Victoria Brown, Editor.
Inspired by true events, Zoo tells the story of four young children and their elderly companion, now known as the “elephant angel”, who bravely rescue a young elephant during the Belfast Blitz of 1941. Directed by Belfast-born Colin McIvor, the film was shot on location in Belfast in 2016, and stars Game of Thrones’s Art Parkinson and Downtown Abbey’s Dame Penelope Wilton, with Toby Jones and Ian McElhinney in supporting roles. Zoo had its Gala Premiere in Movie House, Dublin Road on Tuesday 19th June and the heart-warming film was met from positive reactions from the audience.
Our Editor Victoria had the chance to sit down and have a chat with Art and Penelope about the film:
VICTORIA: What was it that drew you both to the story, and why do you think it’s an important story to tell?
ART: For me, it was just learning about the history through the auditioning process, and knowing the different projects that Colin McIvor has worked on, and also that it was so close to home. And just a passion for animals. I just kind of fell in love with the whole story.
PENELOPE: I thought it was a wonderful story and I liked the humanity of it. I didn’t know the story, and it was a very good screenplay.
VICTORIA: That’s really nice of you to say. Because the Northern Irish film sector is so small, it’s nice to hear that people from other countries appreciate our writers.
PENELOPE: We certainly do appreciate them. Ireland and Northern Ireland have some of the best writers in the world.
VICTORIA: How did yous find filming in and around Belfast?
PENELOPE: Very, very, very nice.
ART: I loved it. I live in Donegal but my parents have a café in Derry and a lot of my family are from the North of Ireland so I was kind of well accustomed to the area and very well acquainted, so I really enjoyed coming back and getting to experience it.
VICTORIA: What was Colin like to work with?
PENELOPE: Easy. He’s the sweetest, sweetest man, and he has a tremendously good taste, and he knows what he wants. Because he wrote the screenplay so he knows exactly what he wants. And he had a very good DOP (Director of Photography) so it was a very happy crew. He’s a tremendously polite man so he has a crew around him who would do anything for him, I think.
ART: He’s very clear and concise with what he wants to produce, and I think the kind of theme that he brought to the crew really sort of spilled over into the producers, and of course Damien, the DOP, and everyone involved. And then working with kids, of course, is always a struggle, but he’s so patient and I think that was one of the main things that helped us because they say you should never work with kids or animals, and he’s kind of thrown that all into the same pot.
VICTORIA: Were there any scenes that were particularly challenging to shoot?
PENELOPE: Some of the animals were quite tricky, because we had a lot of animals, so at one point I had a hedgehog walking across the table and a parrot on my arm, and then there were weasel-type animals who were rather vicious, and there were birds and rabbits, and an elephant. So to get all these things working together, when they might well have their own mind – the parrot really didn’t want to sit on my shoulder, he spent a lot of time climbing up and down my arm – so you have to control these things. We had a hedgehog that made a sort of dash for freedom, so there was a lot to cope with.
ART: I think because, as well, it’s such an emotional film. Obviously I didn’t have as much to do with the smaller animals. The lemurs, I got to work with, and I got to work with the elephant, a lot of course. But Penelope had to work a lot with the ferrets and the weasels.
PENELOPE: They were not very nice.
ART: No! They would bite at people and nip at people. The handlers were amazing but there’s only so much they can do. For me, the most difficult scene is actually one of the more popular pictures from the film, which is myself with my head to the elephant, and that was a very, very emotional scene – I had just finished speaking with Penelope and the crew, and they were thanking us for everything we did, and that scene was shot towards the end of the film so it really was emotional, in real life and on screen. It was the climax of the film for me, so that was definitely my most challenging scene.
VICTORIA: What are some of your favourite animals?
PENELOPE: Well, I like elephants very much. I think they are my favourite. This morning, we went up to the [Belfast Zoo] to have some photos taken with the elephants, and the elephants up there were ones that had been saved – one had been saved from a German circus and another one was working in Burma in a logging factory, and then was sold to a circus. And they’d been very maltreated, these elephants, so they’re not able to join in with the herd anymore because they’d been isolated and therefore didn’t do well. But Belfast Zoo has taken them in for, sort of, their retirement, where they are at least much happier than they were when they were being forced to perform. One of them had a 10-inch hole drilled in his foot so he could pirouette on a little pedestal. They were treated very, very badly, and the general manager of the zoo was telling us that there are six other elephants from equally bad backgrounds which are pending as to whether the zoo can take them. So the elephants there are having a nice time, but they have had very difficult lives. And of course, they’re being killed for their ivory in the wild, so they are something to look after.
ART: My favourite animals – well, I’m not sure if they’re my favourite – but I like tortoises. I like slow, less predatory animals. I’ve dogs and things like that in the house and I’ve had hamsters in the past. Working on this film, I was surrounded by animals, especially ones who have been mistreated, predominantly by human, in the past and it really opens your eyes to how much better we can do as people.
VICTORIA: What would you say to people to convince them to see the film?
ART: I’d say it’s a look into the past and the history of Belfast Zoo, and it shows the extraordinary struggles we went through, especially during World War II, and how we’ve so much more to show.
PENELOPE: I’d say it’s a film of enormous humanity, and shows that the young people in the film […] their determination to save an animal they felt needed their protection, and that they would do anything, particularly Art’s character, to bring that about.
Zoo hits cinemas from June 29th.