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Hire More of Us, Please: Niki Caro Talks 'The Zookeeper's Wife' and the Hollywood Gender Gap

Niki Caro and Jessica Chastain on set (Photo: Focus Features)

Director Niki Caro shares her perspective on the film industry gender gap and the extraordinary story that inspired The Zookeeper's Wife.

The Zookeeper's Wife

Director: Niki Caro
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Focus Features
Year: 2017
UK Release Date: 2017-04-28
US Release Date: 2017-03-31

New Zealander filmmaker Niki Caro has been a major female voice in the movie industry since her breakout debut, 2002’s Whale Rider. She then directed 2005’s acclaimed North Country and is now set to helm Disney’s live-action rendition of Mulan next year. But this week, she shares with the world The Zookeeper’s Wife, about one of the unlikeliest, most astonishing stories of heroism to come out of World War II.

Jessica Chastain stars as Polish animal lover Antonina Żabińska who, with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), gave shelter and protection to hundreds of Jewish people from the Warsaw ghetto, hiding them in their basement and in animal cages left vacant following the German bombing.

In an exclusive interview with PopMatters, Caro discusses her filmmaker’s approach to suspense, her faithfulness to the Żabińskas’ story, Jessica Chastain’s kind words about the film’s large number of female crew members, what needs to change in the studio system to ensure gender equality, and more.


It’s almost inevitable that movies about what were called "Jew harborers" involve scenes of suspense, in which Nazis comb a house or hideout for Jewish people. What was your approach to building suspense?

We all know the story of the second World War. Warsaw was bombed at the beginning of the war, but when they bombed Warsaw, they also bombed the zoo. Immediately, you have a very unusual, very exotic point of view of the second World War. The first thing that happens is that a zoo is bombed, the cages exploded, and the animals ran away into the city. Then, you have a zookeeper couple who, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do, chose to shelter people in the basement of their villa and in the empty cages of their zoo.

The suspense is built-in because the zoo was being used by the German army to store guns. You’ve got an ordinary Polish couple who choose to liberate those they could out of the Warsaw Ghetto under very unusual circumstances and hide them in the cages of their zoo whilst [the Wehrmach] are walking around from six o’clock in the morning to midnight. As a filmmaker, it’s amazing. The suspense builds itself.

Antonina devised a crude but effective way of communicating where she would play the piano. At night time, when all of the Germans had gone, she would play her piano, and all of the guests, these refugees from the Ghetto, would come out of the basement and, from midnight to six am, would live a somewhat civilized and luxurious life with art and music and books and conversation and the comforts of a home. But they knew that, if they should hear the piano being played in the daylight hours, danger was coming.

This is an inspiring but also ugly real-life story, and as a storyteller, the tragic moments must excite you as a storyteller.

Yeah, it’s all very exciting in the... filmmaking department.

Right. As far as your craft goes. The events are obviously horrific, but they also make the Żabińska’s story that much more remarkable and worthy of attention.

Yes. The bar was set pretty high on this one because it’s a true story. I definitely felt a responsibility to show the Holocaust and the Żabińska’s story faithfully.

The Żabińskas feel almost like a modern couple. He seems to respect her more than the typical husband at the time respected his wife.

They’re a very traditional couple. She was very subservient to her husband in many ways. He ran the zoo, he was a doctor, but she was the heart and the instinct and the soul of the zoo. The two of them made a very beautiful and balanced couple. I wanted them to feel real and relevant.

I noticed that, when you build suspense, you focus on the actors and their eyes. Daniel and Jessica do a great job with their facial expressions.

They are so good. I’m very interested in an emotional connection. I hate sentimentality. I don’t want to build suspense out of sentimentality or predictability. The circumstances themselves were so unusual. Jan went into the ghetto and got people out by hiding them in trash cans, which is so specific.

I needed it to be authentic. To play all of that on the face of an actor as gifted as Johan Heldenbergh is all you need. To experience the Ghetto through Jan instead of taking the point of view of, this is the ghetto, this is the deprivation and the poverty and the sickness, I think it really speaks to what it must have been like at the time. What we were always striving for in this movie was to shoot it like it was a contemporary movie, to shoot it as if it were happening now, to the people on the ground. The kicker is, we’re in 2017, and very similar events to what happened in Poland in 1937-39 are happening now.

You don’t hold any punches when it comes to the violence in the film.

That was incredibly important, and increasingly so. I had no idea when I was making this film how relevant it would be.

Jessica Chastain said some wonderful things about working on your set in the media a while back, saying she’s never been on a set with so many women.

I was so surprised! I’m never on another person’s film set. When you’re a director, nobody ever tells you how anybody else does it. I only know how to do it the way I do it. I was horrified to read Jessica’s article about what life on set has been like for her. She can hold her own -- she’s as strong as anybody. But I was really surprised to read that she was often the only woman on a film set. That’s very unusual to me. I like to have all kinds of people on my set. Having a healthy balance makes for a very enjoyable working environment. It’s a no-brainer.

I think this is important. In her article, she said that women made up maybe 20 percent of the crew on your set. That’s wonderful progress, but surely the ideal would be for the film industry to be made up of about 50 percent women, since women aren’t even a minority in this country and make up 51 percent of our population. What can the film community do to get more women in positions behind the camera?

Studios can start with hiring more women. Many of the qualities you need to direct a movie well are profoundly female qualities. We are very good at leadership and communication and fortitude and all of the things you need to direct a film. Regardless of gender, directing is not for sissies, and women are exceptionally strong. I say, hire more of us, please.


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