The Zookeeper’s Wife is a new film from Focus Features released in theaters on March 30, 2017. Based on the book of the same name by Diane Ackerman, the film is directed by Niki Caro and stars Jessica Chastain.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is set in Warsaw, Poland from 1939 until after the war. It was filmed in Prague, Czech Republic.
After a pre-screening of the movie, we sat down to interview Director Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain.
We asked what kind of research Jessica did for her character, the real zookeeper’s wife, Antonina Żabińska. Watch this short featurette to hear it straight from Jessica:
We asked if during filming was the first time she’d held a lion cub.
Jessica Chastain: Yes. It definitely is the first time I’ve ever held a lion cub. To the research, I started with the book, because the film is based on the bestselling, incredible novel, which is then based on Antonina’s journals.
I went to Warsaw, met with Theresa (Antonina’s daughter). She took me to the Warsaw Zoo, and I got to ask her secrets that weren’t in the book. Things like - 'if Antonina was an animal, what kind of animal would she be?' And she said, “Oh, definitely a cat. She’d be a little puma.” Which is why Jan (Antonina’s husband) calls her “Punia” - that was a nickname which means little cat.
And then I went to Auschwitz. Of course, Antonina wouldn’t have known what was happening there, but I just wanted to feel the energy of the space. And then I met with a lot of people who spend their lives dedicated to animals.
And that was so helpful when approaching this film, because the thing that I learned most from everyone was not to impose your energy onto an animal; not to treat an animal as though it’s your possession, or it’s an object.
It’s a spiritual being - what this film is, too - like, whether human or animal, they are not ours to possess. And I knew, on this film - if I were to ever get hurt on this movie, it’s because I’m doing something wrong. It’s not the animals’ fault - it’s my fault.
It means, they weren’t ready for me to be in their space; they didn’t invite me in. And so I spent some time, when we got to Prague, being with the animals before we were even on camera. I wanted them to be happy when they saw me. I wanted them to feel safe, and to know that I wasn’t going to try to force them to do anything.
Animals are central characters in The Zookeeper’s Wife, and provide a real heart to the movie. We asked Jessica about working with the animal cast, and which animal was her favorite. One early scene has her helping a mother elephant after a difficult birth.
Jessica: Ah. Well, speaking of the elephant scene - the elephant (Lily) might have been my favorite animal to work with…
The scene that we did with the elephant, it feels in the film that it’s very anxious, like the elephant is really concerned. But it’s the magic of movies. I mean, she loved apples - that was her treat. And so right before ‘Action’ I would say, “Lily, Lily,” and I would give her some apples. And then I would have more apples, and I’d hide them around me.
So I’d hide them under the puppet; we had a puppet, which was the baby. And I hid them under my foot, or whatever. And so when you see her with the trunk going all over me, she was looking for the apples. So for her, it was a game.
And when she’s reaching for me, and we’re touching each other, it was a great experience, but magic of moviemaking, and knowing - the audience knowing what the situation of the story is, would feel like the animal’s under distress, but it wasn’t.
And that probably was the most fun I’ve had, because I had to be so trusting. She was behind me, but I knew she wasn’t going to hurt me.
It was amazing to watch such an excellent film and then meet and talk to the people behind it. I’d never heard of Antonina Żabińska before, though I’ve seen the story of the Warsaw Ghetto before in other World War II movies.
The Zookeeper’s Wife is a very different take on a well-covered event. It shows what happened to the average non-Jewish Polish family during the German blitzkrieg attack on Warsaw, through the corralling of the Jews into the Ghetto. Ordinary men and women quietly risked death in aiding their Jewish neighbors.
I was really struck by the excellent ensemble cast supporting the star, Jessica Chastain. Also, every element of the film from costuming, the score, location, set dressing, and most especially the animal cast, come together for an immersive and truly moving experience.
We appreciated Jessica and Niki taking time to get a quick photo with our group.
Focus Features sent our contributor Anne Parris from Not A Supermom to New York to see a screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife, and to interview the director and cast.