The Zookeeper's Wife: Q&A with Director Niki Caro and Producer Kim Zubick
By Annette Graham, DC Film Society Member
The Zookeeper's Wife was shown at Landmark's E Street Cinema on March 23. After the film, Director Niki Caro and Producer Kim Zubick answered questions from the audience; the discussion was moderated by Catherine Wyler.
The film is set in Warsaw at the beginning of World War II. Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski, Johan Heldenbergh plays her husband Jan Zabinski, and Daniel Bruhl is Lutz Heck. After their zoo is destroyed by the Nazis, Antonina and Jan Zabinski shelter Polish Jews on their way out of the country. A book written by Diane Ackerman serves as basis for the film and the book is based on Antonina Zabinski's published diary. Angela Workman did the screenplay.
Catherine Wyler: I know we all feel really lucky to have been able to be at this screening today. Such a riveting, fascinating movie. Let me tell you a little about them both [the director and producer]. As a director and a screenwriter, Niki Caro is certainly one of the most successful filmmakers to have emerged from New Zealand. After completing a BFA at the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland as well as postgraduate work from Swinberne in Melbourne, Australia, she wrote and directed a number of highly acclaimed short films. Sure to Rise (1994), which was screened in 1994 in Cannes, and footage whch was shown at the 1996 Venice festival. Her first feature film, Memory and Desire, was shown at the Critics Week in 1998 Cannes festival and went on to win four New Zealand film and TV awards including Best Film. Her second feature, Whale Rider (2002), explored the Maori community of Whangara on New Zealand's east coast. It was a huge success seen by millions of people, won over two dozen prizes around the world, including top honors at film festivals like Toronto, Sundance, Rotterdam etc. And the film's star, Keisha Castle-Hughes received an Academy award nomination for Best Actress and at the time she was the youngest actress to do so. She then directed North Country (2005), a drama set in the U.S. on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. The film starred Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Sissy Spacek and Woody Harrelson. Theron and McDormand were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA, etc., among other honors. Continuing to strive to depict real lives and real communities on screen, she directed the sleeper hit, McFarland, USA (2015), starring Kevin Costner and set in California's Central Valley. She is currently completing and directing a bold new vision of the Anne of Green Gables story. It's a telefilm which will begin a new Netflix series exploring the classic character of Anne who will be portrayed by Irish-Canadian actress Amy Beth McNulty, growing up in the 1890s. Let me introduce you to Kim Zubick, the producer who has been working under her banner Zubick Films. She is particularly drawn to true stories and spent most of her formative years in Europe, which makes The Zookeeper's Wife a passion project which she has been working on for the last nine years. Previously she was president of production for Tollin Productions, for the Robert Simonds company and for StewArt Pictures. She was producer on License to Wed (2007), starring Robin Williams and John Krasinski, and Raja Gosnell's Yours, Mine and Ours (2005) starring Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo. She was also part of the filmmaking team on films like Steve Carr's Rebound (2005) and Tim Story's Taxi (2004) starring Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon. And prior to beginning her producing career, she was a studio executive at MGM and an agent.
Catherine Wyler: Did you always want to be a director, Niki, or when did that start?
Niki Caro: When I grew up in New Zealand that wasn't really an option, but I would dream about it and I certainly came from a family, particularly my dad "you can do anything." It wasn't until I got to art school that I realized that film was where all the things I loved came together: writing, performance, music, photography. So I just started to do it and figure it out as I went along. And I still feel like I'm figuring it out, to be honest.
Catherine Wyler: How did The Zookeeper's Wife start and how did the two of you got together?
Kim Zubick: This book [by Diane Ackerman] came to me in late 2007 and I felt like it had to be a film and everyone else thought I had fallen on my head. I was told by everyone in Hollywood, "You'll never get this made." I found a brilliant screenwriter to help turn it into an idea that I could sell. The thing that actually made it happen was finding Niki who in a very strong but quiet way just informed us what the movie should be. And she was right. And this is the version of the movie that we had all intuited but didn't know how to put into place until joining forces with Niki.
