Skip to main content

'Cartoon County' Looks Back At The Golden Age Of Sunday Comics

Vanity Fair editor-at-large Cullen Murphy grew up the son of a cartoonist. His father, John Cullen Murphy, drew the popular Prince Valiant strip, which Murphy eventually wrote for 14 years.

50:30

Other segments from the episode on December 5, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 5, 2017: Interview with Cullen Murphy; Interview with Guillermo del Toro.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In an era when kids looked forward to the Sunday newspaper comics, my guest Cullen Murphy lived in the world where those comics were created. His father, John Cullen Murphy, drew a comic about a prizefighter called "Big Ben Bolt." In 1970, he started drawing the popular comic strip "Prince Valiant" about a Norse prince in the King Arthur era. "Prince Valiant" was created in 1937 by Hal Foster, who asked Colin's father to do the illustrations after Foster's arthritis got bad. In 1980, Foster handed over the writing to Cullen. Cullen wrote "Prince Valiant" while his father continued to draw it for the next 24 years until his father's death.

Cullen Murphy's new memoir "Cartoon County" is about his father and the surprising number of other cartoonists who lived near or in Fairfield County, Conn., where Cullen grew up in the 1950s and '60s. They included the artists and-or writers behind "Popeye," "Little Orphan Annie," "Blondie," "Hagar The Horrible" and "Nancy." In addition to writing "Prince Valiant," Cullen Murphy was the managing editor of The Atlantic magazine for 20 years and has been an editor at large at Vanity Fair since 2006.

Cullen Murphy, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It must have been so interesting to grow up with all these adults who are cartoonists and, you know, comic writers. And they're having such interesting conversations. Unlike the kinds of conversations the adults in my neighborhood had, the adults in your community were talking about comics a lot of the time. And I want you to read an excerpt of a conversation that you reprint from memory in your book. And this is between two comic book artists. Would you describe who's talking and then read us the conversation? I love this.

CULLEN MURPHY: Sure, Terry. And it's great to be back with you again. So this is a conversation between Curt Swan, who drew the "Superman" comic, and Jerry Dumas, who with Mort Walker produced "Sam's Strip" and "Sam And Silo." And the conversation opens with with Jerry Dumas. They're at a diner. And Jerry says, why does Superman have a cape? And Curt says, I don't know, Jerry. Dumas goes on, why does Superman's cape swirl around him even when he's standing in an office? I really don't know, Jerry. When Superman undresses in a phone booth, how does he know his clothes will still be there when he gets back? I haven't the faintest idea, Jerry. Can Superman fly when he's wearing his business suit on the outside with the costume underneath? Pauline (ph), could you put a little brandy in this coffee?

GROSS: (Laughter) I love it. And what I love about this too is these are questions that like everybody has about "Superman." And as it turns out, the person drawing "Superman" in this period had no idea what the answers were.

MURPHY: You know, it's funny. When you when you hung around cartoonists, even as a kid, you had the sense that the unreality that was their life and their work had become a kind of reality.

GROSS: Describe what the Sunday comics were like when you were growing up surrounded by the guys who did the comics.

MURPHY: Well, there were glorious. So imagine a Sunday morning when 16 full pages of comics arrives with the newspaper. And the comics are so important that they wrap the newspaper. It's not like the front page of the Daily News or, you know, the Journal-American with all the important headlines are wrapping the comics. It's the other way around. And these pages are the size of a newspaper broadsheet. And the color is beautiful. And this has been going on for decades, really since the turn of the century. And the pages were so big that for a kid you could not realistically sit in a chair and read the comics. You had to spread them out across the floor - just like almost your comic strip image of a kid reading the comics. But it's hard to recapture what a big deal newspaper comics were for a long part of our history, in particularly at the very heart of the American century.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to describe "Prince Valiant," the comic strip that your father drew for decades and that you wrote for 24 years, until your father died in 2004. Describe what this strip was about.

MURPHY: Prince Valiant was the son of a royal family of Thule in what is now Scandinavia. And when the strip began...

GROSS: Is Thule made up, or is that a real place?

MURPHY: Well, it's a real place in the context of the comics, which for me is real enough.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

MURPHY: But I think it's - I think it's made up. There is a place called Thule. But Hal Foster's Thule was a made-up place.

GROSS: OK.

