'The Shape of Water' producer finds greatest honor with audience response

J. Miles Dale up for best picture Oscar

By Tim Lammers, DirectConversations.com
Fox Searchlight

Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins in "The Shape of Water"

There's no question that director Guillermo del Toro's fantasy romance "The Shape of Water" has received a lot of love this awards season, including the Directors Guild of America award for del Toro, and the best picture trophy from the Producers Guild of America for the filmmaker and his fellow producer, J. Miles Dale. 

And yet, while "The Shape of Water" is up for a leading 13 Academy Awards Sunday, including nominations for best picture, best director and best actress for Sally Hawkins, Dale said there truly is no better honor for any filmmaker as the heartfelt feedback he's heard from fans about how deeply moved they were by the film.

"It’s gratifying that the movie is resonating with audiences. It has universal themes, no doubt, with love, tolerance and inclusion and all those things," Dale said in a recent phone conversation from Los Angeles. "But I think what the movie has really going for it is nobody goes into it knowing what it's going to be. Sure, from the trailer you can think, 'Ah, it's a Cold War thriller' and it's a little bit 'Creature from the Black Lagoon,' but I don't think anybody is ready for where the love story lands. So, it's really satisfying to see that people really get the movie, and maybe how it helps move the needle a bit with how they treat other people."

Co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, "The Shape of Water" follows the unlikely path of Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a mute janitor in a top-secret government research facility at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s. Esposito goes on to form a unique bond with an amphibious creature (del Toro's longtime collaborator Doug Jones) with human characteristics. Finding a way to effectively communicate with the creature, Elisa's love for the amphibious being grows, but since he's being subjected to torturous experiments by the leader of the research project, Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa must formulate a daring escape for the creature from the facility before he faces a certain death.

Fox Searchlight

Doug Jones in "The Shape of Water"

Dale -- who previously collaborated with del Toro as producers on the 2013 Andy Muschietti-directed, Jessica Chastain thriller "Mama" and most recently, as a producer and director on the del Toro-produced FX horror series "The Strain" -- said pitching "The Shape of Water" to its studio, Fox Searchlight, wasn't that difficult. That's a pretty startling revelation, considering the film's unconventional interspecies romance narrative -- a narrative that ventures to daring, if not unfathomable lengths before all its pieces intersect and flow into the film's genius conclusion.

"It's funny, because I have made many jokes about how it should have been a hard pitch, but it actually wasn't," Dale said. "To Guillermo's credit, he took them out to the museum that he has in his house in the San Fernando Valley, so he pitched it in the context of his incredible museum."

Dale is speaking of Bleak House, where del Toro houses countless artifacts from horror, sci-fi and fantasy films and television series, as well as other mediums. The atmosphere of Bleak House (despite the foreboding implication of its name) no doubt enhanced del Toro's pitch to Fox Searchlight's executives.

"They loved it off the top. They saw the beauty of the idea from the beginning," Dale said. "It should have been harder than it was. If he pitched it to the studio anywhere else, it probably would have been difficult. But Searchlight has been incredible partner and they're not afraid to take chances, especially with great, visionary filmmakers, and I think they saw the opportunity to do something with Guillermo that was unique instead of fearing it."

Dale believes by showcasing his otherworldly artifacts for Fox Searchlight, the studio fully realized the commonality that exists within many great filmmakers: a passion for the work not only because they know the material, but because they're fans of it. And with the artifacts that he harbors in Bleak House, as well as a film collection that includes the "Hellboy" films and "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro is completely at home with "The Shape of Water," Dale said.

"What (Bleak House) really drives home is that Guillermo is such a fan," Dale enthused. "He's really just a fanboy who's found his way. It's cool that he has that purity of spirit. He's dyed-in-the-wool with this. He's not into sports or anything else. He's all-in on arts and culture and spends half his money on movie props."

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