Catherine Wyler: Was this something you knew right away was for you?
Niki Caro: Yes, at end of page one. Antonina sits in a rocking chair, feeding two lynx kittens. And really, they had me at lynx kittens. It was such an unusual war story, it was a true story, with a female in the center of it, and really commited to the female experience in war. War doesn't just happen to men; war also happens to women, children and animals. This was such a fresh way of considering that horrific time and a way of talking about it that focused on the sanctuary that Antonina was able to provide, the healing and the hope.
Kim Zubick: It is a timeless story not just a timely story.
Audience Question: Do you have parents or grandparents that were part of the Holocaust?
Kim Zubick: No.
Niki Caro: No, but my elementary school was in a synagogue. I was completely convinced that I was Jewish until I was 11. So I felt very at home, I felt I understood the responsibility, because as a little girl I was made very aware of this time in history. I remember the first time that I was told about it, because a gentleman was brought to our school and he had a number tattooed on his arm. I can't remember what he said, but I can remember where I was and I can remember how I felt. And I feel the same way now, talking about this period in time.
Audience Question: Two children were thanked in the credits. What are they doing now? And how much of the animals were CGI?
Kim Zubick: Both of the children live in Warsaw. Teresa who is very much like her mother is in her mid-70s now I think and actually was in the film. Niki put her in the opening party scene. She was a huge supporter of the film and it was wonderful to have her involvement. Ryszard Zabinski is also still alive and in Warsaw. He is 11 years older than Teresa and less able to participate. We interviewed them at the actual villa in Warsaw and discovered in the process that since the war, he has never had another pet, he's never had another animal because it was so traumatic for him to lose so many of them throughout that experience.
Niki Caro: Only one animal in the movie is CG. I couldn't conceive of how to make this movie, this real story and make an authentic movie and use fake animals. All the animals you see on screen are real unless they are babies. The babies are puppets mostly and all dead animals are puppets. The one CG animal is the baby elephant. It was made from a real baby elephant that was born. We were really interested in all the elephants. We took thousands of photographs so we could build it.
Audience Question: Why did you shoot in the Czech Republic?
Kim Zubick: A couple of reasons. Unfortunately Warsaw no longer resembles Warsaw of that era. We weren't actually able to shoot it there in a way that represented that time. It also turned out that the Czech Republic is a fantastic place to shoot, practically in terms what is available in crew, and financial aid. It was clearly the place to go.
Audience Question: Did the actors talk to any of the survivors? Did you get any background to prepare the actors and what kind of things did they say?
Kim Zubick: Jessica met with Teresa and talked to her about her mom and discovered little nuances. She did a lot of research to ingest that time and that family and discovered things like her mother never wore pants. She always wore lipstick but that Jan didn't like nail polish so she refrained from that. Little nuances that helped her learn who that character was. All the other characters who were in the basement, except for Ursula were based on true characters as well. All the names you see on the wall represent those people who were real guests at the villa. We did an infinite amount of research. Diane Ackerman, author of the book was incredibly helpful. We took more than one trip to Warsaw and did a lot of exploration into that time period. I don't know if Niki has survived it yet--the research she did on this--but for example, little details, like the idea that people would take their pictures in front of the gates to the ghetto, as if it were a zoo. So yes, a lot of research. The parents passed away in the 1970s. The parents were adamant that they were not anything other than normal people, they were not heroes, that this is something that anyone with a conscience would have done. So the kids think of the parents more as heroes than the parents themselves did.
Audience Question: Everyone said you would never get this made. What was the tipping point that changed people's minds? How did you pitch this to get it made?
Kim Zubick: There were a couple of tipping points actually. The first was work by the screenwriter being willing to write up a treatment that turned it from a historical piece of nonfiction into a movie. That allowed me to find financing for the script which then having a script allowed us to find Niki, having Niki allowed us to get Jessica, having Jessica allowed us to get Focus [Features]. You build it and you build it and you build it. So there isn't one tipping point, but I do think it important having a visionary leading the charge, and that would be Niki. So that was the difference in getting the film done.
