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Former local news cameraman helped create ‘Shape of Water’

January 21, 2018

WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Daniel Kraus, a novelist with seven books to his credit, has seen his profile rise along with Guillermo del Toro’s movie based on his idea.

“The Shape of Water” has to be one of the more unlikely success stories of this, or any, movie season.

Part romantic fairy tale, part monster movie, part spy thriller, with elements of wince-inducing horror and an edge-of-the-seat escape sequence thrown in for good measure, “The Shape of Water” is about a mute cleaning woman (played by the extraordinary Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a human-like amphibian creature (Doug Jones in a suit that evokes the Creature from the Black Lagoon) who’s being kept in captivity at a top-secret government facility.

Nominated for seven Golden Globes — it won a Best Director Golden Globe for writer/producer/director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” ″Pan’s Labyrinth”) earlier this month — the film is widely expected to get a few Oscar nods when Academy Award nominations are announced Tuesday. The idea for “The Shape of Water,” however, was born in Iowa more than a quarter century ago, and was swimming around in the head of the writer Daniel Kraus when he lived in Wilmington for five years in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Kraus, 42, has seven novels to his credit — the smart, edgy young-adult titles include “Rotters” (Random House, 2011), which is about a father-son grave robbing team — and he’s billed in the opening credits as an associate producer of “The Shape of Water,” for which del Toro has been very vocal about giving Kraus credit.

Kraus also co-authored, with del Toro, a novel for adults titled “The Shape of Water,” which comes out Feb. 27. It features gorgeous illustrations by James Jean, and both mirrors and expands on the plot of the movie.

“I had the basic idea for the story as a teenager,” Kraus said via phone from Chicago, where he lives with his wife, Amanda, who he met in Wilmington. “It was always one of the things in the hopper that I never got to.”

He distinctly remembers, he said, standing by a tennis court in Iowa and thinking about the idea of a janitor working in a laboratory who discovers a locked-up creature and tries to break it out.

“It’s a strange memory,” Kraus said. “I was probably supposed to be getting ready to play or watching a teammate play. My head was thinking about horror films.”

Fast forward 20 years or so when Kraus and del Toro met in Toronto to discuss their collaboration on “Trollhunters,” a young adult novel about a teen battling mysterious creatures the two co-wrote and adapted into a popular, Emmy-winning Netflix animated series. It was pretty much their first big meeting, and Kraus, who knew del Toro was a fan of monster films, brought up the idea he’d been kicking around for years.

“He immediately sort of lit up,” Kraus said. “He said, ‘That’s going to be my next movie.’”

As it turns out, del Toro, inspired since childhood by “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” had long “wanted to do an amphibian-man romance with a human,” the director told Variety, a story he could never quite figure out. Kraus’ concept helped him put the pieces into place, and del Toro immediately optioned the idea.

But del Toro’s next movie turned out to be 2015′s “Crimson Peak.” Two or three years passed.

“I just figured it was one of those things,” Kraus said. “People option ideas all the time.”

Eventually, del Toro “decided to do the movie and started moving very quickly on it. And I, of course, had not started hardly anything on the book,” Kraus said. “He was generous as always and said, ‘Well, I don’t want you not to write this book, so why don’t we write it together?’”

The result was an unusual arrangement in which the novel, which is being published by Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, serves as a companion piece to the movie, the filming of which Kraus was involved with “not at all,” he said, “almost by design.”

Kraus was writing the book simultaneously to the movie being made, and while del Toro would giving him pieces of input that matched the film, whose script was written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, “I didn’t want, and he didn’t want, the book to be overly influenced by the movie,” Kraus said.

From Wilmington to ‘Water’

Growing up in Iowa, Kraus said his biggest artistic influences were the satirical horror director George Romero and “The Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling.

“You can trace everything that I’ve written and everything I’m interested in back to those two creators,” said Kraus, who credits his mother with introducing him to Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead.”

“I don’t think this necessarily speaks well of me,” he said. “It was fortunate. There were a lot of other, dumber things I could’ve gotten excited about.”

Romero’s film “Dawn of the Dead,” for example, “taught me how to understand deeper scenes in stories. The first few times I watched it was because it had bloody zombies, but then you start to realize, there’s something else going on here.”

