Filling creature suits is not new for actor Doug Jones – he was the unforgettable Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, Abe Sapien in the Hellboy series and an ancient vampire in The Strain. However, he never imagined he’d be the lead in a love story… as the water creature in Guillermo del Toro’s widely acclaimed fantasy, The Shape of Water, now nominated for 13 Oscars. BILLY SUTER reports.
THERE was never doubt in director Guillermo del Toro’s mind that Doug Jones would be the creature in his The Shape of Water, an elegant and mesmerising, other-worldly fantasy, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962.
“We’ve been working together for 20 years and he’s done some of the most crucial roles in my movies,” Del Toro says in the new film’s production notes.
“He is one of the few guys who does creatures who is also a full-fledged dramatic actor. Often those are two separate gifts, but Doug has them both. He is a fantastic actor with or without makeup,” he adds.
In the new film, Jones plays a role that exists on the border between human, animal and myth, and breathes life into it with a meticulously designed prosthetic costume and an extraordinary knack for physical expressiveness.
The only way in for Jones was a kind of imagination-fuelled empathy, trying to intuit in his bones what life might be like for a keenly intelligent, amphibious creature hunted and dragged from its home to be studied by an alien species.
“He’s very, very alone because he’s the last of his species,” Jones explains in production notes. “He has also never been outside his river so he doesn’t understand where he is or why. He’s being tested and biopsied all because the government thinks, ‘we are going to use this thing to our advantage somehow’.”
The film’s plot sees Jones’s character form a relationship with a Elisa, a mute cleaner, played by Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins, on excellent form.
Says Hawkins of Jones: “Doug gives such an ingenious and beautiful performance and it had to be, because it’s such a fragile thing we explore. We’re two different species falling in love, but it had to feel real, and it had to be right. Luckily, I couldn’t help but fall in love with Doug the way he embodied this.”
Jones perceives the enigmatic character as having a unique power to reflect people’s desires back at them: “Even though he is this freak of nature, he has an angelic kind of quality. He comes into people’s lives and he seems to expose and amplify whatever is going on inside a human being.”
Physically, Jones used an image that Del Toro gave him to base his movements around: “He said the creature has the bearing of a sexy, dangerous toreador – but with the fluidity of the Silver Surfer.”
Once he started working with Hawkins, rehearsing for a month before shooting began, their characters moved from the abstract to the alive, he adds in production notes.
“It was just gorgeous to explore with Sally how much you can say to one another without any verbal dialogue,” Jones says. “And then you see how the power of their love inspires Elisa to buck the system, to step way outside her comfort zone.”
Their love scene took Jones himself way out of his comfort zone. He admits he never foresaw doing a sex scene, no matter how artfully, in a monster suit – but it also took him into a place of pure physical communication.
“In that scene, I’m thinking as a being who has never before experienced touch or intimacy. He and Elisa are both experiencing this for the first time, so it has a very unique kind of innocence.”
Jones especially relished the unbreakable trust he found with Hawkins.
“We are both playing such unconventional characters without any precedent, so we bonded over that,” he notes.
When the camera rolled, their connection was palpable.
“I would get so lost in watching Sally that I’d forget what I was doing. There’s something so real, so raw about Sally, I just fell for her, much as the creature does.”
Oscar-nominee Octavia Spencer, who plays Elisa’s friend and co-worker Zelda, recalls the sudden emotions of seeing footage of Elisa and the creature interacting for the first time: :It was so beautiful and touching. I didn’t realise I would have the type of response I did: I just started sobbing watching it.”
For the creature in The Shape of Water, Del Toro wanted to leave all predecessors behind. He envisioned raising the bar to a new level of realism, crafting a being of such biological plausibility it might inspire a human woman’s mad passion.
Three years before the film began shooting on sound stages in Toronto, Del Toro hired Guy Davis and Vincent Proce to begin design work on the lab and the water cylinder.
The next year he hired two sculptors, David Meng and Dave Grosso, to begin working on the design of his Fish Creature at his Bleak House workshop, at his own expense.
Del Toro was so committed to getting the creature right, he financed the design of the creature from his own pocket, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in a process that took some nine months of gestation.
“I knew I wanted the creature to feel real but at the same time for it to be beautiful which is a very hard line to tow,” confesses Del Toro. “I knew it was going to take a long time, so I didn’t even put it in the film’s budget. This is truly the hardest creature design I’ve ever done.”
