“I have never read nor seen the play,” the film’s director and co-writer told Deadline. “I’d never heard of this play before making The Shape of Water, and none of my collaborators ever mentioned the play.” He further stated producer Daniel Kraus, also named in the suit, was never influenced by Zindel’s work.
“He didn’t know the play and has not seen the play, and that is the reason we are going to court,” del Toro said.
The lawsuit, filed against del Toro and Fox Searchlight on behalf of Zindel’s estate, claims The Shape of Water copied the plot of Let Me Hear You Whisper, which follows a cleaning lady at an animal experimentation plant who wants to set a dolphin free when it’s slated for brain dissection.
The estate’s attorney, Marc Toberoff, laid out 69 points of similarities between the work and del Toro’s film, which stars Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor who romantically falls for a caged fish creature while working at a top-secret government testing facility.
“I really cannot stomach the timing of this accusation,” del Toro said. “It’s pretty transparent what is happening here. To me, it’s actually a relief to take something from the arena of opinion into the arena of fact and law.”
The accusation of copyright infringement comes after del Toro’s film won two Golden Globe Awards (including best director), and received 13 Oscar nominations. Toberoff told EW over the phone that the idea that the suit was meant to derail The Shape of Water‘s Oscar chances “makes no sense whatsoever.”
“First, my client, [Paul’s son David] Zindel, has no pony in the Oscars race, he has no dog in the Oscars race,” he said, “and secondly, in a copyright infringement case, the infringing film’s profits are the key measure for damages. So it’d be against my client’s interest to hurt the film’s chances of winning as many Oscars as possible.”
Toberoff further explained Zindel hadn’t seen The Shape of Water, but was first directed to its similarities with Let Me Hear You Whisper by the “groundswell of reaction on social media from people who had read the play.”
“There’s no ill will intended here,” he added.
“Our story and the layers are completely and entirely complex, interwoven with Russian spies, the Cold War, female friendships that are so complex and more important than that, which are completely original,” del Toro explained to Deadline. “The trope of an animal being liberated could be found in anything from Project X to Splash, to Born Free and Free Willy, to Starman, to an episode of Hey Arnold! or The Simpsons. You could go on and on. You could also include The Day of the Dolphin, which in fact was written two years before the play. It’s not a groundbreaking plot element. And the beauty of this movie doesn’t boil down to a plot element from a play.”
A statement issued by Fox Searchlight (via The Hollywood Reporter) reads, “These claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit and we will be filing a motion to dismiss. Furthermore, the estate’s complaint seems timed to coincide with the Academy Award voting cycle in order to pressure our studio to quickly settle. Instead, we will vigorously defend ourselves and, by extension, this groundbreaking and original film.”