Director Frank Coraci © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Frank Coraci’s directing credits include Around the World in 80 Days , and The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy with Adam Sandler. His new movie Zookeeper, produced by Sandler, stars Kevin James as zoo caretaker, Griffin Keyes, who is pondering leaving his post for a more glamorous job, in order to capture the woman of his dreams. The animals, in a panic, reveal to Griffin that not only can they talk, but they are willing to help teach him the rules of courtship – animal style.

Frank Coraci spoke of creating this unusual animal kingdom at the press day for the movie.

What are the challenges of doing a movie like this?

Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) and a Wolf © 2011 Columbia TriStar

It’s hard to shoot a comedy, because you’re there for 15, 16 hours a day and it has to be funny and round about the 11th hour nothing is funny. So you always try to keep the energy going and try to come up with new ways to make things funny, otherwise it’s just a long day and you start to doubt that anything is funny.

I hear you got to design a zoo for this?

The best part of designing a zoo for a movie is that you can create your own vision. Each animal has an iconic enclosure – the bears in a North American mining town; the elephants in Indian temples and overgrown vines; the monkey has a Balinese island and a little sandy beach; the lions, the Serengeti; the giraffe, Timbuktu.

How did you find the animals?

Director Frank Coraci on the set © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Mark Forbes is the animal guru, the go-to guy. [The area the animals were housed at the zoo was called ‘Forbes Field’]. It was like a little community – they had signs point the way to Felix the lion or Crystal the monkey. You could go and visit the animals and spend time with the trainers.

You really got a sense of how much they loved their animals and the animals got more attention and care than all of the actors I’ve seen. The trainers would show me tricks that the animals could do, and we were able to work them into the movie.

The movie involved a lot of planning, a lot of people, a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, and a lot of not getting eaten by lions

In the press notes it says you wanted to push the gorilla technology envelope. What does that mean?

Barry the elephant, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) and Donald a Capuchin monkey © 2011 Columbia TriStar

We just wanted to have a gorilla that looked real, since all the other animals in the movie were real, and we looked all the gorillas that have been built for prior movies and wanted to have control of making Bernie’s personality, how he looked, so we decided to create a new gorilla for our movie with the latest technology.

It was fun because we got to create a personality for Bernie from scratch, because we got to dream up the character. First we were going for an old crappy guy, then we said, ‘No, he’s got to be sweeter,’ so it was just fun to create a character from scratch and he did whatever we wanted.

The puppeteers would act off of Kevin, so you get different performances every time off of the gorilla, which sounds crazy but it was fun to see them being able to improv with Kevin based on his acting performance.

He couldn’t sit next to a live gorilla, so part of the choice was to have an actor who could sit across and respond to him.

What was it like working with Kevin James?

This role was made for Kevin James. I’ve been watching him for years and he’s always made me laugh, on The King of Queens and in Hitch, in Chuck and Larry and in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

He’s sort of a little bit Jackie Gleason, a little bit of Jimmy Stewart, but he makes it his own – loveable, very original comedy. He reaches all ages across the board, so I think this movie is his kind of movie.

I understand that it’s a composite the way it’s been put together, but how close did you get to any of these animals?

Obviously the bears and the lions you couldn’t put anybody next to, although they were on set with us. They were there right near us. The elephants were really great.

We actually shot scenes where Kevin was brave enough to get in with the wolf and massage the wolf. He seemed like he liked it. I admire him for being brave enough, because I wouldn’t go near the wolf, I was afraid.

Giraffe, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James), Barry the elephant and Donald a Capuchin monkey © 2011 Columbia TriStar

The biggest stars in Hollywood bring the animals to life in Zookeeper, with their distinct voices and personalities. Here are their takes on their characters:

Adam Sandler (Donald, a Capuchin monkey)

I was first on board, and I’m a producer on the movie, so I got to pick which animal I wanted to be. The monkey was the only animal smart enough, handsome enough, and funny enough to handle my voice coming out of its mouth

Sylvester Stallone (Joe, the lion)

Joe likes to think he’s the king, but the rest of the animals have other ideas about who’s really in charge.

Cher (Janet, the lioness)

If the lion is king of the jungle, she’s the power behind the throne. But she totally plays it cool. Like all powerful ladies, she can let her man play the big man – it’s enough for her to know that he knows who’s in charge.

Judd Apatow (Barry, the elephant)

I always knew that one day I would get to perform with Cher and Stallone while pretending to be an elephant. I’ve officially run out of dreams!

Faizon Love (Bruce, the bear)

You can’t tell Bruce anything – he knows it already. Jon (Favreau’s) bear is the smaller bear, always trying to show Bruce who’s boss. But he can’t. Bruce is the alpha bear, baby!

Nick Nolte (Bernie the gorilla)

I kind of have a growl to my voice anyway. I played a detached feeling [as Bernie]. That started working right away – ‘Keep going,’ they said – and we decided to do the whole movie in that first session.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.