Monsters as Heroes

The Shape of Water for me at the moment is, well, the shape of tears.

I know that melodrama is squarely out of fashion and I’m trying not to get washed away in these tears of mine, especially considering that they are for someone I’ve never met before. I wish I’d had the chance. The fact that he passed away in 1994 didn’t stop me from spending this last year of my life with him and I’m now convinced that he’s one of the most charming souls to have ever emerged in human form. I’m talking about the incomparable Henry Mancini.

I could hardly believe my good fortune when I was approached to write a book on the brilliant and groundbreaking film composer. I’m now finishing the work and never would have expected to be entering a period of mourning over it. One of the final chapters I have been working on just this week focuses on a certain year in the career of my pal “Hank,” when he received three Oscar nominations. So being that it’s Oscar weekend with all this rain here in Southern California, I think it may be a good omen for The Shape of Water. By now surely you know how much I love two things that may seem totally unconnected at first glance.

Consider this: The Shape of Water may have never been if it wasn’t for the 1954 film Creature from the Black Lagoon. Director Guillermo del Toro tells the story about this in almost every interview about The Shape of Water. His own “Gill-man” creature that he designed for the film and put $200,000 of his money into developing (it had to be anatomically correct so that the love story could be consummated) is modeled on the creature from Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro describes all of this going back to being six years old and kneeling in front of the TV watching the movie. So taken was he with the image of the woman in the white swim suit floating on the surface of a river in the Amazon with the creature swimming below looking at her, that he never forgot it. He loved that the creature was in love with her and felt that it spoke volumes about its character, especially compared to the regular people in the movie, caught up in all their boring human drama.

“It’s a movie where a woman falls in love with an elemental god of the water. The creature is not a slimy monster. He’s the shape of water.” – Guillermo del Toro

Henry Mancini wrote a good part of the score for Creature From the Black Lagoon when he was first starting out in the business as a staff composer at Universal Studios. Despite it being some of his earliest work, it is also some of his most ethereal and breathtaking. In those days at Universal, things were run like an assembly line — a movie would be divided up amongst  several staff composers. They felt that this was the most efficient way of tackling the work load, since the studio was turning out about 50 movies a year. While researching for the book, I learned that the term B-movie did not originally refer to something that was necessarily schlocky or low quality (though sometimes they were) but rather, a ‘B-movie’ was simply designed to be the second movie of a double feature, and thus have a shorter running time than the main feature — usually just over an hour or even less.

Neither the young del Toro nor the grown-up could ever understood why the creature and the woman didn’t end up together at the end of Creature From the Black Lagoon. The title of the film makes it seem as though he could be the hero. Del Toro was gravely disappointed by the ending and didn’t understand why it should be so unusual for them to be together. Clearly the creature loved her intensely — enough to risk his life repeatedly to get close to her. He became so obsessed with what he believed to be their destiny that he began sketching the two of them: sharing an ice cream cone, riding a tandem bicycle, going out to dinner. Then when he became the famous film director Guillermo del Toro, he would talk to anyone who would listen about his spinoff idea. Not surprisingly, no one understood his vision. After making his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, he pitched Universal on the idea of remaking Creature From the Black Lagoon with his so-called happy ending. Their response was essentially that he needed a one-way ticket back to Crazytown. But now here we are with The Shape of Water leading the field with thirteen Oscar nominations. Crazy is such a relative term, isn’t it?


Del Toro has said on many occasions that Mancini is one of his favorite composers. And indeed, Mancini and his oeuvre can be heard and felt in The Shape of Water in ways that make my heart sing. First, there is the inclusion of the song “A Summer Place” performed by one of Hank’s best friends, Andy Williams. Williams literally made his career on Hank’s Oscar winning song “Moon River” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He recorded “A Summer Place” for his album, Moon River and Other Great Movie Themes and even named his autobiography, Moon River and Me.

The next nod to Hank in the Shape of Water is the Glenn Miller classic featured in film, “I Know Why (And So Do You).” When Hank was only a freshman at Julliard, he registered for the draft on his 18th birthday and was called up shortly thereafter. While serving, he  liberated the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in Austria. But that’s another story that’s in my book due out later this year!

Hank had been already been doing professional gigs as a student in New York and a bunch of his musician buddies urged him to go see Glenn Miller about getting into the Air Corps band that Miller was assembling. It was a painfully short meeting and young Hank was disappointed that he was not chosen to be in the Miller band. He soon found out however, that Miller had recommended him for a different Air Corps band, which Hank credits with saving his life because it kept him out of gunnery school. He’d been told that the life expectancy of a tail gunner in combat was measured not in minutes, but in seconds. Years later when Hank was a staff composer at Universal, he was tapped by the head of the Music Department to do his first score for single credit for The Glenn Miller Story precisely because of this history with Miller. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his work on this film.

