Based on the best-selling novel by James Patterson, the CBS drama series Zoo is a global thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans. When these strange animal attacks occur, Jackson Oz (James Wolk) is an American zoologist who sees a link between them and his late father’s controversial theories about impending threats to the human race. And as the assaults become more ferocious and calculating, he is forced to unlock the mystery of what’s happening before there’s no place left for people to hide.
During a panel at the CBS Summer Junket, to discuss the network’s summer programming, actors James Wolk, Nonso Anozie and Nora Arnezeder, along with author James Patterson and executive producers Jeff Pinkner and Cathy Konrad, talked about how this story originated, what made it a good fit for a TV show, why this series adaptation just might be better than the book itself, making a five-character ensemble (which also includes Billy Burke and Kristen Connolly), having a rough plan for five seasons, using real animals, shooting everything in New Orleans, and whether the show is appropriate for younger viewers. From the panel, we’ve compiled a list of 13 things you should know about the upcoming series, Zoo.
According to executive producer Jeff Pinkner, “Zoo originated in the incredibly fertile mind of James Patterson, and it is essentially the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, if you use the landscape of the entire world and the entire animal kingdom, and the animals have decided that they’ve had enough and it’s time to fight back. A team of people come to suspect what might be happening, and they go on a journey around the world to try to find out what is happening with the animals and why, and potentially how to stop it or reverse it.”
- Best-selling author James Patterson (who is an EP on the series) said that he got the idea for the book this series is adapted from when he kept seeing stories about odd behavior around the world, with alligators in Florida, crocodiles doing weird things in Africa, and fish jumping into boats in Michigan. That spurred him into wondering, “Why is this going on, and is there a novel here?”
- EP Cathy Konrad was originally looking to turn this story into a scaled back feature film on the level of Cloverfield or District 9, but it became clear that there was a bigger world to explore with it. She said, “It was classic Hollywood timing. CBS has had tremendous success with Under the Dome. They’re at the forefront of event summer programming, and this had all the bones of a great Hollywood summer movie, with thrills, chills, spectacle, size and scope. The writing team had the tremendous ambition and courage to take on how to make this 13 episodes of great, taut summer fun.”
- Patterson said that there are a lot of changes made for the series adaptation, but he’s totally good with that. “The main characters – Jackson, Chloe and Abraham – stay the same, and then they’ve added people. People always say that the book is better than the movie, and then the screenwriters say, ‘Well, we only had two hours.’ In this case, they have 13 hours, so there are no excuses. But in this case, the series is going to be better than the book.”
When asked if things will be left open at the end of the season, so that they can continue on for future seasons, Pinkner said, “We’ve concocted the headlines for five seasons of storytelling, and the first season will not end where the book ends.”
- In regard to working with the animals and whether he’s a pet person himself, actor James Wolk said, “I have a dog. I’ve always been a dog person. She’s a shepherd mix. I’m very comfortable with dogs. This show is very eye-opening because it’s not that often, in real life, that you’re that close to a lion or a bear. We’ve had wolves on set. We’ve had rats on set. It’s been exciting.” But actor Nonso Anozie admitted to being the opposite, when he said, “I wouldn’t call myself a pet person. I’m not really an animal person. But in signing on to do Zoo, we’re working with animals. The first day I turned up, there were two live lions in front of me. It was really a baptism of fire. You have to respect animals and the way you’re supposed to behave around them. Also, the story that we tell in Zoo is almost a warning as to how we treat our environment, as well as the other life forms around us.”
- This is a show that doesn’t use much CGI, when it comes to the animals themselves. There are a lot of real animals on set that all come with trainers and are as well-trained as wild animals can be. It’s hard to feel entirely comfortable around an 800-pound grizzly bear, but all of the proper precautions are taken. But even with all of that training, they’re still wild animals that don’t necessarily behave the way you’re expecting them to. Sometimes they even fall asleep in the middle of scenes, and everyone has to wait for them to wake up.
- Wolk most enjoys the reluctant hero aspect of his character. “Jackson Oz is forced to be a hero in this story because he’s thrown into that, but he’s a very reluctant hero. He doesn’t look at himself that way. He doesn’t view himself as heroic. I think it’s fun to play a character that has some reluctance, stepping into that role, but because of the environment around him and what’s going on, he’s forced to go on that journey.”
Anozie likes the layers of his character, and how his dark past is just beneath the surface. “I really like the fact that my character, Abraham Cainito, has come from such a dark place. He has a dark past as a child soldier, and then came through that as such a positive person and almost a brother to Jackson Oz, James Wolk’s character. The favorite thing for me is playing two different sides of that person. There’s the person underneath, that’s bubbling to come through the apparently approachable layer on top.”
- Actress Nora Arnezeder likes that her character empowers herself without being a superhero. She said, “I like that my character, Chloe Tousignant, is a winner. She’s a leader, but she’s not a superhero. She’s willing to empower herself and empower the people around her. She’s a very inspiring character, and she inspires me, fully.”
- Pinkner said that this is an ensemble show, and they work to keep it that way. “It is important to us, as we approach the writing process, week in and week out, that there are five leads. It’s very much an ensemble show. The story is being told through all of their characters’ journeys. And so, every episode is a challenge to our production crew and to the cast. It’s kept it very fun and fresh for us, and hopefully for the actors, as well.”
Although this series is shot in New Orleans, it is a global story that takes place all over the world, and the varied architecture and landscape can double for so many different places. The story travels to Africa, Tokyo, Rio, Alabama, Antarctica and Paris, as the characters travel around the world, and you’ll swear that they’re really on location, in those places. There are no standing sets on the show, and no place for people to return to. It’s a road show, which is incredibly challenging from a production point of view.
- When asked whether this show would be too scary for younger viewers, Pinkner said, “There are far more scary shows on television than our show. Hopefully, our show is thrilling in the way that a summer popcorn movie is thrilling. It’s not meant to make you terrified of animals. It’s actually incredibly pro-animal.” And Patterson added, “It’s another one of these reminders that we humans are doing a lot of questionable things, and we need to think about it and keep being reminded, in different ways, about what we’re doing. “
Zoo premieres on CBS on June 30th.