally Hawkins’ performance.

Del Toro admitted that he would not have been able to make the film on its budget of US$19.5 million (S$25.6 million) if not for his 25 years of experience as a director.

“The movie cost exactly the same amount as ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, so the restrictions (compared to bigger-budget films) are very similar,” he said. “You just have to know exactly what is going to be on screen, how much it’s worth for it to be on screen… You don’t spend money on anything that’s not going to be worth it in terms of storytelling.”

He also had some advice for hopeful directors and screenwriters, saying that they needed to be “really, really tough, and really, really soft”.

“It’s a very strange combination, this profession,” del Toro said. “You need to have an innocence or a purity as a storyteller where you can go up to a place that is all your own and be really an artist.”

“And then, at the same time, you need to be a fighter, to fight for what you think is right, to fight against creative interference, to look for the money to promote the movie, to deal with the politics and the enemies that jump out of the bushes at every step of the life of the movie,” he added.

“So all I would say is cultivate both sides of your profession, because both sides are necessary to make the movie.”

“Never an easy profession”

Del Toro gave the example of his first movie, “Cronos”, and how he took four years to get approval from the official film support body in Mexico (versus the usual year) because “two or three people were against the movie being made”.

“They didn’t want a movie of that genre to be financed by the official organ of film support in Mexico. And it became hell,” he said.

“And then when the movie’s budget became bigger, a lot of the times, you get unhealthy competition, you have to fight for trailer positioning in the theatres, you have to fight for that kind of thing,” del Toro continued.

He said that directing was “never an easy profession”.

“People think it’s like poetry or painting or song-writing… It is partially, but there’s another part that’s very practical, very sorta mundane,” the director said.

While “The Shape of Water” was inspired by a scene from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” del Toro had seen as a child, he also shared his hope to do a three-part series about the creature from Frankenstein, although nothing was confirmed yet.

Del Toro said he would not have been able to make “The Shape of Water” on its budget of US$19.5 million if not for his 25 years of experience as a director.

“When I started post-production of ‘The Shape of Water’ I decided to take a year off,” he told Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore. “I don’t want to know what follows, I don’t want to be sure. I have no idea what is the next movie. I’m writing two or three things with different co-writers and I’m happy keeping it undefined because I’m much happier to exist in the moment.”

Del Toro admitted that when he was younger, he would have one movie ready to go after another, but said “it really didn’t do much for my life”.

“It made my life a lot less human and pleasant. So I’m going to try to take a year off from directing and just produce, so I can concentrate on just enjoying the moment and thinking about things before jumping on the next one.”

As for his nickname, drawn from Studio Ghibli’s animated film “My Neighbour Totoro”, del Toro said he was “flattered” to be connected in that way to a character he loved. “Now and then, people will call me Del Totoro, and I like it, cause it’s such a beautiful character.”

But at its heart, del Toro shared that he liked the nickname because it had helped the then 8-year-old Mana on the set.

He said, “She felt much more comfortable knowing that I was accessible, that we could joke, that we could have fun, to know it wasn’t all that serious or deadly in a movie set of that scale. That was important for me.”

“The Shape of Water” opens in cinemas around Singapore on 1 February.

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