How an Evanston writer’s boyhood idea inspired ‘Shape of Water’ | Feature | Chicago Reader

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How an Evanston writer’s boyhood idea inspired ‘Shape of Water’

Guillermo del Toro tapped Daniel Kraus to help write the story behind the Oscar-nominated blockbuster.


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D aniel Kraus remembers the exact moment the idea hit him. He was 15 years old, and he was standing on a tennis court in Fairfield, Iowa, where he grew up. "The extent of the idea," he says now, "was the Creature from the Black Lagoon is put in a lab; a janitor finds him and decides to break him out and put him in her tub. And that was it for many years."

Why did this particular story stay with him all those years? "I think I just really liked Creature of the Black Lagoon. Anybody with a heart who watched Black Lagoon, you have to feel bad for the creature. He does nothing wrong, and the guys come in and just torture him and possibly kill him. And he's not doing anything, he's just hanging out in the Black Lagoon!"

Kraus always carries a small black notebook around to jot down ideas in. Whenever one is full, he makes a list of the ideas he hasn't gotten to yet at the beginning of the next one. The creature's happy ending had been transferred from one notebook to the next for years. "It was always on the list," he says, "but was never first or second."

It made it to the top of the list 20 years later when he met Guillermo del Toro. And if the story sounds familiar, it's because del Toro turned it into the 2017 film The Shape of Water, which was recently nominated for 13 Academy Awards. It also became a book by the same name, cowritten by del Toro and Kraus, that will be published on March 6.

For any author, having a film auteur turn one of your ideas into a critically acclaimed movie would be a career pinnacle. And yet Kraus's next project is just as surreal, if not more so. It was announced on February 14 that Kraus had been chosen by the estate of George Romero, the legendary director of horror classics such as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, to finish a novel the filmmaker left behind before his death in 2017.

Kraus, 42, lives in Evanston with his wife and two dogs. He's worked as an editor at Booklist, a magazine published by the American Library Association, since 2008. He's also published six young adult horror/fantasy novels, which he writes on weekends and holidays. He admits that writing novels while working a full-time job is difficult, "but the upside is that I have a whole week to think about the scenes I'm going to tackle over the weekend, so when that weekend comes, I'm really ready to go."

He found success with his second novel, Rotters, the story of a 16-year-old boy who goes to live with the father he's never known after the death of his mother, only to discover that his father is a grave robber. The book was nominated for a 2011 Bram Stoker Award, and won a 2011 Odyssey Award for best children's audiobook. It also brought Kraus to the attention of del Toro, who called it "uncompromising, dark, and true."

After reading Rotters, del Toro asked Kraus if he would be interested in collaborating on Trollhunters, a novel about a boy pulled into a community of trolls living under San Bernardino, California. Del Toro had sold the concept of the book to an editor at Disney-Hyperion, but he wanted Kraus to be the cowriter. In December 2011, Kraus met with del Toro in Toronto, where the director was filming Pacific Rim. At their first breakfast meeting, del Toro asked Kraus if he was working on anything else, and Kraus mentioned the idea he'd had when he was 15 and had never forgotten.

It turned out del Toro had always felt the same way aboutThe Creature From the Black Lagoon. During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in December, the director told a story about watching the 1954 movie on TV when he was a child. "The creature swims underneath Julie Adams, and I just thought, 'What a great love story.' I was six, I thought, 'I'm sure it's going to end well.' But … they kill the creature at the end of the movie! So I said, 'I'm going to correct that.'"

So when Kraus mentioned his janitor-meets-creature idea, Del Toro was immediately intrigued, but Kraus steered the conversation back to Trollhunters, the project at hand. "I didn't want to be, like, pitching him ideas, so I was kind of embarrassed," he says now, but del Toro kept coming back to the creature idea. He told Kraus it was going to be his next movie, and optioned the idea from him the same day.

