A beautiful WWII drama, The Zookeeper’s Wife comes to theaters Friday, March 31.
by Angela Bourassa (@angelabourassa1)
Major films with a female writer, director, and leading role are incredibly rare. Hopefully films like The Zookeeper’s Wife from Focus Features will help turn the tides for women in film.
Based on the non-fiction best seller by Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper’s Wife defies its romance-sounding title and somewhat cheesy poster to deliver a truly great World War II story of resilience, bravery, and conviction. The opening scenes at the zoo set a whimsical stage, making the transition to war feel that much more abominable. Suspense fills scene after scene as Antonina (played by Jessica Chastain) and her husband put everything they have on the line to save as many people as they can.
I got the chance to speak with screenwriter Angela Workman about how she constructed this beautiful tale, her view of the film industry, and what writers must do to achieve screenwriting success.
Angela Bourassa: How did this project and your involvement with it come about?
Angela Workman: Diane Ackerman’s book was brought to me by producer Kim Zubick. (It was brought to her by producers Diane Levin and Robbie Tollin.) Actually, Kim approached my agent, Sandra Lucchesi at the Gersh Agency, and Sandra told Kim there was only one writer who could adapt that volume of material — me. The book fascinated me for many reasons, and so I decided to come aboard.
Angela Bourassa: How did you approach the source material? Do you have a method that you follow when adapting books?
Angela Workman: I don’t know that I have one method when I approach an adaptation. Generally I let my instincts tell me what the story is, where the focus needs to be, and to sort of feel out a beginning, middle, and end. If I can’t instinctively find those things in the source material, then I pass on the project.
Angela Bourassa: One thing I really appreciated about this film was that, despite all the death and horror, the darkest moments were handled very delicately. You and Niki Caro showed a great deal of restraint, which must have been hard to do — and do well.
Angela Workman: I think neither Niki nor I felt we wanted to be too explicit in the more atrocious aspects of the story. We wanted the focus to be on the quiet bravery of Antonina and the more masculine bravery of Jan. We wanted to reveal their humanity. But the story had to have its darker moments, and so I shaded them in the writing, and then Niki made her decisions as to how to present them. She actually made some very bold choices, I thought. We didn’t want to shy away from the truth of what happened during that terrible time.
Angela Bourassa: The moment that struck me the most from the film was the scene at the train when the little children raise their arms to be helped up by Jan. Was that moment in the book, or did you come up with that scene? It absolutely broke my heart.
Angela Workman: The train scene was Niki’s idea. I had written the scene to have Jan standing outside the ghetto gates looking in — I wasn’t certain that he would have been permitted inside the ghetto during the deportations. But Niki offered me a beautiful, sad image, which was that she imagined one of the children would reach up for Jan’s hand, and Jan would then be in the position of having to help the child onto the train. Once she described that visual horror to me I knew she was right, and I wrote the scene for her.
Angela Bourassa: Though this film is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, it’s really about this couple and what they’re able to accomplish together. In another writer’s hands, the Zookeeper himself might have become the main character. Aside from the fact that the book is called The Zookeeper’s Wife, why do you think it’s important that this story is Antonina’s and not Jan’s (if indeed you do think that’s important)?
Angela Workman: Of course, we had to call the film by the book’s title because the book was a best seller (and is again, now that the film is coming out). We’d be crazy not to use that title! But a deeper answer is, we so rarely see female protagonists in these types of films, and we, as a bunch of women filmmakers, wanted to see what would happen when a woman was at the center of a story like this. We have Sophie’s Choice and Anne Frank, and not much else. This was our chance to tell a story of heroics during the Holocaust from a female point of view, a chance to show what compassion looked like, what it meant for Antonina to have essentially won her war, which is a story we’ve never really seen before.
Angela Bourassa: Much of this film’s drama is built out of moments of suspense. How do you create suspense in scenes?
Angela Workman: I guess I create suspense by holding tension — I try never to break tension between characters, even in happy scenes.
Angela Bourassa: Does your experience as an actress inform your writing?
Angela Workman: I did train as a classical stage actress, and my stage training informs all my writing. I think I developed an ear for dynamics between characters, rhythmic writing, tension, dialogue — all of that comes from theatrical training.
Angela Bourassa: You’ve written several period pieces about strong women. Do you ever feel pigeonholed as a writer, or have you carved out this niche for yourself by choice?
Angela Workman: I’ve written many scripts centering on male protagonists, too, they just haven’t been made yet. But women writers do usually get hired to write for women, which I love to do. I also love to write strong male characters.
Roland Emmerich was the first director to hire me to write a huge, epic history centering on men. It was about Spaniards conquering the Maya in Yucatan. He didn’t care about my gender, he just really appreciated my ability to write these large-scale histories. He made it possible for me to write other films with male protagonists. I wrote a large-scale epic adventure set during the Ming Dynasty in China for WB, and was hired based on that script for Roland, which remains one of my favorite projects. He still wants to make it, by the way. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Angela Bourassa: It’s unfortunately quite rare these days for a film to have both a female writer and a female director. What was it like working with Niki Caro? Can you comment on what it’s like for women screenwriters in Hollywood these days?
Angela Workman: It was great working with Niki. She’s incredibly astute, very specific. She knows her own mind, she knows exactly what she wants, she gives very precise notes.
Women need to be hired more often. What else can I say? The disparity is ridiculous. Roland Emmerich saw no reason not to hire a woman.
Angela Bourassa: Based on IMDb, it looks like you’re enjoying quite the hot streak right now. What does it take to have a solid career as a screenwriter?
Angela Workman: To have a solid writing career, you have to have skill, an agent who believes in you and who never sleeps, and you have to jump on material before anyone else. And you have to be very, very disciplined.
Angela Bourassa: Any pieces of advice for writers trying to break in?
Angela Workman: My advice is to read every script you can get your hands on, good or bad. Read them all. The bad ones will teach you as much as the good ones. I was a reader for a decade, it’s how I learned to write screenplays. Read, read, read. And learn to be disciplined.
And don’t talk about writing. Just write.
The Zookeeper’s Wife will be in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 31.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.