The Zookeeper’s Wife: Director Niki Caro On Pairing Jessica Chastain With Animals

– by Edward Douglas

It might not be surprising that Jessica Chastaine’s upcoming Holocaust drama The Zookeeper’s Wife was directed by a woman as much as it was  directed by New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, who once again proves herself capable of working with an international cast on a scale that’s far bigger than her earlier films, including Whale Rider.

Adapted from the novel by Diane Ackerman, it stars Chastaine as Antonina Zabinska, wife of the zoologist and owner of the biggest zoo in Warsaw, Poland, which is devastated when the Nazis invade in 1939. Trying to make lemonade out of the lemons delivered to them by the Nazis liquidating their zoo, Antonina and her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) come up with a plan to save the Jews from Warsaw who are being herded into ghettos, and being treated horribly. Turning the zoo into a pig farm, the couple begin to sneak Jewish kids and adults out of the ghetto and giving them their freedom right under the Nazis’ noses.

It’s another amazing story of the Holocaust about people who stood up to the oppression brought down upon them, and decided to do the right thing and save those less fortunate than themselves. It’s another great role for Chastain and another impressive step in Caro’s already-illustrious career. The set pieces in the film are particularly impressive as Caro and her crew built an entire zoo from scratch and then destroyed it with bombs dropped from the German divebombers who attacked Warsaw.

LRM got on the phone with Ms. Caro from the recent junket for the film.

LRM: I think this movie was something you had been planning before you started making “McFarland USA,” is that right?

Niki Caro:
Oh, gosh. Yeah, I was, before McFarland. I had been working on it for a long time.

LRM: Had you read the book, or did you just find it through the producers? 

Niki Caro: No, the producers approached me with a first draft of the script written by Angela Workman. I didn’t know about the story; I had never read the book. I was astonished that firstly it existed and had never been made into a movie before.

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LRM: What was it about the script or story that got you interested? 

Niki Caro: (laughs) I’ll tell you. At the end of the first page, Page 1, it said, “Antonina is sitting in a rocking chair nursing two baby lynx kittens,” and as I said to the producers, “You had me at lynx kittens.” Apart from being tremendously inspired and compelled by the Zabinskies, the fact that they did what they did for no other reason than it was the right thing to do spoke to a kind of radical humanism and decency that I found really inspiring.  Then, Antonina herself, is so feminine, so soft and yet so strong, that it seemed like material from which I could create a new kind of Holocaust movie.

LRM: That’s one thing I liked about it.  I’ve seen a lot of Holocaust movies, and it gets to the point where it’s hard not to be cynical about them, and that’s coming from the son of two German Jews. I wasn’t even sure if this was a true story or not as I was watching it.

Niki Caro: Yeah, you can’t believe it. All of it is really conscious. I never wanted to make a Holocaust movie. I had to think very, very carefully about the responsibility of that, and what I could contribute, and I recognized that through Antonina, her story and her experience, I could make a Holocaust movie that was very, very feminine. Because war didn’t just happen to men, it also happened to women and children and animals, and somehow, to tell this story through those lenses is to see them in an entirely new way.  It sort of opens up, I think, our humanity and I’m very proud of the movie and the way others appear to be emotionally connecting.

LRM: You watch a movie like this and you wonder, “If I were ever put in the same situation, would I do this? Would I put my own life at risk to save people?” We all hope we would but thankfully, few of us have been put into that sort of situation, at least I haven’t.

Niki Caro: Yeah, and you know, they were ordinary people...Polish Christians...and they did what they did only because it was the right thing to do, and that speaks to the bare humanity and the human decency, which is kind of an old-fashioned quality decency that we don’t discuss much anymore, but our responsibility to each other is what they really acted upon. It’s really inspiring.

LRM: I’ve had the chance to talk to Jessica a few times, and she is one of those people. She really is a very decent person, and she’s remained that way even as she’s gotten more famous.  Did you have any idea if she liked animals at all before getting her to play this role? That must have been a deal breaker--if the star of this movie didn’t want to cuddle with animals...

Niki Caro:
Yeah (laughs). Well, she is kind of famously an animal advocate, and I knew that about her. I knew she was a vegan, because she loves animals so much. What I didn’t appreciate until we started working together is that she’s genuinely an animal whisperer. I say that with no cynicism whatsoever. This other-worldly connection between she and those creatures was the single biggest gift to this movie. Absolutely remarkable, so my philosophy with working with animals is not to make them do tricks or do anything for the camera--just to let them be, and we shoot around them. To watch Jessica fearlessly interact with them and their connection with her made my job so easy, I can’t tell you.

LRM: If I knew this movie was being made a year ago, I would have suggested Focus do a calendar where every month is Jessica cuddling with a different animal.

Niki Caro: (laugh) That would be...I have a calendar worth of those images, I do! In my phone.

LRM: Other than Jessica and Daniel Brühl, you have an international cast including a lot of actors who might not be very well known, but all of them worked together well. How did you go about casting this and finding the right people, pretty much from all over? 