Audience Question: Has this story ever been told before? Is this novel the first time the story has been told?
Niki Caro: It's amazing isn't it? Diane Ackerman was researching something else when she went to the zoo. And in the zoo she became aware of the Zookeeper's Wife and the fact that she had written a diary and the diary had been published. But it wasn't read very much even though it was published. She obtained the published diary and had it translated. It strikes me that how many more stories are out there in history that are centered on a woman's experience that are yet to be told, because somehow historically the female experience has been considered less relevant. So that's really depressing but also very exciting because there are more stories to learn about.
Audience Question: You have the book to screenplay, then script to the movie. How did you translate the script to the movie?
Niki Caro: It's more of an organic process I think than people appreciate. Particularly on this because we were using real animals. The philosophy was very strongly to let them be animals, to let them be themselves, to work with their natural behaviors, to not have them do tricks, or learn things for the camera to be done at a certain time. It was a pretty organic environment. You have to be pretty confident, certainly in your actor when you work in that way. Jessica was the single biggest gift to this movie because she loves animals so much. She whispers to them in a spooky fashion. I could just create the environment and just observe with the camera, instead of the camera being active and running the show. It's very intimately observed, this movie.
Audience Question: How long did it take to shoot and do you each have a favorite story from the set?
Niki Caro: It took 46 days. And two second unit days. I would go on my days off and direct the second unit which is where all the stuff is being blown up. [To Kim]: What's your favorite story?
Kim Zubick: I have so many favorite stories. It took so much effort to convince all the powers to be to make a more feminine WWII movie and yet one of my favorite moments was when Niki came with such delight on her face and said, "I just blew that up." She was so excited to blow things up and tear things down.
Niki Caro: I loved every second of it. Lots of things happened. Everyone was saying to me that it was scripted that the zoo is bombed and the animals run away and are roaming the streets of Warsaw and how are you going to do that? How are you going to get a lion in the road? It was really simple. It was as simple as "I'm going to put the lion in the road." (audience laughs). The only difficult thing was securing the perimeter so the lion was safe and figuring out the ways to shoot it that didn't require anyone operating the cameras within the perimeter. What a great time for the lions and tiger! And the birds and kangaroo and everyone we had in the road, just to see the animals running and their curiosity. They had such a splendid time. And it's nice to create those images really simply and organically. You don't see those images very often. You certainly don't see them in a non-CG or visual effects way.
Audience Question: How did you direct the scene with the elephant and baby?
Niki Caro: This is what I mean about working with animals' natural behaviors. We shot it over two nights. Elephants are so intelligent that they get bored very easily. They can only work for two hours before they have to have a 45 minute break. So logistically, scheduling that sort of thing--it's freezing cold, there's Jessica, barefoot, on her knees, on the concrete, in a tiny little outfit, covered with elephant mucus. But the elephant wasn't particularly interested in this scene. Jessica realized the elephant really liked apples and she had been feeding it apples. Just before we would roll, she would hide the apple in and around her, so that the elephant's trunk was looking for the apple. So she's acting her ass off and the little baby she's trying to resuscitate, a puppet, and hanging out of this puppet is a really skinny tattooed Czech guy. It's marvelous the way we create this stuff. All these sequences are created in a very old-school filmmaking way.
The Zookeeper's Wife opened in the DC area on March 31.
Calendar of Events
American Film Institute Silver Theater
"All About Almodovar" (March 4-April 27) is a comprehensive review of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The series concludes in April with Kika, The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh, Talk to Her, All About My Mother, Bad Education, Volver, Broken Embreaces, The Skin I Live In, I'm So Excited and Julieta.
"The Marx Brothers" (March 24-April 20) is a retrospective of brothers Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. In April you can see A Night at the Opera, Room Service, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, Monkey Business and A Day at the Races.
