Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is back in theaters with another of his fantasy-driven stories. Set in the Cold War of the early 1960s, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who gets a job as a cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They’re sworn to secrecy because of what’s housed there, including a strange and potentially dangerous amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones) that’s kept in a tank.
Overseeing the facility is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) along with Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa violates multiple protocols when she begins interacting with the creature, eventually falling in love with him. She creates a plan to rescue it from captivity with the help of Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins). That effort is complicated by not only Strickland’s manic desire for secrecy and bully-like nature but by the political intrigue that results in many agencies and parties being interested in the creature.
The first poster uses artwork released around the time of the trailer but now formatted for a one-sheet. It shows Alice and The Asset locked in a passionate embrace, a variation on the kind of pose you’d see on the cover of an airport bookstore romance novel. Kelp and water flow around them. It’s a heartbreakingly beautiful image that’s accompanied by the movie’s festival credentials. Thankfully the amount of text that gets in the way of the design is minimal.
There’s still no copy or plot points on the second poster, but who needs it when you have an image of a woman being embraced by some sort of strange mer-creature while they both float underwater. As with everything else it’s striking and unique and gets the point of the movie across as opposed to trying to fully explain the story to the audience.
The first trailer seemed to come out of nowhere and set us into the world of Eliza, a mute woman who works in a creepy, secretive government installation where they seem to house monsters. She’s supposed to just clean and nothing else and we hear about how dangerous and special the creature they’re studying is. But she forms a connection with it through their shared inability to speak. The head of the facility is less than sympathetic, just wanting to dissect the monster, but she wants to help it escape. That causes all sorts of problems, of course.
Why aren’t I watching this right now.
A red-band trailer (due to language) was up next. It starts off after Elisa has already taken The Asset from the facility it’s confined to. Strickland is determined to get it back, repeatedly questioning her, Zelda and others. It intercuts between his search for who stole it and her attempts to do so, all while repeating how important it is and how everyone is after it.
What’s on display most here are the performances of Hawkins and Shannon, both of whom are powerhouses in their own way, either silently or loudly. Not only that, but del Toro’s amazing visual style is clear as day here, both in the design of The Asset and the world all these characters live in. He makes a 1950s living room appear just as dark and mysterious as the secret lab where The Asset is housed. It’s incredible.
The next trailer, a red-band version, starts out with Elisa receiving her orders from Strickland to steer clear of the creature being held at the facility, a warning that’s reinforced when Strickland is injured. Eventually she forms a bond with the creature and helps him escape, both because of his treatment by Strickland and a plot by the Russians to kill it. Elisa’s plan is exposed and she – and it – are hunted down by all interested parties to finally secure what has been deemed a threat to all involved.
Online and Social
The final red-band trailer opens the official website, so take a few minutes and watch that again. After that’s done the splash page features the key art of Elisa and the Amphibian Man embracing underwater. A rotating series of positive quotes from early reviews are displayed below the title along with the film’s festival credentials as well as its Rotten Tomatoes “Fresh” certification. In the bottom left are the links to the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles.
Moving to the content menu at the top, “Cast” kicks things off with a photo and quote from the actor or about him or her from del Toro along with it. Same with “Filmmakers.”
“Story” has a brief synopsis of the plot. All three trailers can be found and viewed in the “Videos” section. Finally, “Fan Art” displays some fan creations based on the character in the film.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
A massive series of TV spots like this one were released just a week before release, each one featuring a slightly different collection of footage and scenes. It’s possible there’s some connective material here but they all offered a basic overview of the story and characters while selling the movie as a tight thriller.
If there were online or social ads I’m not aware of them. It’s possible some, along with outdoor signage were run in the initial select markets the movie has hit. The only online effort I’ve encountered is the placement of the trailer as a pre-roll ad on YouTube.
Media and Publicity
The movie was announced as one of those that would screen at the Toronto International Film Festival. It also was slated for the Venice Film Festival, where it racked up impressively positive buzz and where talked about the look and feel and story of his unusual movie. Already great word-of-mouth was only enhanced when the movie won the Golden Lion at Venice. During TIFF, del Toro talked about different aspects of the story and characters, including how he saw Hawkins’ caretaker as a sort of Disney Princess.
There was a fascinating feature on the design of those first bits of promotional poster artwork that went behind the scenes on the creative process of artist James Jean.
Spencer talked about how she was finally able to play someone for whom race wasn’t the defining characteristic as well as the responsibility of handling so much of the dialogue alongside Hawkins’ silent performance. There was also a lengthy profile of Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of del Toro who plays the role of the Amphibian Man that drives the story. That profile emphasized how many movies and TV shows he’s been in and how infrequently we’ve ever seen his face since, as in this movie, he’s usually hidden behind masks and makeup, something he’s specialized in because of his unique ability to offer emotional performances even when hidden. Another similar profile hit many of the same beats.
Shannon also got involved, with a profile of the actor that included talk of how he got involved in the movie and how he approached creating the character. He also talked about filming the movie in appearance in the media including “Late Night.”
It’s not surprising to see the marketing for a movie from del Toro rely this strongly on a combination of secrecy, fantasy, mystery, story and visual style. That’s been his stock and trade for years now, with each film using all those elements to varying degrees. His movies are, as much as anyone else working in Hollywood, a representation of his imagination. Strong word of mouth that’s focused on the performances of Hawkins and Spencer propelled it from early screenings and seem to have primed the pump for the movie to finally hit wide release.
The campaign started off with a bang, the out-of-nowhere release of that first trailer, and kept up a solid pace over the intervening months. It’s been remarkably consistent, showing off the artistry of the visuals, the emotions of the story and the depth of the characters at most every turn. The lack of press push involving Hawkins is somewhat surprising, but there’s likely a reason behind that decision. Still, as the central focus of the story I would have expected her to play a bigger role in the publicity. It’s a small gripe in relation to a wonderful overall effort.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.