MURPHY: And Prince Valient's royal family was a made-up royal family. But I guess aren't they all?

GROSS: (Laughter)

MURPHY: And so Val, when the strip opens, is a young kid. He's escaped from political trauma in his homeland. And he arrives in King Arthur's Britain. And through a series of adventures, he's eventually knighted. He becomes a knight of the Round Table. He marries Aleta, Queen of the Misty Isles. They have twins and a couple of sons. And the adventures take him all over the world. They take Aleta all over the world, and they take the children all over the world. I think by the time I stopped doing the strip, members of the family had been to every continent except Antarctica.

GROSS: Wow, OK. And it's written in this kind of like old medieval or Dark Ages kind of language - I mean, not the language that they really would have spoken but our idea of what it might have sounded like. Can you read one of the captions for us to give us a taste of the language? And maybe you could read one that you wrote.

MURPHY: Sure, I'll give you one here in a second. But your description is is right. It's kind of a modern person's idea of what older English was like, filtered through Walter Scott and then refiltered through me and my dad and Hal Foster. And here's the opening sequence of a particular episode. The picture in the background shows King Arthur's palace in ruins after a horrific battle. (Reading) Camelot. The refugees who stream from Britain tell tales of horror and woe. The city of marvel, once a golden jewel amid emerald fields, stands bent and tarnished, a forbidding fortress. The meadowlands are sear with drought. Where joust took place, gallows sprout. It has been a year since Mordred seized the throne. And the common folk of Britain have learned how long a year can be.

GROSS: It's kind of Shakespearean to end the first part with a rhyme, no?

(LAUGHTER)

MURPHY: I was thinking Jesse Jackson, but I'll take Shakespeare.

GROSS: So one of the things your father used to do was pose for himself - taking Polaroid pictures of himself, so he could use himself as a model. And you often were the person snapping the photos. Would you describe some of the ways that he posed and some of the things he wore while he posed?

MURPHY: I have thousands of these pictures. My father really never threw anything away. And something like the pictures that he took of himself, he always, I'm sure in the back of his mind, thought, oh, I can use one of these pictures again. But he never did. He just kept taking more pictures. Bear in mind that in a typical "Prince Valiant" strip, there might be, you know, 20 human figures on a given Sunday. And they're all doing different things. And like other cartoonists, he knew enough anatomy. He had classical training. He could draw these from scratch. But it was a lot easier, and it would help with things like shadows and drama if he could have something to work with.

So he would dress himself up in different costumes and take pictures of himself and adjust the lighting. And it would be things like - oh, he would dress himself as a monk. He would dress himself as a as a knight. He would dress himself as a woman and put a wig on and a dress. He would lie on his back with his feet and his arms in the air as if he'd just been run through with a sword or fallen off a horse during a joust. He would have these expressions of, you know, horrific anger or, you know, ridiculous, preposterous laughter. And I have a collection of these that runs really from 1950, when he was doing a different strip, all the way up until shortly before his death. And it's the most remarkable and bizarre collection of family portraits that you can imagine having - and wonderful to look at.

GROSS: You sometimes posed for your father. What was it like to see his rendering of you as a character in "Prince Valiant"?

MURPHY: Well, the first thing to say is that posing for my father was not fun. Watching him pose was fun because he was a natural actor, and the camera loved him, and someone like myself is a bit of a stiffer personality when it comes to posing. Also, some of the things that he would be asking me to do were things that I wasn't really hot on doing.

I remember one sequence. It was for a strip that he did called "Big Ben Bolt", which is the strip that he did for two decades before he took over "Prince Valiant," and I had to be a little kid from India. And this meant, you know, taking off my shirt, putting on a pair of short pants and having the diapers from one of my siblings - I have seven siblings, and there was always someone in diapers - and having one of their diapers wrapped around my head as a turban. You know, this was not an ideal afternoon.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy. And his memoir about his father who drew the "Prince Valiant" comic strip is called "Cartoon County." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG TRIO'S "ROLLO III")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Cullen Murphy. He's an editor at large at Vanity Fair and author of the new memoir "Cartoon County," which is about his father who drew the "Prince Valiant" comic strip - a Sunday comic strip. And Cullen, for 24 years, wrote that comic strip as his father drew it.

So when your father was drawing - or especially - this is probably especially true earlier in his career. When he was drawing Sunday comics, there were a lot of things that you weren't allowed to show anatomically. What were some of those things?

