Thursday, July 19, 2018
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Spring 2017 Director's Profile: Niki Caro
Niki Caro (photo by Anne Marie Fox/courtesy of Focus Features)
Power of the human spirit

From the horrifically inhumane can sometimes spring the best that humanity has to offer. Such decency and heroism are captured in director Niki Caro’s The Zookeeper’s Wife which tells the real-life story of the former director of the Warsaw Zoo, Dr. Jan Zabinski (portrayed by Johan Heldenbergh), and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain), who jointly saved some 300 Jews by hiding them during World War II. Based on a screenplay by Angela Workman, adapted from  Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book of the same title, this feature film opens on an idyllic life as the Warsaw Zoo flourishes under Jan’s stewardship and Antonina’s care.

But their world is torn apart when the Germans invade Poland. The zoo sustains heavy damage and is taken over by the Nazis as a command post. Many of the animals are slaughtered yet Jan and Antonina fight back on their own terms as they covertly begin working with the Resistance. Their zoo’s abandoned animal cages and underground tunnels, originally designed to safeguard animal life, can now secretly safeguard human life as they "smuggle" Jews in from the Warsaw Ghetto, giving them refuge, sustenance and hope. In the process, Jan and Antonina place themselves and their children in jeopardy.

Based on Antonina’s actual diaries, the book and now film provide a woman’s perspective on the Holocaust, on surviving, on family, friendship, personal sacrifice, and the need to take action in the face of evil and injustice.

When first approached with the project, Caro had been unaware of the story but upon reading the first few pages of Workman’s first draft, she was hooked, particularly drawn to the prospect of being able to convey a feminine POV. Still there were many challenges, including the solemn responsibility of doing full justice to such an important, inspiring, true story. 

On a more practical level, Caro noted that the challenges included depicting wartime on a tight budget—not to mention recreating a zoo and destroying it. "Plus I couldn’t conceive of telling an authentic story by using fake animals, CG creations or something along those lines, even if we had the budget to do so. We had to devise a way to populate a zoo while filming the animals in a humane and respectful way."

As for the big picture, Caro said she wanted "a combination of the intimate and the epic in framing this story and the way it was shot." On that front, she teamed for the first time with cinematographer Andrij Parekh. Caro felt an immediate affinity for Parekh. "He came highly recommended by one of our producers. He shot some great work such as Half Nelson and Blue Valentine. I have a really strong instinct for people and saw we shared a very similar vision for this story. He’s a terrific collaborator—we were pretty much joined at the hip throughout. We fought valiantly to shoot on film but it ultimately was too tough to do budget-wise. I wound up greatly admiring Andrij’s ability to accomplish what he did in the digital medium. He made digital look so delicate and really gorgeous. We had soft blacks and feminine colors. Some people told me they were surprised to see a Holocaust film look so beautiful. Most accounts of war films are about the male experience, which often take on a rather grim palette. Ours was sort of the opposite as we focused on women, children, animals."

Caro further observed that showing this beauty, particularly before the Germans invaded, added a dimension to the story. The devastation of such a beautiful world underscored yet another sense of loss.

Caro also credited another first-time collaborator, production designer Suzie Davies, an Oscar nominee for Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. "I felt comfortable with her immediately. I could tell right away from her selection of images that she absolutely had the right sense of this story. Suzy built me a zoo. What more can I say? It was beautiful and then we had to destroy it. She beautifully captured a period  of time before the invasion when Warsaw was the Paris of the north—a cosmopolitan city that was devastated by the war."

In sharp contrast to never having worked with Davies and Parekh prior to The Zookeeper’s Wife, Caro brought in a trusted confidante, David Coulson, who has edited five of her features including Whale Rider (2002), North Country (2005), and McFarland, USA (2015). Whale Rider won the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Best Foreign Film distinction at the Independent Spirit Awards, while also earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes. For North Country, Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand were nominated, respectively, for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards.

For The Zookeeper’s Wife, while Caro was shooting in Prague, Coulson was editing in Los Angeles. "I would not be able to do that with anybody but David," affirmed Caro. "We have a shorthand and a tremendous trust in each other. He knows exactly what to do with the images. He interprets my work brilliantly. He absolutely knows what I’m intending. He has a deep feel for performance, the rhythms of a film. He has golden ears, makes monumental contributions in sound postproduction. He would cut overnight and with the time difference, I would wake up and see what he had done with scenes that we had just shot a couple of days earlier."

Caro noted that Coulson "never goes to the production location" before or during his editing of her films. "He wants to live in the world that we’ve created," explained Caro whose films show a penchant for capturing different cultures and environments (the New Zealand coastal town of Whangara for Whale Rider, northern Minnesota’s Iron Range for North Country, and the central California farming town of McFarland for McFarland, USA). "When he’s editing, David totally resides in the world we bring to him. He’s a total artist, a powerful purist, a skilled practitioner."

Before teaming on features, Coulson cut several commercials directed by Caro. The director said she still enjoys the spotmaking experience and would like to be more active on that front in the American market. Caro told SHOOT that she’s open to connecting with a like-minded commercial production house in the U.S. She continues to be handled Down Under for commercials by New Zealand production company Flying Fish where she’s helmed, among other projects in years past, Cannes Lions-honored, tug-at-the-heartstrings work for HBF health insurance out of Aussie ad agency Meerkats.

As for what’s next, Caro is wrapping up her direction of Anne, a new vision of the beloved "Anne of Green Gables" story. The telefilm will kick off a new Netflix series exploring the classic character of Anne Shirley growing up in the 1890s. Shirley will be portrayed by Irish-Canadian actress Amybeth McNulty.

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