I don’t think of myself ever as a plot writer. I write everything out of character—history provides plot.
A zoo provides the poetically impactful frame for the new Niki Caro-helmed Holocaust drama, The Zookeeper’s Wife, adapted for the screen by Angela Workman from the non-fiction book by acclaimed poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. Ackerman’s tome is sourced from the unpublished diary of gentile Pole Antonina Żabińska, recounting how she and her husband, Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo, saved 300 Jews from extermination after the Nazi invasion of Poland in World War II by hiding them in the below-ground chambers of their zoo, and releasing them with forged papers.
While films and stories about the saving of Jewish lives during the Holocaust are well known, few bring the horror into relief in the way this one does—with human savagery and slaughter wordlessly observed by captive animals—beasts whose purity of nature renders the human capacity for evil even more incomprehensible.
Workman specializes in adapting historical subject matter to the screen and says she relied on Ackerman’s book heavily in her depiction of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) as a shy, but fiercely strong protector of animals and humans alike. Her love for animals is shared by Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s actual chief zoologist, who commandeers the Warsaw zoo in the name of saving animals. But as he descends into the wretchedness of his Nazi allegiance he also falls deeply in love with Antonina. When her devoted husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) is compelled leave to fight in the resistance, Antonina is left to shepherd both the secreted Jews and her own children through the war alone, while staving off Heck, who, despite being an increasingly virulent Nazi, allows himself, with some aid from Antonina, the delusion that she might be falling for him as well.
Workman spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about her love of both character complexity and structure in screenplays, the power of the zoo metaphor in this story and how, immediately when she read Ackerman’s book, she saw a film ready to emerge.
The metaphor of the zoo as a window into this savage chapter in human history is surprisingly powerful. Going into the writing of this script how eager or nervous you were about handling that big metaphor and did it surprise you at all the ways in which it resonated?
Well, that metaphor, as you call it, is the reason I wanted to do it. It didn’t scare me a whit because the book—Diane Ackerman is an extraordinary nature writer and she’s an incredible researcher, and the book is just filled to the bursting point with information, which was so useful and much of which we had to exclude…But what jumped out at me was this theme of animal nature, animal instinct—the natural world surviving Hitler, surviving death. The setting was so unusual and beautiful to me because we hadn’t seen it before—you have animal life in this zoo, non-human and then human. And you have a family of zookeepers who are gentile and ordinary people who’ve dedicated their lives to the protection and sanctuary of animals, the nurturing of them. When the war comes, they then do that for the human animal. I just thought that idea was so beautiful that it made me want to write this film. It was very inspirational to me.
We know there are a lot of “Holocaust” films and there will be more to come because there are so many stories [and] the stories are so inherently dramatic. But this is different because of the setting and because it’s female-driven. So, to put a woman in that zoo because her husband is going off to fight, and we’ve seen that—and he’s a wonderful character and he’s personified gorgeously by Johan Heldenbergh—but to see a woman having survived and helped 300 people survive, especially a shy woman, a sort of self-deprecating person, it’s not a typical heroine in the way that we think of them now. She’s not wearing a cape.
Antonina’s depiction is nearly saintly, but she’s also nuanced. You also allow Jan’s character to be heroic and nuanced in his own way rather than feeling you needed to minimize him to emphasize her. It seems that amplifies what they both did. How much of that balance is drawn from Ackerman’s original book and how much was it augmented by you?
She actually does talk about the difficulties in the marriage as the war progressed as Jan became more and more involved in fighting with the underground, and that it created a lot of tension and distance in their marriage. I thought that was really important because what it meant is that it left Antonina alone a lot, and that she would be alone with these people for whom she was providing haven, and she was going to have to feed them and try to keep them from being afraid after they had lived through this horrific thing, while also taking care of her own children. I mean she gives birth through the course of that. That’s all true. Really all of my choices come from the book and from truth, from history. But, you know we augment because there’s a lot of description in the book and a lot of explanation for things and statistics and time, and I had to try to show this. I had to highlight the fact that this was a family doing this and the boy, Rys, also contributed because they never hid anything from him, and that these two people loved each other so much, so when Lutz Heck comes in you have a triangle and you have to see Antonina negotiating him. So, I would say that if anything was augmented it was the relationship with Lutz Heck…
So, is Lutz Heck your creation?
No. He’s a real man in history, and his family still breeds cattle. They call it Heck cattle. He is talked about in the book. He did become Hitler’s chief zoologist, he did take charge of the zoo and I think that Diane describes it as something like he was sweet on Antonina. In my mind, because he was a hunter, and he talks about hunting, and he’s…
He’s a predator.
He’s a predator. He starts to stalk her essentially because we’re working with animal metaphors here, right? There is kind of a stalking, predatory aspect to him that becomes more pronounced. He was their colleague. He was Jan’s colleague. His father and his brother ran the Munich Zoo. He ran the Berlin Zoo. They knew each other. They had known each other for some years. But once he became a Nazi, and he became Hitler’s chief zoologist in control of the Warsaw Zoo and, in his mind, these people, I felt like I needed to arc him so that we got a sense of him losing his way. I felt like he went mad through the course of the war. We say that power corrupts, and he became corrupted in a way by the war, by his mentorship by Hermann Göring, who was also mad.