MURPHY: Well, Ernie Bushmiller, who did "Nancy," at one point in his life was working in what was called the bullpen at one of the syndicates. The bullpen were the people who received the strips - the original strips when they were sent in by cartoonists and then prepared them for publication, and they were the line of first resort when it came to - I guess we'd have to call it censorship. And he had a list of what he called 35 noes - the things you couldn't show. And, you know, some of them would be obvious, and some of them were not obvious. Like, you weren't allowed to show a pair of dirty socks lying on a chair.

GROSS: What? (Laughter).

MURPHY: I have no idea why that was a rule. You just - it was a rule, and you had to live by it. But one of the things that was, you know, a source of bedevilment - not just for my father, but for others - was navels. You couldn't show navels on people, and you couldn't show nipples on men.

GROSS: Well, let me stop you there. You have a drawing that your father did from when he was drawing a comic strip about a prizefighter called "Big Ben Bolt." And so of course, he's bare-chested. He's in the ring, and he has no nipples (laughter).

MURPHY: That's right. You know, if you can't use nipples on men, you're going to have something lacking when you depict prizefighters, or in strips like "Alley Oop" or in "B.C." - any place where you have bare-chested men. And navels is a problem, too. Now, Mort Walker tried to fight back against the navel ban, and there was a character, Miss Buxley, who was often shown wearing a bikini. And Mort would just routinely draw a navel on Miss Buxley.

And the boys in the bullpen would get the strip. They'd see it was from Mort. They would see that Miss Buxley was in it, and they would take an X-Acto knife and take the navel out. And then after a while, they began sending navels back to Mort - the ones that they had taken off - just as their way of fighting. And then Mort, when he would do his strip, would start putting in more navels than you can imagine. He would put in a crate of navel oranges.

GROSS: (Laughter)

MURPHY: ...Just so he could put navels in. And they would send them all back. And he had something - at least, he claimed he had something called "Beetle Bailey's" bellybutton box.

GROSS: We - you know, the curious thing is that, you know, men were already on beaches with bathing trunks and no top. It's not like this was something that children hadn't seen. Like, you can't let a child see a man with nipples.

MURPHY: (Laughter)

GROSS: ...Or you can't let a child see a belly. Like, children were always so curious about what they're - you have an innie or an outie? And so why were these prohibitions existing? What were they about?

MURPHY: Well, I think you have to go back and look at the structure of the industry just more broadly. This is a mass medium in publications with largely conservative owners, and things that are being printed have to conform to - you know, standards is probably the wrong word, but the - you know, the wishes of, you know, a certain large proportion of the readership. It's an issue that affects any kind of mass medium.

And so, you know, comic strips were subject to that, and as a result, you know, lots of things would creep in that otherwise would be accepted by almost everybody as normal - for instance, smoking a pipe. Because tobacco was frowned on in some areas, you know, smoking a pipe in some places could be, really, a problem, and pipes would be whited-out of the strip. So you'd have some guy with his hand up to his mouth as if he's holding something, but there's nothing there.

GROSS: That's very strange (laughter). So let me get back to "Prince Valiant." Your father took it over when the creator of "Prince Valiant" was getting too old to do it himself, and then you ended up writing it as your father drew it. Why did you want to write the strip?

MURPHY: Mainly because it was a chance to work with my father. I'd been a reader of the strip for years, and I thought it was terrific when my father succeeded Hal Foster as the artist. It gave him real scope to do the kind of illustration that he had done many times before and was just extremely good at. But in certain ways, I had been working with my father for a long period of time. I'd taken all of those photographs, to begin with. I had a real sense of the working pattern of his life. I would sit out in the studio for hours and hours in the afternoons doing my own drawing or doing my homework. I loved the ambience out there, the smells, the sights, the sounds. And of course, I loved my father. And I loved the way his mind worked. And I loved his personality. So the chance to work with my father on a continuing basis was tremendously appealing. You know, not that this would be the entirety of my life's work, but it would be an attachment that I would have with him that would be ongoing.

So I began sending to Hal Foster, who continued to write the script for a while - I began sending him narrative ideas for stories, and he began using them. You know, he would take the narrative, he would break it down into different Sundays and break the Sundays down into their constituent panels. And he would do the work himself.

