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54° Good Afternoon

Kidsday talks with stars, director of 'Zookeeper'

"Zookeeper" star Kevin James with Kidsday reporters, from left, Will Link, Alex Lusak, Diana Apoznanski and Tiffany Holtje at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan Photo Credit: Newsday/Pat Mullooly

Kevin James stars in the movie, “Zookeeper,” a hilarious comedy for all ages. The audience cracked up at almost every line. Many scenes were hysterical, like when Kevin was swinging on fabric and took out his brother’s wife during a wedding scene.

Kevin James plays Griffin, a zookeeper. Griffin thinks he may quit his job for the girl of his dreams, but when the animals at the zoo start talking to him, he begins to take advice from some interesting creatures. The animals tried to teach him different ways to attract his “mate” such as marking his territory by peeing on a tree. The animals voices were done by other famous actors and actresses such as Adam Sandler, Cher and Sylvester Stallone.

The story starts out with a couple on a beach riding a horse. Griffin sees a bottle with a note inside it on the beach. He tells his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) to get the bottle and look inside it. There is a message asking, “Will you marry me?” She turns around to see Griffin kneeling down with a ring. Unfortunately for Griffin she says no because he is a zookeeper.

Five years later Griffin has not gotten over Stephanie and things turn upside down when he sees Stephanie at his brother’s engagement party. Seeing her makes Griffin consider taking a job at his brother’s car dealership to make a lot more money and impress Stephanie.
In a desperate attempt to keep their favorite zookeeper, the animals break their age old code and reveal to him that they can speak so they can teach him their mating techniques so that he can win over Stephanie. Kevin James brought his own unique personality to the character of Griffin. The movie teaches a really good lesson about staying true to yourself. This would be a good movie for unconfident kids because it shows you not to let someone else intimidate you.

RATING 4 ½ smiles (out of 5).

After seeing the movie, we went back to Manhattan and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and met “Zookeeper” director Frank Coraci and Kevin James. They both talked to us about putting the film together. We found out that Frank is from Long Island and grew up in Shirley. Kevin also grew up on Long Island!

