A Pair Of Films To Be Thankful For
Cinema Junkie / November 23, 2017
It's Thanksgiving and I have a pair of films that I am feeling very thankful for right now: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" and "The Shape of Water." Filmmaker Martin McDonagh talks about writing a film for Frances McDormand and Doug Jones talks about "suit acting" for Guillermo Del Toro.
Beth Accomando: Welcome back to another episode of listener-supported KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast. I'm Beth Accomando. It's Thanksgiving and I have a pair of films that I'm feeling very thankful for right now: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and The Shape of Water. Last year at this time, I did a podcast asking people to pick films they were thankful for. But this Thanksgiving, I want to show my appreciation for just two films that are coming out in theaters.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is currently in theaters, and The Shape of Water opens December 8. Three Billboards is one of the best films of the year. The main reason it deserves thanks, is for the role director Martin McDonagh created for actress Frances McDormand, and the way she devours the part.
McDonagh wrote the role of Mildred specifically for McDormand. The character’s an angry mom who wants the local sheriff to do more to catch her daughter's killer. Here's the trailer that got me pumped up about seeing the film and especially excited about seeing McDormand kick some ass.
Female Speaker 1: What’s wrong, what you can and cannot say on a billboard? I assume you can’t say nothing defamatory and you can't say fuck piece of cunt, that right?
Male Speaker 1: Or anus.
Female Speaker 1: I think I’ll be all right then.
Male Speaker 1: I guess you’re Angela Haze’s mother.
Female Speaker 1: That’s right. I’m Angela Haze’s mother.
Female Speaker 2: So Mildred Haze, why did you put up these billboards?
Female Speaker 1: My daughter Angela was murdered seven months ago. It seems to me the police department is too busy torturing black folks to solve actual crimes.
Male Speaker 2: What the hell is this?
Male Speaker 3: Dickson, I’m in the middle of my goddamn Easter dinner. Sorry kid.
Male Speaker 2: I know chief, but I think we got kind of a problem.
Beth Accomando: So first up, I’ll speak with filmmaker Martin McDonagh about creating the role for Frances McDormand and about bringing the character of Mildred to life. Three Billboards is one of those rare films where a female character truly drives the plot. Another performer who is also worthy of thanks and praise is suit-actor Doug Jones.
Jones has donned elaborate costumes in collaboration with filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, giving us creatures like Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films, as well as the Faun and Pale Man in Pan's Labyrinth. Next month he appears as an amphibious man in Del Toro's The Shape of Water another of my top 10 choices from 2017. I'll be speaking with Jones about the challenges of wearing makeup and a heavy creature suit, and then trying to look graceful and at ease in that skin. But first step Martin McDonagh in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.
I began my interview by asking what inspired him to write the film for Frances McDormand.
Martin McDonagh: Well, she's one of the best actresses of her generation, I think. And I wanted to, I really wanted to run a very strong female lead for a film, but I hadn't really done that in the last two movies I wrote. But I used to do that a lot more in my early 30's stuff. So I wanted to tap into that sensibility a little bit more.
But there's so much integrity about Frances, and she's got such a dexterity with humor. And this is a dark story but it's got a lot of comedic moments in it too that she would, I knew she’d both not overplay the comedy, and, but mostly to catch the truth of a strong, determined and almost outrageous female character.
Beth Accomando: And where did the actual story idea of… is this based in any way on anything real or what made you create this particular character for her?
Martin McDonagh: Well, I did see something on a couple of billboards as I was on a bus through America about 17 years ago, very similar to what Mildred puts up on her billboards at the start of the movie. And I just was struck by the anger behind that message, and the pain also. And once I kind of decided in my head that it was a mother who put up a message like that, everything about the character kind of fell into place. Her outrage and her determination and bravery I guess, kind of leaped off the page. And once I had the character I realized that no one else could really play it apart from Frances.
Beth Accomando: And what happened when you offered it to her? Because I mean everything's resting on her taking this. So, how did she react and did she take it?
Martin McDonagh: I know, I know. I don't know what the heck we’d have done if she said no to it. But she had a couple of, she loved it, but she had some questions about both her age because she was, I think, she doesn't mind me saying so, she was 58 when we offered her the part. And she had questions about why would someone from that economic group have waited so long to have a first child, because we were saying the child was around 20 when she died.