"Muppet Movies" (March 4-April 23) concludes Labyrinth, Muppet Treasure Island, Muppets Most Wanted, Muppets From Space and The Muppets (2011).
Special Engagements in April include Blade Runner (director's cut), 1984 (1984), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Singin' in the Rain, Easter Parade, 42, Tampopo, Monty Python's Life of Brian, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, A Poem Is a Naked Person and Blazing Saddles. Also, Travesty Films will present "the first absolutely final retrospective" featuring the Langley Punks.
"2016: A Second Look" (February 20-April 24) reviews some of last year's most distinctive films. Titles in April are Keanu, Everybody Wants Some!, The Nice Guys, Wiener-Dog, Swiss Army Man, Train to Busan, The Witch, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words shown with Gimme Danger.
"Kirk Douglas Centennial" (March 10-April 23) titles include Lonely Are the Brave, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Vikings, Paths of Glory, Lust for Life, The Big Sky, Strangers When We Meet, Two Weeks in Another Town and Seven Days in May.
Freer Gallery of Art
The Freer is closed for renovations until October 2017. Films will be shown at varying locations.
On April 2 at 2:30pm is Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) and on April 9 at 2:00pm is Wild Style (Charlie Ahearn, 1983) with the director in person. Both are shown at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Oprah Winfrey Auditorium. In addition there is a opening reception for the Kung Fu Wildstyle exhibit on April 1 at 2:00pm (Sackler Gallery, Sublevel 3), a Kung Fu Wildstyle music program presented by Shaolin Jazz on April 1 at 8:00pm (location: Hyphen DC), and a panel discussion on Kung Fu Wildstyle on April 2 at 1:00pm (location: NMAAHC).
National Gallery of Art
"From Doodles to Pixels" (April 1-22) is a program of animation from Spain from 1908 to the present. On April 1 at 2:00pm is "Doodles," on April 1 at 3:30pm is "Modern Times," on April 8 at 2:00pm is "Destino Hollywood" introduced by Carolina Lopez, on April 8 at 4:00pm is "The Artist's Trace," and on April 22 at 12:30pm is "Next Generation." All are collections of short animated films.
"Animator: International Animation Festival" (April 16-23) is a selection of animated shorts and features from the Animator Festival held annually in Poland. On April 16 at 4:30pm is Nuts! (Penny Lane, 2016); on April 22 at 2:00pm is Shorts Program I; on April 22 at 4:00pm is Shorts Program II and on April 23 at 4:00pm is The Magic Mountain (Anca Damian, 2015). The festival's artistic director Marcin Gizycki will be present for the last three programs.
"A Universe Inside Out: Hubley Animation Studio" is a three-part series featuring independent animation by John and Faith Hubley. On April 29 at 2:00pm is "Faith and John: Shorts from the Hubley Studio; on April 29 at 3:30pm is "Faith Hubley: Legends and Other Personal Stories; and on April 30 at 4:00pm is "Continuity: Works by Emily." Special guest Emily Hubley will be present for all three programs.
Special events include Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953) on April 2 at 4:00pm, The Ascent (Fiona Tan, 2016) on April 9 at 4:00pm and Homo Sapiens (Nikolaus Gayrhalter, 2016) on April 16 at 2:00pm.
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
On April 9 at 3:00pm is "Black Gate Theater" with a screening of Aldo Tambellini's Black Zero, Otto Piene's The Proliferation of the Sun and documentary footage. Part of the film series "Kusama on Screen."
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Two Freer film programs are hosted by the NMAAHC, see above.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
A series of films about artists continues with Between the Folds (Vanessa Gould, 2008), which follows a cast of five artists and an eccentric scientist as they reveal the secrets of modern origami.
Washington Jewish Community Center
On April 24 at 7:00pm is the U.S. premiere of We Are Jews From Breslau (Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies, 2016), a documentary about 14 Jews from Breslau who survived the war. Following the film is a Q&A with the directors and survivor Guenter Lewy. (This is a pay-what-you-can screening).