The third way you to hear Mancini in The Shape of Water is of course in the Alexandre Desplat underscore. Like del Toro, Desplat has been listening to Mancini since he was a child. And like Hank, Desplat started in music by learning to play the flute. He has such a love of flute that he used a section of 12 flutes on this score, opting to strip all of the other woodwinds out and let the flutes carry it. One of the 13 Oscar nominations for The Shape of Water is for Best Score, which it will undoubtedly win. (I’m not big on predications, but you’ve probably picked up on what I think will win Best Picture, too.) Desplat owes a great debt to Mancini and in my ultimate Oscar fantasy, will invoke Hank as an inspiration in his acceptance speech. If you’d like to compare some of the themes for yourself, stream Desplat’s gorgeous score alongside Hank’s cues “The Diver” and “Unknown River” from Creature From the Black Lagoon.

 When I was asked to write a book on Mancini for The Mentoris Series — fifty titles now, focusing on the contributions of Italian and Italian-Americans, I felt that I had really reached a pinnacle in my writing career — one that I thought I might never reach. Becoming a produced television writer was a huge milestone, so I don’t want to diminish that, and if I hadn’t started out in TV, I never would have met my dear friend and brilliant writer, Ken LaZebnik, who is the Managing Editor of The Mentoris Series and hired me for this book on Hank. Many writers dabble in all forms, partly as a way to eat, but sometimes just for creativity’s sake. Like many writer friends of mine, the calling often starts out with a urge to write poetry. But I haven’t written any poetry since it almost killed me. Yes, you read that right — poetry can kill. Because once you write a poem for someone you consider a hero and then they end up being a monster — it’s death to a poet’s heart. It was this experience and now The Shape of Water that has made me realize that monsters are the new heroes.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art certainly celebrated this idea with an exhibition of del Toro’s amazing creatures. The director even shares his home with full sized monsters because they inspire him the way heroes do.


But let’s break it down very simply. The word monster — is  “an animal of legend,” like animals of strange combinations such as a sphinx or a centaur. It’s also “any animal or human deviating from the normal shape, behavior, or character.” Would you consider this a monster, or divine inspiration?


So let me pose this question. Is it any mistake that del Toro refers to the monster in the his film as THE ASSET? If it is indeed an asset, how can we extrapolate this notion?  We see it with indigenous people who traditionally wrap themselves in the skin of a particular animal in order to embody some of the spirit or characteristic of that animal that they need the help of. How can one creature taking the skin another creature help us or even completely transform us? Just ask the bears badly burned in wildfires who are being healed with wraps of fish skin around their paws. This is anything but monstrous. It’s miraculous.


I think it’s important that we as humans, being so ‘civilized’ and all, don’t lose the whole point by trying to change the creature, but we look at what that creature has to offer us. As del Toro points out about the ultimate arc of the love story.

“We don’t transform the creature. We don’t transform it into a boring prince at the end of the movie so that they can be together forever. He stays in his carnal form — an animal. And he still has a very controversial diet of raw protein that includes cats, you know? He doesn’t get civilized and eat a cat with a fork and a knife.” – Guillermo del Toro

No, he doesn’t. In fact, Eliza goes to live in the Gill-man’s world at the end by activating her own set of gills.

The film’s original title: A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times


So lest we not forget, we humans are made up of almost entirely water. So does that mean that we are the shape of water? That this “fairy tale for troubled times” came into being exactly when it was meant to? And that the timing of it goes all the way back to 6-year-old Guillermo del Toro seeing the Creature From the Black Lagoon? That he had to persevere through all of the rejections of his idea to be able to bring it to audiences now? For anyone who has not seen the film, remember that it’s set in 1962 at the height of the Cold War right during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Del Toro said that the character played by Michael Shannon, clearly the villain in this movie, would have been the hero had this movie been made back in 1962. “It’s an antidote to today’s cynicism,” he said. “The movie is about love. That’s the one force we’re really afraid to talk about now.” Which is why needed a monster to become the hero of a movie — to show us what love is.

I’ll be putting the champagne on ice now. I’ll be watching the Oscars and toasting to my friend Hank and the countless artists he’s influenced. It makes it a little easier to let him go. I know he will continue to work his magic in many ways for both the makers and recipients of art. As Film Score Monthly said, “A Mancini composition makes you forget the ugliness of the world.” So thank you, Hank, for all those you have inspired and continue to inspire with your artistry and more importantly, your humanity.