D
aniel Kraus remembers the exact moment the idea hit him. He was 15 years
old, and he was standing on a tennis court in Fairfield, Iowa, where he
grew up. “The extent of the idea,” he says now, “was the Creature from the
Black Lagoon is put in a lab; a janitor finds him and decides to break him
out and put him in her tub. And that was it for many years.”

Why did this particular story stay with him all those years? “I think I
just really liked Creature of the Black Lagoon. Anybody with a heart who
watched Black Lagoon, you have to feel bad for the creature. He
does nothing wrong, and the guys come in and just torture him and possibly
kill him. And he’s not doing anything, he’s just hanging out in the Black
Lagoon!”

Kraus always carries a small black notebook around to jot down ideas in.
Whenever one is full, he makes a list of the ideas he hasn’t gotten to yet
at the beginning of the next one. The creature’s happy ending had been
transferred from one notebook to the next for years. “It was always on the
list,” he says, “but was never first or second.”

It made it to the top of the list 20 years later when he met Guillermo del
Toro. And if the story sounds familiar, it’s because del Toro turned it
into the 2017 film The Shape of Water, which was recently
nominated for 13 Academy Awards. It also became a book by the same name,
cowritten by del Toro and Kraus, that will be published on March 6.

For any author, having a film auteur turn one of your ideas into a
critically acclaimed movie would be a career pinnacle. And yet Kraus’s next
project is just as surreal, if not more so. It was announced on February 14
that Kraus had been chosen by the estate of George Romero, the legendary
director of horror classics such as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, to finish a novel the filmmaker left behind
before his death in 2017.

Kraus, 42, lives in Evanston with his wife and two dogs. He’s worked as an
editor at Booklist, a magazine published by the
American Library Association, since 2008. He’s also published six young
adult horror/fantasy novels, which he writes on weekends and holidays. He
admits that writing novels while working a full-time job is difficult, “but
the upside is that I have a whole week to think about the scenes I’m going
to tackle over the weekend, so when that weekend comes, I’m really ready to
go.”

He found success with his second novel, Rotters, the story of a
16-year-old boy who goes to live with the father he’s never known after the
death of his mother, only to discover that his father is a grave robber.
The book was nominated for a 2011 Bram Stoker Award, and won a 2011 Odyssey
Award for best children’s audiobook. It also brought Kraus to the attention
of del Toro, who called it “uncompromising, dark, and true.”

After reading Rotters, del Toro asked Kraus if he would be
interested in collaborating on Trollhunters, a novel about a boy
pulled into a community of trolls living under San Bernardino, California.
Del Toro had sold the concept of the book to an editor at Disney-Hyperion,
but he wanted Kraus to be the cowriter. In December 2011, Kraus met with
del Toro in Toronto, where the director was filming Pacific Rim.
At their first breakfast meeting, del Toro asked Kraus if he was working on
anything else, and Kraus mentioned the idea he’d had when he was 15 and had
never forgotten.

It turned out del Toro had always felt the same way aboutThe Creature From the Black Lagoon. During an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in December, the director told a story about
watching the 1954 movie on TV when he was a child. “The creature swims
underneath Julie Adams, and I just thought, ‘What a great love story.’ I
was six, I thought, ‘I’m sure it’s going to end well.’ But … they kill
the creature at the end of the movie! So I said, ‘I’m going to correct
that.'”

So when Kraus mentioned his janitor-meets-creature idea, Del Toro was
immediately intrigued, but Kraus steered the conversation back to Trollhunters, the project at hand. “I didn’t want to be, like,
pitching him ideas, so I was kind of embarrassed,” he says now, but del
Toro kept coming back to the creature idea. He told Kraus it was going to
be his next movie, and optioned the idea from him the same day.