But from those narrative stories I then, you know, graduated to trying to write them the way he wrote them with mixed success at the outset. He was a stern yet shrewd and kind taskmaster. And, you know, eventually I got to the point where I knew how to do it. And when he decided that he wanted to give up the writing of the script as well as the drawing I was selected as the person who would take it over, which was just great.

GROSS: You were very close with your father. And for 24 years, you wrote "Prince Valiant" as your father drew it. And his signature was John Cullen Murphy. You're Cullen Murphy, so you shared a name. I'm wondering if you ever experienced a need to pull away. And I ask this because you were born in 1952, so you came of age in the late '60s and early '70s at a time of basically generational warfare, you know, when kids were really - a lot of kids were really rebelling against their parents and disagreeing about the war, disagreeing often about civil rights and about gay rights and women's rights and clothing and haircuts and what a good life meant, what to eat, I mean, basically everything (laughter). So did you ever experience any of that?

MURPHY: You know, I think everyone in the family went through something along those lines. But it never became too serious a problem in our family for a very specific reason, I think. One of the characteristics of cartooning families was that the cartoonist had somehow figured out how to live his life on his own terms. It wasn't following a path that somebody had laid out, you know, whether it's, you know, going to graduate school or, you know, following the footsteps into the contracting business or whatever. These people had some sort of a vision of what they wanted to do. It took a lot of ingenuity and creativity to cobble the right ingredients together. And they had all somehow managed to do it.

And this sense of your life and your lifestyle being something that you can create for yourself and that you have a right to create for yourself was a value that I saw in other families. And that certainly was a core value in my own family so that when those of us in the family wanted to pursue this, that or the other thing, the important question from my parents was, what is it that drives you? Pay attention to that. And I think that that attitude has a way of minimizing certain kinds of frictions that might otherwise be there.

GROSS: That makes a lot of sense. My guest is Cullen Murphy. His new memoir is called "Cartoon County." We'll talk more after a break. And we'll hear from Guillermo Del Toro, who directed the new movie "The Shape Of Water." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIE KNODEL'S "JET POLKA")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Cullen Murphy, an editor-at-large at Vanity Fair and former managing editor of The Atlantic. He's written a new memoir about his father, who started drawing the comic strip "Big Ben Bolt" in 1950 and in 1970 took over drawing the popular strip "Prince Valiant." In 1980, Cullen took over writing "Prince Valiant" and worked with his father until his death in 2004. The memoir "Cartoon County" is about his father and the many other comic strip and comic book artists who lived in or near Fairfield County, Conn., where Cullen grew up in the era of the golden age of the Sunday newspaper comics.

So in the final days when you were writing "Prince Valiant" and your father was drawing it, that whole world was dying. You know, the Sunday comics no longer meant what they used to, and "Prince Valiant," which is still being published today - but it didn't have - I don't think it had the kind of audience by then. But you have a quote in here about that world dying that I'd like you to read for us.

MURPHY: It's from a conversation with Dik Browne, who drew "Hi And Lois" and created "Hagar The Horrible." And I'd gone to visit him and his wife at their home. We were just talking about the world of cartoonists in Fairfield County that we had all known. You could feel that it was beginning to dissipate. People were moving. Older cartoonists were dying. This very special place in two decades was not going to be what it was like.

And I asked him about that, and he said, I feel right now the way I used to feel as a kid when the movie was over. The credits would start to roll. The lights would start to come up, and I would walk slowly backwards up the slanting aisle, watching the screen just trying to make it last as long as I could.

GROSS: It's really a beautiful (laughter) quote about how wonderful movies and parts of life are (laughter). You said that your father was a pack rat. You know, he had all these, like, costumes. And I don't know what else he collected, but it sounds like he collected a lot of stuff. And when...

MURPHY: I can give you his spelling bees from Chicago Public Schools in 1925 if that helps.

GROSS: Yeah, so you still have that.

MURPHY: (Laughter) Well, you're in this funny situation - things you never would have saved but can't bear to throw away. You know, after he died, when we started going through the studio looking for things, my Lord, the stuff that was there - you know, some of it really wonderful - you know, original cartoon strips by, you know, George McManus and other folks - also all his sketchbooks from when he was doing life drawing classes at the Art Students League in the 1930s.

