It shouldn't surprise anyone that Kevin James and company told a lot of animal stories at the press conference for Zookeeper. Even though we live in an age where giant space robots can be created by computers, and where it's downright conventional to simply animate a talking bear or zebra, everyone behind this new comedy insisted on using real animals to occupy the Franklin Park Zoo, where James's lonely zookeeper character makes his living. That required shooting scenes in which two lions, an elephant, a monkey, two bears and a nosy crow all gather in a circle to give James advice, not only not eating each other but giving insight into courtship that only animals can provide. You know, no big deal.
At the press conference director Frank Coraci confessed that there's one animal onscreen who isn't real, the gorilla named Bernie and voiced by Nick Nolte who relies on Griffin to bring him out of his shell. "We tried to morph a human and a gorilla, and when that didn't work out…" Coraci joked, before going in detail about the puppetry work that went into creating Bernie. "We wanted to have control over Bernie and his personality and how he looked, and decided to create a new gorilla for our movie. We got to create the personality for Bernie from scratch, in three months we spent talking about the character. It was just fun to really create a character from scratch, and then he did whatever we wanted him to."
As for James, who took Bernie the puppet gorilla out on the town and had interactions with all the real, live animals in the cast, he confessed he initially had no interest in making "an animal movie." He explained, "I didn't want to do it, it just felt kind of goofy to me to do it. As I started thinking about it more, if we had a great story that you didn't need animals, they were just kind of buddies we put in later and added to the film, I started to get a little more interested. I wanted them to be your buddies who just happened to be there. I went a little too far-- I wanted them to have flies on them, be all dirty looking and mangy. But they steered me off of that. We wanted it to just be a funny, funny movie for everybody, where you can feel comfortable with your kids."
James and his co-stars Leslie Bibb and Rosario Dawson had plenty of anecdotes about getting up close and personal with the animals, even about the lion, who was apparently intimidating from 50 feet away. James revealed that in one outtake he gets a bit too close with the giraffe-- "I have had the giraffe tongue on my tongue"-- and Coraci explained that, to get the lion's attention, the trainers would often trot out a black stallion in the distance, as a kind of promise of a meal that the lion was never actually going to get. James explained why all this effort with the real animals on-set was worthwhile: "That's why we didn't want any CG animals. Whatever they would do, as long as we were rolling on them, [would work]. We just wanted them to be natural, but if they did a move, like the bear drops to his back and started scratching, I wanted them to write to that."
The animals provide the inspiration for a lot of the physical humor in the film, encouraging Griffin to do impressive, manly things that work in the animal world-- you know, like peeing to mark your territory, or growling like a bear to prove your strength. When Griffin takes them on their advice, though, the absurdity is doubled. James said the opportunity to do that kind of physical comedy was what excited him about the project, and that extended to his co-stars as well: "I've always loved physical comedy and putting something physical into all the movies I could do. I loved Jackie Gleason, anybody who was big and could move, I like that a lot. But these guys [gesturing to Bibb and Dawson] were great with the physical comedy as well."
At a pivotal moment later in the film, when James and Dawson's characters finally connect romantically, everyone gets in on the physical comedy game. Bibb's character has planned an elaborate dance sequence with her new beau, and to get back at her, James and Dawson dance using the kind of silk sheets hung from the ceiling you might see used in a Cirque du Soleil act. Or make that a Paul Abdul show, as producer Todd Garner explained: "I had seen a Paul Abdul concert, like 20 years ago, she did this thing with the aerial straps." Dawson said that after seeing Bibb rehearse her dance routine, she and James started scheming ways to top it: "I was so glad to make it as ridiculous as possible. The better and better they got… It just made us go the exact opposite way."
For some ridiculous dancing, animal antics, one dangerous lion and a gorilla puppet that's remarkably lifelike and voiced by Nick Nolte, check out Zookeeper in theaters on July 8.