So, we went back and forth about that a little bit. And my point was that her character isn't the typical person in that town. She's unusual, she's make different choices to the usual person. So we went back a little bit about that. And I think then she showed it to Joel Coen, her husband and I think he just said, “Just do it, it will work out.” And we didn't really even think about it after the first day of shooting.
Beth Accomando: And what is it about her that you think makes her such a, she, because every role she does she just completely embodies that character. What is it about her as an actress that you think makes her so good?
Martin McDonagh: It's about integrity, I think. It's about making difficult choices. It's about not sentimentalizing a character or patronizing either her or us. She's kind of fearless about not making someone lovable. Her performance in this, we go with the character, we kind of are behind her in a lot of ways. But she doesn't do anything to make her more appealing than what's on the page, almost the opposite to a degree. There's lots of things she does in the movie that are almost indefensible but because her outrage is true and her heart is mostly in the right place, we kind of go with her. And there's something exciting about a performance like that I think.
Female Speaker 1: Hey fuck head.
Male Speaker 2: What?
Male Speaker 3: Don’t say what Dickson when she comes in and calling you a fuck head.
Female Speaker 3: And sad as this spectacle of these billboards might be. This reporter for one, hopes this finally puts an end to the strange saga of the three billboards outside Ebbing [overlapping conversation] [00:06:52].
Female 1: It’s going to put an end to shit you fucking retard. This is just a fucking start. Why don't you put that on your Good Morning Missouri fucking wake up broadcast you bitch?
Beth Accomando: Well, I'll tell you when that first trailer came out, just seeing those few scenes with her, I mean, everyone was buzzing about it just like, “Oh my God, we haven't seen a woman like this on the screen.”
Martin McDonagh: I know. Yeah, exactly. And it feels like it's not just the trailer when people come out of the movie that they feel the same way about it too.
Beth Accomando: And how is she to work with?
Martin McDonagh: Great, great. I mean, we, she’s very intelligent, and very single-minded and very honorable about the script and the character. We’d have disagreements in the first week or two, but we were pretty much always on the same page about the character. We both kind of equally loved her I think. And any little disagreements we had, it was almost like disagreements between two parents about a child we equally loved. She's very, she’s a great person to have one says. She's a great actor and she likes acts as those.
And we've kind of built up a little Repertory Company of the few films I've made. So it's like a lot of old friends are in the cast too and it's great to have her as part of that company too now.
Beth Accomando: What I really liked about her character is that a lot of times when people complain about, Oh, we need more female roles, they tend to focus on we need like stronger, positive, role model kind of things. And what I appreciate more is I just want to see women who are kind of driving the plots, that they are key. And she was such a great character for being the one who is the force in this film.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. But we didn't want someone who is like a simple hero to… we didn't want to create someone lovable and strong. We wanted to create someone strong for sure, but someone who made choices that sometimes it's hard to defend them even. But to still have those choices be exciting.
Male Speaker: Right now, there isn’t too much more we can do.
Female Speaker 1: Could pull blood from very man and boy in this town over the age of eight.
Male Speaker 3: There are civil rights laws have been established Mrs. Haze. And what if he was just passing through town?
Female Speaker 1: Pull blood from every man in the country then.
Male Speaker 3: And what if he was just passing through the country?
Female Speaker 1: If it was me, I’d start up a database, if a male baby was born, stick him on it and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it. Make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.
Male Speaker 3: Yeah. Well, there's definitely civil rights laws prevents that. I'm doing everything I can to track him down. I don't think those billboards is very fair.
Female Speaker: The time it took you to get out here whining like a bitch, will be some other poor girl’s probably out there being butchered right now, but I'm glad you got your priorities straight. I'll say that for you.
Martin McDonagh: But yeah, she completely drives the plot. And the story’s written very organically. Basically is about creating this woman and just seeing how people react to what she's doing from scene to scene. There was no plot to speak of at the beginning. It was basically her going to war with these local policemen and them reacting to her, and then having everything escalate. So everything happened quite organically because of this strong driving force.
Beth Accomando: Yeah, and I do really appreciate that she's not a… you don't try to ingratiate her to the audience.
Martin McDonagh: No, almost the opposite.
Beth Accomando: Yeah. And it's so good. I mean, it's great to see it. Because I'm much more interested in seeing complex flawed characters.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah, me too. And it's not just her in the film too. Like Sam's character, Sam Rockwell’s character is quite, very complex and flawed, but hopefully has a capacity to change too.
