In November, MarketWatch and Dow Jones Media Group hosted an exclusive advance screening of Guillermo del Toro’s new Fox Searchlight film, “The Shape of Water,” and afterward held a Q&A with producer J. Miles Dale. Dale, who previously partnered with del Toro on “Mama” and the FX/Fox television series “The Strain,” spoke about the film’s financing, an unexpected accident on set and how he hopes to build momentum for the film’s platform release during award season.
“The Shape of Water,” a hybrid monster-fantasy-love story starring Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in September, and won Golden Globe awards Sunday for best director — Guillermo del Toro — and best original score. Below is a transcript of the Q&A with Dale, edited for length and to prevent spoilers.
How did you sell the film? The elevator pitch is: A love story between a fishman and a mute cleaning woman, set in the Cold War era. There’s a rich allegorical subtext about marginalized people, but that’s not evident at first.
Dale: It’s a two-part story. Guillermo, when he was six years old, saw “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and it had a profound effect on him. When he saw the creature swimming underneath Julia Adams, he really wanted them to get together, you know? That’s not how it ended. It was more of a home invasion story. That was in the back of his head and he wanted to right that wrong. That was his idea of having them live happily ever after.
Yes, being an outsider himself, being a Mexican who’s getting strip-searched when he goes across the border even after being nominated for Oscars, he feels that deeply and sees what’s going on now. He felt it was the right time to tell that kind of story about marginalized people, the others, and how we needed to really be thinking and understanding intolerance. But he wanted to do it in a monster context as he does everything.
The idea had been percolating for awhile and then in 2011, he met with Daniel Krauss who he does “Trollhunters” [the book series] with. They were sitting having breakfast, and in the small talk Daniel told him he was working on this story about a mute cleaning lady who works at a government facility where they bring this type of creature, and Guillermo was like, “That’s it. Can I buy that paragraph from you?” That set him on the way.
As for the pitching, oddly the only place we took it to was Fox Searchlight. They bought it in the room before it was a script. Guillermo took them to Bleak House -- he’s got this museum in the San Fernando Valley of movie props and giant Frankenstein heads and monsters. He took them out there, and the pitch and the Bleak House tour got them. Done.
The film was only made for $20 million. By comparison, “Dunkirk” was reportedly made for $100 million. How did you and Guillermo do it?
I’m not allowed to tell you [laughs]. First, he wanted to make it in black and white, and they said “$16 million.” He says, “What about color?” and they said, “$19.5 million” and he said, “Color it is!” So that was the first part of it. Then the smart thing we did, I was doing a TV show called “The Strain,” and I said to him, if we do it in between seasons of the television show, there are these studios that are sitting there. Guillermo’s a big Hitchcock fan, and I said this is like his “Psycho,” where Hitchcock did the movie in between seasons of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”
So that was how we did it, and we leaned on some people. It was a labor of love for a lot of people. That certainly made us pretty efficient and a lot of the people we were using, our visual effects and post-production people, had worked on the TV show, had worked on “Pacific Rim,” “Crimson Peak,” and they really had their oars in the water. We sharpened the pencils.
'The Shape of Water' producer J. Miles Dale
The director’s name is often the one mentioned, but the director couldn’t make a film without the producer. Can you describe your role as the producer?
Sure, well there are different kinds of producers. There are rights producers who go and find formats and get them made. There are money producers, line producers who are sort of day-to-day finding the equipment. In general, what a producer’s going to do is develop the piece of material. So, whether it’s optioning a book and then taking it to the next level and engaging the writer, hopefully getting the studio to pay for a writer to develop the script. In this case with Guillermo and this movie, it wasn’t this way. But typically then you’ll get that material and you’ll try to develop it a bit and then you’ll go and pitch it. You might try and then attach a director, or attach a piece of cast. The more you can attach that is attractive, the easier it might be to sell. Once you’ve sold it, then you figure out okay, when are we going to make it? Where are we going to make it? Hopefully with a studio, they’ll pay for it.
With some of these other things you’re cobbling together financing from a lot of different places. Sometimes government agencies, you’re chasing soft money all over the world. As everyone probably knows, many states and many countries around the world have incentives. So you’re putting together all of that and then you babysit the director through production, which is a critical time, and sometimes the actors. A lot of cheerleading. In post-production, you’re there for a second opinion. When the director gives you his cut, it’s 4 1/2 hours long, you say “Yeah, but it’s gotta be 2 hours long.” So there’s that part of it. Then into the marketing and then release, which is this week for us.
Much of “The Shape of Water” is an homage to film. You also produce for television. What are your thoughts on the viability of the film business?
I was here a couple weeks ago for a PGA conference and James Schamus did a speech. He was talking about 1916 and that year in the movie business and how it was all going to sh-t for all kinds of reasons. It seems like at every stage, when talkies came, when television came, when the Internet came, there’s this continued threat. But I think that the social experience of going to the theater, the big screen experience, is really something and I don’t think it’s going away. I think it’ll get adjusted. You’re seeing Amazon and Netflix and some of those other places going to day-and-date, and there will be premiums. But the experience itself is something that people have enjoyed for a long time and I think it’s going to be more resilient than everyone gives it credit for.
