Diving into a fantastical love story

January 9, 2018 Jeff Goldsmith

Co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor bent the physics of the romance narrative to define The Shape of Water.


Here’s a brief excerpt from this article in Backstory Issue 30 for your reading pleasure:

After meeting a handful of times at the beginning of the process, the two remained separate for the rest of their col­laboration, trading pages back and forth. “I’d say we talked on the phone once or twice,” says Taylor. “If I had a very specific question that I thought needed answering, I would email it to him.” For the most part, though, the co-writers communicated through their respective pages. This process, which has worked well for del Toro over the years, allows him to collaborate with writers in distant locations.

Whoever had the material would craft whatever scenes he or she wanted and then shoot it back. Taylor notes that whenever it was her turn to write, she would verify with him how thorough she should be. “Guillermo was also the director, so I would ask, ‘Do you want this polished? Do you want a complete rewrite?’ ” But del Toro never wavered: “This is my pass. I’m gonna do whatever I want. Once it is in your hands, ignore everything I did and do what you think is better for the screenplay. Be brutal.”

He credits Taylor with bulking up the story beyond what he had previously fashioned and makes sure to dispel any notion that because Taylor is a woman, she must have written the romantic material. “That’s a gender preconception,” says the director. “She came in very strongly to plot the Russian spy subplot. She’s very nuts and bolts. You can sit down and discuss solutions rather than problems.” Taylor readily acknowledges that she was most comfortable tackling the gritty plot details.

“Guillermo is much stronger than I am at writing sort of romanticism,” she says. “I tend to underwrite in that area.” She felt her role ultimately was to serve his distinctive vision of the movie, whether it was offering her honest opinions or trying to expand the story. “Even if he didn’t love one of my scenes, maybe he’d get an idea from it and that would help him to move on.”

During their collaboration, del Toro made sure to insulate the two of them from unnecessary studio influence, something he has been doing for the past 20 years, ever since his negative experience making 1997’s Mimic for Miramax/Dimension. “It was so bad because it made no sense,” says del Toro. “The studio seemed to second-guess every two or three days. It would change with the wind.” Since then, he has insisted on keeping studio interference to a minimum, whether as a producer, director or writer. “With the studio, I say, ‘Look, don’t send me notes. I’m not gonna read them, ever.’ Because then you’re allowing a strange co-authoring.” Still, he will sometimes hear feedback in person. “It has to be face to face so I can argue back.” He stresses the importance of getting on the same page with the studio about everything at the outset to ensure a smooth and happy experience. “When you don’t agree on a small matter, it’s like adopting a baby tiger. It’s a cute thing at the beginning, but as you feed it and the months go by, this cute thing grows and eats you both.”

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