Niki Caro: Yeah, like anything, it’s the best person for the job. I’m pretty tireless when it comes to casting. I take it very, very seriously. I was casting all over Europe, and in fact, some of the more striking supporting roles out of Israel, young Shira Haas, who plays Ursula. She’s a young Israeli actress as is Efrat Dor who plays Magda. Johan Heldenbergh, who plays Jan Zabinski, incredible and largely unknown, so I’m super-happy to be able to introduce him to the world in this role. He’s incredible.

LRM: Since “Whale Rider” and after doing so much television in New Zealand, you shifted away from there and went to different places including “North Country” and this one you did in the Czech Republic as Poland. I was curious about going to those places and acclimating yourself. I know Czech Republic is different from anywhere in the United States, or I assume New Zealand.

Niki Caro:
Yeah, yeah, it is. It’s amazing. I’m just really down with all of that, because the best way to work for me is work on a real story about a real place and a real community, real people. McFarland is a really good example. I go and immerse myself in that culture and that community and that makes my job very easy, because I can see the truth all around me, and I just recreate that. Of course, it’s a little harder when you’re working on a period movie and historical material, but I will always go to the place where the story is real. There’s no part of me that won’t have tried to make this movie anywhere other than Central Europe.

LRM: Did you go to Warsaw itself and spend time there? 

Niki Caro: Oh, yeah, of course. I would have shot in Warsaw had the Germans and the Russians not completely destroyed it. Yeah, I had to recreate ‘30s Warsaw and the best place to do that was in Prague.

LRM: I was really impressed with the set pieces in the movie like the bombs dropping on the zoo and the burning of the ghetto. The zoo at the beginning was just amazing. Were those all real animals and a real zoo?

Niki Caro:
Oh, yeah, it’s not a real zoo--we made it. It’s a very big set. All of the animals are real, so of course, the set had to be constructed very well--unlike most sets, made of cardboard (laughs). Those enclosures really had to be decently constructed in order to house animals. We shot that sequence in pre-production actually, because of the weather and there wasn’t covered set by the time we got to production. I could guarantee the lovely weather that I wanted for the front of the movie, and so that set was only in that beautiful state for two days when we shot, and we began the process of destroying it, through a number of different destructions to bridge the whole war. I was really super-sad when I came back, and it was all gone. Horrible.

LRM: That must have been how they felt as well. 

Niki Caro: Yeah, yeah, in a small way. Yeah.

LRM: How did the animals react that way? Obviously you can’t use real explosions or bombs.

Niki Caro:
No, no, that’s just old school movie-making. If you took away the incredible sound design from the sequence where the bombs struck on the zoo, you would just be left with a series of shots of animals looking around. Yeah, it was always my intention that the animals would hear the war coming before the people did, so there’s a sequence of shots where...we just filmed the animals for ages and ages and ages just being their natural selves, and then just used the pieces where an ear was twitching or they were looking around. When you underlay the increasing volume of the Stuka bombers, then it feels it very, very ominous with the animals intuiting something terrible about to happen, and then it does.

LRM: How far are you along on your next movie, Mulan? That’s a big jump in budgets, which is great, but they already have a release date, so have you started developing it and when you’ll start shooting?

Niki Caro:
I haven’t actually started on it. I will begin on the beginning next month after this movie is released. I’m super-excited.

LRM: Is there some casting announcements coming up soon?

Niki Caro: No, no, not yet. I haven’t seen a single casting tape, but there is a big search ongoing for Mulan.

LRM: So you’re actually literally just starting...

Niki Caro:
No, I’m not kidding (laughs).

LRM: I was curious about that, because I’d think there was some overlap, and some directors can do that, overlapping movies and finishing one while starting the next. 

Niki Caro: No, I’m like a one-movie girl. I’m totally faithful till the bitter end.

LRM: It’s too early to talk about it, but you’re apparently the second woman to direct a Disney movie with that kind of budget. Is that at all daunting?

Niki Caro: No, no, it’s thrilling. It feels very natural. 

LRM: I guess if you’re doing a lot of movies with a lower budget, it’s like every director where having more money to do stuff is always better?

Niki Caro: This movie, for instance, I had a really big vision, so this movie was originally intended to be more modest, more in the scale of your specialty arthouse fare, a lot more interiors, but I had a bigger kind of vision for the piece, and so, happily in the Czech Repubic, I was able to exercise that and create something that was probably bigger...well, I know that it was bigger than the producers originally intended, but there it is. 

LRM: When you go out the window and see the entire zoo, I was already like...“Whoa...what?”

Niki Caro: Yeah, we made that out of nothing.

LRM: That’s amazing. I hope there’s some behind-the-scenes footage where we can see that being built. 

Niki Caro: Oh, yeah, yeah, there’s a lot. 

LRM: I’d be curious to see what was there before. 

Niki Caro: Just a used, abandoned, neglected park in the middle of Prague.

The Zookeeper’s Wife almost in select cities (about 450 theaters) this Friday, March 31.

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