Premise: A young mute woman who works for the government in the 1960s stumbles across a top secret project, an intelligent amphibious creature, and falls in love with it.
About: You may have heard about The Shape of Water recently. Famed filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s newest movie screened at the Telluride Film Festival last week and received one of those famed 20 minute standing ovations films seem to receive a lot of these days (and that have nothing to do with publicists. Nothing at all). But seriously, the word on this one is that it’s great. My issue with del Toro has always been that his superior filmmaking skills have masked the clumsiness of his pen. Which is why I wanted to read this script before seeing the film. If this works on the page, then maybe del Toro will have finally created something that isn’t just fun to look at.
Writers: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor (based on an idea by Daniel Kraus and Guillermo del Toro)
Details: 94 pages
One of the great crimes we commit as film consumers is allowing others to tell us what to like.
Guillermo del Toro’s career beginnings coincided with the rise of Ain’t It Cool News. AICN’s creator, Harry Knowles, fell in love with del Toro, praising him religiously on the site, and since back then AICN was the only movie site in town, every movie geek followed suit and fell in love with del Toro as well.
Even I fell into the trap. Watching his movies with a distinct feeling of boredom, I figured I must be doing something wrong – watching it the wrong way or focusing on the wrong thing. And when his movies were over, I’d often ponder, “Even though I didn’t like this, everybody else did so I must be wrong.”
Now that I can think for myself, I know why I’ve disliked so much del Toro. His writing is sloppy. His plots are often flighty, it’s not always clear what the focus is, and he has major issues finding a consistent tone. To this day, going to watch the 2001 del Toro flick, The Devil’s Backbone, remains one of the most perplexing moviegoing experiences of my life. All the critics had talked about how great the film was. Yet what I saw was a wandering inconsistent genre-confused mess.
This is where The Shape of Water gets interesting. Del Toro has wisely brought in a second screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor. I like Vanessa Taylor’s writing. I remember back in the early days of Scriptshadow when I read her first script (then titled “Untitled Vanessa Taylor Project”). It chronicled an older couple going through marriage problems. It’s a script that should’ve been boring. Yet Taylor found a truth and authenticity to the relationship that elevated it, then mixed in a hint of humor to turn it into one of the most memorable scripts of the year.
Taylor would go on to win the highly coveted Divergent assignment, and she’s currently scripting the live-action Aladdin movie. It always fascinates me to see writers who not so long ago were scripting these tiny little “nothing” movies now writing some of the biggest films in town. It’s a reminder that success CAN and DOES happen. You just have to write something that resonates with people and you’re on your way.
Anyway, due to these two creative voices, one I detest and one I enjoy, I have no idea what to expect from Shape. But I’m hoping for the best.
The year is 1963. The town is Pittsburgh. We’re talking the epitome of grimy blue-collar America here. Elisa is a rather unconventional representation of that world then. She’s a 35 year-old mute spinster who lives in a small apartment by herself. The highlight of her day is 2 minutes of masturbation in the tub before work.
At least Elisa has a kinda-cool job. She’s a janitor at a secret government underground facility downtown. She cleans rooms where scientists test their latest jet engines or cutting edge (for 1965) robotic arms. Because Elisa never talks to anybody, she’s generally overlooked. Which is probably how she gets into this mess in the first place.
You see, the government brings in their most top secret project yet – an amphibious man-like-thing that lives in water. This is such a big deal that they have to bring a high-ranking military man, Strickland, in, to oversee experiments on the creature. As you’d expect, these experiments are brutal. They figure out, for example, that the creature can only survive outside of water for 30 minutes at a time. So they observe him while he’s left out past 30 minutes… you know, just to see how intensely he suffers.
Because Elisa is in charge of cleaning Amphibian Man’s room, the two start sharing little looks, which leads to her signing him, which leads to him signing back, which leads to them falling in water love. When the intensity of the experiments are ratcheted up, Elisa can’t stand by and do nothing. So she orchestrates an escape plan and takes the creature to her home!
This, naturally, results in a big hubbub at the facility. Strickland starts asking people if they know who’s got him. Several of Elisa’s co-workers who were aware she had an affinity for the creature are on the verge of cracking. So it’s only a matter of time before Elisa is discovered. This leads to a race to free Amphibian Man back into the sea.
Let’s start with the good and hope it lasts longer than a sentence. The Shape of Water is an ORIGINAL IDEA. That needs to be commended. These days, auteur directors are becoming our only outlet for original ideas and that sucks. But I want to start there because I believe in getting more original ideas into theaters even if I don’t personally like those ideas. I mean, isn’t that the point? Hollywood’s stuff is so homogenized and demograph-tested that it’s guaranteed not to be unlikable. With original material, that guarantee isn’t there. Which is why original ideas are so thrilling. You don’t know what to expect.
As for where The Shape of Water falls on the ‘like’ spectrum, it most certainly depends on how big of a del Toro fan you are. If you aren’t a fan, like myself, you see cracks in the story everywhere.
Let’s begin with our mute main character. Yes, that sound you heard was me sighing. Mute main characters. Deaf main characters. Both are crutch-device screenwriting at their worst. The idea behind a deaf character is that they’re the ultimate underdog. It conveys a writer so desperate for you to love their main character that they will go to the absolute extreme to do so.
Of course, it’s for this very reason that it never works. We’re hyper aware that you’re pining for our sympathy, so we go running as fast as we can in the opposite direction. Once the viewer is aware of the writer, there is no suspension of disbelief and the point of the story is moot.
The only time these things work is when – and I just talked about this yesterday – you explore these things AUTHENTICALLY. If you study and research what it’s really like to be a mute, what someone like this goes through on a day-by-day basis. And then you bring that very specific life experience into the character, then yes, it’s going to be great.
But writers rarely do this because it takes time and it’s hard. It’s much easier to slap a physical flaw onto a character in the cheap hope that the audience instantly sympathizes with them despite knowing nothing about them. It’s a screenwriting trick, the very definition of a gimmick. And for any frequent filmgoer, they see through it immediately. (spoiler) And don’t even get me STARTED if, late in the script, the mute character finally talks.
Not only that, but mute characters aren’t conducive for filmic storytelling. Readers don’t enjoy reading entire scripts and not seeing a single line of dialogue from their main characters. It’s hard to reconcile that. Which is why, if you’re going to do it, you should be a writer-director, like del Toro, who doesn’t have to run the script by anyone to get it made.
Even if you can get past that, you still have to deal with del Toro’s biggest weakness – his wildly inconsistent tone. This is something you see in all his movies. At best, it’s annoying, at worst, it’s uncomfortable. For example, in The Shape of Water you’ll have a zany zoinks scene where Elisa will nearly get sucked into the giant jet engine while cleaning, and then, later in the film, an extremely awkward scene where Strickland is borderline raping his wife. It’s like, what kind of movie are you trying to make here??? You shouldn’t even have your main character masturbating in a tub every morning. This is a fantasy film. Not 9 and a half weeks.
I’ll finish by saying this. In the water-based love story sub-genre, The Shape of Water finishes above Lady in the Water but below Splash. So that’s something I guess.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Unless you’re going to truly explore what it’s like to be a mute or deaf, you should avoid making your main character either. In my experience, mute and deaf characters work best in secondary roles, where they don’t have to carry the entire story on their shoulders.