Interview with ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Director Niki Caro

I recently joined other collegiate movie writers on a conference call with director Niki Caro about her new movie, “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

The film tells the true story of Antonina Żabiński and her husband Jan, zookeepers in occupied Poland who helped incarcerated Jews escape the infamous Warsaw Ghetto in World War II.

Read on for Caro’s thoughts about the film, and check out my review of the film in last week’s paper.

Q= Distribution Company Representative

NC= Niki Caro

Various initials= Students


Q: Did you read The Zookeeper’s Wife prior to any kind of discussions about the film?  And whenever it came to your attention, what appealed to you about the book?

NC: “Hi Brian.  I had not read The Zookeeper’s Wife before I was approached.  In fact, that was part of the attraction to it.  Antonina Zabinski’s story had kind of fallen through the seams of history and I was amazed when I read the script to learn that it was a true story.  As to what drew me, I guess I was really compelled by the idea of a different kind of Holocaust maybe.

Very exotic, very domestic and very, very female in its focus. I was also really inspired by Antonina’s courage and her care and her compassion, because she sheltered Jews at great risk to herself and her family, but for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.”

NC: “In sheltering them she not only created kind of refuge and shelter but she also created a home.  She had to overcome her natural shyness because she was much more, comfortable with animals than with people. But she used her gift to tend to these damaged Holocaust survivors and created an environment for them that was made bearable with art and music and tenderness and understanding.

And ultimately, I think, with hope.  And this is kind of ultimately what drew me to tell a holocaust story ’cause it was so different and I felt that this time while, hopefully honoring the millions that died, a movie that could focus on a few hundred that survived and the extraordinary circumstances of these survivals would be a nice thing to put into the world.”


Q: Okay great.  Did you have any concerns about making a holocaust film in the first place?  Or a holocaust film that’s focused on non-Jews saving Jews?

NC: “No.  No.  No, concerns at all beyond doing it right and doing it well.  Honoring so many souls that perished and shining a light on this very ordinary couple.  I mean, they weren’t necessarily extraordinary.  They were very ordinary.

Their choice to do what they did, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do, is incredibly moving to me and inspiring and quite honestly, very pertinent for these times.”


Q: Our next question comes from U.S.C., The Daily Trojan, Caroline Kinley.

CK: Hi.

NC: Hi Caroline.


CK : My question is, did the fact that you were reflecting such a well-known moment in history help you and your actors portray it?  Or did you feel like there was a certain standard to meet because the holocaust is known worldwide?

NC: “Yes and yes.  It carries a tremendous responsibility, to portray any real story, authentically onscreen, but this moment in history particularly so.  You know when I began, I had no idea how relevant this story would become.

I was just really consumed with doing my work as well as I could with bringing people to the story that could share my really high ideals and aspirations to the filmmaking, and bringing in people for who may have a personal connection.  A number of the supporting cast actually, came from Israel and, and they carried the story of course absolutely in their D.N.A.

So for all of us, it was a tremendous responsibility and a story for which we were absolutely prepared to work to and beyond our best in the service of doing it incredibly well.  Let alone, the fact that there have been, you know, a handful of great holocaust movies made.

I’ve got to say, you know, I felt the pressure also, as a filmmaker to approach this material from a slightly different angle so I could, in my small way, bring something fresh to a genre that many, many people are aware of.”


Q: Okay, our next question comes from Loyola University in Chicago, from Luke Hyland.

LH: Hello.

NC: Hi.


LH: I’m wondering, coming off of McFarland, U.S.A. and now The Zookeeper’s Wife, what is it that draws you to telling true stories?

NC: “That’s a really good question.  I first, I began really early on in my career with telling stories that were either true or based in truth or had some central truth to them.  And Whale Rider is probably the best example of a story that was not my culture but was very, very important culturally to the Maori people.  

I take that responsibility really, really seriously and I work very, very hard to serve the material as well as I can.  And it, you know, for me it takes me right out of it.  It takes my ego right out of it.  I literally serve the story and try to meet the need of the story and bring it to an audience that I know from experience will respond well to a story if the story is true.

Now with Whale Rider, it was so interesting to me that I could commit to telling a story as authentically and specifically as possible about a tiny part of the world, a pretty much unknown culture in the world.  And then have that movie reach so many people.

And it taught me that as specific as I can be, as authentic as I can be as a filmmaker, the more universal the film is likely to be.  So that’s where I come from as a filmmaker with telling real stories.  And for me it’s very, very easy because I can go to the place where the story began, as I did with McFarland, U.S.A. and be amongst the people and really see the truth of their lives all around me.

