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Doug Jones is a very humble man. Maybe it's a result of spending much of his acting career in intricate makeup, prosthetics, and digital costuming; perhaps humility is just built into the Indiana native's Midwestern DNA. Either way, his projected gee-whiz innocence led to a slightly awkward conversation when his frequent collaborator, Guillermo del Toro, initially pitched him a featured role in his new movie, The Shape of Water.
From the get-go four years ago, del Toro knew that he wanted Jones to play the Fish Man, a Creature From the Black Lagoon-inspired humanoid dragged from the Amazon to a government facility. Easy enough — after all, Jones has made a career playing these kinds of characters, and even played a kind of fish man for del Toro already, in the Hellboy movies. But there was something different about this prospective new role: he'd have to have an interspecies romance.
"He used some flowery language and told me that there was an intimate scene happening," Jones recalls, laughing. "I asked, ‘Well, what do you mean? How intimate does it get?' And he said, ‘Well... it's in a bathtub.'"
At that point, del Toro backtracked and explained the whole story, which had yet to be written and existed only in his infinitely vivid imagination. Sally Hawkins would play Elisa, a mute janitor at the secret government facility. Recognizing a kinship with the Fish Man, she decides to rescue it upon learning that the government planned on its elimination (the interference of Russian spies made people do crazy things back then… and now).
"He got to the fact that she would be rescuing me and doing a little kidnap heist to get me out of there, and then end up in her apartment in the bathtub. I was like ‘oh, I see where this is headed,'" Jones remembers, laughing. "So finally, without glass between us, without a wall between us, without me being chained down in a pool, we had quiet, unsupervised time together to consummate that love that had been brewing."
The filmmaker was nervous about Jones' reaction to the quasi-beastiality, not to mention its consummation without marital bonds. The actor, however, had no trepidation about the unusual sex scene.
"The good Catholic boy in me had no qualms," Jones remembers. "As I told him, I don't even think the Bible has a reference for what protocol there is. Do animals in the wild get married first? I don't think so. And, I know him well enough to know that it wasn't going to be a pornographic scene. It was going to be tasteful and lovely and innocent."
SYFY WIRE spoke with Jones last week about making the critically acclaimed movie, including a good bit more talk about the Fish Man's anatomy.
In the scene that follows your big bathtub lovemaking, Elisa explains to her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) how the Fish Man's anatomy works.
Yeah, the how's it work thing.
Was there any talk of showing and not just telling? Was there ever discussion of that going further?
That was never discussed. Her mime job with her hands of how my accoutrement work was about as ... That's all I ever heard about it. When I saw the first sculpture designs of the suit and the makeup, it never involved appendages or genitalia.
Did you ever wonder?
Well, you know, when I looked at myself, I'm like, "Well, I guess that could unfold and present itself, if it needed to."
Being in the suit had to be incredibly difficult — you couldn't see or hear very well.
I'm a nursing home patient whenever I go into a makeup like that, because I can't see as well, I can't hear as well. I had webbed fingers on with these silicone gloves that were glued into the suit, so I couldn't really grab. I couldn't use my own phone, I could barely use utensils. I couldn't go to the snack table. I couldn't go to the bathroom for myself. We took one of the hands off at lunchtime, so had to time my bathroom breaks on. And just to get more base level here with you, I had a front flap for using the men's room. I did not have a back flap.
So that means I had to take care of all that kind of business ahead of time, and really plan ahead for being in a costume without a back flap for, you know, 15-16 hours.
Were any scenes particularly hard to shoot in it? You had to swim, which ironically had to be hard to do in a fish man costume.
Well, thanks to my mother, I had ten summers in a row as a child with swimming lessons. So I'm very adept and comfortable in the water. I had never done it in a fully encased rubber suit before, so that was kinda different.
When you go underwater, the entire suit and the whole headpiece — the helmet I was wearing underneath the mask and the glued on facial bits — would fill up with water. And so when you come up out of that water, you had to kind of blow out your nose to make sure that all the passages were clear, because it had collected in the head. Coming up out of the water and trying not to act like I was suffocating was one challenge.
The scene in the bathroom, where she tucks the towels under the door and floods the bathroom, and then you'll see us getting intimate underwater, floating around each other in an artistic shape, that was a challenge, of course.
