The sinewy fish-man at the center of The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s new film, stands stoic and brave as the rain beats down. But when the director yells “cut,” the man inside the fish suit begins to shiver; the set may look like a Baltimore port, but this is Toronto. Two crewmembers rush over, enveloping the 6’ 3”, 140-pound Doug Jones in coats and their own body heat. Throughout the movie’s grueling 45-day shoot, those two men—Legacy Effects co-founder Shane Mahan and monster sculptor Mike Hill, both of whom helped create Jones’ costume—felt they had two separate jobs: tend to the suit and tend to the man inside it.
“When wearing any kind of a costume and makeup that’s this extensive, you become a bit of a nursing home patient,” Jones says, wincing as he remembers his time in Toronto. “I can’t see as well, I can’t hear much, I can’t feel much, and I got these webbed fingers on—I can’t do anything for myself.”
Including, it seems, stay warm. So Hill and Mahan, worried the actor’s shakes would be visible during the film’s crescendo, had to cuddle him between takes. It’s a rare concern in the age of city-crumbling CGI, but in The Shape of Water the monster is also the main character, the emotional center of the movie, and del Toro insisted he have a soul beneath his scales. That’s why Legacy Effects spent three years turning a sketch from one of the director’s notebooks into a foam-latex masterpiece that Jones could wear while performing. It is the monster-maven’s most ambitious creature yet. “I wanted,” del Toro says, “to make the Michelangelo’s David of amphibian men.”
Like George Clooney, But Fishier
The Shape of Water is no Pacific Rim. It’s a $20-million Cold War-era fairytale about a mute cleaning lady, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who stumbles upon a top-secret tank where a team led by the brutal Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) experiment upon a mysterious Amazonian fish-man. As Eliza falls for the fish-man, aka the Asset, del Toro delivers his twist on Beauty and the Beast, one where the beast need not be a prince to be loved.
It is not hyperbole to say that del Toro is obsessed with monsters. After directing three films in Mexico, he made his American directorial debut with the 1997 sci-fi/horror film Mimic and followed that up with a run of fantasy/horror movies populated with inventive creatures. But none demonstrated del Toro’s creature-building chops like Pan’s Labyrinth, his Spanish Civil War fable overflowing with deceitful fauns, helpful fairies, and the memorably terrifying Pale Man, a creature with eyeballs in the palms of his hands (and also played by Jones). The beasts del Toro dreams up are legendary, so when he reached out to creature-creators Dave Grasso and David Meng and said he wanted them to build one that would double as a romantic lead in his next feature, they couldn’t say no.
In 2014, they went to Bleak House, del Toro’s second home/personal monster museum, and got to work. The director showed them his sketch of the fish-man, which at the time looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Grasso and Meng each began building 24-inch-tall preliminary sculptures known as maquettes. Del Toro pushed the pair to make their fish-men as handsome as possible; if his movie was going to work, the audience would have to believe that Eliza could fall in love with the Asset. “The very first thing I sculpted was a little head-and-shoulders bust of a fish-man,” Meng says. “He liked it, but he thought it was too monstrous. He said, ‘Make it like a George Clooney of fish-men!’”
After the month was up, the two sculptors finished their maquettes—Meng’s skinnier and scalier and Grasso’s broader and more smooth—and passed them along to Legacy Effects, the VFX studio charged with building the suit.
Building a Better Butt
Next, Legacy had to turn the little maquettes into a human-sized suit. Sculptor Glen Hanz 3D scanned the figures and combined the best elements of both Meng and Grasso’s designs. Once he had a digital amalgamation, he needed a sculpture he could use as a mannequin for the fish-man suits. He took a fiberglass Doug Jones cast Legacy already had in its studio (“It might have been from Neighborhood Watch, or maybe even from Doom,” Hanz says. “He has definitely remained just as skinny.”), wrapped it in plastic wrap, covered it in wax, and along with Hill and colleague Mario Torres Jr. crafted a life-size fish-man out of oil clay.
