Roberto Campanella on Choreographing the Dream Dance Scene in "The Shape of Water" and Making Its Creature Move

January 30, 2018

This season’s Oscars front-runner isn’t exactly the type of drama that usually makes it into the Best Picture category. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water has plenty of drama, including Cold War intrigue, but it also has humor, a very human storyline that—thanks to one large amphibious creature—veers into fantasy and, yes, even dancing.

At a pivotal point in the movie, there’s an unexpected, glamorous dream dance scene between Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the creature (Doug Jones). Elisa, who is mute and has a deep love for Hollywood’s classic movie musicals, imagines that she can sing, and she is transported from her kitchen to a black-and-white movie set. There, she and her beloved creature share a romantic dance in the style of the films she adores. Keeping with the old-Hollywood homage, The Shape of Water also includes a short-but-sweet seated tap duet with Elisa and her best friend and next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The man behind these moves is Roberto Campanella. A former National Ballet of Canada soloist and current artistic director of the contemporary ballet troupe ProArteDanza, he’s no stranger to film sets. For the last 13 years, he’s contributed movement coordination and choreography to a variety of projects, such as the Silent Hill horror movie franchise, Hallmark’s A Nutcracker Christmas (with Sascha Radetsky) and del Toro’s vampire show on FX, “The Strain.” We spoke with Campanella about his latest collaboration.

Campanella has the unique experience of working in both the concert and commercial dance industries. Photo Courtesy Campanella.

How did you become choreographer for
The Shape of Water

I ended up being involved as a movement coordinator with “The Strain”—that’s where I met Guillermo for the first time, five years ago. He called me and said, “Please read the script. I have this idea and see what you think about this.” So I read it, and it was captivating. I thought, There is a woman dancing with a fish!

How would you describe the dream scene for those who haven’t seen it?

It’s a dream sequence in which the character’s passion for dance, and specifically for the era, is intertwined with the love that she establishes with the creature. And the way I saw it, the ultimate romance that she would dream of with the creature is sharing a dance with him. The song is “You’ll never know just how much I love you. You’ll never know just how much I care.” To me it was a combination and expression of the passion that she had for dance and the passion and love she had for the creature.

Campanella on set with Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones, as the creature. Photos Courtesy Campanella.

Was it del Toro’s idea for that scene to be a throwback to old Hollywood?

Yes. He knows what he wants, he knows what he doesn’t want, which makes my life way easier. Most of the time, you’re there to translate someone’s vision, and with Guillermo it’s easy. He wanted to maintain the Fred Astaire era with that kind of stylistic approach. He had some visual references, that he’s like, You know? Something like this and something like that. He would get up and show me what he envisioned, even as far as the dancing was concerned. And, of course, with a great sense of humor from his point.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Since you knew the creature would have a special suit, did that affect what you choreographed?

We had a chance to test the suit several times and to make adjustments according to it. So there were some restrictions, I remember, in terms of the arms. There were certain lifts that I had originally choreographed that I had to tweak and adjust. Other than that, it was never a big issue. In fact, I think we shot this in half a day. It might have been eight hours at the most.

Did you come with movement ideas beforehand?

I originally asked one of my dancers to get into the studio with me and create the duet. And from then on it was a back and forth between Guillermo and I, meaning, What do you think about this? Do you like this? I always start with a lot of material so that the directors can pick and choose. That’s how the relationship was between Guillermo and I, whether it was for the dream scene or for the couch tap with Richard and Sally. He was always heavily involved.

What are some of the challenges—or perks—of choreographing for film that you don’t get in a more traditional company studio setting?

First of all, you often create movement on actors. You learn how to speak their own language in terms of images. It’s a different language than I would use with dancers.

Once you get on the set, you start breaking things down. So a dance like the one that we did—it was two and a half minutes or something like that—it was shot in eight hours. The great thing about TV and film is that you always have a chance to make it better on the spot. Whereas once my dancers get onstage, you just have to let go, and, obviously, it’s up to them and it’s hands off. In TV and film, it’s constantly me in front of the monitor sitting next to the director.

And the other aspect is that you’re translating someone else’s vision and not just your own. You always have to make sure that what you do in terms of movement serves the camera, serves the theme, serves the action, serves where they’re coming from and where they’re going in the script. You really have to make sure that you’ve done your homework.

On the set of The Shape of Water. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

What does it feel like to be associated with a movie that has so much buzz?

The whole excitement, for me, started actually at the screening for the crew. I can’t believe how gorgeous this movie was, not to mention the cast. Then they got a Golden Lion in Venice, and that was the beginning of me thinking, Oh, this movie is gonna have legs. And next thing you know, seven Golden Globes nominations. Guillermo got the Golden Globe as a director. And then the 13 nominations for the Oscars. It’s way beyond expectations.

For the Oscars, I’ll be watching TV with a big smile on my face that night.