Blumhouse Productions has had a series of successes with horror films made on a shoestring budget, that perform well at the box office. Is that model a threat to producers of genre films to keep budgets low?
Well, I don’t know what’s in that guy’s coffee [producer Jason Blum] but he’s really got it right. I think it’s good material and it’s a good approach. We made “Mama” a few years ago. That was about $10 million or $11 million, and it did very well, I think it did $150 million worldwide and we thought that was good. But it seems like it’s getting driven down and up, and now it feels to a lot of us as though it’s either “Thor” and Marvel or this, and the middle is getting pushed away. That has been progressively the case and that’s alarming because you find that a lot of the best movies are made in that space. Like this movie. I’ve done most of my movies in the $10 million to $30 million range and it’s a great range. You can make some interesting movies in there.
I’m very impressed that they made “Get Out” for $4 or $5 million. I thought it was a brilliant genre-bending movie and it had a lot of production value. I mean it was in that one house, but that’s impressive to me. I think there’s going to be a whole spectrum but hopefully we can hold onto the middle, and hopefully as we talk to the Amazons and the Netflix[es]. Now they’re making some of those kinds of movies, so maybe they will not be the demise, but they may be a part of being the savior.
Was there anything during filming you didn’t anticipate?
When Michael Shannon’s character drives up to the theater [in one scene], the first take he did it, fine. The second take he did it, and as he’s getting out of the car he didn’t put it into park, so the car rolled -- he tried diving back into it, the car rolls into a decorative lamp post, knocks it over like a bowling pin flying toward our tent, and then knocks into a city pole. Guillermo said, “How long to fix the car and everything?” And I said, “Guillermo, take one was really good.” And take one is in the movie and there was no take three. Take two will not be on the bonus materials. You’re the only people who know that.
How widely will the film open compared with a blockbuster vs. a lower-budget indie?
So many films that I’ve made have opened on 1500, 2000, 3000 screens. They have a lower per-screen average sometimes. Maybe they’re full the first weekend but then they start to fade and the theater owners are trying to kick you out pretty soon. Whereas this is the exact opposite. This is called a platform release and Searchlight does all their movies, the other lower-budget movies do it that way too, where they start very small and then they build. So we’re opening on two theaters in New York this week, one at Lincoln Center and one at Angelica. We expect them to be very full. Then next week we’ll open in 15 more cities on another 40 screens, we expect them to be very full. So now the theater owners are calling you and saying “Hey we want this movie.” Because they don’t care what movie it is, as long as their theater’s full. So that’s really the difference between the studio and the exhibitors. There’s the whole awards bounce that you hope for. With this timing for example, we’re on say 500 screens by Christmas, and then Golden Globe nominations are announced and -- I don’t want to jinx this. Let’s pretend I’m talking about “Ladybird,” they’re going to be on let’s say 500 screens, it keeps doing business, the Golden Globe nominations get announced and people go see it. Then the Golden Globes happen, and they win some. Then the Oscar nominations come out. So you can keep building and give yourself a much longer theatrical life that way, without taking up all that real estate and having these guys kick you out.
When did you know you had something special with this film?
The watershed moment was definitely at Venice, when we got a 10-minute standing ovation. It was crazy because the filmmakers are up in the balcony and the whole house, it’s about an 1100 person house, turned and through the whole end song, which is 9 minutes and then some, just kept clapping. I didn’t know if it was drugs, or what was happening, it was like “okay I have to go to the bathroom”! I had a birthday in the middle of that ovation! So I would say that was the moment for sure that we knew. Because we had only shown the movie at that point to Searchlight and we did one friends and family screening.
Do you tend to go to the same investors every time?
We typically start with studios if we can just because it’s one-stop shopping. There’s a lot more private investment happening now. There were some big films made this year with private investment and you look at some of the new companies that have come, Megan Ellison’s company and her brother’s company, there’s a number of new people in the business. We typically will want to start with a studio because you’ve got one-stop shopping with financing, and then you’ve got proven marketing and publicity departments, which are really critical. So you start there and if you don’t get traction there then you go get it made privately and you take it back to the studio when it’s finished and they can buy it as an acquisition if they want and you can still avail yourself of the marketing. So you get two kicks at that can.
With private investors, you’re a little bit like Willy Loman there. Sometimes you’ve got, “Okay, I got $10 from you. I got $10 from you,” and it gets a little tricky. You get to 42 associate producer credits on your movie. It’s a party. But it’s fun and you meet some people who are cinephiles and believe in it, and that’s cool too. So we’ve done that but it’s not always the first stop. Unless any of you wants to invest in a movie, in which case it’s the first stop!