The Shape of Water has all the makings of a classic Guillermo del Toro movie. It’s a dark fairytale set in the early 1960s, a romantic creature-feature for adult audiences. He directed, produced, and wrote the movie, and has so far won awards for Best Director at the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Movie Awards, and the Directors Guild of America Awards, to name a few.
But del Toro wrote The Shape of Water with another writer by his side: Vanessa Taylor. (The director is currently being sued for plagiarism by the son of playwright Paul Zindel, whose 1969 play Let Me Hear You Whisper bears a striking resemblance to del Toro’s film; representatives for Taylor did not respond to requests for comment after the allegations emerged shortly after Jezebel conducted this interview.) Taylor began in television, writing for TV shows like Alias, Everwood and, more importantly, Game of Thrones, where she is one of only two women to have ever written for the show (she penned Ygritte and Jon’s bloody meet-cute). But in recent years Taylor has moved to movies; she wrote her own screenplay solo, Hope Springs starring Meryl Streep, but more often she collaborates on projects like The Shape of Water, Divergent, the new Aladdin, and a future unannounced project with Ron Howard.
Taylor is basically a screenplay whisperer and hearing her talk about her work, it’s clear she has an affinity for figuring out how to make a complicated movie work like a big Rube Goldberg machine. In advance of the Oscars, where Taylor is nominated for Best Original Screenplay, she spoke to Jezebel about how she started writing in the first place, and why romance actually isn’t her thing.
JEZEBEL: You came to working in television right as you were applying for law school and working at an investment bank. Was a career in writing always in the back of your mind?
VANESSA TAYLOR: Yeah, I was applying to law school. I was actually about to go. I had always been writing, my mom writes and it was kind of a thing in my family. But I thought I couldn’t make a living doing it, so why bother trying? Then I found out through a friend of a friend [about] this idea of being a writer’s assistant in television. But again, I didn’t really know anyone, so that also seemed sort of impossible. Then I started cold-calling. I sent a letter cold to the man who ended up being my first real boss [saying] I should be your assistant, and he called me in for an interview and hired me. I started in TV that way—as his assistant and then I ended up on staff and getting an agent and kept going from there.
So when did you feel that urge to start cold-calling people and start pursuing this seriously?
[Laughs] The minute that I got a glimmer that there was an actual possibility it might happen, I just felt like okay I’m going to start knocking down the doors. I don’t know what to do but I’ll try to figure something out. And it also made more sense to me, the whole assistant concept. I knew I was a good assistant, I just didn’t know if I’d be a good TV writer. So I thought, this seems doable. Like, I went to college, I’m contentious, I can get this job somehow.
You started in television but then made your way to writing for film with your movie Hope Springs (2012). When did you know you wanted to write movies?
I had been interested in it from the very beginning but it seemed to me to be much more capricious career path. Television has a logic to it; you get your first job and then if you’re decent they pick you up for a second season and you get a promotion. It all just felt so logical, kind of like law. Or, like high school, you know freshman, sophomore year... I’ve been doing TV for awhile and I know there’s such an exodus right now from film to TV. During the course of my career I’ve been sort of swimming upstream in that I’ve been going the opposite direction from everybody else.
I’m not unaware why are people are going to the TV side option. Writers have more power, they’re often producers, they have a lot more control over their own destiny, they’re treated with more respect and have more authority, so on and so on. But I really love the form of movies and I also really love the lifestyle of it. I’m not extroverted and I don’t want to be a manager so the things I got to do as a result of working as a producer in TV were not things that I was particularly looking to do. I also felt like the more time I spend on those other skills I need to learn and do, the less time I’m spending learning to be a great writer which is what I actually wanted to be.
How did you get involved with Shape of Water?
Well I got a call, or my agent got a call, from Guillermo’s manager saying that they were aware that I had worked on Game of Thrones. That was his sort of point of interest in me as a writer. I was told that he was working on this project and that it was a sort of tonally back to more of his roots in terms of similarities to movies like Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone. [They asked] if I want to come hear him pitch the story. I loved those movies, I am such a big fan of his generally, so I was thrilled to go hear his story. When I heard it I really got why it was going to be cool. It just felt to me like it would be so fun to write.
