Paul Austerberry first heard about The Shape of Water in 2015. At the time, it was going to be in black and white and the idea terrified him. By the time the film went into production, the film was shot in color and Austerberry felt he was able to create vibrant sets and spaces for the magical fairy tale about a creature and a woman who fall in love.
I caught up with Austerberry to discuss how Brutalist Architecture inspired his production design and how Anglo-Japanese wallpaper helped create the aquatic feel of Eliza’s apartment.
Read our chat below as Austerberry discusses his process in creating the look of The Shape of Water
The production design of the film is so lush it makes us swoon. What did Del Toro tell you about this?
We were working on Pacific Rim 2 and it was an idea he told me: “There’s this aquatic man and a woman working in a secret underground lab in the ’60s and he rescues her, they fall in love.” I told him I had to work on that. He didn’t describe visually what it was. He described that weird tale but coming from Guillermo it’s going to be this adult fairy tale. Of course, you want to work on it. He didn’t so much describe the look of it, just what it was and when it was set.
At the time, he really wanted to make the film in black and white. Dan Lausten was excited about it and I was terrified because color is pretty important as a storytelling tool. To pull that from the toolbox was a terrifying thought, but color in the end as you know is important in this film and we got to make a film in color.
So, by the time it all came together, you hadn’t done any concepts for it in black and white?
It was just a really early notion. In Summer 2015, it was going to be a black and white movie, it was going to be about darkness and light, with no color.
Ironically, after all that when we sat down. I had met him a few times in between and was showing him ideas, but the first day we sat down to really move forward with the project was in Summer 2016.
I pulled out the massive color decks and we went through it all and started associating colors with characters. It made the process of sending out for the right wallpapers and palettes so much more easier. Not every director will sit down and do that with you.
Talk about the feel of the hallway and the apartment and what we see at the beginning that establishes the story.
Guillermo lives in Toronto and he had picked an exterior of a building with the theater. There was no marquee so I built that marquee. That building was built in 1896 and was the Massey Hall theater. The idea we had was there was a grand room above the theater with a large arch window that was a reference from the 1948 film The Red Windows. We decided that a hallway had been built through that room around the 1920’s halving that arched window.
Eliza’s side was going to be in aqua colors and Giles’ side was going to be more empathetic and his side would be in warm daylight colors as well as browns and mustards.
Down the middle was a bit of both. There were blues in the upper parts. The wallpaper was a deco freeze. We choose it from Bradbury & Bradbury that could replicate historic patterns. I settled on the one that ended up being used in the marketing of the film which was the stylized fish scales.
The style was called Anglo-Japanese. I chose it because it had the color where I needed it to be but the stylized fish scales were also important knowing the fish was going to be brought back here and she turns into the fish woman and to have those subtle elements was important.
The idea was her half of the building would have had the original wallpaper from the late 19th century and this wallpaper was actually popular at that time in North America so it seemed appropriate to put that in there.
The wallpaper on his side was from a deco style wallpaper and in the middle was the wallpaper that straddles the two.
Guillermo had done a sketch with an illustrator and we maintained the basic feel and color range of that. It was actually another reference to another hallway in another film. So, we tried to evoke that.
The bathroom is a key place later in the film. How was that designed?
Guillermo had done an early frame of Eliza and the creature floating in an embrace in an underwater bathroom. That was what sold it to Fox and that idea was something we maintained. It was one detail that stayed the same from the beginning.
The bathroom as a set was technically challenging because eventually, it had to be submerged in water. We did a lot of dry for wet. We didn’t really submerge the whole apartment in water. We used classic light projections on smoke and put in digital fish and bubbles and augmentation in there, but the reality was it was a dry for wet sequence.
The bathroom though, we did have to submerge, so we had to build it on aluminum flats instead of wooden flats. We couldn’t use latex paints. When we filled the bathroom with water, we didn’t want anything to deteriorate and make it cloudy so we had to be careful with what we used.
The scene where she’s having sex with him, Doug is 6 foot 5 and as you know, period bathtubs are actually tiny, so we got a steel bathtub which was correctly representative of the period, but we cut it in half in both length and width and we added a foot in length. We cut it horizontally to add depth. We had all these scenes where they were both in the tub, it was quite an expensive and big tub. It ended up just being that magical place where a lot of magical things happen for her.
What about the lab and where the creature is kept?
At the beginning, we needed to ensure we had a contrast between the world where she lives with Giles. This almost romantic place contrasted with this hard line, hard material location.
Guillermo had ideas about the tank and what that would look like, but we didn’t have an idea about the envelope in which it was in.
I went to school in a Brutalist concrete building and that style of the building started in the ’50s. It was used for institutional government buildings and felt that was a good place to start as a type of architecture.
We put tiles around the tank and hallways. Green is the color of the future, it’s in the script so I found this image from an abandoned French sanitarium that had these double arches and long rooms with really nice tiles in it.
So, once we found a location that was suitable, the University of Toronto had a campus that had this Brutalist concrete style, we chose it for the arrival and for some underground portions. I took the language of that and combined it with the style of the sanitarium. We created the basic architecture for the facility.
In the lab itself, the asset was considered a god. Guillermo had a sketching of the asset of him in his environment, he’s emerging from the river with rays of sun behind him. So when Eliza first sees him after she puts the egg there, we wanted to evoke that. The shape of the pool was stepped and was inspired by the Mayans and Egyptians. The tank had these radial lines from the pipes so when he emerges from there, it was supposed to be like that image that Guillermo had in his mind.
The room was steamy and wet, we didn’t want to make it an antiseptic lab, we went for heavy concrete with pipes so you feel it’s in the depths of the building.
We wanted Strickland up high because he looks down on everyone. His office looks down oppressively over everyone. We’re up there a lot in the movie. Before we had picked the Brutalist design, he wanted a mural that depicted science and war and the space race because it’s a lab, so I brought some samples to Guillermo and that’s how those crazy looking murals end up there.