Jessica Chastain may be the human star of The Zookeeper’s Wife bur surely her animal costars deserve a mention as well. for the film, CGI and effects work were kept to minimum, and were used primarily for disturbing or dangerous scenes involving animals, including the images of fatalities.
The animal cast included big cats and cubs, zebras, monkeys, camels, elephants, wolves, bison, horses, pigs, birds of prey, a parrot, a skunk, and more. Animals were recruited from professional handlers who work regularly with film and television productions, as well as from private individuals. Polar bears and giraffes were filmed separately in habitats at the Prague Zoo and edited into the main filming unit’s footage.
All animals had their own handlers on-set, some of whom were in period costume so that they could accompany the animals on-screen. The animals were never handled without expert supervision, and animal handlers and veterinarians were embedded with the production 24 hours a day.
Extensive filming was done on location in the largely abandoned fortress town of Josefov, approximately two hours outside of Prague in the Czech Republic.
“We were able to block off streets which we dressed to look like Warsaw, in which we then set free an array of wild animals to roam We had tigers, kangaroos…What had happened in 1939 was that the animals who survived the attack on the Zoo fled into the city, wandering the streets until they were captured,” producer Kim Zubick notes.
Second unit director and visual effects supervisor Robert Grasmere reports that “working with the animals was a pleasure; they behaved better than a lot of humans I know…”
Grasmere captured footage of animals depicting them after the devastation of the zoo, concentrating on lions, zebras, and camels. This entailed closing off and safeguarding a working street and then letting the animals wander and explore the bombed-out set, one species at a time. He remembers, “The animals were extraordinary. They went into this space and we just let them go; we didn’t tell them what to do or give them any cues. They had a great time. One prop was a baby carriage that had been abandoned in the bombing, and a lion went over and played with it.”
An animal lover since childhood, Chastain relished the opportunity to be hands-on with her costars. As part of her extensive preparation for the film, she spent time with the zookeepers of Brooklyn Zoo in New York City. And that experienced helped during film, as Chastain confides, “Animals are very therapeutic. By caring for them on the set, I wasn’t wallowing in my own exhaustion!”
The Zookeeper’s Wife is available On Demand beginning July 4. Check your cable system for availability.