And do my best to kind of work in collaboration with them to bring their authentic truth to the screen.  Of course, it’s a lot more difficult on something like The Zookeeper’s Wife, which is historical material.  I had my creative team dive really deep into the material.

Particularly photographic material from the time, particularly the Warsaw ghetto.  Obviously…the Warsaw zone in particular so that we were as aware as possible of our responsibility to their story and to getting it right.”


Q: Okay, we’re going to go to University of California Santa Barbara, Kyle Row.

KR: Hi, Niki.  Thanks for Kyle and talking with all of us.

NC: It’s a pleasure.


KR: When directing do you ever add personality or depth to characters in addition to how they’re characterized in the script?  And if so, how did you do so on The Zookeeper’s Wife?

NC: “Yes, I do.  All the time.  With this movie I was very, very involved in the script. I worked with Angela Workman over a period of drafts.  The script was very good to begin with, but it wasn’t yet reflecting the movie that it would be.  So Angela and I worked together really closely, really successfully, I enjoyed it very, very much, to get the movie onto the page.

And once we were all satisfied that what we had in the script was representative of a movie that could be made and the time and in the budget… then the next part of it is to bring the right people to the project.  The biggest area of course, is casting actors.

And as soon as you start to cast, you open up a whole different world of inspiration for me, with actors — I love them – so as I begin casting I frequently find actors who can bring so much more than I ever dared hope.  And a really good example in The Zookeeper’s Wife is Shira Haas who plays Urszula the girl from the ghetto.

Now that character of Urszula was something that I brought to the screenplay, something that I suggested that one of the people that Antonina would shelter would be a child emblematic of all children who suffer so much in war.

In Urszula’s case had really become quite animal, given the violence that she had experienced.  So for Antonina this was a way of dealing with a human being in the same way as she might deal with an animal in this gentle, quiet, compassionate way she draws Urszula out.  Both Shira and Jessica’s performances draw out.

It’s a really good example of what you’re talking about, directing that begins really, right at the script level and stays consistent but really kind of is open to even more inspiration as the process moves through.  So that when you come to shooting scenes like the scenes between Urszula and Antonina, they are so rich and full; even more so than they were on the page.”


Q: Okay, our next question comes from Georgia State University, Alex Graham.

AG: Hello, can you hear me?

NC: Yeah, I can.  Hello.


AG: Great.  Hi, Niki.  So my question is about Jessica Chastain.  She’s quite lovely in this movie.  And my interest was piqued by her Polish accent.  I was wondering how working with her was, if you sort of immediately saw her for this part or had to kind of get to her in the process and how working with her in, you know, becoming this character, with the accent even, worked for you, how it happened.

NC: “Yeah, she’s extraordinary.  She was everybody’s first choice for this and it was amazing because she pretty much said yes right away.  And there’s you know, a singular reason for this and it’s that Jessica loves animals.  She is genuinely an animal whisperer.  This was really, really obvious every time we were on set.

The fact that the animals would be so calm with her and she with them.  And there was this, just wonderful trust and communication between her and the animals that are a really, really special part of this movie and something that I don’t think I imagine could not have been achieved with any other actress.  Jessica is impeccably trained, impeccably prepared.

She learned to play the piano for this role, she couldn’t play before she started.  She made it her business to learn some very complicated pieces.  She’s equally determined to get every aspect of the character right and, including the accent.  She comes to set with this amazing reservoir of work.

But the extraordinary thing is when she’s on the set it is fresh every time…. you don’t see the work and she’s always completely surprising and engaging.  And, you know for me it was a joy, it was like a actors master class whenever she approaches anything.”


Q: Okay, our next question comes from Oakley University from Thomas Butcher.

TB: Hello Niki.  How are you?

NC: Hi Thomas.  I’m good, thank you.


TB: Thank you.  So I was wondering, I heard that you’re going to be directing Mulan which is a story already widely known around the world.  So I was wondering how your approach to directing that film might vary from the approach that you’ve had for other films that you have directed.

NC: “Although the canvas is a lot bigger, my approach doesn’t change at all.  I really value the writing very much.  I tend to work with writers, for a long time before the script goes into production.  I take casting very, very, very seriously as I do my role in communicating the story to an audience.

So, I imagine I will do it exactly the same but on a vastly bigger scale.”


Q: All right.  Our next question comes from Chapman University, Alberto Achare.


AA: Hi, so my question is you have a history of directing films with admirable and strong female protagonists.  Is there something new you have learned from the character of Antonina that is different from the other women in your films?

NC: “Yes. Yes, there is.  It is her softness, because I think a lot of people still confuse female strength in cinema with women that are really kind of badass and outwardly strong kind of, like guys in girls’ bodies.  Which is, in a lot of cases, a fantasy of what a strong woman is.  