And I have to say; going through it is a great experience, as was going through the letters and the diaries of his. You know, you begin to see a person just come alive in front of you, and you come to appreciate that this person, even before you existed, existed just as you do now. It's kind of a hypnotic experience.

GROSS: You know, I'm always interested when somebody is parent dies what they do with the things, the possessions, the collections that their parent left behind and deciding whether to throw it out or give it away or keep it. And if you're going to keep it, where exactly are you going to keep it? And so since your father had so much and it has value for you still, where are you keeping it? What are you doing with it, and what do you think its future will be? I mean, he died in 2004, so that's a while ago.

MURPHY: We've done several things. The good news is that all of this material will be preserved. All of us in the family, you know, took portions of it. The rule of thumb when we were going through the studio and just trying to see what was there was that anything from his hand was going to be kept. Anything that he wrote, anything that he drew and really anything about him that was very personal would be kept, and that includes of course all those Polaroids.

And beyond that, there was a lot of work that was, you know - it was beyond the capacity of any one person to keep properly and preserve. So a great deal of material has been given to institutions. There are two in particular. One of them is the Billy Ireland collection at Ohio State University, which is the world's greatest compendium of original comic art.

The other place is Brown University. When my father was in the Pacific during the war, he was on General MacArthur's staff and did hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of drawings and paintings during that time. Most of this material is now at Brown University, which has a big military collection.

GROSS: So I have another "Prince Valiant" question for you. I don't know if you watch "Game Of Thrones."

MURPHY: I've actually read "Game Of Thrones."

GROSS: Oh, OK. Do you think that "Game Of Thrones" is in any way kind of satisfying some of the same needs as "Prince Valiant" used to but in a much more sexually - and in a much more explicit way in terms of sex and violence?

MURPHY: Well it absolutely is. I remember when I first picked up the George Martin books, it was not my idea to do it. It was - my children were saying, you've got to read these. So for Christmas, I think I got the first three of them. And I started and couldn't put them down. I thought they were extremely well done. And I was captivated. I actually had to just stop because otherwise the rest of my life would have been taken over by just reading "Game Of Thrones."

But I think that "Game Of Thrones" has many of the same elements that appealed to people about "Prince Valiant," although in a much more aggressive and, you know, sometimes prurient way. The one thing that "Prince Valiant" didn't do that "Game Of Thrones" does all the time is kill off its leading characters.

GROSS: (Laughter) Cullen Murphy, thank you so much for talking with us.

MURPHY: Terry, thank you. It's been great.

GROSS: Cullen Murphy's new memoir is called "Cartoon County." After we take a short break, our guest will be Guillermo del Toro, director of the new movie "The Shape Of Water." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Shape Of Water," the new movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a fairy tale romance built on the foundation of classic '50s and '60s Hollywood monster movies. It takes place in 1962 and stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works cleaning a secret U.S. government facility. One laboratory also serves as the prison for a strange amphibious creature that was captured in the Amazon by government agent Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon.

The government hopes that learning about the creature's unique biology will provide them with an advantage against the Soviets in the Cold War space race. Elisa is intrigued by the creature, befriends it, and an unconventional romance blooms. But as it becomes clear that the creature will not make it out of the lab alive, Elisa decides to help it escape. Guillermo del Toro's other movies include "Pan's Labyrinth," "Hellboy," "Hellboy II" and "The Devil's Backbone." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

They started with a clip. Agent Strickland has called Elisa and her friend and co-worker Zelda into his office to suss out whether he can trust them to clean the lab where the secret asset, the creature, is held. Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer, explains that Elisa is mute.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHAPE OF WATER")

OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) I answer mostly on account of she can't talk.

MICHAEL SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) She can't? Is she deaf?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) Mute, sir. She said she can hear you.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) All those scars on your neck. That's what did it - cut your voice box, right?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) She said since she was a baby.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) Who would do that to a baby? The world is sinful. Wouldn't you say so, Delilah (ph)? Well, let me say this up front. You clean that lab, you get out. The thing we keep in there is an affront. Do you know what an affront is, Zelda?

SPENCER: (As Zelda Fuller) Something offensive.

SHANNON: (As Richard Strickland) That's right. And I should know. I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way we didn't get to like each other much.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: That's a scene from the new movie "The Shape Of Water" by Guillermo del Toro. Guillermo del Toro, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Very happy to be here.

BRIGER: So why did you want to make a movie about a romance between an amphibious creature and a mute woman?

