‘Shape of Water’ Producer on the Challenges of Telling a Fish-Monster Love Story

“The eyes are very important to him, more than the words,” says producer J. Miles Dale of how Guillermo del Toro cast the actors for his tale of how “a cleaning Lady and a fish-man” fall in love.

Guillermo del Toro had been thinking about a film centered on a romance between a woman and a sea monster since he was a child in Mexico and saw Creature From the Black Lagoon. He wasn’t able to make it until 40 years later, when he teamed with producer J. Miles Dale to create The Shape of Water. Dale, who works with del Toro on his FX series The Strain, helped the auteur put together his ambitious, 1960s-set period piece for a little less than $20 million. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the fest’s top prize, the Golden Lion.

Now, The Shape of Water, starring Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer and Doug Jones (as the fish-man), has earned 13 Oscar nominations, the most for any film this year.

Dale, 57, who landed his first nomination with the film, spoke to THR about how he helped director-producer del Toro craft his opus and breathe life into this uniquely nontraditional onscreen romance.

How did you first get involved with The Shape of Water?

Guillermo and I were introduced by Edgar Wright about seven years ago. Guillermo was directing Pacific Rim in Toronto and needed someone to produce Mama beside him. We met there, then did four years of The Strain. After the second season, we started talking about Shape of Water. He told me a little bit about it, and it sounded crazy at first, but the more I heard, the more I got behind it. We did it between seasons three and four of the show, using some of the stages and props from The Strain. We planned it that way. It was very budget-friendly.

What was the most challenging part of this project?

It’s a period film and Guillermo has fairly refined tastes, so the resources were a challenge, trying to really just make sure that he’s satisfied and nothing is left on the table. Also, tonally, when you’re making a movie where the love story is between a cleaning lady and a fish-man, you have to get things right. That was really Guillermo’s challenge. He knew exactly what he was doing. There’s nothing arbitrary about what he’s doing. You have to follow his vision.

How did the cast come together for this film?

Guillermo really wrote it for Sally [Hawkins] and Doug [Jones]. He’s seen every performance any of the cast has done. The eyes are very important to him, more than the words. I think he saw in Sally someone who can convey the whole thing in her eyes and her movements. I’m not sure he’d have made this with anyone but Sally. When Richard [Jenkins] and Michael [Shannon] and Michael [Stuhlbarg] became available, he began to write it with them in mind. With the last drafts of the script we had the opportunity for Guillermo to tailor the script for the specific actors. With Stuhlbarg, his role was initially a very small part, and when we cast him we were like, “Oh my God.” We made that part a lot bigger.

You lead the field in nominations. Does that make it more or less intimidating going into the Oscars?

Neither, really. We’ve been just trying to enjoy the fact that the movie is resonating with people. The number of nominations is great, but more than anything we’re proud of our people and the recognition they’re getting. We’re very proud of Guillermo for making this movie with his heart on his sleeve and getting nominations for it. If you pitched the logline of this movie without context, you might be surprised it got so much Oscar recognition.

What other movies have been your favorites this awards season?

It’s a really strong crop this year, so varied. We like genre movies, and I thought Get Out was such a wonderful, genre-bending movie. To be scary, funny and thought-provoking all at the same time is so brilliant to me. I love Three Billboards, I thought all the cast was phenomenal. Even Wonder Woman, as a superhero movie, I think broke some ground. And Dunkirk — the movie-making part of it — was really awe-inspiring to me.

Have you been to the Oscars before?

Never have. Always said I’d never go until I was nominated. I’m bringing my mom.

What advice have you gotten about what to expect at the Oscars?

I’ve been to several awards over the past month, so I think I’ve gotten my basic training out of the way. I’m trying to really just be in the moment. The good news about all these nominations is that most of our people are going to be there. It’s nice that we can celebrate as a team.

This story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.