ZOO: Jeff Pinkner on Taking on the ‘Spirit’ of the Book, FRINGE Similarities, and Working with a Bear | Give Me My Remote

ZOO: Jeff Pinkner on Taking on the ‘Spirit’ of the Book, FRINGE Similarities, and Working with a Bear

June 30, 2015 by  

Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/CBS

Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/CBS

CBS has launched a new scripted series each of the past few summers (UNDER THE DOME — based off the Stephen King book — just kicked off its third season, while EXTANT’s second season is around the corner), and for its 2015 freshman installment, the network went to another property based off a best-seller: James Patterson’s ZOO.

Just like the book, the television series follows the puzzling — and dangerous — shift in animal behavior, as collectively they turn increasingly aggressive…and deadly. But while some of the television characters share the same names as the book characters, they exist in two separate worlds.

To get some more insight into the new series, I spoke with ZOO co-creator Jeff Pinkner (who co-wrote the pilot with co-creators Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, and Scott Rosenberg)…

What made you want to adapt ZOO?
Jeff Pinkner: My partners and I were given the book, and interestingly, like 30 pages in, we all stopped and called each other because it’s such a great hook. I’ve always been a huge Hitchcock fan, and this is THE BIRDS — it really is. It’s the animals, we live among [turning]. I’m a huge animal lover. And they’re unknowable, they outnumber us, and what if they just [became violent]?

Whenever there’s an adaptation of a book, there’s always the question of how true the show stays to the source material. How closely do you follow the events of the book?
JP: We don’t. We called [ZOO author] James Patterson and said, “The book is great, but you can’t do a show that’s a mystery if everyone knows the end of the book.” And he said, “Of course. Go. Take the spirit of it.” We diverge quickly. We take some of the characters from the book, and we diverge very quickly.

[Warning: book spoilers.] So, the ultimate cause of why the animals are turning is different? I imagine that will make it easier to run, say, cell phone ads during the show…
JP: We also don’t want to make it finger-wagging…no one wants to watch entertainment and be told [they’re bad]. [End of book spoilers.]

Despite the story changes, were there any moments from the book you wanted to make sure to showcase in the television series?
JP: There are some animal attacks in the book that are great. Some we use early, and some we will use later on.

There was a character in the book that was fantastic — there was a chimp, Attila. But [we’ve seen] PLANET OF THE APES. So it’s hard to do that and not be held to that, and then people expect him to start talking, and it’s hard to be held to that standard. So we wanted to stay away from that.

Do we spend time with the animals, seeing them getting increasingly violent?
JP: The story is told from the human’s point of view. It was a creative choice. I loved BENJI when I was a kid, but it’s a show about the people, and how the emerging animal condition changes them.

Completely fair. What can you say about the world of ZOO?
JP: Surprisingly, not entirely unlike FRINGE [which Pinkner co-ran], the science is all rooted in the real, and then pushed a little bit. And that show is super instructive in how to use science as a hook, and things people are interested in, whether they know it or not — it’s fun to learn. Animals are so interesting. And traits we share with animals that we might not be aware of until you start to look into it a little bit are really fun. And the idea that all of us are just some version of a mutation from the norm, and that some mutations can be problematic, is really interesting.

How will the story’s format play out? Will there be an animal attack of the week?
JP: Not specifically a procedural show, per se, and it’s not, “Oh, there’s a problem every week and we have to solve it.” It’s trying to form an understanding of what the larger, emerging problem is. And so there are animals in every episode, and typically a different one, and typically a different kind of behavior we’re seeing. So the answer is yes and no.

The show is using a lot of real animals. Was that always the plan?
JP: It’s a lot more interesting if it’s real. Even as advanced as CGI is, it’s hard to believably sell an animal. LIFE OF PI was spectacular, and that’s now the standard. And on a TV time frame — forget even the budget, but on a TV time frame — it’s almost impossible, if not impossible. And real animals are super interesting. The actors just do behave differently when they’re in a scene with real animals. You can’t help it, you do. 800-pound bears are 800-pound bears.

What has been the most challenging animal?
JP: A bear. The bear…they go to sleep when they feel like it, they don’t really respond to “action,” and there’s a moment when a bear is supposed to open a fridge in a woman’s apartment, and the fridge toppled over because the way that they sealed it, and the bear goes flying out of the scene. Which is now in the show.

Did the bear react well to that?
JP: The bear acted like a bear! [Laughs] The bear ran as far and as fast as it could. It’s been a blast. It’s always unexpected, and that’s fun…We’ve learned to be flexible.

So, looking at your humans, what made James Wolk your Jackson Oz?
JP: A few things…the idea that he’s as talented as he is — we wanted, not unlike Josh Jackson on FRINGE, [the actors] on LOST, we wanted actors who would believably disappear into the roles as opposed to actors you have preconceived notions about. Fantasy really works when you’re grounded and believe it, and if you’re like, “Oh, that’s so-and-so, I know him from such and such a role. I love him, he’s awesome, but he was X.” It’s harder to suspend your disbelief and fall in love with these characters.

Our whole cast is spectacularly accomplished, but not in a way that they’re household names yet. Even Billy Burke who was a star of REVOLUTION, that audience knows him really well, but he’s playing a much different role. And he disappears into the role. And this role, in a way, is closer to who he really is, which is fun. He’s sort of sardonic and witty and super smart.

And what can you say about the characters that were created for the show?
JP: Mitch and Jamie. He’s a scientist, and we wanted a voice of authority to be able to convey those ideas. And Jamie, we wanted to introduce a corporation [with a possible tie to what’s going on] and Jamie is a journalist who has always had a thing against them based on a familial situation.

We knew we wanted to round out the cast, and we knew we wanted Jackson and Abe to start off in Africa, and Chloe is from Paris and in Africa with them.  And we wanted to start the show on opposite sides of the world, so Mitch and Jamie are in LA.

James Patterson was super supportive of new characters. We approach it as the book is there, nothing is changing the book. And this is a different story.

ZOO airs Tuesdays at 9 PM on CBS.

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