Sunday night, 25 years after the release of his first feature film, Guillermo del Toro — a self-professed genre nerd who fell in love with monsters as a child and never looked back — took home two Academy Awards for his tenth feature, The Shape of Water. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often catches flack from genre fans for relegating sci-fi and fantasy films to wins in tech categories alone, leaving the major awards for prestige dramas. Occasionally, though, genre cinema triumphs and last night was a major victory for one of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror's most brilliant minds and fervent champions, as del Toro took home both the Best Director and Best Picture honors.
Del Toro's victory is noteworthy for a number of reasons. The Shape of Water marked del Toro's first nomination in the category of Best Director after years of critical acclaim for films like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth (the closest he'd come to Oscar glory previously) — and he won. It was a victory for a director who's never strayed from his devotion to genre cinema, despite potential temptation to make a more traditionally Oscar-friendly film. His win gave the third and final member of the "Three Amigos" club — the nickname given to the lengthy collaborative friendship between del Toro and fellow directors Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman) — an Oscar for Best Director.
It also, perhaps most significantly, was a victory that came with del Toro's strangest movie to date. In a career that's covered vampires, demons, ghosts, and kaiju, The Shape of Water is a fantasy/romance/musical/thriller/period drama about a mute woman who falls in love with a fish creature that sent him to the top.
Though it may have proved conceptually challenging for Academy voters in the hands of another director, The Shape of Water offered something beautiful thanks in large part to del Toro's unending passion for the story he was telling. Voters have been vocal about their appreciation for his seemingly endless public discussions about the film, and even del Toro himself acknowledges that something felt different this time. At a Directors Guild of America panel last month, Del Toro recounted how one of his mentors, Mexican director Felipe Cazals, described the energy of The Shape of Water: "You've been holding your breath for nine movies, and you finally exhaled."
So, now we can add "Academy Award Winner" to del Toro's name for every future film he makes. Even if he hadn't won, though, his quarter-century of filmmaking that led up to this moment had already endeared him to genre fans forever. Now that the crowning achievement of the Oscar has been bestowed on del Toro, we can look back at the road that got him here. It's a road often covered in bumps and holes in the form of studio struggles, unrealized projects, and box office disappointment, but from Cronos in 1993 to The Shape of Water today, del Toro's passion for his monsters never wavered.
Cronos, like Shape, is another del Toro story about a sympathetic creature: In this case, an antique dealer who's stricken with a form of vampirism after his skin is pierced by a strange device harboring an ancient insect. Also like Shape, the film features people in power attempting to take advantage of and intimidate said sympathetic creature. Del Toro spent four years attempting to get funding for the film, working as a makeup effects artist before he was finally able to make Cronos, though he recalls the Mexican Institute of Film dubbing it a "horrible movie" that would never enter any festivals or win any awards.
Cronos went on to screen at Cannes and won nine Ariel awards (the Mexican equivalent of the Oscars), including Best Picture and directing and writing honors for del Toro. Though its budget was relatively low, you could already see the del Toro we've come to love at work in Cronos: The attention to detail, the passion for myth-making, and the empathy for the monsters he's created. It's all there, built into his filmmaking style, and it's one of the most impressive debut features you're ever likely to see.
From there, del Toro attempted to make the move to Hollywood with another creature film, Mimic. It was his first (and according to him, almost the last) experience in the American studio system, and featured battles on almost every front with Miramax, the studio then-run by Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
"It was a horrible experience, but I learned to fight," del Toro said at a BFI event last year, noting that, while he lost casting and story arguments, the film still retains his vision in terms of its design and cinematography. It shows. It's likely the most beautiful film about giant cockroach creatures you'll ever see.
Frustrated with the Hollywood experience, del Toro recalled an offer from Spanish director Pedro Almodovar to help produce a future film and pitched The Devil's Backbone, a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War. According to del Toro, Almodovar's help "resurrected" him, and is one of the reasons he's put so much effort into serving as a producer for other young filmmakers. Backbone, del Toro's most beloved film until Pan's Labyrinth came along (and for some fans, the favorite even now) was his first feature ghost story, territory he would later revisit.
With his creativity reinvigorated, it was time to give Hollywood another try. Determined to prove that he could make blockbusters with the right collaborators in tow, del Toro directed back-to-back comic book films: Blade II and Hellboy, both showcasing his unending geekdom and passion for intricate creature designs. Cronos and The Devil's Backbone are both meditative, atmospheric works of beautiful darkness, while Mimic is a grimy (yet still gorgeous), slick creature feature to its core. With his comic book films, del Toro proved that he could take all of his talents and turn them into films that could be dark, intricate and emotional while still delivering pure popcorn fun.
Then, it was time for a dark fairy tale.
Until The Shape of Water, Pan's Labyrinth was a strong contender for the title of "Most Guillermo del Toro Movie Ever." Inspired by his lifelong interest in fairy tales (including copious research into Victorian fairy literature) and drawings in his notebooks, Pan's Labyrinth was also a story that he had to fight for.
After being offered, according to him, "every superhero on the face of the earth" in the wake of Hellboy, del Toro decided to take the goodwill he'd built up and apply it to something more personal instead. It initially did not work. Every pitch was turned down, and del Toro refused offers for financing if only he agreed to make the film in English. Eventually, Spanish company Telecinco footed the bill, and del Toro made his most acclaimed film yet. In 2007, Pan's Labyrinth won three Oscars, three BAFTAs, and another nine Ariel Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director for del Toro). In every frame, you see del Toro's love of mythology and creature design, but there's also something even more personal. When he won his Golden Globe for The Shape of Water, del Toro mused about being "saved and absolved" by his monsters. Pan's Labyrinth is perhaps the best meditation on that theme he's conjured yet.
Then came more fights. After a rather personal sequel to Hellboy filled to the brim with new creature designs, del Toro fought to complete the trilogy and ultimately failed. He spent two years developing The Hobbit for Peter Jackson, only to part ways with the production over creative differences. He then began pre-production on a passion project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and got as far as storyboarding and location scouting the film when the studio pulled the plug. After that came two major and very different studio films: A kaiju-laden action blockbuster in Pacific Rim and a Gothic romance in Crimson Peak. Both films were acclaimed, and both (particularly Peak) bear del Toro's unique stamp, but the director felt the films suffered from poor marketing that failed to capture the stories he was really telling.
All of this brings us to The Shape of Water.
Del Toro has called The Shape of Water "the first movie where I'm 100 percent happy," referring to it as a "life-affirming" film. In comparison, his films that preceded it are laced with "a sense of loss."
Like Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is a fairy tale. Like Cronos, it's a struggle for an empathetic monster and someone he loves. Like Crimson Peak, it's a sumptuously designed movie that carries both a sense of familiarity and an otherworldly aura. It's all of del Toro's talents, everything he's learned, everything he's fascinated with now, poured into a single film without inhibition or the sense that he's trying to please anyone but himself. Looking back on his filmography — including his many works as a producer and co-writer — we can see all of the ingredients that went into this film, where they came from and how they matured.
Then we see something more: A sense of joy that permeates the whole story.
It can often be argued that certain Oscar winners are given their statues for a body of work, rather than whatever they're nominated for that year. They put the work in, become living icons, and then the Academy voters reward them for a career rather than an individual effort. In del Toro's case, his two Oscars this year feel like a little of both. It's a satisfying victory for del Toro and for us, his fans — because after watching his career unfold, Oscars or not, he still feels like one of us.