Here's our interview with “Zookeeper” director: Frank Coraci
Frank Coraci: I grew up on Long Island and read Kidsday. I would read it all the time. Do you still have the joke of the day? I live in L.A. now so I don’t see it, but it’s awesome. I’m very honored that you guys are asking me to this.
How do you think the movie “Zookeeper” went?
I watched an audience laugh throughout the whole thing. So it seems like it went pretty good. And you guys seemed pretty happy. So that makes me feel like it went well.
What was your favorite scene in the movie and also which one do you think was the hardest to film?
My favorite scene in the movie I think might be when Kevin is on the ribbons. Just because I feel like it’s original and nobody’s done that. And when we came up with the idea the writer said, get the big man off the ground and you’re sure to have comedy. I think it was very fun and I don’t think anybody’s ever taken out a bride before at a wedding. That was the most fun original scene. The hardest one to film was the one where all the animals and they’re meeting together and you know where the giraffe is in the foreground because none of those animals can be together because normally they would eat each other. So I had to do it every animal one at a time. And the hard thing is the giraffe, is kind of easy because he comes out, but it still takes like a half hour to get the giraffe out and do the walk. A bear takes like 45 minutes to get out of his cage then another 45 minutes to stand up and so I had to do that for every animal. If you see that scene there’s maybe like 30 animals. Most of them were real animals, a few of them, the birds and stuff we put them in later. So it was the amount of time it took to put all those animals together and not let them eat each other.
Do you think in the movie that it was easier for the animals or the humans to act?
I think it was easier for the animals because they were getting fed all day. And most actors can’t eat because they don’t want to get fat. So it was easier for the animals.
How did having live animals on the set make your job as a director more stressful?
I didn’t want to get eaten. It was kind of funny because at first I honestly said, so would somebody like a tranquilizer dart or something. Because I said what if the lion decides to chase me and they said... you don’t have to be the fastest runner; just don’t be the slowest. So I always made sure I had some slow people around me. The first week I couldn’t believe I was where he’s standing, there was a lion and the lion was this tall. So I was like it’s over. I think it would be a horrible way to go. The trainer would be right next to the lion and he’d be on the cell phone with his back to the lion and after awhile you realize oh, if they trust him so much, they’ve been brought up around people. But there was always in the back of my head I couldn’t believe I was doing this. There was one — they put this little metal wire around because when they’re trained when they’re little, it’s like an electrical thing to not go in certain areas, and I realized they didn’t have any electric in them. Then I thought what if I wrap myself in wire. Sometimes I did that.
Why did you choose Kevin James to play the lead role in “Zookeeper”?
He had the idea and he called me and said do you want to do the movie. But when he told me the idea I couldn’t imagine anyone better to do the movie. I feel he appeals to kids, adults, everybody and he’s like the perfect guy. And he’s very physical and he did some great physical stuff. Like when he jumped into the moat. He did the jump. I can’t believe it. He’s great. He does his own stunts.
How did you like working with Kevin James, Adam Sandler and Sylvester Stallone?
Adam I worked with a ton, so it was fun to work with my buddy. Kevin is like my new buddy now. So we’re having fun doing stuff. Stallone was awesome because he, even though he plays dramatic roles and stuff, plays a tough guy, he was really funny. So it was fun to make a guy like that be funny and know that he could be funny. And I was always afraid of him because he was Sylvester Stallone.
How does it feel to have some of your movies become huge successes?
I feel very, very lucky. I have a really great job. It’s hard at times, but I feel really lucky that I get to do this because it’s like you get to dream up stuff and all these people help you make that dream come true and everybody gets to see it. So the fact that my movies have done well is that I feel lucky and thankful.
You grew up in Shirley. What was your favorite place to go as a kid?
I kind of like when I was a kid growing up we use to hang out in the woods and hang out and ride our bikes on dirt paths and stuff like that. I know there’s a lot of houses now. That kind of stuff was just really fun to do growing up. That’s all I could think of right now.
What do you do if an actor doesn’t cooperate?
I send him to the lions. Everybody on this movie was really great. So I didn’t have to send anybody to the lions.
We know that you met Adam Sandler in college. Did you guys plan on doing movies together back then?
Yeah, we were in college and we use to make each other laugh all the time. And then we realized, imagine we get to make movies and it happened fast then we ever expected. We made “The Wedding Singer” and we couldn’t believe . . . we were in the middle of making the movie one night and we realized there were no producers, no studio people and we actually looked at each other and said, there’s no adults here. And then we realized we were the adults. So it happened fast.
Going back to the Shirley question…..Going to the beach. It was the best place. Because we had Smith Point beach and you didn’t have to go …you just went right over the bridge and even run there in the winter time when I on wrestling. That was my thing to go to the beach. That was the best thing ever.
For all the movies you directed you won many awards. Do you think “Zookeeper” will win awards?
I don’t know if it will win awards. I just know if people laugh, that’s the best award.
We know you went to NYU. How did they help you become a director?
NYU for me was one of the best places I could imagine going to learn how to make movies. Because they didn’t teach you about how the business worked and all that stuff. All they taught you was how to make a movie. They gave you a camera, they gave you film, and they made you shoot a movie. And they talked about the movie you shot and to me the way you become a great director is to just keep shooting movies and editing them. It’s nice now because you can have a video camera. You guys, at your age, could be shooting a movie and editing on your computer. NYU was… and I met some of the best people there. I met Adam Sandler there and I met people that I’m still friends with and work with. I think it’s all about making as many movies as you can no matter how short they are. You just learn every time you make one and you play it for people.
What is your favorite thing that you directed?
That’s a tough question. I don’t know. It’s kind of like having kids. You don’t have one favorite. You love them all in different ways. Every movie has brought me to different places, worked with different people. I had fun making “Around the World in 80 Days” because I had to travel all around the world. That was cool.
We know you’ve had a lot of experience directing different types of films, from travel documentaries to music videos, independent films to major motion pictures. How did this variety help you to become a better director?
Doing travel documentarys is cool because I filmed the Great Wall of China for a travel documentary. I filmed all this beautiful architecture, did under water photography at the Great Barrier Reef and it just makes you understand how to photograph things. I don’t know you just learn different styles. Doing the music video is much more fast than loosely. An you get to try more experimental stuff. Hopefully all that stuff ends up in my movies to make them a little bit different.
Did you ever wish you could act in a movie versus directing?
I would never want to be a full-time actor. I do appear in my movies now and then. At the end of the “Water Boy.” I like to do little cameo roles, if they make my friends laugh. I won’t ever do just a serious role, but I’ll do little roles. I don’t think I would be just an actor because it’s the hardest job.
From start to finish how long did it take to film “Zookeeper”?
“Zookeeper” from starting to shoot to edit, almost two years. Just because there were so many visual effects and it was like making three movies in a way. It was like making a movie with the animals; it was like making an animated movie, and it was like making a regular movie with real actors.