Beth Accomando: Well, and it also has this certain kind of old school quality in the sense of like a lot of old Hollywood studio films had this depth in terms of the character actors and the full range of the cast. So people, even some of the smallest parts you have, they feel really fleshed out and real.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah. That was one of the biggest things that we wanted to achieve. It’s like everyone in the town, everyone in life feels like they are the lead in their own movie. So we wanted to make sure that John Hawkes’ character and Peter Dinklage’s character, for instance, and Abbie Cornish’s are real people, and they could have been the focus of the film on any other given day. We wanted to give the feel of a real town, and that's part of it, to make sure no one is a cardboard cutout. Everyone is a fully rounded character, if possible.
Beth Accomando: And what they all seem to have too, is they all seem to have a moment where they surprised us, where we think we kind of have them nailed in terms of how we think who they are, and there always seems to be a point in each one of them where they go like, oh I didn't expect that.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, good, good. Yeah, we wanted to a degree, sort of these three kind of very strong and very different characters the kind of just gradually unwrap the layers of them all. And also all of the supporting characters too to John Hawkes plays Mildred's husband and he seems like a complete fog at the start, but then you kind of see how he's been affected by the death of the daughter too. So, it's mostly about seeing fully rounded people instead of seeing caricatures that will affect the hero of the piece.
Beth Accomando: And in all of your films so far, one of the things that you seem to excel at is dialogue. Is this something that… you mentioned you have a background in theater. Is that something that partially comes from that?
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, I think it all comes from both that and just the love of dialogue. I kind of don't see as dialogue is something you get through to get to the plot or get to another place. I think you got to love people talking to each other in its own right. And I try, I try not to go overboard with that but I do, you know, people speaking with each other is the most important thing in life and in movies I think. So and I think that's why it's easy to attract great actors to a piece is that the dialogue is as important as the story.
Beth Accomando: And in tackling this, what was the most challenging part about bringing it to fruition on the screen.
Martin McDonagh: I guess it was partly about striking the correct balance between the sadness of parts of the story and the outright humor of a lot of it too, making sure that neither of those aspects felt forced or phony. But it was making sure that… it's always your job is to make sure the actors feel comfortable to express themselves completely. And there are parts of the story where quite outrageous things are both said and done, and it's all about making sure actors are completely confident in you and in the dialogue and in themselves, I guess.
Beth Accomando: Well, in this and in Bruges in Seven Psychopaths, that tonal shit, like you seem very dexterous at being able to kind of go from wild extremes to kind of poignancy and it seems like you jump around quite comfortably. Is that hard to do?
Martin McDonagh: No, it's kind of become the natural place that I found myself in now I think. But no, mostly it’s those differences I’d like to seeing in the script, what aspects of a scene you have to pull out. Sometimes it could be just like one line of dialogue which you know is from a two-page scene is the heart of the scene. So it's a sad line, you know that that whole scene has to be good up to getting that line right and that tone right. And you know that if you see that on set you've got it, it's there in the scene and then you just make sure that that’s shown when you come to editing it too.
Beth Accomando: And how do you think your background in theater has kind of influenced you as a film director or kind of what kind of skills did you have in that that have translated well or kind of made you maybe a different kind of filmmaker than someone else?
Martin McDonagh: Well, I think it's, as you said, it's sort of a love of dialogue and a lack of fear about having a two-page dialogue scene, not running away from that. But also in theater no one can change a word of the script and no one can change a line of dialogue or cut a character or even give a note, if you don't want to hear it. So, it's selfishly or not, I kind of have brought that sensibility into making films. No one, I don't really let anyone give a note at the script stage or any other stage, if I can help it. And I think that kind of shows itself in a film like this. There are peculiar aspects to it and strange choices but they are all there for a reason. And all of those things would probably get washed away if you didn't have a strong enough opinion about defending those things.
Beth Accomando: Well and it seems like too, although everything flows very naturally, you never stop and think like, oh this feels written. But on the other hand it also feels very crafted. Like there is, I feel like whoever put this together knew exactly what they were doing.
Martin McDonagh: Good, good, that’s almost true.
Beth Accomando: If you move one of the little pins, then suddenly something might not be quite as…
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah. Well, part of that is also in the edit. You kind of have the time to… I mean when you're filming you just make sure you’ve seen and heard everything that you know each scene requires. But in the edit you kind of, once you put them all together, it's a whole another process. So, you've got to be open about losing scenes that just don't add up to something for the whole. And that's kind of the time where you can differentiate between things being too funny or not. That's when you kind of can get the balance in the turn of the movie right or wrong if you're not open enough.