When Kraus moved to Wilmington in the late 1990s, he worked for a time as a cameraman with WECT. It was while working that job that he met then-Brunswick County Sheriff Ronald Hewett, a colorful character who would become the subject of Kraus’ documentary “Sheriff,” which premiered on PBS’ “Independent Lens” series in 2006, got a theatrical release in 2007 and was the first of four films in Kraus’ “Work” series about people doing their jobs.

Hewett’s story took a sad turn when he was suspended from office in 2008 amid allegations of embezzlement, sexual harassment and extortion. Hewett later resigned, pleaded guilty to one count of obstructing justice and served time in federal prison. In 2014, Hewett died during an altercation in jail after being arrested and charged with violating federal laws regarding the possession of firearms.

Kraus didn’t want to say much about Hewett, who he spent dozens of hours with in the course of making “Sheriff,” but allowed that “it just made me very, very sad for his family. That wasn’t the Ron I remember.”

Kraus also wrote movie reviews and other articles for Encore magazine while in Wilmington and wrote and directed an independent feature titled “Ball of Wax,” about a deranged professional baseball player who plots against his manager and teammates, that played the Cucalorus Film Festival. (Full disclosure: I was the editor of Encore when Kraus wrote for the weekly paper, and I did some volunteer work on “Ball of Wax.”)

“I developed as a writer a lot (in Wilmington),” Kraus said, who also wrote articles for Maxim, Playboy, Salon and other publications during his time here.

“Maxim taught me more about writing than anything ever did. And it sounds weird, but I had 100 words to write about (some) product and you had to have like two jokes per sentence,” he said. “And I would have to just go over and over these paragraphs with a maniacal eye for detail. It really made me into a totally different kind of writer and much more thorough writer.”

Kraus moved to Chicago over 15 years ago, and has seen his writing career take off. He’s found his niche writing novels that blend horror tropes with themes about coming of age, family connections and, in two-volume “Zebulon Finch” series, American history. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and most are in some stage of film or television development, Kraus said, some of which he’s involved in and some of which he isn’t. Certainly, the success of “Trollhunters” and “The Shape of Water” bodes well for future projects.

“They’re definitely titles people recognize,” he said. “It probably gets people’s attention.”

But while he’s been involved with some high-profile projects, “What I really still like is the small stuff,” Kraus said. “Something like ‘Trollhunters’ is a huge monster of a project, and it’s very cool to be a part of that . But my heart is with the independent filmmakers and always will be.”

He’s currently working on a project he can’t say much about with Onur Tukel, another former Wilmington filmmaker active locally in the late ’90s and early 2000s who’s known for his movies “Catfight” and “The Misogynists,” the latter of which screened at Cucalorus last November.

Love and ‘Water’

The first time Kraus saw “The Shape of Water” was in Venice, Italy, at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize, The Golden Lion. (It seems somehow appropriate for a romantic film with an aquatic theme to debut in a city known for both love and water.)

“I had kept away from it till then, and it was really a trip,” Kraus said. “I mean, I have a different reaction than anyone, really, because it’s such an old idea of mine. You carry around this idea since you were 15 years old and then suddenly it’s on this giant screen, and there’s all these hundreds of people that made this thing that was filmed in my dreams somehow. It was a very a surreal experience.”

“I just loved it,” he added, “and it could’ve gone the other way.”

Even so, Kraus said, he’s been a little surprised by the reaction to the movie.

“I thought it was going to be really good, but I didn’t think so many people would like it,” he said. “Those are two very different things. I wasn’t sure how it was going to play to a wide audience.”

Yes, it’s about a woman who’s in love with a fish-man, but there’s also a romantic, “Beauty and the Beast” element that somehow blends seamlessly into the film’s moments of horror, comedy and depictions of characters, both heroic and villainous, who are striving (or wishing) for more fulfilling lives.

“You can describe it in a way that’s off-putting and kind of obscene. But there’s another way where it feels kind of classic,” Kraus said. “It’s bizarre, but it’s sort of universal in a weird way.”

“If there’s anything that impresses me about my 15-year-old self — and this is literally probably the only thing,” he added with a laugh, “It’s that I did have this idea for this intimate concept.”

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Information from: The StarNews, http://starnewsonline.com

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