Del Toro's next movie would turn out to be Crimson Peak. After Trollhunters was finished, Kraus spent the next few years finishing The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, a two-volume YA novel about a teenaged Chicago gangster who rises from the dead and lives for another century. Ideas are optioned all the time, he figured, so it was anybody's guess whether del Toro would actually make the film. When del Toro told him in 2016 that he was finally ready to make the movie that would become Shape of Water, Kraus hadn't even started writing the book. He also knew that he wouldn't be able to get to it right away. Del Toro didn't want to wait for Kraus to write the book, nor did he want for Kraus not to write the book, so he offered his services as a coauthor. He planned to work on the movie at the same time.

Kraus had no qualms about del Toro coming in as a cowriter on the book he'd been wanting to write for years. In fact, it felt like a natural choice. "The book wouldn't exist without him, because I clearly hadn't cracked it," he says. "It was missing something the whole time. The ideas he started adding at that first breakfast was when it really started making sense. It didn't make sense for me to do it without him."

Kraus describes the coauthorship process as "both complicated and simple." Del Toro devised the main plot, which combined Kraus's idea of a janitor befriending the creature with his own idea that it would be a great love story. Kraus took that outline and started writing, filling in details of his own, and then he would send drafts to del Toro.

Although the book and movie share the same plot, neither was beholden to the other. Audiences are accustomed to both movies based on books and novelizations of movies, but this situation is unique in that neither the book or movie is the source material. "The idea is the seed," Kraus explains, "but then Guillermo's story is sort of the source material [for both the book and the movie]."

The projects were produced simultaneously, and while del Toro worked on both, Kraus kept himself completely isolated. He never visited the set or even saw production stills in order to avoid being influenced by them. But while each work stands alone, the coauthors thought making them too different would be too gimmicky, like producing an alternate ending. "We didn't want to be quirky about it," says Kraus. "Often books come out before movies, but why? Why can't it be the other way around? We just wanted to make a piece of literature that was a work of art on its own, but didn't feel like it had to be showily different."

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in the film version of The Shape of Water - PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.
  • Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. 
  • Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in the film version of The Shape of Water

The story beats are the same. Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor working the graveyard shift at a secret lab outside Baltimore, befriends and eventually falls in love with an amphibious creature kept in the lab. Richard Strickland, the Korean war veteran who brought the creature from the Amazon to Baltimore, has been tasked with safeguarding it on the military's behalf. When Elisa learns that Strickland is planning to kill the creature, she breaks it out and keeps it in her bathtub until the water in the harbor is deep enough that she can set it free in the ocean.

While the love story between Elisa and the creature—called Deus Branquia, or "gill god," in the novel—is the focus of both versions of the story, the book spends more time on the inner lives of the supporting characters, especially Strickland. It opens with Strickland's trek into the Amazon to capture the creature, a journey that pushes him and his crew to the edge of madness.

Kraus says writing the character of Strickland was one of his favorite parts of the project. "I always saw the story almost with Elisa and Strickland as co-main characters. Guillermo really does a nice job hinting at Strickland's pain and the stress he's under, but I really wanted to dig into that. I'm really interested in the villains, humanizing the villains, for better or worse."

When viewers of the movie meet Strickland, played by Michael Shannon with his trademark unsettling intensity, he's not a sympathetic character. He's not exactly likable in the book either, but his inner struggle to reconcile his mind-shattering experience in the jungle with the life of duty he intends to lead is laid out much more clearly.

Strickland's wife, Lainey, who appears for only a few minutes in the movie, is also a prominent character in the book. Having essentially become a single mother while Strickland was away for more than a year, she chafes against her return to the role of a doting wife, and embarks on an ambitious endeavor of her own that will bring her into contact with Elisa's neighbor and friend, Giles, and Elisa herself.