Here's our interview with actor Kevin James

Which animal in the movie did you like?
The animal I liked the best is the elephant because first of all it outweighed me, which I like that. That felt good. I wasn’t the heaviest actor on set for once. The elephant was awesome because it was a she actually in real life. She was very gentle. She was really cool and she was cool with my kids and my kids were able to come and hang out with her, and stuff like that. And she would lift us up on her trunk and she would listen really well. She would move over to the right. You could just talk to her. She would spray you when she wanted to. She sprayed me a couple of times when I didn’t want her to. But other than that she was great.
In the movie your character Griffin works with talking animals. How would you react if this happened to you in real life?
I think I would run and hit my head on a pole the same way he did. It would kind of freak me out. But once it happened and once I got use to it I think I would try and listen to what advice they had because a lot of the time we try to be people we’re not meant to be. Maybe we try to act differently than who we truly are. Animals don’t do that. Animals just act — they are who they are. So I would try and listen to that.
How hard and fun was it to work with the animals in this movie?
It was both. It was hard and fun. It was difficult sometimes when they didn’t want to work anymore, that was it. You were done. So they would just kind of walk around. You got to kind of work around their schedule. Because if they’re not in the mood to do it, then they would just stop working and that was it. Especially with the lion. You can’t tell the lion what to do. So you basically just kind of shoot them when you can with the camera, get what they do and thankfully we got great stuff from them. So they were fun.
How did acting with some animated animals make your job more difficult?
When they’re not there in the scene, if an animal is not there and you’re just working with an animated one you can’t act off anything. If it was the gorilla, the gorilla was there, it was a guy in a suit that was actually with me. So that made it easy to work off of, but some scenes I had to work with like just a tennis ball or a spot on the wall or something because we would have to fill in where it would be later. Like the gorilla later on couldn’t be there so it would only be spots of him. So I would just act with a spot on the wall. And that was it. That was very difficult.
What is your favorite scene in the movie? Also, was that really you in the stunts scenes like the wedding?
Yeah that was me on the stunts and that was actually my favorite scenes because it was I finally got to swing around a lot and the woman I knocked down is my wife in real life. I get to knock her down. No actually it was me knocking the woman down, but the woman I knocked down is a stunt woman who did a great job taking a fall there. And we only did that once, but she fell really funny and it worked for the movie. But that was really fun because I get to swing on these silks. They were really cool. I’m afraid of height too, but I had fun with it.
Do you have a stunt double for when you have to fall all those times?
Yes, I do. A guy named Jeff Gibson. And I’ll do as many stunts as I can. If I can do the stunt by myself, I prefer to do it that way, but some things I can’t do where it’s a little scary and he’ll have to take over and he went really all out in a lot of the scenes that I do. In one scene, the one where I hit my head on the bar, like I did it once and I kind of fall into a mat. But he did it without falling into a mat, he did it right falling into the ground. And you got to be careful because sometimes you can get a little hurt. He got a little hurt then.


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