Beth Accomando: What do you hope that audiences are going to take away from this?
Martin McDonagh: I mean, I think it's a good film to be putting out right at this time, in that there's a lot of hope to it, I think. And there's a lot of humanity to all of these characters. There’s something exciting about these characters. And they all start from a bit of a place of rage and anger but we don't stay there. So I think there's something pretty exciting about the journey from rage to hope. But just the performances are so beautiful I think that if nothing else I think audiences have been coming away with that.
Beth Accomando: Well, and you kind of have this interesting amongst the three leads between Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and Frances McDormand, you kind of have two of them dealing with anger in very different ways and then Woody Harrelson kind of being that one in the middle trying to… [laughs].
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, yeah, to balance the two and almost referee the thing, yeah. And his character I think is probably the biggest catalyst for the change in the movie. He’s a decent man and is trying to… in one way like the story about two people going to war who are both completely in the right, who are both decent people and want the best in life. And it's kind of where do we end up when a war like that happens.
Beth Accomando: Well, and Sam Rockwell's character is interesting right now because we are at a time where people feel very polarized and he is a character who comes at us and initially is kind of this racist, bigoted character, but you even find layers to him.
Martin McDonagh: Yeah, I mean that was, the biggest part I think was to try and see the humanity in all of these characters, trying not to see everyone as the simple hero or the simple villain, but trying to get in story time to something a little bit bigger or more human than the simple sort of tropes. And when you've got a bunch of great actors like these, they allow you to go to those places, I think.
Beth Accomando: And can I ask if there are any filmmakers or films that have influenced you in when you were making this, were you thinking of anything else?
Martin McDonagh: In the making of this, not too many specifically. I was always a big fan of Terrence Malick films and loads of American movies of the ‘70s particularly. Paris Texas was in our mind a little bit, but that was more about color and an image to a degree. No, there are so many… my list would be, would take an hour long I think if I gave you some of them. Yeah, yeah, probably Terrence Malick maybe.
Beth Accomando: And what made you decide to transition from theater to film?
Martin McDonagh: Money. No, I always loved film and I didn't have the same feelings towards plays but I feel like I can do both happily now. So it's fun to kind of go between the two, yeah.
Beth Accomando: And now that the film’s done and you look back on it, what do you feel most proud of about it?
Martin McDonagh: I think being part of the performances and being part of the hope I guess, and the humanity that is kind of seems to be connecting with people. It feels good to be putting something out right now that has those things. So I think that's the thing I'm proudest of.
Beth Accomando: All right, well I want to thank you very much for the time and thank you for this film, it's great.
Martin McDonagh: Great. I'm glad you liked it.
Beth Accomando: Now for suit-actor Doug Jones. I felt a little like the interview was cursed. It kept getting delayed with the publicist calling and saying, “Wait just another 10 more minutes.” Then when the call finally came through, my recording software randomly decided to freeze up. Then when I finally got everything working, the hotel he was at suddenly started making security announcements on its PA system and I could hear it in the background. But Doug Jones is possibly the sweetest guy on the planet, and he was exceedingly patient as we waited for the stars to align to let us proceed with the interview.
In his new film, The Shape of Water, he plays an amphibious man captured by the US government, and brought to a secret lab to be studied and experimented on. There he meets a mute young woman, played by Sally Hawkins. who works as a cleaning lady at the facility. Here's a little of the trailer.
Male Speaker 4: This may very well be the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility.
Male Speaker 5: You may think that thing looks human, stands on two legs, right? But, we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that's what the Lord looks like, do you?
Male Speaker 6: This creature is intelligent, capable of language, of understanding emotions.
Beth Accomando: I began by asking him what it is about his creative collaboration with Del Toro that makes him eager to keep going back to work with him.
Doug Jones: Yes, I have been so blessed to have that fascinating and visionary man come back for me time and again. I think he's my favorite director I've ever worked with. And to have him write for me… it's because he's the kind of a person who… he understands the human condition, he understands human beings better than anyone else I've ever known. So, when he meets you, he can get a take on your personality, your fears, your strengths, your weaknesses, and he has been able to write and develop characters for me unlike anybody else ever, because he knows me so well.
