Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper's Wife"

Interview: Angela Workman on Breaking Out with “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

In her scripts, Angela Workman is known for going into great detail about the places where her stories are set, a quality that has made her particularly sought-after when Hollywood wants to make a historical drama.

“I give the designers a lot to work with because that’s what roots me in stories is actual historical settings and what I’m looking at in my mind’s eye,” says Workman, who previously adapted Lisa See’s “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” and has biopics of the Dust Bowl photographer Dorothea Lange and the Spanish sailor Gonzalo Guerrero in the works. “It’s like traveling. It allows me to visit these places in my imagination and usually when I write, I go to these places I’m writing about. I seek out the stories that I’m telling.”

Workman’s latest project, an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” actually came to her. When producers were looking for someone to adapt the remarkable story of Antonina and Jan Zabinski, the caretakers of the Warsaw Zoo during the rise of Nazi Germany, her agent knew of no one else who could handle the broad scope of such a story in which the horrors of World War II are reflected inside the married couple’s home for rare animals, eventually becoming a refuge for Jews escaping the ghetto next door. The daughter of Jewish immigrants herself, Workman was fundamentally sensitive to the material, but her skills as a screenwriter shine especially bright in adapting Ackerman’s meticulously researched nonfiction tome, which drew on real diaries of Antonina and Jan (played in the film by Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenburgh) for its dialogue.

Despite a large ensemble, there are no insignificant characters in “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” with even the smallest of roles given their due by the end of the film as Workman and director Niki Caro ensure that every life depicted onscreen has meaning, a notion central to the Zabinskis’ drive to save everyone that they can. While the ingenuity of the couple to turn their zoo into a pig farm operation gives the film natural suspense as to when the Nazis, chiefly an ambitious zoologist named Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl, the “Inglorious Basterds” star donning a swastika once more), might get wind of what they’re doing, what becomes most engaging is how the survival instincts of all involved leads not to self-preservation but the lengths they’ll go to look out for one another. As “The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens in theaters this week, Workman spoke about finding a new way in to tell a story of the Holocaust when so many already exist, why her own research was done in Washington D.C. and the thrill of telling an all-too-rare story of a woman in this era.

Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper's Wife"How did you get interested in adapting this for the screen?

It was brought to me by the producers, primarily by Kim Zubick, and it was brought to her by the two originating producers Diane Miller Levin and Robbie Tollin. This was probably eight-and-a-half or nine years ago and I knew of the book, but I took a look at it more deeply from a filmic point of view and it just hollered at me because Diane Ackerman’s writing is so vivid. She is a nonfiction and nature writer, but she doesn’t write in a purely academic way. People are calling [“The Zookeeper’s Wife”] a novel, but it’s not fiction. Those books can be really difficult to adapt, but she’s a very colorful, detailed writer and the story of the Zabinskis was so vivid — the themes about animal life and animal instincts and the idea of pitting this woman Antonina against the Nazis and winning was just beautiful — so I agreed to work with them.

Since there have been so many stories about the Holocaust, was it intimidating to find another way into it, as well as having the weight of having to recount that history, or did the story differentiate itself all on its own?

It is an intimidating subject, definitely, and to approach it, I think we all felt the weight of the responsibility of honoring a story about that time. You never want to be cheap or facile with that subject. Having said that, the setting is so unusual in that it’s set in a zoo and it’s about zookeepers who have dedicated their lives to protecting animals and giving them sanctuary, and the fact that it’s primarily [Antonina’s] story as opposed to [her husband Jan] made it exceptionally interesting to all of us. Other than “Sophie’s Choice” and Anne Frank, it’s hard to think of films set during that time with a female protagonist and as a writer, I really, really wanted to tell a story set in that backdrop with a woman at the center of it and see what would happen when you put her in that place, especially a self-deprecating, shy person who had this extraordinary sixth sense with non-human animals, but wasn’t entirely comfortable with the human animal and then you put her in this really unusual circumstance and see what happens. I just found that so tempting. It felt like we could tell a new story and I think we have.

Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper's Wife"This is an interesting film scale-wise because you could be tempted to show the full scope of the war or you could set it exclusively at the zoo. You found a medium in between, but was it easy to get there?