Del Toro’s next movie would turn out to be Crimson Peak. After Trollhunters was finished, Kraus spent the next few years
finishing The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, a two-volume YA
novel about a teenaged Chicago gangster who rises from the dead and lives
for another century. Ideas are optioned all the time, he figured, so it was
anybody’s guess whether del Toro would actually make the film. When del
Toro told him in 2016 that he was finally ready to make the movie that
would become Shape of Water, Kraus hadn’t even started writing the
book. He also knew that he wouldn’t be able to get to it right away. Del
Toro didn’t want to wait for Kraus to write the book, nor did he want for
Kraus not to write the book, so he offered his services as a coauthor. He
planned to work on the movie at the same time.

Kraus had no qualms about del Toro coming in as a cowriter on the book he’d
been wanting to write for years. In fact, it felt like a natural choice.
“The book wouldn’t exist without him, because I clearly hadn’t cracked it,”
he says. “It was missing something the whole time. The ideas he started
adding at that first breakfast was when it really started making sense. It
didn’t make sense for me to do it without him.”

Kraus describes the coauthorship process as “both complicated and simple.”
Del Toro devised the main plot, which combined Kraus’s idea of a janitor
befriending the creature with his own idea that it would be a great love
story. Kraus took that outline and started writing, filling in details of
his own, and then he would send drafts to del Toro.

Although the book and movie share the same plot, neither was beholden to
the other. Audiences are accustomed to both movies based on books and
novelizations of movies, but this situation is unique in that neither the
book or movie is the source material. “The idea is the seed,” Kraus
explains, “but then Guillermo’s story is sort of the source material [for
both the book and the movie].”

The projects were produced simultaneously, and while del Toro worked on
both, Kraus kept himself completely isolated. He never visited the set or
even saw production stills in order to avoid being influenced by them. But
while each work stands alone, the coauthors thought making them too
different would be too gimmicky, like producing an alternate ending. “We
didn’t want to be quirky about it,” says Kraus. “Often books come out
before movies, but why? Why can’t it be the other way around? We just
wanted to make a piece of literature that was a work of art on its own, but
didn’t feel like it had to be showily different.”

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito in the film version of The Shape of WaterCredit: Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. 

The story beats are the same. Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor working the
graveyard shift at a secret lab outside Baltimore, befriends and eventually
falls in love with an amphibious creature kept in the lab. Richard
Strickland, the Korean war veteran who brought the creature from the Amazon
to Baltimore, has been tasked with safeguarding it on the military’s
behalf. When Elisa learns that Strickland is planning to kill the creature,
she breaks it out and keeps it in her bathtub until the water in the harbor
is deep enough that she can set it free in the ocean.

While the love story between Elisa and the creature—called Deus Branquia,
or “gill god,” in the novel—is the focus of both versions of the story, the
book spends more time on the inner lives of the supporting characters,
especially Strickland. It opens with Strickland’s trek into the Amazon to
capture the creature, a journey that pushes him and his crew to the edge of
madness.

Kraus says writing the character of Strickland was one of his favorite
parts of the project. “I always saw the story almost with Elisa and
Strickland as co-main characters. Guillermo really does a nice job hinting
at Strickland’s pain and the stress he’s under, but I really wanted to dig
into that. I’m really interested in the villains, humanizing the villains,
for better or worse.”

When viewers of the movie meet Strickland, played by Michael Shannon with
his trademark unsettling intensity, he’s not a sympathetic character. He’s
not exactly likable in the book either, but his inner struggle to reconcile
his mind-shattering experience in the jungle with the life of duty he
intends to lead is laid out much more clearly.

Strickland’s wife, Lainey, who appears for only a few minutes in the movie,
is also a prominent character in the book. Having essentially become a
single mother while Strickland was away for more than a year, she chafes
against her return to the role of a doting wife, and embarks on an
ambitious endeavor of her own that will bring her into contact with Elisa’s
neighbor and friend, Giles, and Elisa herself.

The book’s obvious advantage over the visual medium is that Elisa and the
creature, both of whom never speak in the movie (save for one fantasy
sequence), can have voices. Elisa’s memories of her childhood in an
orphanage help to illustrate why she immediately empathizes with the
creature, itself uprooted and objectified. The creature too narrates
sections of the novel, in a voice that, like him, is some combination of
sensitive and wild. Deciding to write from the creature’s point of view,
Kraus says, is something he and del Toro spent a lot of time thinking
about. “There’d be no point in doing it if you weren’t going to add
something to it. A lot of thought was given to what his point of view would
feel like, and how it would enhance your understanding of what he is.”