DEL TORO: Well, the idea for me was to try and do a movie that talked about love being beyond words. And actually, the screenplay makes a point of showing you that the characters that have the power of speech, that talk have more of a trouble communicating with each other than the characters that just are. You know, they can discover each other and their essence through looks, through touch, through presence, body language. And mostly, you know, the urge I've had for the last more than a decade is I feel that the world is turning into a vicious, really nasty place to live because we have enthroned cynicism instead of intelligence.

And every time we talk about emotions we do so very guardedly and with the fear of appearing disingenuous. And I wanted to make a completely honest, heart on the sleeve, non-ironic melodrama in which we talk about falling in love with, quote, unquote, "the other" as opposed to fearing the other, which is what we face in - every day in the news and politics and so forth. So these things were growing as a - I'm an immigrant. I feel these things acutely in one way or another. And it just so coincided that we are on the wrong side of history individually, but on the right side of history for this still to come.

BRIGER: Well, speaking of history, your movie takes place in 1962 at the height of the Cold War right during the Cuban Missile Crisis. You've said before that the character played by Michael Shannon, who's the villain in your movie, if this movie was made back in 1962 he would be the hero.

DEL TORO: Oh, a hundred percent. And the image of the monster or the other carrying the girl on his arms would be the image of horror. And you would never go through the rear entrance of the place through the cleaning women and the employees that, you know, mop and throw the garbage out. You would go out through the front door with a scientist and a government agent. It would be completely different. And I think when you change that point of view, when you go through the rear entrance, when you go through the service door, you know, you take a political stance. Also, when you view of the story from these characters that exist on the margins of that type of story, you're taking another stance into giving them time, voice and presence.

BRIGER: This movie is a fairy tale. Apart from the magical fish fairy tales, obviously, one of the big influences on this movie is the "Creature From The Black Lagoon," a movie that you said was very inspirational to you. When you were growing up, what did you respond to in that classic monster movie?

DEL TORO: Well, when I was 6, every Sunday my family would go to church and then we would watch movies. You know, we would watch them individually on a matinee or on TV. In my case, every Sunday on Channel 6 in Guadalajara where I lived, they dedicated most every Sunday to black-and-white horror films and sci-fi. So I watched them. I watched "Tarantula." I watched "The Monolith Monsters." I watched all the Universal library. And one good Sunday after church, I was kneeling in front of the TV and I watched "Creature From The Black Lagoon." And there was a - there's a beautiful, very simple, very poetic image, very fairy tale-like, of Julie Adams in a white bathing suit swimming on the surface and the creature, the Gill-man, swimming underneath many, many feet below, looking at her.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that scene. It's a beautiful scene.

DEL TORO: It's a gorgeous scene. And I got overwhelmed by it in the way that you get overwhelmed by art. I was 6. I couldn't articulate that it represented love for me, but it did. I so loved the encapsulation of the yearning and all that. And having not seen the movie before, I was disingenuously thinking that they would end up together, you know, and they didn't. And, you know, the logical consequence 46 years later is that I do a Douglas Sirk, Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli-influenced melodrama/musical/spy thriller about them getting together.

BRIGER: You got it all in there, that's for sure.

DEL TORO: Yes.

BRIGER: So that's a beautiful scene that Julie Adams is swimming on top of the water and the creature is about 10 feet underneath her. They're swimming parallel. But he's looking up at her. I don't think she knows that he's there.

DEL TORO: She is unaware.

BRIGER: Yeah.

DEL TORO: Yeah. It was a beautiful unrequited love image. You know, quintessentially romantic, quintessentially fairy tale, quintessentially B-movie monster. And the multiplicity of that moment, the beauty of it really floored me. And I started drawing the creature after that when I was a kid. I would draw the creature riding on a double bicycle with Julie Adams having an ice cream, a triple-cone ice cream. You know, and I really - he's one of my favorite creatures from the Universal catalogue.

And they come to symbolize for me so much more. Like, this creature is not - for me, this is not an interspecies movie. It's a movie where a woman falls in love with an elemental god of the water. The creature is not a slimy monster from a B-movie. He's the shape of water. He's a representation of a river, of the water as a force. And he's gorgeous. He's - we jokingly used to say, we're going to create the Michelangelo's David of amphibian men.