The clay sculpture was then turned into an epoxy mold, which the team used to form a foam latex suit. The suit was painted, outfitted with plastic fins, and given animatronic gills and a water-resistant radio hub that allowed Mahan to control them as Jones performed.
While Hanz was prepping the cast, Hill spent three days, from dawn until midnight, working with del Toro at his home sketching and sculpting a face handsome enough for Eliza to love. The goal, Hill says, was to make a fish face look like a leading man’s, without winding up in an uncanny valley or making him look unrelatable. “We share the desire to see what’s going on behind the monster’s eyes,” Hill says. No detail was too small—eyes were widened, the mouth tweaked, gills were placed just right so that they looked like ears. And they tried every iteration of nose until they found the perfect look: not too puggish, not too Roman.
With the face design set, Hill moved back to Legacy Effects to work with Hanz and Torres on the life-sized sculpture. They set up shop in a space the company had rented for Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume II and over the course of four months, slowly began sculpting the Asset. Torres modeled the hands after what he’d seen in anatomy books, and the feet after his own. Hanz built the abdominal codpiece and worked on the scale design. Hill perfected the Asset’s face—creating different options for each mood.
Del Toro came and gave edits throughout, always preoccupied with making the fish-man more handsome. “Guillermo was very keen on making the creature have a nice butt,” Hill says, adding that del Toro carried a picture of of the creature’s rump around for weeks to get input from friends and family.
Such a focus on the Asset’s sculpted derrière might seem over-the-top, but for the director, there was a reason. The Shape of Water is far from puritanical, but del Toro stresses that he didn’t want it to be “a bestiality, kinky, perverse thing” either. For him, the key was to give the fish-man a look that was at once handsome and detestable, depending on the angle (think: Tom Cruise in Top Gun). He had to be repugnant to Shannon’s Col. Strickland, and inspiring to others. But making the Amazonian fish-man appealing, and even desirable, was the trickiest task of all.
The obsessive attention to detail worked. On set, Jones’s statuesque form was a hit, especially with one of his co-stars: Octavia Spencer, who plays Eliza’s friend at the lab. “Every time I walked away from Octavia, I would hear, ‘Mmmmm,’” Jones says. “And I might turn around and say, ‘Octavia, are you looking at my ass again?’ And she’d say, ‘Oh yes I am! Keep walking.’”
The Fish-Man’s Internal Monster
In person, Jones is strikingly thin. The actor—who has played everything from a zombie ex-boyfriend in Hocus Pocus to del Toro’s faun in Pan’s Labyrinth—is something like the creature-sculpting community’s Tom Hanks. He jokes that it’s just because his lanky form is the ideal cast to build upon, or perhaps that his Midwestern easygoingness is rare in the makeup chair.
And he needed that demeanor for The Shape of Water, which required a pre-dawn call time for three hours of makeup and long days in a cold, wet suit. He grins recalling his experience now, but occasionally grimaces when talking about the grind on set. The actor—56 at the time of filming—struggled through the 45 days.
Usually a gripping side character, this time around Jones had to be in nearly every scene and served as one of the emotional anchors of the film. Having a creature as a movie’s romantic lead is difficult in terms of audience buy-in, but also taxing for the actor stuck inside the suit. His performance would make or break del Toro’s movie, so he had to learn to quiet the feelings of cold, exhaustion, and hunger and embody the story of a hated and feared outsider who finds love and takes action.
It worked. Since it started making the rounds at film festivals this year, del Toro’s movie has gotten widespread critical acclaim. Much of that praise has been focused on Shape’s ability to show the grotesqueness of discrimination while celebrating the beauty of “otherness.” That was del Toro’s goal, and it was manifest through Jones’ ability to display emotion through layers of latex—a role that he was perhaps unknowingly preparing for for years.
“I lived as an awkward teenager until I was about 50. It took me a long time to get over that stigma of, ‘I look odd and I just don’t fit in!’” Jones tells me. “I have an internal monster that’s been plaguing me all my life.”