It’s interesting that you should pick up on that because my first draft was much, much bigger in scope than this. In my mind, I thought we could make a huge epic and I wanted to show everything — the fall of Warsaw, the uprisings. The script was very long and very detailed. I think when they corrected the pagination, it was close to 140 pages, which is too long [especially] for the budget that we had. So it started to become clear that we needed to scale this film down and Niki [Caro]’s interpretation of it was to make it more domestic, and in that way, more female. She really wanted to focus it on what was going on in the zoo and in the villa and by scaling it back, we were able to focus on the very specific fight of this family more precisely.

One of the things I really liked about the film was how even the characters with the briefest time on screen are given great consideration – no one is introduced without either seeing them again later or learning of their fate. Why was that important to you?

As I say, the original script was so long, and it was because of the big set-pieces, but also because I developed all the characters – I had full arcs for all the Jewish characters and everybody that you meet that comes through, so I was nervous about what would happen in the editing process. Niki was contractually obligated to hand in a two-hour film or something close, and I think the first cut was close to three-and-a-half hours, so there was quite a bit cut, but they were deft at cutting in such a way that they were able to maintain the thread of who these people were without losing track of them. That’s very artful and I’m glad that those peripheral characters all sound like they feel whole for you. It sounds like you got to know all of them and that’s really important to me.

In a situation like this where it’s nonfiction, is the book your sole resource or was there outside research you may have done to inform this?

The book was certainly the main source and Diane just really loves research, so she provided me with all the information and sent me photographs that she had taken in Warsaw. The filmmakers and Jessica [Chastain] went there, but I did not, so I was basing it off of her material. But I also spent a lot of time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. My husband works as an actor, and he’s worked on and off in Washington, so we’ve lived there periodically and while I was writing [“Zookeeper’s Wife”], so I was able to walk over to that museum and just be there.

If you have not been to the Holocaust Museum, it’s a painful place to be, but I also feel like it’s a sacred place. They walk you through the whole history of the war and what happened to the Jews, but you [also] learn about the Roma and the victimization of homosexuals during that time. It’s unbelievably informative and they have videos running from the Warsaw ghetto and they moved cobblestones from streets so you’re walking on the actual cobblestones as you pass through certain parts of the museum. It’s just a full-bodied, visceral experience of being there and I can’t imagine a more immersive way of researching than being in that museum because Warsaw was bombed and almost completely destroyed, [and while] it was rebuilt to resemble what it was, it was completely flattened, so if you go to Warsaw now, you’re not really seeing the world that we’re depicting in the film. If you go to the Holocaust Museum, you do. You feel like you’re inside of it, so that was probably as helpful as any material I used for research.

Jessica Chastain in "The Zookeeper's Wife"You’ve got a bunch of historically-based screenplays at various stages of development. Is it an area you’re attracted to or has it just worked out that way?

It just seems to be in my nature to be drawn to this material. I come from classical theater – that’s my training as an actress, so I’m steeped in the classics and in history anyway, and it’s just my sensibility. I do look for other material and many things are brought to me, but I call myself a dinosaur [because] the stories that resonate for me have a complexity in that historical nature that I don’t find in modern stories so much. Or if I do, it’s because there’s a scope to them or still a historical component, even if they’re current stories. I just look for something deeper. I’m not a comedy writer. I like history. I feel like it has a beginning, a middle and an end and the best stories, they usually have a villain and they have heroics in them and I’m always looking for a setting.

If settings are so important to you, what was it like to be on set with this giant zoo?

It was like joining the circus. [laughs] I was only there for about the first three weeks of the shoot, but I wanted to be there early because the big animals were going to be taken away as it got colder and we were shooting the very end of September and all of October, so I made sure that I was there so I could see those scenes shot. I’ll never forget it. It was one of the highlights of my professional life – my whole life, really, because I just couldn’t believe it. We shot in Prague, and I had been there before — it’s a beautiful city — and they were able to build a replica of everything – the zoo, the villa and where they lived and it was fantastical to see that world come alive and to be around these funny, beautiful, exquisite animals and to watch Niki lead the set and watch Jessica and Johan [Heldenbergh] and Daniel [Brühl] and Iddo [Goldberg] and all the kids, just to watch them all bring the story to life, it’ll be hard to surpass. Whatever the next one is is going to have to really rise to the occasion because it was really special.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is now open in theaters everywhere.

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