The book's obvious advantage over the visual medium is that Elisa and the creature, both of whom never speak in the movie (save for one fantasy sequence), can have voices. Elisa's memories of her childhood in an orphanage help to illustrate why she immediately empathizes with the creature, itself uprooted and objectified. The creature too narrates sections of the novel, in a voice that, like him, is some combination of sensitive and wild. Deciding to write from the creature's point of view, Kraus says, is something he and del Toro spent a lot of time thinking about. "There'd be no point in doing it if you weren't going to add something to it. A lot of thought was given to what his point of view would feel like, and how it would enhance your understanding of what he is."

With two books under their collective belt, del Toro and Kraus seem to be a successful partnership. "There's great potential when working with a collaborator for things to go horribly wrong," Kraus says. "They haven't yet with Guillermo. We've been very simpatico."

Del Toro on set with Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer - KERRY HAYES
  • Kerry Hayes
  • Del Toro on set with Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer

While he was a fan of del Toro's before they met, "I wasn't his biggest fan," Kraus says. "I think that's what makes us interesting collaborators. The best collaborations might be with people who were not the obvious collaborators, in a way." But he does think del Toro was the perfect guy to make the movie. "This felt to me like his movies that I really love, so I hoped that he would make it."

Kraus first saw The Shape of Water at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August 2017. He recalls getting emotional when the film ended, even though he usually never cries at books or movies. "It was all very fun, but it wasn't until the movie was ending that it really did hit me. You see these hundreds of names, and all these people who are applauding for 15 minutes, and you think, how did this happen? How did this silly little idea I had when I was a dorky teenager, how did it turn into all these hundreds of people having jobs, and this huge theater going nuts for this thing, and all these people applauding and crying, how is this all possible?"

In a tweet a few months later, when the movie was released in the U.S., Kraus marveled again at the "strange, impossible trip" from the cornfields of Iowa to the big screen. Del Toro responded, "I often wonder: What if I had not asked 'What else are you working on these days?' that cold Winter morning six years ago? The key to this all was your seminal idea. I bless that egg sandwich breakfast!"

Kraus has moved from one dream project to the next as he now focuses on finishing Romero's The Living Dead. "I really, truly grew up on George Romero," Kraus says. "The first movie I ever remember watching was Night of the Living Dead. He's probably my favorite artist of any kind. If I could name somebody in the world I would have wanted to do something with, it would have been him."

Last week the estate of the author Paul Zindel filed a court complaint alleging that del Toro and Kraus had "brazenly copie[d] the story, elements, characters, and themes" from a play Zindel had written in 1969. Del Toro denies the claim and said that neither he nor Kraus had ever heard of Zindel's play.

Kraus is writing about 70 percent of The Living Dead, which will be published in fall 2019. It's an epic zombie novel that takes place all over the world in three different time periods. Romero was famously fiercely independent, often running into budget problems on his movies, and Kraus's theory is that the book was his way of doing all the things he never had the resources to do in a movie.

"This book is of huge importance," says Brendan Deneen, Kraus's editor at Tor Books. "It is the conclusion to Romero's entire body of work, at least as far as zombies are concerned."

There were clues in the unfinished manuscript as to where the book was going, and toward the end, Kraus says, "it was almost like he was writing notes to himself." Kraus plans to combine the existing manuscript with an enormous amount of research into Romero: reading his interviews, rewatching his films and commentary tracks, talking to his widow, and reading and watching all the things he liked.

"He was obsessed with this movie called The Tales of Hoffmann," Kraus says, referring to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1951 Technicolor version of the opera by Jacques Offenbach. "He mentioned it in every interview almost in his entire life. So I'm going back to that text and saying, What was so important to him about this, what was he getting out of this?, and using stuff like that to create structural elements in the book. It's almost like I'm building a George Romero AI."

"It's impossible to ever truly get inside another human's mind," Deneen says, "but Daniel is coming pretty damn close!"

If there's anything that would have made 15-year-old Kraus happier than knowing his creature idea would one day be a stunning movie, it might have been this. "This is really big to me," he says. 'It couldn't get bigger to me."   v

Related Film

The Shape of Water

Official Site:

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Producer: Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale and Liz Sayre

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos and Morgan Kelly

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