How J. Miles Dale helped sculpt The Shape of Water

The Canadian producer discusses Toronto's role in the Guillermo del Toro feature, which leads all nominations for the 2018 Academy Awards.

Turning the The Shape of Water from a long-gestating idea in the head of Guillermo del Toro into the multi-Oscar-nominated feature film that it is today was one the most exhilarating and challenging experiences in Canadian producer Miles J. Dale’s 30-year career, he says.

Dale (pictured left) first collaborated with del Toro on the 2013 feature Mama  an experience that has led him to collaborate with the genre director on multiple projects since (“We seem to be pretty compatible,” he says.). He describes del Toro as a gentlemanly, funny colleague with forensic attention to detail: “There’s nothing arbitrary about anything in any of his movies – not a shirt, not a colour on the wall, nothing.”

It was when the duo were working together on the FX TV series The Strain, which filmed at Cinespace in Toronto, that del Toro approached Dale with an unusual idea.

He wanted to make a movie about a mute cleaning lady at a secret government facility, who falls in love with an amphibian man. According to Dale, the seeds of the idea were planted in del Toro’s mind nearly 40 years ago when he saw the movie Black Lagoon. He had been disappointed that the ending did not see the creature and the girl get together  something that had stuck with del Toro ever since. “It just sounded so crazy to me that I said ‘of course that’s going to be your next movie’ and ‘of course I’m going to do it,’” said Dale.

Fox Searchlight was already on board to distribute The Shape of Water, but the big question that remained was when and where they would film the project. With Toronto studio space an increasingly hot commodity, the pair had to hatch a crafty plan to make the best use of the available resources.

In typical del Toro fashion, he turned to the history books to find his answer. Both del Toro and Dale, big fans of Alfred Hitchcock, had read that the legendary filmmaker had squeezed the Psycho shoot in between seasons of his TV series The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, rolling the crews over from one project to the next.

“[The Strain] stages were just going to be sitting there between seasons three and four anyway, so we hatched this plan to do it [at Cinespace],” said Dale. So, when season three wrapped in April 2016, the team immediately went into prep for the film shoot, which ran from August until November.

The film ended up using much of the same crew as The Strain, aside from a small group of roles, such as cinematographer and some of the makeup team (that worked on the suit worn by the sea creature). The crew also converted two of the stages used on the TV show and repurposed them for the film, which also shot on location in Toronto and Hamilton. In addition, the laboratory set, the main set for the film, was written into season four of The Strain so it could be used there as well. The budget for the film came in at around USD $19.5 million, with Dale estimating the production saved around USD $1.5 million as a result of the between-season shoot.

The timeline was so tight that the day after filming wrapped on the feature, Dale went straight into prep to direct the first two episodes of season four of The Strain.

The film made its world premiere last August at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Golden Lion prize, and later made its Canadian premiere at TIFF. With awards season in full swing, the fantasy thriller has garnered numerous honours and nominations, most notably picking up 12 BAFTA nominations and 13 Oscar noms (including best picture and best director).

As well as a nods for the movie’s top-line talent, the Academy Award nominations were also notable for the light that they shone on some of the lesser-recognized team members that received nominations in their respective fields. Among the nominees were Paul D. Austerberry, Shane Vieau and Jeffrey A. Melvin for Best Achievement in Production Design, Luis Sequeira for Best Achievement in Costume Design and Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira for Best Achievement in Sound Editing.

“This is a high-water mark for Toronto filmmaking. In 90 years of Academy Awards, not even close to this number of Canadians have ever been nominated for one movie. Often times, people come here and they feel like they have to bring all kinds of people to make a movie. But it’s just not true now,” he added.

While Dale said the 24 hours following the Oscar nominations had been exhilarating, he also remains focused on bringing to bear a number of projects that he has in the pipeline. He and del Toro are already eyeing their next collaborations, with the pair currently in development on a couple of film projects and a TV series. Dale also has a film project with British TV producer Nira Park in the works, though he couldn’t provide more specifics. More than anything, though, he said he wants to continue to take on risky projects that break ground.

“I mean, on paper, a story [about] a [relationship between a] mute cleaning lady and a fish man would not immediately seem to have great appeal, but here we are. I think it’s because we tried something really risky and it worked,” he said.

The 90th Academy Awards will be presented on March 4.