With two books under their collective belt, del Toro and Kraus seem to be a
successful partnership. “There’s great potential when working with a
collaborator for things to go horribly wrong,” Kraus says. “They haven’t
yet with Guillermo. We’ve been very simpatico.”

Del Toro on set with Sally Hawkins and Octavia SpencerCredit: Kerry Hayes

While he was a fan of del Toro’s before they met, “I wasn’t his biggest
fan,” Kraus says. “I think that’s what makes us interesting collaborators.
The best collaborations might be with people who were not the obvious
collaborators, in a way.” But he does think del Toro was the perfect guy to
make the movie. “This felt to me like his movies that I really love, so I
hoped that he would make it.”

Kraus first saw The Shape of Water at its premiere at the Venice
Film Festival in August 2017. He recalls getting emotional when the film
ended, even though he usually never cries at books or movies. “It was all
very fun, but it wasn’t until the movie was ending that it really did hit
me. You see these hundreds of names, and all these people who are
applauding for 15 minutes, and you think, how did this happen? How did this
silly little idea I had when I was a dorky teenager, how did it turn into
all these hundreds of people having jobs, and this huge theater going nuts
for this thing, and all these people applauding and crying, how is this all
possible?”

In a tweet a few months later, when the movie was released in the U.S.,
Kraus marveled again at the “strange, impossible trip” from the cornfields
of Iowa to the big screen. Del Toro responded, “I often wonder: What if I
had not asked ‘What else are you working on these days?’ that cold Winter
morning six years ago? The key to this all was your seminal idea. I bless
that egg sandwich breakfast!”

Kraus has moved from one dream project to the next as he now focuses on
finishing Romero’s The Living Dead. “I really, truly grew up on
George Romero,” Kraus says. “The first movie I ever remember watching was Night of the Living Dead. He’s probably my favorite artist of any
kind. If I could name somebody in the world I would have wanted to do
something with, it would have been him.”

Last week the estate of the author Paul Zindel filed a court complaint alleging that del Toro and Kraus had “brazenly copie[d] the story, elements, characters, and themes” from a play Zindel had written in 1969. Del Toro denies the claim and said that neither he nor Kraus had ever heard of Zindel’s play.

Kraus is writing about 70 percent of The Living Dead, which will
be published in fall 2019. It’s an epic zombie novel that takes place all
over the world in three different time periods. Romero was famously
fiercely independent, often running into budget problems on his movies, and
Kraus’s theory is that the book was his way of doing all the things he
never had the resources to do in a movie.

“This book is of huge importance,” says Brendan Deneen, Kraus’s editor at
Tor Books. “It is the conclusion to Romero’s entire body of work, at least
as far as zombies are concerned.”

There were clues in the unfinished manuscript as to where the book was
going, and toward the end, Kraus says, “it was almost like he was writing
notes to himself.” Kraus plans to combine the existing manuscript with an
enormous amount of research into Romero: reading his interviews, rewatching
his films and commentary tracks, talking to his widow, and reading and
watching all the things he liked.

“He was obsessed with this movie called The Tales of Hoffmann,”
Kraus says, referring to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951
Technicolor version of the opera by Jacques Offenbach. “He mentioned it in
every interview almost in his entire life. So I’m going back to that text
and saying, What was so important to him about this, what was he getting
out of this?, and using stuff like that to create structural elements in
the book. It’s almost like I’m building a George Romero AI.”

“It’s impossible to ever truly get inside another human’s mind,” Deneen
says, “but Daniel is coming pretty damn close!”

If there’s anything that would have made 15-year-old Kraus happier than
knowing his creature idea would one day be a stunning movie, it might have
been this. “This is really big to me,” he says. ‘It couldn’t get bigger to
me.”   v