LOS ANGELES — How did “The Shape of Water,” a movie about a mute cleaning woman falling truly, madly, deeply in love with a fish-man, wind up winning the Oscar for best picture?
It starts with the power of love, the film’s Oscar-winning director, Guillermo del Toro, says.
“Love is much stronger than hatred, and it’s much more powerful than fear,” del Toro told the Los Angeles Times in November. “Love is the antidote to what we’re living through today.”
That timely resonance helped “The Shape of Water” become the first sci-fi film to win best picture, with del Toro pulling off a feat that eluded the likes of Steven Spielberg , George Lucas (“Star Wars”), James Cameron (“Avatar”), Christopher Nolan (“Inception”) and fellow Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”). (We’re classifying “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” as a fantasy film, as director Peter Jackson did when he accepted the Oscar.)
“Shape’s” favor with the academy — it earned a leading 13 nominations, winning four — was also undoubtedly helped by the way it explored societal fears of the Other.
“It’s set in 1962, but, for me, this is today,” the Mexican-born del Toro said. Pointing to the movie’s Cold War era, he added: “When people say, ‘Let’s make America great again,’ they’re dreaming of that time. Everything was great if you were white Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. If you were anything else, you were (screwed). So it’s a false memory of that time.”
The film’s across-the-board support in the industry — it won top prizes from the Producers Guild and Directors Guild as well — was also probably aided by its baked-in love for cinema. Its main characters live above a beautiful movie theater, and the sound from the venue’s showings bleeds into the action, making cinema a constant presence as it is in del Toro’s life.
Del Toro shot “Shape” like a musical, constantly moving the camera on cranes and dollies, aiming for the illusion that the characters might break into song at any moment. He also included a dream dance sequence that would have made Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers proud.
“I wanted to make it feel like a love letter to movies,” del Toro said in that earlier interview. “It’s passionate about movies because I’m passionate about movies. Movies gave me life. Movies saved my life.”
Del Toro used a great many B-movie tropes in “Shape” but took the film to surprising places as well. Its beauty-and-the-beast tale is a love story about understanding, not transformation. The lovers’ passion is reciprocal and almost immediate. Roadblocks come from outside forces. And perhaps the best curveball of all: Sally Hawkins’ janitor drives the action. She’s the one who needs to save the day.
And, unlike most creature flicks, the love story is not only consummated but has the kind of upbeat ending that del Toro wanted to see when he first caught “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on television at age 7.
“I fell in love with them in love,” Del Toro said. “I remember thinking, ‘I hope they end up together. They should end up together.’ They didn’t. So I’ve been trying to get them back together ever since.”
“The Shape of Water” premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival, winning the event’s prestigious Golden Lion award. From there, the film screened at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, gaining more critical acclaim along the way.
Its path to best picture wasn’t without its hiccups, however. “Shape” didn’t earn a Screen Actors Guild ensemble nod, a category that has long been viewed as a vital awards season precursor. (“Shape” is the only movie since “Braveheart” to win the best picture Oscar without that SAG ensemble nomination.)
The movie also faced two accusations of plagiarism, both of which del Toro strongly denied.
Though he had only one prior Oscar nomination, for writing the “Pan’s Labyrinth” original screenplay, the gregarious del Toro is extremely well liked in the industry as a filmmaker with an abounding enthusiasm for the medium.
“I felt incredibly honored,” Hawkins says of her collaboration with del Toro. “That he would trust me with this role of a woman who possesses a strength she doesn’t know she has, and then she discovers it and it just explodes her heart open and it allows her to literally break through walls. Who else could write that? Who else would write that?”
Hawkins added that she thought her character resonated in this #MeToo year in which women spoke out forcefully against sexual harassment and gender inequity in the industry.
“We need to see more women like her driving movies,” Hawkins told the Times.
The film’s lavish craftsmanship — it won Oscars for production design and score along with nominations for its cinematography, sound and editing — were all the more remarkable given its $19.5 million budget.
“You make the movie for that price and then you’re free from interference,” producer J. Miles Dale told the Times in February. The film shot in Toronto on stages from Dale’s FX series “The Strain,” using much of the TV show’s crew.
“We definitely had our moments of frustration, lots of long days, but I don’t think anyone’s complaining now,” Dale said.
Del Toro has lived in Toronto the last few years, but as he made clear from the stage Sunday, he considers the sets of his films his spiritual home. With “The Shape of Water,” he created a place of community that, judging from the Oscars on Sunday, extended well beyond those that worked on the film.
“I think that the greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand,” del Toro said, accepting his Oscar for directing. “We should continue doing that when the world tells us to make them deeper.”