For someone unaware, The Shape of Water looks and feels at times like a children’s fairy tale, but it’s actually very sexy. Going into writing the screenplay, what were the conversations like in terms of how explicit the movie would be?
We didn’t talk a lot about sexuality but it was clear to me that the entire movie rested on this romantic relationship at the center and that you had to really believe that. It had to be real, you had to be rooting for it, and it’s clear to me that that would involve some sort of sexuality. I knew from the beginning discussing with Guillermo of some of the imagery, like the opening of [Sally Hawkins masturbating] with the bathtub and the egg timer. I knew that we were in that realm of showing sexuality. So I thought to myself, wow, well, either an audience will buy that she wants to have sex with a fish man or they will not! If they don’t, the whole thing will deflate like a souflée. It either works or it doesn’t work. I can write it and make it as believable as you want, but if you watch it and think “what is a fish man,” then you know you’re sort of stuck. I had to think, can Guillermo make us believe she wants to have sex with a fish man? [Laughs] And I really did! I really felt like he was such an expert, visual storyteller, if anyone can do this he can.
You wrote the script for The Shape of Water with del Toro, but you barely spoke out loud or wrote in the same physical place during the process. What difficulties did that arrangement present?
Trading back and forth writing is of course a conversation of sorts, right? If I disliked a scene I’d take it out, or if I did like a scene I’d put it back in. So I felt like we were having a conversation. But there were definitely instances where I kind of had to guess. I mean I could have picked up the phone and called and checked if I wanted to, but I sort of felt like that was purposeful on his part? I did feel we were having a dialogue and I figured if there was something I really had to know he would tell me. There were one or two times where I asked questions where I just felt like I am confused about what is happening. But most of the time I felt I would just let our writing speak for itself.
Was there anything you had put in that del Toro had taken out that didn’t make it in into the movie?
I would say that there were elements of Strickland’s home life that changed a bit tonally as we headed towards production. I think they were purposefully made a lot lighter, there was a little more levity to that storyline. And while I completely appreciate and understand, and I actually think audiences prefer that, I kind of enjoyed him being this dark, awful [person.] I think in some ways all I could offer to Guillermo was my honest opinion, my genuine attempt to make everything as good as it could possibly be. But I look back on the process and I realize that there were some changes I was making to the script that, had they stuck, I genuinely think the audiences would have liked the movie less. In hindsight when he disagreed with me in certain areas, the ways I was going in certain instances would not have landed as much.
Were they just tonally different changes?
Yeah I tend to be less romantic. I’m a pretty harsh writer in that sense. Anything thats sort of romantic I’m like, oh, get rid of it! [Laughs] And there’s a time and a place for that, I guess, but now having seen the film obviously I love the romanticism of its tone. I think it’s sort of pure at heart, I don’t think in any way its sort of cloying or artificial. It was interesting to me that something like that where I felt like, oh this tone isn’t personal to me but looking back on it I have an appreciation that he went his own way on those parts.
You’ve co-written a few projects, like Divergent and The Shape of Water, and you also re-wrote the upcoming Aladdin. I’m interested in when you’re working on something that kind of already has a foundation, it has a director tied to it, how do you approach collaborating on these already sort of half-formed projects?
In some ways its an easier task because the foundation of the thing is built so you don’t have to build it yourself. That makes it faster. Even if it’s not quite holding together, it makes it faster. Then with you have a filmmaker attached you’re sort of guided by what they want to do. Sometimes they don’t know but oftentimes they have a very clear vision of what they want to do, so it’s just a matter of can you execute that. You have to work within the parameters of what they want to do and I find that freeing, in a certain sense. There’s just a clarity of what we all understand what the task is and now I’m going to try and do it.
Do you prefer in general to write that way with the foundation already there?