So, any time Guillermo says I have a movie in mind for you, my answer is yes, before I've heard a story, before I've read a script, because I know I'm in the safest of hands with him.
Beth Accomando: And when this came about, did he kind of give you an inkling of what it was about early on or did he kind of bring this to you as a finished script?
Doug Jones: It was early on this time. Oftentimes he’ll wait to tell me about a role he wants me for later into the process because as he said once before, “If we can't make the movie I don't want you to go kill yourself out of depression.” But because I get excited about certain things he tells me in certain roles. So, this time, he presented this to me a couple of years early, it was actually January of 2014 while we were working on Crimson Peak together. I played two of his ghost ladies in that movie.
And on a day off, he called me into his office to have a little private talk at the production office. And of course I'm thinking I'm in trouble. He wants me to shut the door because he wants to scold me for something. I’m at the principal's office. And as it turned out, that he wanted to present this new movie idea for The Shape of Water to me. And this time he said, “I know you're a good Catholic boy, so I want to run this by you because there's a creature in it, and there's a love scene for him, and I want you to play the creature.” And I said, “Well, the love scene, how saucy can that get?” He said, “Well, you know pretty, it’s, yeah, it’s pretty much.”
So, I, when he told me that that's going to take place in a bath tub, I said, “Okay, why don't we start at the beginning of the story and get me to the bathtub so I can get a take on this?” That's when he told me the whole story. He didn't have a script written yet, he just had it all in his mind, so he wanted to tell. And story time with Guillermo is like light the campfire, get the marshmallows, because it's going to be good. I was sitting there with my chin in my hands and just mesmerized by the story and saying, “Well, then what happened? What happens next? And oh, really?” So, I couldn't help but be excited about this.
And by the time we got to the bathtub, and the love scene that follows it made sense to me. Like this is very innocent, the good Catholic boy in me is quite satisfied with this. I don't know that there’s a religious protocol for fish men from the wild and how they are supposed to have intercourse for the first time. I don’t know. I don’t think that marriage has to come first when animals are from the wild. So it was, and he said, he followed that up by saying, “And Douggie it's me, it's me making this movie.” Which was his way of saying I’m in very safe hands and he’ll do it with the utmost in taste.
Beth Accomando: Now aside from the sex scene, what were the other challenges you had playing this character?
Doug Jones: Right. No verbal dialogue whatsoever. But he had having to fall in love on camera with another character played by Sally Hawkins who does also has no verbal dialogue. These are two mute beings that have to discover each other, learn about each other, find each other and communicate heart to heart without verbal dialogue. It was a beautiful, beautiful way for a story to unfold.
And we found that language happens in many ways, it's not overall verbal dialogue. So much of what we say is with our gestures, with our expressions, with our sense of touch and sharing music together. And all of those things came to where we found our connection. That was a beautiful thing.
And other challenges then aside from character development things would be this the physicality of being in a fish costume with the makeup applied to my head and neck and a fish suit from the neck down. That was only text rubber and silicone products and things glued to me, and I’m in it all day, and so there's all of the usual things that come with that which I've been doing that for 30 years now, that kind of work.
So, the usual, a little bit heavier than you want it to be, a little bit hotter than you wanted to be, my vision’s impaired, my hearing’s impaired. I basically become a nursing home patient when I’m in something like that. So, to be in a costume and make up like that, and then have to act as though I am a superior being, that is almost godlike, with strength and understanding and a superhero kind of posture about me. There's a challenge right there, yeah. So, physically I had to be in the best shape of my life so that I could put this beautiful body on and act like it was actually mine, like those muscles actually worked.
Beth Accomando: Well, I know that Del Toro is a fan of the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and there seems to be a little bit of paying homage to that in this. Did you feel that as well as the Gill-man something that you also have an affection for?
Doug Jones: Absolutely yes on both counts. I think that it certainly is not a sequel prequel origin story, backs nothing… those parallels aren’t there with the Creature from the Black Lagoon but inspiration from and a nod to, I do believe so. Guillermo has been very vocal about his love for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, as an early childhood memory for him, falling in love with both Julie Adams in the movie and the creature, the Gill-man. He found an affection and a crush on both of them.
