“It wasn’t raining in England. It was winter, but it was really warm. About 10, 12 degrees in the daytime. And it was terrifying because I didn’t actually think we were going to win.”
In February 2017, a flustered Paul Austerberry—the Canadian production designer most known for winning a Best Production Design Academy Award for the 2017 film The Shape of Water—stepped onstage at the Royal Albert Hall in London to accept the same award at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) ceremony. Unprepared, and quite frankly shocked to have been given such a prestigious prize, he took the stage, awkwardly making his way through a spontaneous acceptance speech alongside director Guillermo del Toro.
“I had kind of flubbed my speech a little bit,” he recalls, speaking from a couch at Vancouver’s Sutton Place Hotel, in town to give a talk as part of the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival. In a Pink Floyd t-shirt, Austerberry casually goes over the events of the last year: creating the stylistic masterpiece The Shape of Water with iconic whimsical director del Toro (and also winning Best Picture at the Oscars), meeting idols like Meryl Streep at gala dinners, and making Royal couple Prince William and Kate Middleton laugh.
“William said, ‘Oh yes, you made us all giggle,” he recalls of his encounter with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at the BAFTA Awards. “‘We all had a good giggle when you flubbed your speech.’”
Though Austerberry holds a British passport, he was born in Toronto, which is where he is currently based (and where much of The Shape of Water was filmed). His formative years were spent dreaming about the sets in James Bond films, yearning for some sort of career scoping out movie locations around the world. He later studied architecture at Carleton University in Ottawa, though his love for film never went away, and he ultimately started working in production design for projects including Pompeii and the Vancouver-filmed Twilight Saga: Eclipse.
“It was very artistic, it wasn’t very pragmatic about designing buildings. It was really about crafting the students to learn to look at things around them,” he says of his university program, his eyes drifting out the window on the seventh floor of the hotel, analyzing the downtown lines, creases, and glass windows outlined and highlighted by the sun. “And basically now, when I go anywhere, I’m always looking around me. You take so much inspiration from what’s around you.” Austerberry recalls moments in time with great detail; in London, it was not the people (apart from the British Royals) but the natural elements, the temperature, and the texture in the air that spoke to him. He might be an architect by trade, but more accurately he is an artist; he can perfectly bring a story to life by way of colour, space, and landscape, and there is really no greater example of this than The Shape of Water.
The science-fiction love story takes place in Cold War-era Baltimore, touching on classicism, racism, prejudice, love, and the fear of unknown. It follows the simple life of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) as she falls in love with “Amphibian Man,” who was captured in South America and detained by the United States government in a concrete research institution. Austerberry worked with an extremely small budget over the course of a short 60-day shoot schedule, which meant reusing basic set items from del Toro’s television series The Strain that was on a five-month break. The movie depicted this sense of the Cold War epoch by filming on location at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus in its brutalist, institutional-style building, but also at the gorgeous Hamilton City Hall, which was opened in 1960 and gave the feel of a Mad Men-style ad agency, says Austerberry. Toronto performing arts geeks will also recognize the Elgin Theatre and the exterior of Massey Hall throughout the scenes.
“There were these two worlds. She went home to this romantic little world of hers and then she went to this harsh environment where the asset was held,” Austerberry says of the film—which, given its visual vibrancy, ironically began as a black-and-white passion project of del Toro’s, endearingly referred to as the “fish film” before being picked up by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The movie opens literally underwater, and Elisa’s flowing apartment drips in every shade of blue imaginable, textured with 1890s-style fish scale Asian wallpaper chosen by Austerberry. There is also the “art wall” which can be seen subtly onscreen, inspired by del Toro’s personal photograph of an indigo wall in India. “For the rest of the film, you’re meant to feel that when you’re in her space, that you’re enveloped a bit by this moisture, this watery world,” says Austerberry, who notes that he was adamant about using classic “del Toro elements” of aging, patina pipes and machinery combined with a fairy tale setting. Thousands of cream tiles were hand-painted teal by members of the production design team for the institutional home of Amphibian Man, in order to help create such a bleak, damp, and fleetingly whimsical environment. “We all had to work together to craft this world,” asserts Austerberry. “And you can see it.” We sure can.
Read more from the Vancouver International Film Festival.