I’m interested, particularly in this project with exploring characters that are terribly strong, but soft at the same time.  And Antonina was very much a woman of her time.  A traditional wife: quite subservient to her husband.  They’re a great team.

He was the brains of the zoo and she was excellently the heart.  But her strength is in her softness and her gentleness and her compassion and her love and her journey over the course of this film from a woman that can barely utter a sentence at a cocktail party, she’s so ill at ease with humans, to somebody that will willingly shelter 300 Holocaust survivors in her home and at great risk to herself.

Whilst always remaining the soft, kind, compassionate soul.  That is the essence of strength for me.  I’m very proud to be supporting Jessica and Antonina herself and bringing the image of female strength to the world right now.”


Q: All right.  Our next question comes from University of Miami, Luisa Andoni.


LA: Hi.  My question is not many war movies feature female leads and speak to the importance of Antonina’s strength and her softness but can you speak to the significance of having a strong female character specifically in a war movie?

NC: “Yeah.  Yeah, you’re right.  It’s true.  And that was one of the reasons that drew me to it.  Because war is experienced by everybody.  It’s not just experienced by men.  And so it’s very interesting to me to see a war movie that focused on the female experience, what it is like to be a woman at war.   

I mean, it is certainly true that I’ve made a holocaust movie all about women and children and animals.  But women, children and animals experience war also.  And it was very compelling and exciting for me to make a war movie that had that significant difference.

And I think the movie itself as a result, is different in that it is ultimately about love and about family and is a very hopeful movie.”

LA: Thank you.


Q: All right.  Our next question is from Renee from Drexel University.  I’m not sure she was able to join.  I’m going to go ahead on their behalf.  You said that in terms of the Warsaw ghetto that you somehow you have to express in a way that people could handle.  What was the biggest challenge you faced in portraying an accurate yet subdued Warsaw ghetto?

NC: “Yeah.  That was biggest challenge, is actually just portraying it accurately and well, in a movie of this nature.  I think for me it was, it was portraying it emotionally.  And a lot of war movies focus on the horror, but for me, one of the key things was experiencing the Warsaw ghetto through the eyes of Jan and his son.

The first time, during the movie we go into the ghetto we see it from their truck, from the zoo truck.  And, and it’s Jan that takes us through.  And that actor, Johan Heldenbergh was so emotionally open.  When we experience it through his eyes, when he says, “It’s worse than I could have possibly imagined,” that is enough.

That for me, so powerful that we can experience it through his performance, through his horror at seeing Urszula taken away by the German soldiers.  Children that have to eat scraps of food, you know, to make soup.  The deprivation, the poverty, the sickness that comes, we experience it all through, through, through Jan Zabinski.

And that’s a way of communicating, the Holocaust for me in a very emotional way that really made the scene for a movie like this.”


Q: Okay, our next question is from Cal State Fullerton.  Michael Ortiz.

MO: Hi Niki, can you hear me?

NC: Yeah, I can.  Hi.

MO: Awesome.  Hello.  First of all I just wanted to say real quick it’s an honor to talk with you.  I’m an aspiring screenwriter and I love your film.

NC: Oh, great.  Thanks.  Well done.  Good luck to you.


MO: Thank you so much.  My question is many young individuals lack a personal connection to the World War II time period.  So what storytelling elements did you utilize in order to display the seriousness and intense emotion of the time period?

NC: “Yeah.  you’re right in many ways – but, I would say that many young people are now experiencing very similar circumstances as they did in Poland in the late ’30s.  I was quite unprepared when I was making this film for how relevant the movie would be to now.  

So your young people, millennials need not look very much further than their daily newspaper to connect to the story at the moment.  In fact, when we released the trailer that was the predominant feedback that we got back, that this has become not, no longer a historical drama but a very much contemporary story.

The storytelling element, they’re always the same.   It’s not rocket science.  Great characters, a compelling story, authentic, emotional performances, I believe, will always engage and move an audience if they’re done well and that’s what we were trying to do here.”



Q: Okay.  I am so sorry everybody.  We only have time for one more question and that one comes from Washington University in St. Louis, Katarina.

K: Hi there.

NC: Hi.


K: My question is what originally inspired you to pursue a career in film?

NC: “Well, I was pursuing a career in fine arts, in sculpture actually, and, I was part of a small exhibition of students from my art school and it struck me that however kind of strong, a sculpture might be, however interesting the subject matter …in that form, it would never communicate as effectively as a story does.

And that’s when I did a sort of 180 move and began to try to create stories on film.  It’s a means of connecting with an audience and telling stories, I believe the most visceral, emotional, moving and entertaining way.”