So he even said that like he's doodling pictures when he was a kid of Julie Adams and the Gill-man holding hands on a beach, riding a bike together, having a picnic together. He would doodle these pictures. And I think that this is the movie that he made from those doodles, he faxed to me. I think that he finally made the movie that he wanted to see. The actualized love story happen. And so many monster movies from that era, the golden era, be it King Kong or Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature From the Black Lagoon, there's always a romantic notion there that there's a human connection with whatever creature or monster it is. And there's sympathy there. There is that can then be translated into romance.
But in all those movies, it's a romance that maybe just it can't be, they are so different and they are from different worlds, it would never work. And I think Guillermo just wanted to make the movie that it does work in, as only he could do. I don't know any other director that could have pulled this off.
Beth Accomando: Yes, and the [indiscernible] [0:30:25] also seem to be in certain elements of the suit itself, where you felt like there were these little touches that were kind of hearkening back to that look.
Doug Jones: Right. No, I’ve played a fish-man creature for him before in the Hellboy movies, and so this, the challenge here was to make the same actor look like a different fish-man. And so there were, the colors scheme and the placement of fins and the configuration of the gills on the neck were very different from Abe Sapein and did hearken back to the Creature From the Black Lagoon more of his look which I was tickled pink about because when I was a child too, that movie fascinated me.
I loved the Creature From the Black Lagoon. I loved the underwater scenes and that whole thing of floating and being able to breathe underwater, and the fascination of all of that. And I also I think I can relate too, at a level of being something other than. I'm a very tall skinny goofy fellow, and when I was a child, and growing up in Indiana, I was the kid who didn't fit in. And I think many people, I grew up and found out that none of us felt like we fit in, but at the time I thought it was only me, right?
So, I kind of understand here's this creature now, that’s surrounded by people, and so he is the odd man out, and so I could relate to that. I could relate to it watching the Creature from the Black Lagoon when I was a kid and I can certainly relate to it while filming The Shape of Water, that I'm something… and all of these characters in this movie are something other than what's considered normal.
We have our lead actress, Sally Hawkins, plays a mute lady which might be considered disabled back in the ‘60s especially. Her best friend is woman of color in a time of civil unrest, and her neighbor is a closeted gay man also, not talked about back then, not accepted back then. So, everyone in the film is trying to find love in some way and find their own way. Feeling like they don't belong in the world that they are in and finding their voice, and finding a place, and finding the beauty of who they are.
And the fish-man in this would be included in that. He’s definitely in a world he doesn't belong. He was captured in the Amazon and brought into this US test facility in Baltimore. That’s the last place he wants to be, and the last place that he belongs. So to find a connection with someone in that environment and to realize my own beauty, we see beauty in each other. The Eliza character and I find beauty with each other. So we don't want to see each other as other than, we are just are who we are and we accept and love what that is.
Beth Accomando: Now it seems like an added challenge with this particular suit which probably was similar with Abe Sapien is that not only do you have to wear a suit, but you have to wear a suit and be in the water, and then you have to be in a suit in the water looking like something that is most at home in the water. And I remember hearing horror stories about those poor actors in the Godzilla suits once they hit the water and [laughter]. So I mean what's that added challenge of having to be in all that and in addition in underwater at times?
Doug Jones: Yeah, yeah. That was the added to the challenge of this one for sure. Not only was I in water, whether it was the tank, the pool that I was in, in my laboratory facility where I was being tested with a harness around my neck and a chain, chained to the wall because I was in captivity. There was that. There was also the bathroom scene where we are actually in real water. It's an eight-foot tank that this bathroom scene was built in, or we are shooting dry for wet which would be like when I was in the cylinder in my laboratory, I was behind a glass, that was in a dry tank with some smoke effect and some lighting effect going through it and maybe some aftereffect and visual digital effects they can add in later.
Then me that sitting on the teeter-totter with all of my weight just being supported by my two little bony butt bones, and leaning forward and acting as though I'm in water, or the final scene of the film where we are both underwater floating together. That was in a big dry studio filled with a little bit of smoke effect, a little bit of lighting effect. and the two of us in hip harnesses with wires to the ceiling hoisting us up. So you put my bony pelvis in a hip harness, and there's going to be some pain eventually after a couple of hours. So there were definitely physical challenges with this one for sure.
But when you see it all put together it's like whatever sacrifice of comfort or pain there was, it’s so worth it to make this this product. When you're done it's like that's why I was okay with the pain because we made a beautiful movie the will last forever. I can get the harness off at some point and let my bones heal. That's fine. But the movie will live on forever.
