Story by W. H. Bourne
Photos by Steve Dietl, Hilary Bronwyn Gayle, Timothy Kuratek, and Patti Perret; courtesy of CBS
“I’m scouting for Zoo today and tomorrow, and then we start shooting episode 13 on Friday,” says Michael Katleman who will also be directing the Friday shoot for the new CBS series that’s based on the #1 bestselling novel by James Patterson that debuted Tuesday, June 30. “I am producer/director on the show so I’m directing three of these (episodes) this year. It’s James Patterson’s first television show, and the material lends itself to a great summer event series for CBS. Who doesn’t want to watch the animal apocalypse?”
“We were looking for a place where obviously we could move around to different areas (parts of the world) because this is a globetrotting show, but we wanted to find one central location where we could shoot a lot of these locations at and that was a big draw for Louisiana,” explains Katleman. “I’ve shot here before. I did a series here, Memphis Beat.”
Actor Billy Burke is also very familiar with shooting in Louisiana. In addition to shooting parts of Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 & 2 in Baton Rouge, he also shot Drive Angry with Nicolas Cage and Amber Heard in Shreveport. Now, he’s in New Orleans working on Zoo with Katleman. Burke plays Mitch Morgan, an eccentric veterinarian.
“Mitch starts out as the somewhat jaded, smart-assy, know-it-all on the team,” explains Burke. “He’s a veterinary pathologist and college professor who’d much rather be in the company of animals than other human beings. As the task of identifying and hopefully rectifying the cause of the animal uprising gets more crazy and dire, Mitch grows a much stronger appreciation for the brother and sisterhood he’s surrounded by.”
“All our actors are fabulous,” raves Katleman. “It’s funny because in the first couple of episodes, they all worked separately; they didn’t really work as a group. The group didn’t really come together until episode three so when they finally did get to work together, it was like a bunch of long lost friends. They’re a great group of actors who take everything really seriously. They come in prepared, and they’ve put a lot of thought into what they’re doing, and they’re really invested in the material and the writing.”
“I’ve been very lucky to have shared the set with some phenomenal people over the years, and this cast and crew are certainly no exception,” says Burke.
If you haven’t seen an episode yet, Zoo lives up to its reputation where the animals are almost as much of a focus as the cast which includes James Wolk (Jackson Oz), Kristen Connolly (Jamie Campbell), Nonso Anozie (Abraham Kenyatta), Nora Arnezeder (Chloe Tousignant), and Billy Burke (Mitch Morgan).
“The animals are 90% real,” says Katleman. “This year we’ve shot real lions, tigers, leopards, and bears. We had a cute little lion cub and a Serval cub. We’ve had rats, bats, horses, dogs, cats, and camels. In this last episode that I’m about to start shooting, we have a baboon in it.”
“We always start with, ‘How can we block the scene with a real animal?’ We’re very, very careful with them; that’s a huge priority for us. If we’re dealing with a lion or a tiger or something like that, we’ll take all the precautions and shoot split screen,” continues Katleman. “We’re very safe with them. We’ll do motion control. We always want to have the actors in the frame with them (the animals), but we also take every precaution.”
“We don’t have the time to build CG animals for every episode. For something like that, you really need an extraordinary amount of time to pull that off. We get a big action sequence with a leopard, and we don’t even have a half a year to build the leopard so we bring the leopard on (location) and we work with the trainer. Our VFX (visual effects) team will be painting out the trainer or painting out the leash that they have the leopard on,” explains Katleman. “Then you may do a combination of things like in the pilot when we had the time so we built a CG lion to do some of the stuff, but, you know, you adapt it.”
“It’s a funny way you have to go about it,” comments Katleman. “You’ll plan the scene as much as you can, and you’ll storyboard it, but when it comes time to shoot it, you shoot the animal first, and the animal is going to do what the animal wants to do. I had a scene in the second episode which I directed. I had one lion that we were using to look like a sick lion, and I had someone up in the tree, and the lion was kind of circling. The lion did one pass, and then it did another, and it lied down. We were shooting outside at night and had issues with light, and I went to the trainer and said, ‘Can we just back up and redo a couple of the passes?’ and he turned to me and said, ‘The lion will get up when the lion wants to get up.’”
“It definitely has its challenges, but it always looks better,” adds Katleman. “You just have to adapt it. For example, if the animal is going to attack a human, you shoot the animal side first, and then whatever the animal does, you have the actor match the animal. It’s the only chance you have of pulling it off without CG.”