Early on, he assembled a crack team of artists who are pros at infusing life into the imaginary, including Shane Mahan of Legacy Effects, a creature designer extraordinaire and visual effects supervisor known for his award-winning work bringing the superhero Ironman to life and for Pacific Rim; and Mike Hill, a renowned sculptor who specialises in ultra-realistic models of monsters from classic horror movies.
The team worked tirelessly from sketchbook to maquette to the fully-realized creature suit that transformed Doug Jones.
Says Hawkins of what they achieved: :I feel the creature is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I had to be reacting to someone who feels alluring to Elisa and because of their work that came naturally. I didn’t see Doug at all; I saw this incredible, mysterious specimen. Others might see a monster but Elisa sees something else entirely and that comes across.”
Del Toro had his own way of testing whether the design was attractive enough. “Every night, I took it to my home and got the female vote: enough ass or not enough ass, enough abs or more abs, shoulders bigger or slimmer? It just had to be a creature you could love fall in love with.”
The initial inspiration for the creature came directly out of nature, with his bioluminescent skin, layered eyes and strong, sucking lips merging into a sleek, humanoid-style form. For those whose love is sculpting new life forms, the proposition of creating something so original was jaw-dropping.
Explains Shane Mahan: “The idea from the beginning was to really push the idea of an aquatic form of life that has existed for millennia, to make it feel like a living creature from the sea with the kind of shifting, phosphorus colours you would see in tropical fish, but in a fleshy form that is compelling.”
Looking for someone to blow the whole process open, Del Toro recruited Hill, having recently been wowed by his life-like monster sculptures at a horror film convention.
“Mike has a connection with monsters that is uncanny, and I thought we needed that level of insight,” says the director. “The difficulty with this creature is that we were not just sculpting a creature – we were sculpting a leading man.”
Hill recalls the mission Del Toro set for him: “He said he wanted me to give the creature a soul. He wanted it to be something a woman could fall head over heels for in every way. So I started sketching a handsome looking version of a fish man, giving him kissable lips, a square jaw and doe eyes… and I went from there.”
The process got so intense, Hill spent night and day collaborating with Del Toro on clay sculptures, each sketching and scratching and revising the forms over and over.
“After weeks and weeks and weeks of sketching with the clay, we finally nailed it,” Del Toro recalls.
The creature was now reinvented in a more sinewy form. “I wanted to make him a bit more caliph like, and because Doug is so slim, I thought let’s not waste that, and let’s not build bulk,” explains Hill.
Hill and del Toro perused an encyclopedia’s worth of real-life fish as they worked. “We wanted him to look like something that you might see washed up on the shore of a beach and at first think, oh, that looks kind of like a fish, so it was important to use realistic fish colours that are familiar to people,” Hill says.
The enchanting tropical lionfish, a vibrantly coloured, venomous creature native to the Pacific became the model for how the creature would eat – with its internal membrane that allows the fish to swallow its food in record time.
Hill also looked to the natural world for the creature’s translucent bioluminescence.
“People with aquariums are often attracted to glowing, see-through fish so we wanted to echo that idea,” he elaborates. “Later, Legacy came up with a way to re-create that idea in an opaque suit that looks fantastic.”
Says Mahan: “His gills were especially challenging because we were dealing with a lot of water in some scenes. But they were also exciting, because the gills give the creature an additional way of reacting without words and we could use Doug’s breathing to enhance emotions like excitement, anger or affection.”
Finally, four spectacularly intricate suits, each capable of getting waterlogged, were made for the production.
The skin-tight fit and athletic nature of moving in the suit pushed Jones to “get into the best shape of my life” at age 56, he says.
“I knew this would be my most physically demanding role, so that spurred me. Just wearing the suit, which has foam latex rubber and silicone designed to always spring back to the position it was sculpted in, was an intense work out. Every movement is like doing a pushup or a pull-up.”
Jones’s extensive transformation also meant spending two to four hours daily in the makeup chair. In some scenes, he was entirely blinded by prosthetic eyes. The suit also took four people to hoist Jones into it.
“It was a daily comedy of tugging and pulling and baby powdering, as well as shoving, shifting, zipping and snapping as four grown men pulled on my arms and legs,” Jones laughs.