When crafting their love story about a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) and gilled government asset (Doug Jones) who fall in love without saying a word, “The Shape of Water” screenwriters Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor also did not speak. It wasn’t a meta exercise or conscious choice — just the practical outcome of exchanging emailed pages and drafts for six months while the roving del Toro kept up appearances in Toronto, Europe, and his native Mexico. Thus, in Taylor’s mind, they had no disagreements; they shared differing points of view with a more playful shorthand.
“There were things that he put in that I took out, and then he would put back in,” and vice versa, Taylor said in a recent phone interview. “Obviously, as the director, he could choose to do whatever he wanted to do.” So far this award season, “The Shape of Water” has been the most-nominated film at the Golden Globes (seven), the BAFTAs (12), and the Critics’ Choice Awards (14), where it claimed Best Picture.
“The Shape of Water”
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchligh
Del Toro began working on the script — an ode to one of his favorite monster movies, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) — in 2012, after buying the idea from Daniel Kraus, his co-author on the book “Trollhunters” (now also a Netflix animated series in production on its third and final season). Two years later, after he’d successfully pitched the film to Fox Searchlight, his representatives contacted Taylor. She had written two produced films (“Hope Springs” and “Divergent”), but del Toro was a bigger fan of her past contributions to “Game of Thrones,” where she earned Emmy nominations as a producer during seasons two and three. (She also penned three episodes.)
“Initially when you hear the beginning of the story, you’re like, ‘Okay, it’s 1962, we’re in a lab,'” Taylor said. “When I got to the part where I realized it was a fairy tale, I was like, ‘Oh, fantastic!’ They are really primal and there’s a reason why we keep telling the same ones over and over and over again. I think children have a reaction to them and adults have a reaction to them. They get in deep in terms of the profound emotion they evoke. I like the ‘What if?’ of it all.”
Taylor’s next project is Disney’s live-action remake of “Aladdin,” currently shooting near London, ahead of a 2019 release. (She wrote the script with “Big Fish” scribe John August and the film’s director, Guy Ritchie.)
Another Disney classic inspired her collaboration with del Toro. “I love the fact that his thing was ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ but not transformation,” she said. “He’s right that that piece of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is so” — she sighs — “corrosive and yucky.” She called del Toro’s take “more soulful.”
Before she signed on, three meetings took place — including one at a Brentwood sushi restaurant. Taylor knew she wanted to collaborate with del Toro from the very beginning, but she had some questions. “I wanted to make sure thematically I understood what was going on,” she said, particularly with the film’s Cold War subplot and double-agent Russian scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), which would demand the bulk of Taylor’s attention. “[del Toro] had told me some things about who the different people were and I was like, ‘So who are these generals, and what are they doing?’”
“The Shape of Water”
Instead of meeting for a fourth time as planned, del Toro sent Taylor about 25 script pages and a 20-page outline with beats. “Some of it was pretty loose; it would be like, ‘The general talks,'” said Taylor, who is most comfortable navigating a story’s mechanics and structure. “But he really had super-specific ideas already about the love story, how that would play out, the imagery of what we were seeing. Lots of things in [the script] have not changed very much from what I initially saw.”
Taylor said her partnership with Del Toro felt like “somebody want[ing] to run a marathon,” Taylor said. “They’re like, ‘Hey, will you be my workout buddy? I’m not going to get to the gym by myself.’” With each new batch of pages, Taylor deferred to his vision, always asking, “‘What are the parameters of the work you want me to do? Maybe you want a polish, or maybe you want a complete rewrite, maybe there are no parameters, but I always want to know.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Taylor was raised in Oregon and California, the daughter of a fiction writer who also taught English and film criticism. Following college, Taylor worked at an investment bank, believing “Hollywood was not a place to make a living for a writer.” She successfully applied to UCLA’s law school right around the time her father, a resident of Austin, mailed her an article about Rob Thomas, a local television writer who had recently sold a pilot. “I sent him a letter like, ‘Hey, I’d be a great assistant. You should hire me, and I will be grateful every day forever.'”
From “The Shape of Water,” Octavia Spencer, producer J. Miles Dale, and Taylor at the 2018 AFI Awards Luncheon.
Thomas obliged, then shared credit with her on a script, and put her on staff of “Snoops,” a David E. Kelley-created ABC series starring Gina Gershon, which ran for 10 episodes in 1999. Taylor landed agents, and went on to write for shows like “Gideon’s Crossing,” “Alias,” “Everwood,” and The WB’s “Jack & Bobby,” which she co-created. “I was really lucky to have a mentor who really helped me get in the door,” she said.
With “The Shape of Water,” Taylor felt fortunate that she grasped the tone del Toro sought early on. The central pair is surrounded by verbose characters speaking in “a certain, little tiny bit stylized way” that grounds them in Baltimore circa 1962. So the script functioned as “words floating around this silent couple,” Taylor said. “Guillermo talked at one point about really admiring the Coen brothers, and to me, that was a useful reference.”
In an early draft, del Toro had the entrance to the Occam Aerospace Research Center be a secret door located inside a typewriter store — a detail Taylor loved but del Toro cut, again and again, foreseeing a production headache on a $19.5 million film that he’d already put his writing, directing, and producing salaries into. “He truly did not want it in,” she said, noting that he did the production revisions himself.
Guillermo del Toro on the set of “The Shape of Water” with Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins.
Much of the Oscar momentum surrounding “The Shape of Water” has centered on celebrating good-humored del Toro. Despite what he calls a “horrible” experience making his first American film for the Weinstein brothers (“Mimic”), the director has supplied a stream of gothic narratives featuring creatures, beasts, ghosts, ghouls, trolls, zombies, deities, angels, fairies, and mutants for two decades. “He’s such a lovely person,” said Taylor. “He’s so pure of spirit.”
Taylor has been arguably left out of the narrative. She never visited the film’s Ontario set, and only met the cast for the first time in September 2017, when “The Shape of Water” screened at the Toronto International Film Festival: “It was so bizarre. We were about to walk onstage, and I was standing right behind Michael Shannon — I felt so dumb, because they all knew each other — and I was like, ‘Hi, I’m Vanessa, I’m the co-writer.”
Michael Stuhlbarg, Taylor, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Sally Hawkins, and J. Miles Dale flank Guillermo del Toro as he accepts the Critics’ Choices Awards Best Picture honors for “The Shape of Water.”
But at the Critics’ Choice Awards, she was included in a very nice moment. On stage, following executive producer J. Miles Dale’s speech after the film took Best Picture, del Toro — also the Best Director recipient — said a few more words, his mind on the Time’s Up initiative, the #MeToo movement, and perhaps Natalie Portman’s Golden Globes “all-male nominees” jab.
“Let me show you who stands here with us and made this movie possible,” singling out by name Hawkins and co-star Octavia Spencer, plus Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley, and Taylor. To anyone refusing to let women help make the major decisions on their projects, del Toro concluded, “You don’t know what you’re missing!”
“The Shape of Water” is currently in theaters.