Tips from Guillermo del Toro at Arclight Cinema

I don’t get out much — I’m an introvert working at a tech startup. My weekly routine is typically, go to work, visit the gym three times a week, and then go home. Sometimes I pretend to write, but mostly I sit around and read.

So when I was invited to go see Guillermo del Toro speak about The Shape of Water at Arclight Cinema, I was beyond excited.

Seating at the Arclight was far from intimate — the crowd nearly filled an entire theater — and despite this, there was still an incredibly personal feeling about the entire event.

From the very beginning, Del Toro told us that he wanted to cater the entire three-hour session toward the things that the crowd was interested in. The audience was made up of professionals in the field, people hoping to break into the space, and the casual movie-goers who happened to fall deeply in love with del Toro and his work.

He alternated between showing us some of the stunningly detailed pre-vis art, production shots, and behind the scenes footage and talking toward some of the questions fans had about The Shape of Water and some of his film practices more generally.

I didn’t end up asking any questions — horrible introvert, remember? — but I learned a lot more than I hoped, not the least of which included the finer details of sculpting The Asset’s butt.

There is no such thing as an accidental character.

Characters make the heart and soul of a story, and no character worth writing and telling a story about can be a mistake.

Listening to del Toro talk about the care that he puts into each of his characters is amazing. He let us see some of the immense character biographies that he wrote from Crimson Peak.

Writing whole biographies, likes, dislikes, and a small story somewhere between their birth and the beginning of the movie — creating realistic characters means that their writers have to keep in mind the whole life that they bring to the table and the screen.

If your goal is to write the best version of the movie that you can, then you can’t carelessly throw together characters and their interactions with one another.

If relationships in real life don’t work that way, then they won’t work that way in film.

Every choice needs to be deliberate.

If there are no such things as accidental characters, and then are definitely no accidental choices, either.

This was a theme that came up in every part of the talk, from writing the screenplay and the characters themselves to the smallest visual details of The Asset’s costume and Eliza’s wardrobe.

Colors carry a lot of weight in The Shape of Water. Del Toro explained and entire color-coding system, green for the future, red for love, and so on. None of these things happened by mistake, and all of these things were meant to be picked up by the audience.

The Asset’s chamber in the lab was meant to be evocative of his status as a god. Steps led up to his open tank, reminiscent of the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia. The pipes behind this bath structure radiated outward, like the rays of the sun forming a halo.

Even if you’re not the person who consciously notices the smallest details, they work together in your subconscious. They set the scene and the characters to render them human and relatable, or at least create a visually cohesive world.

The film and its characters must manifest visually.

This sounds like it should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at how many writers seem to focus so much on the emotional and the internal that the actions and appearances of characters and their environment suffer as a result. (For example, I am horribly guilty of this.)

To quote the example that he used during the session: don’t tell me that Joe walks into the room burdened by the weight of his past and the guilt on his conscience.

Instead, tell me that Joe walks into the room and hesitates with his hand on the doorknob, glancing around the room before he steps out of the doorway. Tell me how half of his face is hidden in shadow, cut diagonally from his right temple to his left jaw.

Stories have to be told in the physical characteristics that art department and lighting can re-create so that they can make the details that the audiences will ultimately notice.

Take risks. Put your art out there.

I put these two somewhat-discrete thoughts together because I think they work well together.

When you’re working on a prospective film, whether you’re writing the script or designing the visuals, you can’t turn to other films for reference. They can be a source of inspiration, but you have to keep them as just that — inspiration.

Your favorite films can and will be part of your DNA, but you can’t use them as a reference. Instead, go back to science or the physical inspirations that you can find in reality.

Along those lines, you have to be willing to try things in film. If you have the opportunity to try something outrageous in your film, do it. Visually, in your writing, anywhere. These moments could be some of the most valuable storytelling elements.

The gestures that are the most ridiculous and risky can often be ridiculous enough that it must be true. Telling someone that you were late because of traffic is one thing. Telling someone that traffic was held up because of a woman chasing after a dog that was running down the center divider sounds ridiculous enough for someone to keep asking for more.

And as artists, the one thing you have to do is put your art out there. The stories we write are meant to be told, and as artists, our duty is to make our work available.

(I’m still working on this. I wrote this blog post between physical struggles to keep someone from googling the existence of this blog.)