The Oscars: Former Carleton architecture student just might nab a golden statue for The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro and Paul Austerberry on the set of The Shape of Water. Photo courtesy Paul Austerberry

Editor’s Note: Paul Austerberry did win an Oscar for best production design for The Shape of Water which took four Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director.

By Matt Yuyitung

When the Oscar winners are called on Sunday, a Carleton University architecture alumnus just might take home one of the coveted statuettes.

Fresh from a win at this year’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Paul Austerberry is nominated, along with Jeff Melvin, Shane Vieau, for an Academy Award for his work on The Shape of Water directed by Guillermo Del Toro.

The film stars Sadie Hawkins as a woman named Eliza who befriends an amphibious creature held at a U.S. government facility during the Cold War. The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s reimagining of the story behind the 1950s black and white classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, also stars Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins.

In an interview, Austerberry called the Oscar nomination “pretty spectacular” and compared it to playing for the Stanley Cup.

“We’re a fairly small movie in the grand scheme of things . . . and we’re up against some pretty big-budget movies like Blade Runner 2049, so it’s quite an honour to be nominated with that calibre of movies,” he said in a recent interview.

He said he was waiting for a taxi in Ottawa when he heard he had been nominated, then his phone “exploded.” One of his favourite congratulatory calls was a profanity-laden message from The Shape of Water producer J. Miles Dale. 

Austerberry’s first job with Del Toro was on the sequel to 2013’s Pacific Rim 2. But, as the story goes, Del Toro dropped his directorial role on that film to start work on The Shape of Water and he took Austerberry, whose other film credits include Pompeii, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and Men With Brooms, along. 

Austerberry describes Del Toro as “such a visual storyteller. … When you read the script there was so much description . . . You could imagine this world he was writing,” he said. “It’s nice when your work is appreciated and someone talks the same language as you when we’re developing the visual world to set this movie in.”

Del Toro spent a lot of time in the art department during the making of the film, Austerberry said, something that kept him on his toes.

In the film Austerberry wanted to contrast the two worlds featured in the film — the more romantic, fantasy-like world of Eliza and the creature and the “brutalist, concrete” world of the government facilities.

“Visually I wanted to tell the tale architecturally and materialistically with that look, and contrast that with this other world where she lives in a slightly fantasy world,” he said.

The film was shot in Toronto and Hamilton, had a large number of Canadian crew members. Del Toro, whose work was featured in a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario recently, has a home in Toronto.

Austerberry was an award-winning architecture student at Carleton. He graduated in 1989, fully intending to pursue a career in a profession he had wanted to pursue since he was 10 years old. But in the years after graduation, he lost the passion and instead was more and more drawn to Toronto’s busy film community.

“I realized that my architectural design experience and education really was very flexible,” he said. “Basically, it was a way to open your eyes and look at the world, a way to understand 3-D space.”

He credits Carleton for allowing him to develop his own creative abilities and giving him skills that have been big assets for him within the film industry.

“All those skills actually translated very easily into the art department,” he added. “Film design was like fake architecture, and the script was like your client.”

According to Austerberry, the strong Canadian presence of the film is a “testament to the film industry here in Canada.”

“It shows the world that we have the skills and creativity to do top-notch films here,” he said.

Insteadof mingling with the glitterati on Oscar night, Austerberry says he is more looking forward to meeting other film designers, such as Sarah Greenwood and Dennis Gassner, who have been nominated for Oscars on Sunday night. 

“We’re not really starstruck as much on movies,” he said.

A version of this story was published first in The Charlatan newspaper. It was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.