Like many great artists, celebrated Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro sees the world a little differently to most people. One especially endearing example is that when he watched the 1954 monster horror classic The Creature From The Black Lagoon as a young boy, he thought he was witnessing a love story.

"When I saw [Creature's leading lady] Julie Adams swimming in her white bathing suit and the Creature swimming underneath it, I was 6 and I felt overwhelmed with emotions I couldn't explain," del Toro tells Timeout during an exclusive sit-down in Los Angeles. "I thought they would end up together. They didn't. It became a home invasion movie - this creature is pottering around in its river and in came these guys to capture him, kill him. I thought what an unfair movie this was. What a beautiful creature. And it stayed with me."

Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water.
Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water.

So much so, that childhood trauma became the impetus for his latest film, The Shape of Water, which is garnering the writer/director some of his best reviews in years and has placed him and his stellar cast as strong contenders in the upcoming Oscar contest.

Set during the height of the Cold War in 1962, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at an American government facility that is experimenting on an unnamed amphibian creature played – under a tonne of makeup effects - by del Toro's longtime creature performance collaborator Doug Jones.


As you may have discerned, a romantic connection begins to form between Elisa and the fish-man. It's a pretty bold notion, but del Toro says he wasn't worried about selling such a freaky idea to the general filmgoing audience.

"Not if you do it right," he says. "Because it's not an animal that exists, it's a god, it's a river god. God willing, you can make the distinction if you do the things properly. I show that every possibility of sex is fine, if it's adult, consenting and loving."

Indeed, this kind of openmindedness defines the film's intentions.

"I think that's the view the movie has about human nature - can we break through the barrier of the idea of 'the other'? If the movie was prurient and winking and perverse about it, then yeah, you have a problem, but the movie is so natural about it. I think perversity is in the eye of the beholder."

The Shape of Water's embrace of "the other" goes beyond the central relationship – it's explored in the raft of rich supporting characters, including Elisa's closeted gay neighbour, Giles, (played by the great Richard Jenkins), her African-American co-worker Zelda (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer), and a Russian sleeper agent played by Michael Stuhlbarg.

They're all facing forms of prejudice and del Toro says that's why he decided to set the film in 1962 – it was a means of tackling contemporary issues with the benefit of distance.

"It's about now, it's about today," he says. "It's about gender marginalisation, toxic masculinity, dominance, overbearing power, racial divisions. It's about everything we're experiencing now. But if I set it today, it'll take one ping-pong of arguments to lie ourselves into silence. We will nullify each other really quick. But if it's 'Once upon a time in 1962, there was a woman who could have no words, and there was a creature that spoke none', then you're in. Then you can lower your guard and listen to the fairytale."

The film is perhaps the purest expression of del Toro's infamous love of monsters.

"I'm not a fan [of monsters], I'm an acolyte, I'm an evangelist. I really feel a kinship with these things. There's a religious, really complex relationship I have with these images that makes it very, very intimate."

Richard Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer won the Vanguard Award for The Shape of Water. Photo / AP
Richard Jenkins, Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer won the Vanguard Award for The Shape of Water. Photo / AP

The Shape of Water also represents a return to the "critical darling" status del Toro enjoyed early in his career, with successes such as The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006), but which has waned in the past decade or so, a period which also saw him move to New Zealand to direct The Hobbit movies, then leave the project after repeated production delays.

The Shape of Water garnered seven Golden Globes nominations, with del Toro winning the Best Director award this week. The film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and is seen as a very strong Oscar contender. But del Toro knows better than to buy into the hype.

"I've made movies that I thought we're going to go one way and they go another," he says, philosophically. "You never know. You don't have certainty as a film-maker. You're in a ship saying 'There is land, there is land' and then you go 'I think there is land over there'. And you never know until you get to land."

Who: Guillermo del Toro
What: The Shape of Water
When: In cinemas next Thursday