We were in an eight-foot tank, it's a deep tank, and with that bathroom scene built into it. So that meant gathering our air at the top and then plunging down before we heard the word "Action!" on speakers underwater, and we would play out those lovely moments until we heard "Cut!" And then we would push ourselves back to the top and gasp for air between takes. That was a whole new challenge I had never done before.
Was there choreography, or were you just trying to pull off a hug?
Yeah, there was. I think the scenes starts with her getting a gasp of air at the top, and then the camera follows her down to meet me, and I'm already down there. So it just was a matter of finding the right embrace at the right angle with the right kickback of one leg to make it look more balletic. Lines and shapes were important in making this character graceful. I got notes from Guillermo to look graceful but strong, with a superhero sort of element to me, mixed with a bit of a matador. So leading with the hips, leading with the pelvis, and having that sexy confidence about me.
And that's why, that tied in the godlike legend that I come from. In the Amazon, the local people, where I was found, worshiped me as a god. So Guillermo really wanted not only to be, yes, I'm an animal from the wild and I need to learn communication, and she teaches me that, but in the meanwhile, there's something mystical and magical about me that you're not quite sure, were those people in the Amazon correct about me being a god? You don't know just yet.
Did you have any input into the design of the suit in general, beyond the way it fit your body?
No, actually. I never have notes on the look of a character, really, because there are too many good people that are amazing at what they do involved that I don't want to muck up their creativity and their art with my silly opinion. No, I just let them do their magic. If I ever have any notes, it's usually about either a comfort issue that would be distracting, or a mobility issue, where the character needs to do X, Y, and Z from the script that I read, and the current design doesn't let me do those things. How do we get more arm movement out of this? How do we get more leg movement out of this? Whatever. Those are the only notes I'll ever have.
In this case, he had Legacy Effects, which is a brilliant creature effects company, design this. And I've worked with them multiple times over many years now, and they're the legacy that carried on Stan Winston's shop before. He called in one of his favorite artists, a fine artist named Mike Hill. He's a brilliant sculptor and painter, that Guillermo owns a lot of his fine artwork in his house. So he had Mike come in to do his first movie character, so Mike sculpted me from head to toe, a life-size body of me in clay.
When you first see the sculpture, do you see yourself in it? Or is it another creature to you?
Well, because of that sculpture, what's underneath all that clay is a life-cast of me. Once that comes off of there, it will only fit me. So I do see myself in those creatures, always. And I kinda have to. I need to connect with them immediately and know that that's my second skin. I'm gonna be not just wearing it, but that's gonna become a part of me. So I do wanna connect with him at a very base level, as soon as I lay eyes on him.
And the design process took two years, so lots of changes and color changes and shape changes. There were a couple of challenges afoot. One was to make him as romantic and appealing and sexy and kissable as possible, so that not only Sally Hawkins's character could fall in love with him, but the audience needs to fall in love with him, too, to make it plausible. They have to understand why she's falling for him. And so an appealing look was certainly part of that.
And the other challenge was to make this fish-man character look different than the other one that I played for Guillermo del Toro [in Hellboy]. So when you got the same director and the same actor doing a movie where there's a fish-man in it, the comparisons are going to be there whether we want them or not. So we have to look at the characters side by side and see distinct differences. So that was the other challenge to do, was to make me, the same guy, look like a different fish-man. I think they pulled it off.
What kind of changes were there to it over that time? Were you involved?
I didn't really want to, if I got emotionally attached to a certain look or a certain color palette, I didn't want to be like, "Aw, I wish they wouldn't have changed that." But I know color was a big issue. They even tried using more reds at one point, but then if you look at the color palette of the entire movie, that teal green color seems to be a constant throughout the whole film. And he uses red only in choice places for Sally's character, when she becomes more actualized as a human and becomes more full-rounded, and is owning her own strengths, is when she gets to wear more red. But her whole apartment, and the color scheme and the production design of her dwelling, and the laboratory I came from, too, lots of teals and greens that would reflect my color.
Guillermo has said this before, when you have a creature that's the centerpiece of a movie, it's like a bullseye kind of chart. At the bullseye of that target is the creature, and you design outward from that. So, the environment, the set design, the colors, the costuming, even all the environments, the shapes, the colors of your production design needs to be a world that that creature can look right in.