The shape of truth


Dear Artist,

When Guillermo del Toro was growing up in Guadalajara, Mexico in the early 1970s, he started fooling around with his dad’s Super 8 camera, making horrors using his Planet of the Apes action toys and other objects he found around the house. Borrowing from the Magic Realism of his strict Catholic upbringing, Guillermo’s fascination with allegory and fairytales grew into a full-fledged obsession with the power and potential of monsters to tell the forgotten stories of the dispossessed. After making short films and working in special effects and make-up design, at 33 he got his break and began making big budget fantasy, action and horror movies in Hollywood.


The Shape of Water movie still
featuring Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins

“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror,” says Guillermo. “One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and antiestablishment.”


The Shape of Water novel
by Guillermo del Toro
& Daniel Kraus
illustration by James Jean

With a filmmaking style dominated by themes of ugliness and beauty, religious imagery, underworld elements, scale, darkness and a dreamy, amber, fantastical palette of good and bad monsters, Guillermo tells time-honoured fairytales in modern and historical settings. “Context is everything in a fable, because every story has already been told,” he says. “The only variations I find are the voice of the storyteller and the context in which it’s told.”

In painting, artists often argue the difference between external truth and pictorial truth — that is, how to best craft what it really means to be alive within the fantasy picture plane of painting. After all, we’re not photographers. Our job is to reach into our imaginations and tell the stories of our existence, even if that’s as simple as re-composing a cloud-break to better and more honestly convey its mercy. As with the making of a movie, perhaps our best work is to merely zero in on this truth, to paint the impossible, understanding we’re not bound by the limitations of the real, but only what feels that way.


“I think love is the greatest force in the universe. It’s shapeless like water. It only takes the shape of things it becomes.” (Guillermo del Toro)



PS: “I want to tell you, everyone who is dreaming of a parable of using genre fantasy to tell the things that are real in the world today, you can do this. This is a door. Kick it open and come in.” (Guillermo del Toro)

Esoterica: Last week, Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy drama The Shape of Water won Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Production Design and Best Original Score. It tells the story of a mute janitor at a Cold War research lab who falls in love with an Amazonian river monster being held captive there. Her neighbour, a cat-loving, closeted, struggling advertising illustrator, helps her escape loneliness through a shared love of old movie musicals. When asked to sum up the meaning of his fairytale, Guillermo replied only, “To promote empathy for all living things.” Responding to the question of whether his art is his religion, he said, “It is. To me, art and storytelling serve primal, spiritual functions in my daily life. Whether I’m telling a bedtime story to my kids or trying to mount a movie or write a short story or a novel, I take it very seriously.”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“I’m not that interested in recreating reality. I’m interested in recreating an emotional truth.” (Guillermo del Toro)



    • Karen Walker on

      The Shape of Water is truly an all encompassing story of the sensitivity, purity and power of love, and the courage and confidence it inspires. It’s music, particularly “This is Me” is exquisite and resonates in me still. Bravo to Guillermo del Toro all its creators.

    • Such a timely letter for me today as I am trying to put down in words the essence of why I paint and who I am.what I bring to the table. Being an abstract painter and painting intuitively and finding words to tell the story is sometimes a challenge. I love his quote about storytelling and ‘recreating an emotional truth’

  1. At first I wasn’t at all interested in seeing this movie…but thanks to your post and the powerful quote from Guillermo, my eyes have been opened. Viewing this movie has moved to top priority….thank you Sara….Guillermo’s quote is now on my refrigerator.

  2. Kitty Whitehouse on

    The Shape of Water is a timely movie, since the love story is secondary to the main message(s). The main message is that there are hybrids living among us. Eliza’s mother was human, her father was this alien creature living in the waters of Earth. She never knew why she was so attracted to deep water until at the end her gills opened to allow her to live in the world of her father. Since Earth is undergoing the greatest upleveling of consciousness in the last 13,000 years, since the fall of Atlantis, she and many other hybrids are here to assist us, help us adapt, and show us the way, not only in understanding the change, but upleveling us into The Ascension. This is not a simple love story…. though Unconditional Love is the only way into our Brave New World. There are many messages here, not just the most obvious. Life creating art, or art creating life…or both?

  3. Terrific Article! Looking at the shape of things told and untold, of Truths and what changes, like water is a reality that artists explore and are brave enough I believe to explain in some vidible way. We find meaning and purpose in our expression of colours and brushwork. Beauty is around for our eyes to seek it and make it known-Thanks for the inspirations Sara!

  4. I had a lot of trouble with the level of violence and cruelty in this movie. Perhaps needed to reach into hardened hearts of some viewers (?), it was over the top for me and overshadowed the beauty.

  5. Higgs Merino on

    Give us something, even a small nod about the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” And who made the terrific masks in that 50’s gem? A dame, of course. Missed a specific chance there.

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