Beth Accomando: Well, aside from some of those beautiful moments that are in the water, there's also one that's quite delightful, and I hope I'm not giving anything away, but you get to dance in that suit.
Doug Jones: Yeah, exactly. There's another challenge, isn't it? There is a bit of a fantasy sequence where Eliza, Sally Hawkins’ character, sort of once she rescues me from the lab, she’s falling madly in love. We’re both falling in love with each other, and she wants to express it. She’s mute and she's trying to tell me how much she loves me, and because we don't have verbal language to get specific with, she had this one moment she feels her gestures just aren't enough to convey this love to me.
So, in her mind, she breaks into a song and the screen goes black and white and we go into a dance number from an old musical, from an old MGM musical. It's a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers kind of routine, and it was just a dream come true first of all to revisit that kind of classic movie making. But I never envisioned that I would be in a dance number in a classic musical tale with a fish suit on, you know. That did add a certain element of, ha, to it.
So we went through lots of dance rehearsal before the film started sort of rolling. Three weeks of dance rehearsal before the film began, photography. And during that time, learned our choreography, and I did most of my dance rehearsal in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. So, I kept thinking, oh dear, this is all going to change when that fish suit gets on me. Can we pull it off? So we did a couple of rehearsals with me in full makeup, and I was shocked and surprised to find that I could get through the whole routine without dying.
And so I think we pulled off an extraordinary moment that hasn't been really seen in film before. And that again is a Guillermo Del Toro thumbprint. He would throw a surprise in like that, that is just, that takes you away for a minute, and, but it makes perfect sense while doing it.
Beth Accomando: Well, I find it interesting that Shape of Water is coming out at the same time as Todd Haynes film Wonderstruck in the sense of both those films explore worlds without sound, and it seems like that's an aspect of film that a lot of filmmakers don't pay that much attention to.
Doug Jones: A world without sound, yeah.
Beth Accomando: Without sound. In different ways. Yeah.
Doug Jones: Right, because sound [overlapping conversation] [00:38:05] such a huge part of filmmaking. Yeah. Well, I think there's so much story that can be told in silence. Guillermo has said as a director when he's looking at actors and writing for actors, he likes to find his cast members… he likes to find actors who are almost better at listening than they are at talking. So, what's behind the eyes? What do you absorb? How do you convey yourself through a visual expression of some sort? So, silence is golden, silence can be beautiful, and I think pure communication can often get cluttered with too many words. So, I think he did a beautiful job of showing that.
Beth Accomando: Would you describe this as a fairy tale?
Doug Jones: Guillermo himself has said this is a fairy tale for troubled times. I would because it's a slice of reality. It's a story that takes place in 1962. So, of course, there is a, it's a period piece of… and it is plausible. The thing is it is presented as even though there's a fantasy element, I'm a creature that's never been seen on earth before, so there's that in and where did he come from, what, does he have powers that go beyond the natural? All those things all those questions arise, but it's played out in a very real setting. I would say it's a real period piece that has fantasy elements to it and fairy tale elements. That's what I would say.
Beth Accomando: And how do you feel it speaks to our troubled times right now?
Doug Jones: Oh well, I’d honestly in this day and age, I've never seen our country and/or your planet earth in as much turmoil as it is now, for me personally and in my lifetime. So, decisions that we make and actions that we do in life are either motivated by fear or love. And so right now it seems like the world is reacting to each other, everyone is reacting to each other with fear.
This movie is all about love. The only character in the film that acts out of fear is our antagonist, Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Everyone else's motivations, everyone else's intentions in the movie is love motivated, and that's kind of how I want to live my life. And I think, and that notion of other than, every character in the movie is other than, other than normal, other than the mainstream. So, we are in a time now where we seem to be fearful of those that are other than. So, let's all sit down at the table together and find beauty in what's other than me. So, I think that that's what it speaks to. If you want to find a current world issue and political parallels with this movie, you certainly can.
Beth Accomando: All right. Well, I want to thank you very much for your time and for another beautiful film.
Doug Jones: Yeah. No, thank you so much for finding me worthy of your time too.
Beth Accomando: That was suit-actor Doug Jones. The Shape of Water opens on December 8. So, this Thanksgiving holiday, seek out a film to be thankful for. And thank you for listening to another episode of KPBS Cinema Junkie podcast.
Till our next film fix, I'm Beth Accomando, your resident Cinema Junkie.
Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place