EXCLUSIVE: The Shape of Water director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has come out to directly refute claims made in a lawsuit filed today by the estate of playwright Paul Zindel that the filmmaker appropriated plot elements from Let Me Hear You Whisper. That is a 1969 play about a janitorial cleaning woman who attempts (and fails) to free a dolphin from a scientific laboratory facility that weaponizes animals for military use.
“I have never read nor seen the play,” del Toro told Deadline. “I’d never heard of this play before making The Shape of Water, and none of my collaborators ever mentioned the play.”
A suit was filed in US District Court by attorney Marc Toberoff, who has often sued studios on behalf of writers and estates, most notably against Warner Bros on behalf of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The play by Zindel — best known for his Pulitzer-winning play The Effects Of Gamma Rays On Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds — is described in the lawsuit as “a beloved work of fantasy/science fiction by an esteemed author, making the glaring similarities between the Picture and the Play too egregious to ignore.”
Ploys to create controversy in an attempt to upend a front runner late in the Oscar race is nothing new; we’ve seen it in varying forms and perhaps most egregiously when press reports on Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind alleged that its subject John Nash made anti-Semitic statements. The timing of the lawsuit — Oscar voters have begun filling out their ballots — wasn’t at all lost on Del Toro.
“I really cannot stomach the timing of this accusation,” he 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.”
Producer Daniel Kraus was also named in the lawsuit, and del Toro was emphatic on his behalf as well. “He has repeatedly said that he was not influenced by the play; 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.
Del Toro said Fox Searchlight has been dealing with this estate claim for weeks, and “ultimately decided that rather than succumb, they felt let’s take it to its ultimate realm, which is a court where we can defend ourselves.
“The way the play has been described, in the suit and along the way as these reports have appeared, it seems to be undoubtedly about a dolphin, and animal experimentation, about an animal being freed from a lab, and that is the end of it,” del Toro said. “The Shape of Water is so many things, so many colors. It’s not about an animal, it’s about an elemental river god. These ideas are not interchangeable or equivalent; this would be tantamount to saying that E.T. would be the same story if you substituted the alien for a hamster.
“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. 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.”
As for Oscar voters who will be reading about and might be influenced by the freshly filed lawsuit, del Toro put his own reputation as the best evidence he is telling the truth.
“I have been at this 25 years and have an unimpeachable reputation,” he said. “I have always made it an element of my career to talk about my influences in every single movie I have made, in the comment track of DVDs, on Twitter, in my museum exhibitions. I have been open about the things I love, and I have had no problem discussing them and how they were transformational in my movies. This 25 year trajectory should come in handy. I have written or co-written about 24 screenplays. I am a writer/director who has generated TV series, books, movies and an enormous amount of screenplays through the years. Without a single complaint.”
Fox Searchlight issued a statement also backing del Toro’s integrity.
“These claims from Mr. Zindel’s estate are baseless, wholly without merit and we will be filing a motion to dismiss,” the studio said in a statement. “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.”