“It takes a lot longer for these (animal) sequences. We have two units working a lot. We may have an animal unit going where you’re doing the animals and those pieces. It takes an amazing amount of time when you bring a real lion out. The steps you have to take. You have to clear the set. They put up a fence around it. No one can be moving. Normally, when you go to shoot, you’ll light the set, and then the actors will come on before you finish, and everyone’s working so that by the time your lighting is finished, the actors are touched up, and everyone’s ready to go. But when you’re working with these animals, they can’t come out until the set is completely locked down so you have to be lit, everyone’s there, they’re all touched up and ready to go, and then you walk the lions out, and that can take time,” explains Katleman. “The first couple of episodes, we weren’t quite prepared for how long everything took, but it does take a ridiculous amount of time so you really have to plan for it.”
While Katleman did have time to plan and prepare for tackling Zoo, actor Billy Burke wasn’t as fortunate.
“In most cases, including this one, there isn’t a whole lot of time for preparing,” explains Burke. “By the time the gig is in your hands, you’re usually only days, or sometimes hours, away from getting on a plane and being thrown into wardrobe fittings. To be honest, I kinda like it that way. I don’t wanna be given too much time to over-think a bunch of stuff that probably won’t matter. I’m a big proponent of first instincts.”
“I sat down at a hotel bar in Culver City (a suburb of Los Angeles) with the writer/producers, and they gave me an overview of what the show was and what they were going for,” says Burke. “I remember trying to think of another show past or present that did what this show wanted to do. I couldn’t think of any. That and the people involved were enough for me so I just told them, ‘I’m available if you want me.’”
“Another one of the initial factors that went into me doing this gig was ‘And it shoots where? New Orleans?’ Yeah, I dig it here,” adds Burke. “The weather, especially this time of year, can be a bit of a cruel joke, but it’s a minimal price to pay for the food, music and overall culture you’re getting. Louisiana has been a very inviting and accommodating place for film and TV. I really hope that continues.”
“We use mostly local crew. Out of our crew, roughly 150-175 of them are local,” says Katleman. “I brought in my DPs and my production designer, but besides that, pretty much all my people are locals. There’s a great talent pool here. I’ll be honest. I’ve worked here before, and I know a lot of crew people, and there’s no shortage that’s for sure. I’m working with some of the same crew from Memphis Beat that I’m familiar with and liked a lot and some new people as well. We have a lot of people (working for us) from American Horror Story. There’s just a lot of good crews here.”
“We bring in all the animals from Los Angeles and Florida,” adds Katleman. “We have our animal trainer, who has his team. They will bring the animals in, and the trainers know what they can do.”
“We’re dealing with animals so a ton of the shooting is outdoors,” continues Katleman. “We really want to sell where we’re at with big, huge, beautiful shots so the scenes don’t feel claustrophobic. We’re really making this as cinematic as possible. We turned some warehouses, (the old) Mardi Gras World in Algiers, into stages, but to be honest with you, we rarely are on our stages. I can probably count on one hand the number of times we’ve shot there. We’re really a locations show. We’re bouncing around all over the place.”
“We don’t have a permanent set. A lot of television shows will have their ‘go to’ set, their permanent set, where you’ll be able to come back to certain offices or a squad room so you know you always have that ‘go to’ set where you can shoot if you have weather issues or other conflicts,” says Katleman. “We don’t have that at all. We are constantly on location.”
“The goal is it’s a summer series. We’re doing 13 episodes. If it’s successful, we’ll come back next summer and do it again. We’re leaving it open ended with a bit of a cliffhanger,” explains Katleman. “To be honest, 13 (episodes) is the perfect amount. The show is really challenging with the animals and with every episode trying to create a new and different country, another city, another state, or whatever we’re trying to do. It’s very labor intensive so I think 13 is the perfect amount. If it was 22 episodes, I don’t know if any of us could pull it off.”
Los Angeles, D.C., Africa, Brazil: Louisiana substitutes for all these locations in Zoo.
“It’s a global epic thriller,” comments Katleman. “I’m a huge fan of the writing and the writers. We have a great team. The scripts are complex. The dialogue is great, and there’s just a lot of good stuff in them (the scripts), and the actors feel that. It’s fun when they get to set, and they get the next script, and they’re all really excited to read it.”
“Recently, it’s been a challenge trying to keep a straight face much less busting out in giggle fits along with the rest of the cast,” confides Burke. “There comes a point for all of us when doing action/adventure fare that the absurdity of the moment just gets the best of you.”
“It’s just a fun show, and I hope everyone finds it thrilling and exciting and compelling,” adds Katleman.
“I reckon if you can’t have a good time making a show called Zoo, you’re in the wrong business,” says Burke.
Be sure to check out Zoo on Tuesday nights at 8 PM CST on CBS.