It really depends. It can be a release in a certain sense because when you start from scratch you’re generating so much on your own it can feel like pressure for me sometimes? Whereas when you’re working under time pressure, which you usually are as a [re-writer] it’s just like full steam ahead, I don’t need to think existentially about whatever, they’re going to go into production, there’s a certain serenity about that. I also enjoy the surgical nature of it, sort of coming in and saying I’m going to change this and this and this. I also enjoy when there’s a freedom of finding the structure yourself. I find it to be anxiety provoking but also very rewarding when you are finally able to figure it out.
With The Shape of Water, you didn’t get to visit the movie set during filming. Do you feel like you were at all left out of the movie’s creation after you helped write it?
No, I mean working with a director who’s also writing it was very clear to me, this is his movie, this was his story, this was his vision. I just came in as an assist, it was a moment of collaboration that I hope was helpful to him. But I was always aware that that was the nature of it. He just wouldn’t need me on set, he was on set. Sometimes you’re like, oh darn there’s a party going on and I’m not there! But I didn’t feel like I was left out in any way.
I wanted to go back to that point you made about not being super drawn to romance because for a lot of your career, in television and film, you’ve worked on these action-packed projects: Game of Thrones, Alias, Divergent. Do you find yourself drawn to those big action narratives? What do you feel like you’re looking for in a story?
I think I’m drawn to fantasy because I like the sort of “what if?” of it, the open-ended nature of it, that anything can happen. I don’t know if I would say that I wasn’t interested in romance as much as I would say I’m not particularly romantic as a person. It’s more that it feels foreign to me and I’m just like, what? I also like the sort of momentum of stories that are moving forward quickly. There’s something about that I like to watch and it feels like a safety net to me in terms of writing. I like thriller elements. I really find the romantic stuff harder to do, harder to understand and personally challenging.
With fantasy stories, you’re writing the screenplay but so much of the movie or TV show’s power can come from its visual elements. You mentioned that you really had to trust del Toro to make the audience sympathetic to the fish man. Is it harder then to write a screenplay to a fantasy project when you’re not sure what it looks like visually and that’s such a strong part of the movie?
Yes, if you can’t imagine it, you’re a little suck. There are definitely times [when it works] I mean with Game of Thrones we did not have that problem because the books are so well written that I felt like I did know what things were even if they were foreign to me. Certainly I think sometimes you can get into a realm where your thing is so high concept, you’re trying out these things that are so crazy, and if you’re not working with a filmmaker who does have a visual vocabulary to tell you about it you’re just on your own trying to generate that, you can end up feeling a little bit nuts. Like, does this even make sense? Is anyone going to be able to figure out what this looks like? And that can feel very untethered.
I wanted to ask you about Game of Thrones because obviously the show is coming to an end. You were one of the only two women who ever got to write for Game of Thrones across its 67-episode run. Looking back on the show, what are your thoughts on the lack of women writers?
First of all, the fact is there were so few people who ever wrote the show at all. So there were two of us who were women but in total there were six of us plus George R. R. Martin. There’s really only four writers on the show at any given time, so that’s crazy. Truthfully we had a woman on staff, when she left I came on, when I left they replaced me with someone who was male and that was because that guy was doing a great job and deserved to be promoted. I found writing on Game of Thrones to be an incredibly rewarding experience. I felt it was a very collaborative work environment and that I really had the respect of my bosses and peers. I never felt like there was never any kind of gender issue at all. I felt like I was hired because I was a good writer.
So I’ve heard people ask, someone actually once said to me like “oh Game of Thrones is a famous boys club” and I was like, What?! Because it really did not have that feeling to me at all. I can’t speak to the content of the show after I left—candidly, I have not watched the show since I left. I loved working on the show so much but I found it so difficult to leave emotionally because I loved it so much and I really never looked back. But for my money, all of the people I worked with were progressive, open-minded people.
You said you felt like you were moving upstream working in movies, but do you think you’d ever return to TV soon?
There’s a lot of money in TV and I hear all the time about the benefits of working there again. I had a very established career in TV whereas on the film side I sort of had to start over. Certainly if something phenomenal came along and I just couldn’t pass up I would do it in a heartbeat. Outside of that I’m still trying to be great at structuring movies, I feel like I have a lot more to do and a lot more to learn.