The other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era in America circa 1962, also won Best Original Score – Motion Picture.
The Shape Of Water is set in a hidden high-security government laboratory where lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is timidly trapped in a life of isolation.
Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.
Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones round out the cast, but the film belongs to Jones in particular.
He plays the aquatic creation hitherto unknown to man, conceived by masterful Del Toro, whose previous imagined creations include the Pale Man and the Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth – both roles Jones also played.
“I wanted to do a movie about an amphibian creature who changes the life of whoever rescues it,” says Guillermo Del Toro said and the two characters meeting for the first time are at its core.
The story follows Elisa, a janitor at a space research facility who finds an immediate connection with a mysterious creature brought to the lab for study.
The classic image Del Toro is fighting against has been in monster movies since the beginning of cinema.
“The monster carrying the girl, which normally means doom,” Del Toro says. “In this movie, when he carries her, it’s beautiful.”
Of course, it’s not plain sailing for our hero and heroine. In the America of 1962, the space race is colliding with the Cold War, and government figures on both sides are determined to get an edge.
Enter Dr Hoffstetler, played by Stuhlbarg, who intends to unravel the secrets of the creature’s dual breathing apparatus through study.
And The motives of lab security head Richard Strickland, the facility’s head of security, played with menacing glee by Shannon, His motives are more sinister: the creature is a thing, put on this Earth to be killed and torn apart for the knowledge it contains.
“Normally the Michael Shannon character would be the hero,” explains Del Toro said. “A handsome guy in a beautiful suit who works for the government.”
The idea began for Del Toro in the 1990s. The format was different then: a story about a group of explorers who stumble upon a friendly amphibian creature in the Amazon.
The story crystalised a few years ago when Daniel Krauss told Del Toro he’d had an idea about an amphibian creature in a secret government facility and the janitor that befriended him.
“I thought of it as a love story,” Del Toro says said.“I started writing and I came up with the idea that it should be 1962, which is the end of the American ideal dream. Vietnam is in swing, Kennedy’s going to be killed, everybody thinks the future is going to be great.
“It’s the moment where I think things start to change. I thought it would be a great moment for something ancient and primitive and spiritually powerful like the creature. It’s also a time when guys like Strickland are being very brutal.”
The actors have also embraced the production.
“It said so much to me about life and mortality, and how vulnerable we are in the world,” says Hawkins, who plays Elisa, said.
Del Toro had written the script with her in mind for the role and, serendipitously, she had been working on her own story about a woman who didn’t know she was a mermaid.
“It spoke about oppression and suppression, and the big, dark forces in our world. And on the other side of that was this incredible, gentle force: love.”
Indeed, The Shape of Water is as non-cynical as cinema is ever likely to become about how important love is.
“I really am writing about love the way I understand it,” says del Toro. “The moment you fall in love with someone is not the moment you look at someone and they like you. It’s the moment they look at you and you exist.”
The Shape of Water is due to open in South African cinemas next week on Friday January 19.