On April 11 at 6:30pm is I Was Nineteen (1968) introduced by Paul Werner Wagner, editor and publisher of Konrad Wolf’s war diaries. Based on the diary by the acclaimed German filmmaker, I Was Nineteen is the director's most personal film and a highlight of the DEFA collection.
On April 28 at 6:30pm is Westwind (Robert Thalheim, 2011), a romance of young athletes in the GDR, set in 1988.
National Air and Space Museum
"Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen" is a series of WWI films commemorating the entry to the US in 1917. Films are shown in both locations and the series ends in November. On April 7 at 7:00pm is The Fighting 69th (1940) starring James Cagney and based on the real-life exploits of New York City's 69th Infantry Regiment. On April 21 at 7:00pm is Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes, 1930).
On April 25 at 7:00pm is "The Great War: Animated Memories," a collection of nine short animated films: La Détente (Pierre Ducos and Bertrand Bey, 2011), 1916 (Fabien Bedouel, 2003), Poppy (James Cunnigham, 2009), Fire Waltz (Marc Ménager, 2011), The Trenches (Claude Cloutier, 2010), Lettres de femmes (Augusto Zanovello, 2013), Le jour de gloire (Bruno Collet, 2007), So close (Rémi Durin, 2009), and Trois petits points (Rémy Schaepman, Lucrèce Andreae, Alice Dieudonné, Florian Parrot, Tracy Nowocien, Ornélie Prioul, 2010).
On April 11 at 7:00pm is a special ciné-concert to commemorate the centennial of the United States' April 6, 1917 entry into World War I. William Wellman's silent epic masterpiece Wings (1927), winner of Best Film at the very first Oscar awards, will be accompanied by France's Prima Vista Quartet performing a music score by Baudime Jam.
The Japan Information and Culture Center
On April 14 at 6:30pm is Kakekomi (Masato Harada, 2015), about a temple where women flee to seek divorce and a novice doctor who becomes a divorce arbitrator. On April 21 at 6:30pm is Miss Hokusai (Keiichi Hara, 2015), an animated film about the daughter of the famous painter Hokusai.
The Textile Museum at GWU
On April 20 at noon is "Ebony Presents the John H. Johnson Interview" (L. Bennet and L.J. Rice, 2007) about how John Johnson built the Ebony and Jet magazine brands.
On April 25 at 6:00pm is the documentary Kansas City Dreamin': Music in Shadows (Diallo Javonne French) about Kansas City musician Bobby Watson. Gerald Dunn leads a post-film discussion.
"Cinema Arts Bethesda" is a monthly Sunday morning film discussion series. On April 9 at 10:00am is My Friend From the Park (Ana Katz, 2015 from Argentina. On April 30 at 10:00am is Microbe and Gasoline (Michel Gondry, 2015) from France. Breakfast is at 9:30am, the film is at 10:00am and discussion follows, moderated by Adam Spector, host of the DC Film Society's Cinema Lounge and author of the column "Adam's Rib."
National Museum of Natural History
On April 14 at 2:30pm is Sons of Haji Omar (Asen Balikci, 1978), a documentary about Haji Omar and his family, members of the Lakankhel tribal group in northeast Afghanistan, as they migrate between spring lambing camp, markets and their winter home. Part of the Ethnographic Film Series.
On April 5 at 8:00pm is The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened (Lonny Price, 2016), about Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musical "Merrily We Roll Along," a flop in 1981, andtelling the stories of the performers whose lives it transformed. Part of the "Avalon Docs" series.
"Czech that Film" is a series of three new Czech films. On April 12 at 8:00pm is the comedy Tiger Theory (2016) with director Radek Bajgar present for Q&A. On April 13 at 5:15pm is The Teacher (Jan Hrebejk, 2016) and on April 13 at 8:00pm is The Devil's Mistress (Filip Renc, 2016), about WWII-era Czech actress Lída Baarova.