Göring was the second in command to Hitler. He thought that Lutz Heck was a brilliant zoologist, and he was. So the breeding program was shared between [Heck and Antonina], and Heck, in my mind anyway, began to go mad with the war and by falling in love with her. That might be augmented some, the degree to which he wanted her and went after her.
And the amount of proximity, just day-to-day that’s going on in the film is probably augmented a bit, too?
That’s true. One of the first notes that Niki Caro gave to me after she read [the second draft], was that she thought the bison breeding was [important] in the story, and that was true. They were trying to create aurochs as a symbol of the Reich, and then they were going to hunt them and kill them, which is another metaphor for the psychosis of these people. They were going to perfect the breed and then kill them. But the breeding didn’t happen at the zoo—her suggestion was bring the bison breeding into the zoo and that way Heck has a specific reason to keep coming into the zoo, although he would have found reasons anyway, but it just created a proximity and the reason for him. Then, you see Antonina helping birth not just an elephant, which she does early on, but a bison so that they’re doing it together, and they’re breeding together, which is highly sexualized. And it heightens the sense of carnal, animal sexuality in the story. She does not fall in love with him, she absolutely does not, and I was adamant that that does not happen. But she had to maintain some kind of relationship with him so that they weren’t caught because she understood how dangerous he was.
But there’s complexity there. She ultimately tells him he disgusts her, and understandably so, but there’s this sliver of something beyond what she has do to survive. Is there some savage aspect even in her that is somehow intrigued? And similarly, with Heck…he’s a contemptable character but not a sociopath. There’s room left for his humanity and for the viewer to have empathy toward him. This is part of your deliberate approach to character complexity in screenplay drama?
Oh, I do it so deliberately that the scripts end up being so, so long because I try to give everybody full arc, and then they realize how long the script actually is because I cheated the page and then we had to cut, cut, cut, cut. I’m glad you found the characters complex because I do that very deliberately. I wanted to see a man in love, genuinely in love, not just a predator. I was adamant from the beginning; this woman does not fall in love with a Nazi. That does not happen. But they do share a common passion, which is animals. When they are helping to birth a baby bison, there is something exuberant about it and Antonina gets caught up in the exuberance and the passion of that. It happens to be Lutz Heck who is sharing it with her, and she knows that she can’t cross him, but there are moments when her exuberance leaps out of her. That would be true to life because of who she was in relation to animals. It’s very important to understand that she couldn’t anger him or reject him outright and that he was a good man once. In the end, he can’t kill them. He doesn’t find his humanity by the end, that’s going too far, but you see that there was maybe some still glimmer of decency left in him in the end.
At the very least, his acquiescence to the fact that it’s not in his nature to kill her son.
That’s right. He’s in a fury by the time he realizes that she’s played him and the magnitude of what she’s done and that everything he was imagining about her is wrong. He explodes and you think, Oh, he’s capable of this now. And yet there’s still some drop of humanity still left in this man.
You’ve done a ton of this historical stuff—what’s your procedure, from reading the source material in this case, Ackerman’s book. What’s your process, if you have one?
Some of it’s instinctive. I read it. A film story either jumps out to me or it doesn’t. There needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have to be able to see an arc, and that’s why I do so many historical pieces. It’s cheating a little bit, but there usually is a beginning, a middle, and an end, and I don’t have to worry about plot. I don’t think of myself ever as a plot writer. I write everything out of character—history provides plot, especially in these high dramatic stories. If you have an antagonist, all the better, and Diane does talk about Lutz Heck. So I realized, ah, we have everything I need, and the setting. I always respond to setting first. I am very detailed about how I write narrative, so, if I can see it, I can write it. Then I try to work out a three-act structure. Most of the time I write a very detailed treatment—it’s more for me because I need to know where the major beats are and I need to know where the act breaks come because those beat changes are so important to move the story forward and move it over that arc line. I actually diagram an arc line, and I hit page 30, page 60, 75, 90, and then I start scribbling in what I think needs to happen within those parameters. That will change, but I give myself a skeleton in a way.
So, with history providing you the plot and often the setting, which you then hone, you’re able to concentrate on sculpting the characters?
Yes. When I choose to write something it’s because I can see the environment, the setting. So that comes naturally to me. As the characters pop out to me as whole human beings—so in some ways, some of the work is already done because, if I choose to write the thing, the characters are already vivid to me and the setting is vivid to me. I can sculpt characters then once I have a structure. I feel as a screenwriter that structure is the most important thing, absolutely. I have to say that I almost never have to touch structure after a first draft. My structures are so tight. That’s where I do the majority of the work first. I kill myself over first drafts. My first drafts, most people say, are like other people’s second or third drafts. I get a really solid structure down. The storyline is clear, clear, clear, and then I sculpt characters onto it and usually it takes a few drafts to fully sculpture those characters. First, foremost always is structure.
© 2017 Writers Guild of America West