Interview: Screenwriter Angela Workman on the Emotional ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’
Directed by Niki Caro, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a moving story that tells the true story of Polish couple Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the German invasion in WWII.
Based on the non-fiction book by Diana Ackerman, Jessica Chastain takes on the role as Antonina Zabinski, who ran and operated the Warsaw Zoo with her husband. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and nearly destroyed all the animals, the Zabinskis then took in Jewish people escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and hid and sheltered them throughout the war.
ScreenPicks spoke with Zookeeper’s Wife screenwriter Angela Workman about the film, condensing Ackerman’s work for the big screen, and more.
Q: How did you come to the project?
Angela Workman: Well, the book was brought to me by the producers. Kim Zubick approached my agent who said there’s only one writer for you. She adapts volumes of material and was volumes of material for this. I knew it was a book and I took another look from sort of a cinematic point of view. I was just so struck by all of it. All of the layers of it. What could be sort of magical in it. The depth of the sadness of it. That it was a story of a women kind of defeating Hitler in a way, because his view was that you perfect the race or you exterminate it. And hers was the opposite; you save it all, that it’s all worth saving. She had dedicated her life to a sanctuary for animals and I just loved that idea, and that it was a woman at the helm of this story, although it’s of course got the family. And that Hitler lost and she essentially won her war. She couldn’t save everybody but she saved 300 and I just thought that was beautiful. And so I agreed to come on.
Q: Tell us about the source material.
Workman: Diane Ackerman is an extraordinary nature writer. I’m not sure how she describes herself, she’s a poet and a naturalist, and she’s been writing about the natural world for many years. Her books have been nominated for the Pulitzer and for the National Book Award. She was researching something else when she fell over this story about what the Zubinskis did and the zoo and decided she was going to write about that. She loves research, so she researched everything, I mean just everything. The book is absolutely stuffed to the gills with information. So what pops out is the story of the Zubinskis and primarily Antonina and the animals, and the setting and how they turned this zoo that was an animal sanctuary into a sanctuary for the human animal. That’s the main theme for Diane and really popped out for all of us and we just got kind of a beautiful theme. We want to make a movie about that.
Q: How did Diane find this? Was this story fairly well known?
Workman: No, nobody knew it. She’d have to tell you how she found it. It’s a long story about knowing somebody who knew somebody who was an associate of the zoo. As she started to get into the research of it she found out she was able to make a connection with that person and then she was able to read Antonina’s journal, her diary. A lot of this is based on what Antonina wrote about her own experiences.
Until Diane started doing her research, no one knew the story, although in the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. where I spent a lot of time when I was working on this. It’s an incredible, incredible, immersive, sad, gorgeous museum. I highly recommend it if you want a good cry. But by the time you get to the end, they take you through, you’re walking through the whole history of it and they do it in this incredibly graceful and quiet way, of taking you from the beginning to the end essentially. By the end when they start talking about the uprisings and the heroes and the end of the war and all of that, they have pictures of people who were freedom fighters or who helped try to save Jews and Jan Zabinski’s picture is there. Because he was a lieutenant in the underground army, so they knew about Jan, but they didn’t say anything about Antonina. You’d have to ask Diane Ackerman, but I think one of the purposes maybe that spurred her on to write the book was that she wanted to correct that. It was time for Antonina’s story to be celebrated, too.
Q: How were you able to condense the material?
Workman: I had to choose what to leave out but I will tell you that the original script, actually the shooting script even, was very, very long, and much longer than the film. [Director] Niki [Caro] shot three and a half hours worth of material and contractually had to deliver us a film that was closer to two hours and so an hour and a half was cut from the film. So as a screenplay, it’s very, very full and you get to know everybody and it was just too long. Too long contractually but also we didn’t have the budget to shoot everything that we wanted to shoot. It had to sort of be continuously narrowed down and they had to pick and choose how to tell the story and be able to tell the full story and as always things end up on the cutting room floor. But there was so much in the book, but this is always true with books, I mean you always have to leave out most of it. I had to leave out quite a bit.
Q: Was there something you couldn’t let go?
Workman: Well anything that I loved I put in. But it’s not my job to be in the editing room, so that might be a question for Niki because she was the person that had to actually go in there and cut. When I was narrowing the script I have to say that I wrote a film with a wider scope. I wanted to see the fall, the uprising. I wanted to get to know all the Jewish inhabitants at this zoo. I had more animals in it. I tried to keep animals all the way through the film. I just wanted to make sure there was non-animal life with animal life all the way through. But some of that had to be cut and a lot of characters had to be cut. Their dialogue had to be cut and still try to hang on to the integrity of the story, and still try to tell a story about all of these people. It’s a big cast and you try to address everything you know, and I think they had to be very deft about how they edited it so you still are able to see the continuity of these people from beginning to end and get to know them even though a lot of it had to be cut away, cut out.
Q: It was very fluid, and I think each part that got kept meant something. Even the German zoologist, played by Daniel Bruhl, who was a kindred spirit but was also a Nazi.
Workman: Right, he’s maybe the most complicated character in it because he has those opposing characteristics and it’s hard sometimes to present a character who… he isn’t in conflict but we are in conflict about him as we see these contrasting ideas that are juxtaposed in his head. Which really is, when you think about it, it kind of personifies the mind set of the Nazi regime, which is that there are animals that are perfect and that you breed them for their perfection and then you hunt them and you kill them. That idea to breed the ox was for killing purposes, it was for hunting. They were gonna hunt them in the forest. So how do you depict a character who really prizes animals and is a brilliant zoologist and comes from a family of zoologists and has built open habitats so the animals could roam because he felt like that would be important for the animals. And then still believes in the idea of exterminating them. It’s complicated. It was complicated to write and I’m sure for Daniel it was complicated to portray.
Q: As a writer, to watch someone as brilliant as Jessica Chastain turn your words into life like that, is it thrilling?
Workman: It is thrilling, it is. It’s always surprising. I was trained as an actress so I have line readings in my head, but there aren’t always just one line readings, you know what I mean? So it’s a fascinating process to see someone else interpret the writing and then you realize oh, there’s so many more colors in that than I thought there were. She often captures a moment, particularly early on when you see a kind of innocence in her, and an open trust with Lutz Heck (Bruhl’s character), and when he asks her a question she responds as if “Oh, yes, yes I can.” She’s so open in that way. It was lovely. She’s ideal for the role, I think.
Q: Also, this seemed like a perfect project for Niki Caro.
Workman: Yes, I agree. She’s so smart, but there’s a sense of her as being sort of delicate. She’s petite, and she’s so beautiful, and she has a very beautifully articulate and graceful way of speaking. But then she has this incredible spine. So she can get on a set with all of these Eastern European men, animal handlers and everybody else, and everybody listens to her. She handles a set extraordinarily well, and I think that may be true for all of women directors. But people don’t know, they think we should all be making silly little girl movies. But in fact, Niki, she was head of a set with many, many, many big brawny men, and they all did anything she said. She’s a great director.
Make sure to check out The Zookeeper’s Wife, in theaters this Friday.
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