BRIGER: Let's talk a little bit about the creation of your creature, the design, which I know is something you're passionate about. What did you want to convey in its design?

DEL TORO: You know, because it's a god of the river, I wanted to - for it to have majesty and beauty. So I got inspired a lot by Japanese engravings, for example. There's a series of engravings in Japan about a fish that is called "The Great Carp" (ph). And carps are very revered aesthetically in Japan, and the way they rendered the skin and the scales of the creature - of the fish was beautiful. And I used that as one of the bases, and the others were salamanders, reptilian, blah, blah, blah. But in - to organize it so you could look at it and go, that's a beautiful creature, and that is gorgeous - he's not a monster. It is the other, you know? He's not a human, but it is an absolutely exquisitely design - a swimmer's body. You know, we sculpted the face also very, very carefully. We did X number of permutations on the lips because if you imagine, the face is very...

BRIGER: Yeah, it has nicer lips than a carp (laughter).

DEL TORO: Yes, much nicer. You cannot - and they need to be human, and at the same time, they need to be kissable, you know?

BRIGER: Right. Well, I don't want to get too prurient here, but, I mean, the relationship between your creature - elemental god - and Elisa - it's consummated.

DEL TORO: Yes.

BRIGER: And you actually have two of your characters - played by Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer - do a little bit expository dialogue about fish anatomy. So, you know, were you sitting...

DEL TORO: And how it works.

BRIGER: Yeah, how it works - were you sitting around with your creature designers, discussing the mechanics of this interspecies sex or...

DEL TORO: We actually did. If you watch the movie again and you pay attention to the concerned area, you would see that mechanically, we designed it to work the way Sally describes. Now, the beautiful thing about this movie - and this is important to say - is that it is a movie that talks about love and talks about sexuality in a way that is very human, very encompassing, almost healing and emotionally beautiful. And we juxtapose the extraordinary and the ordinary in a way that I'm very proud of. We have an extraordinary creature, a river god, but we keep it in a bathtub.

And, you know, there is nothing prurient in the movie. We talk about many facets of human sexuality - alone and not alone - in a way that has not a fetishistic, not a prurient, not a wink-wink, nudge-nudge type of approach to this. It's very, very, very natural, very quotidian. And we start with the protagonist alone in the bathtub. And it's not seen through the fetishized, super-stylized gaze of moviemaking lovemaking. It is very naturalistic. And the moment she and the creature get together is done almost like a painting. It is so poetic and balletic that, you know, you never see anything shocking except the notion.

BRIGER: Well, it's like a very classic movie where you fade to black.

DEL TORO: Yeah, we literally draw a curtain.

BRIGER: Yeah.

DEL TORO: But what is beautiful is then what do we do is that is the extraordinary. And then the next day, we have the ordinary where she is sharing a morning chat with her friend, and she says, how was it? And they can talk about how it was, you know?

BRIGER: Well, you're also taking this idea of a fairy tale to its adult and natural conclusion. Like, you know, the - like "Beauty And The Beast" or "The Princess And The Frog."

DEL TORO: Yeah, but what I find very contentious about those fairy tales is that they are all pivoted on perfection and transformation, meaning the princess needs to be an innocent - a perfect innocent, you know? And then it sort of embodies a male idea of the female role. And, you know, she needs to be pure and altruistic, and she doesn't seem three-dimensional to me. She doesn't seem complex. And we take care of it in the movie in many ways, including showing that she has her own sex life in a lonely way - or in alone away, but not lonely, you know? And we also give her a life that is not grand, but very fulfilling.

And 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 its carnal form - an animal. And he still has a very controversial diet of raw protein that includes cats, you know? And he doesn't get civilized and eat a cat with a fork and a knife.

(LAUGHTER)

DEL TORO: It still is what it is because to me, if we're going to talk about love, we're going to talk about understanding, not transformation.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Guillermo del Toro, director of the new movie "The Shape Of Water." We'll get back to the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOS STRAITJACKETS' "SLEIGH RIDE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Guillermo del Toro, director of the new film, "The Shape Of Water." He also made "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Hellboy."

BRIGER: I want to change the subject for a second. I want to talk about Bleak House. Not the Charles Dickens novel, but you have...

DEL TORO: We can talk about that one, too.

BRIGER: Well, let's - I want to talk about this other one. You have two houses in Los Angeles, neither of them that you live in, and they house your collection. They're called Bleak House one and Bleak House two. Can you please describe what you have in those houses?