This month's "French Cinematheque" is The Son of Joseph (Eugene Green, 2016) on April 19 at 8:00pm.
The "Reel Israel" film this month is Mr. Gaga (Tomer Heymann, 2015), about modern dancer Ohad Naharin, on April 26 at 8:00pm.
On April 30 is the annual Spring Benefit. The film High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) will be shown and a talk with Glenn Frankel, author of "High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic." A reception is at 5:00pm and the screening and discussion start at 7:00pm. Underwriteres and holders of $250 tickets can also see three films that address the Hollywood Blacklist and its fallout: Trumbo, Good Night and Good Luck and The Way We Were. See the website for more information.
Italian Cultural Institute
On April 4 at 6:00pm is L'Intrepido (Gianni Amelio, 2013), set in modern day Milan, a Chaplinesque odyssey through the world of work, primarily unskilled manual labor.
Arts Club of Washington
On April 26 at 7:00pm is "Evenings with Extraordinary Artists," with Andrew Simpson presenting a program of silent films with new musical accompaniment. Along with his improvised accompaniment, he will discuss what it takes to accompany silent and special-effect films. Reception follows. See the website for ticket information.
Library of Congress
The Mary Pickford Theater at the Library of Congress starts a new series of films showcasing the Library's collection and including newly preserved films. On April 20, 2017 at 7:00pm is The Unsuspected (Michael Curtiz, 1947) with Claude Rains as the host of a true crime radio show.
"Bibliodiscotheque" is a series of disco-themed events including films, lectures, and a symposium. Films titles are 54 (Mark Christopher, 1998) on April 12 at 7:00pm; The Secret Disco Revolution (Jamie Kastner, 2012) on April 14 at 6:30pm shown with Donna Summer: Live & More Encore (Dave Diomedi, 1999), Queer as Folk, a UK TV series shown in a 7.5 hour marathon on April 15 at 10:00am, Pump Up the Volume (2001), a TV documentary on April 19 at 7:00pm, Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) on April 27 at 7:00pm, You Got Served (Chris Stokes, 2004) on April 28 at 7:00pm and Celia: The Queen (Joe Cardona and Mario de Varona, 2008) shown with Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (Guy Ferland, 2004). See the website for more information. More in May.
Anacostia Community Museum
On April 14 at 11:00am is Paraiso for Sale (2012), a documentary about the migration of American retirees on communities in Panama.
On April 21 at 10:00am is Earth Day at ACM witha screening of the short film City of Trees, among other activities.
On April 29 at 11:00am is Gentrification (k)NOT (2012), the last in a series of documentaries about the Latino experience in America. Filmmaker Judith Lombardi will be present for post-film discussion.
Embassy of Austria
On April 24 at 7:30pm is Late Blossom Blues (Wolfgang Pfoser-Almer and Stefan Wolner, 2016), a documentary about Leo Welch who took the music world by surprise in 2014 by releasing a debut album at the age of 81..
Atlas Performing Arts Silent Film Series
On April 23 at 3:00pm is Why Be Good? (William Seiter, 1929) starring Colleen Moore as a modern flapper. Andrew Simpson provides music accompaniement for this silent film.
Reel Affirmations XTra
On April 21 at 7:00pm is The Pearl of Africa (Jonny von Wallström, 2016), a documentary about a Ugandan transgender person forced to leave the country.
On April 28 at 7:00pm is a selection of short French films from the Clermont-Ferrand Festival. Titles include Ennemis Interieurs (Selim Azzazi, 2015), Gagarine (Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh, 2015), Ghost Cell (Antoine Delacharlery, 2015), Guy Moquet (Demis Herenger, 2014), Peripheria (David Coquard-Dassault, 2015), Tombes du Nid (Loic Espuche, 2015), and Uncanny Valley (Paul Wenninger, 2015).
The Jerusalem Fund
On April 13 at 12:30pm is a documentary Jerusalem, We Are Here with filmmaker Dorit Naaman present for discussion.