DEL TORO: Well, actually, I do live in those houses now because when I come from Toronto, I stay there.

BRIGER: I see.

DEL TORO: You know, what it is, is - and you can access, if you Google it - or we put out a book called "Cabinet Of Curiosities." But what it is, is I am surrounded by the characters I loved as a child. There is a small Gill-man altar for the "Creature From The Black Lagoon." There is - Frankenstein is all over the place, the creature of "Frankenstein." But the main purpose of it was to create a library. So I have 7,000 DVDs and Blu-rays. I have thousands of books - thousands - and roughly 15,000 comic books or something like that, hundreds of books about different art movements - the symbolists, the dadaists, the Pre-Raphaelites, the impressionists - you know, that I consult before I start every movie.

So I said, OK, I'm going to get my own space because I'm 40-something. I want to live in a space that I designed, that is for me. And I got a house and created my dream house with secret passages, sliding bookshelves, a room that is called the rain room where it rains 24/7. Rain is a rarity in California. So I have a false window with a theatrical projection and surround sound of distant thunder and rain. It's very soothing for me. And that's where I write. And then eventually I had to buy the house next door.

BRIGER: Well, I love the fact that, you know, it seems like you filled up one house and you're like, well, better get another one.

DEL TORO: Yes.

BRIGER: Let's get a sequel.

DEL TORO: Yes, yes. Well, and the two houses communicate through the backyard. So I have...

BRIGER: The houses are next to each other, got it.

DEL TORO: I have a cabin in the back that is dedicated to Japanese culture. I have a gazebo that I'm going to turn into a writing office, you know? It is - I think that the only measure for me of happiness at the age of 53 is, do I live the way I want, you know? And right now, I can say yes.

BRIGER: So my producer, Heidi Saman, read that your camera is always in movement. You're using cranes a lot and...

DEL TORO: Yeah.

BRIGER: ...Steady cams. Is there a reason behind that?

DEL TORO: Yes. It's not only a lot. It's constant, meaning the last time I used a tripod was in 2001. So for 16 years, the camera is always moving. Now, sometimes it moves very little. There's jibbing, pushing, dolling laterally. But it's because I think that - I think film has more to do with rhythm and movement and things that you cannot put in words than people give it credit for. And my camera needs to be like a musical movement.

In the case of "Shape Of Water," I want it to feel like a song. I wanted people to come out of the movie humming the movie. And that the movie had that energy, that the camera fluid - was fluid like water, but also like it was a musical because there's a lot of the movie that is shot like an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. The camera is always meeting and roaming and in favor of the characters being met in a choreographed way like they're almost going to break into song any minute. "Pan's Labyrinth" is a lullaby. This is a song, you know? And now and then I do crazy symphonies.

BRIGER: Guillermo del Toro, thanks so much for being on FRESH AIR.

DEL TORO: No, my pleasure. And it's always great to be here.

GROSS: Guillermo del Toro directed the new film "The Shape Of Water." He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ROOM")

TOMMY WISEAU: (As Johnny) You are tearing me apart, Lisa.

GROSS: ...That's a now-famous line from a film considered one of the best worst films ever made, "The Room." I'll talk with James Franco about directing and starring in the new film "The Disaster Artist" about the making of "The Room." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAVIER NAVARRETE'S "THE REFUGE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAVIER NAVARRETE'S "THE REFUGE")

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

07:15

'Ad Astra' Approaches The Sublime With Its Portrait Of Masculinity In Crisis

Brad Pitt is an astronaut who saves the world by traveling millions of miles to reunite with his long-absent dad. It's an unabashedly ridiculous premise, but somehow Ad Astra manages to pull it off.

50:30

Edward Snowden Speaks Out: 'I Haven't And I Won't' Cooperate With Russia

In 2013, Edward Snowden was an IT systems expert working under contract for the National Security Agency when he traveled to Hong Kong to provide three journalists with thousands of top-secret documents about U.S. intelligence agencies' surveillance of American citizens.

43:18

Journalist Andrea Mitchell: Asking Tough Questions Is 'Very Empowering'

Mitchell, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News and anchor of her own MSNBC show, looks back on her career in journalism. She's receiving a lifetime achievement Emmy on Sept. 24.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue