Belfast blitz movie Zoo: How a young elephant was hidden in a back yard

David Roy speaks to Antrim-born writer/director Colin McIvor about the making of Zoo, his 'Belfast blitz elephant movie' starring Art Parkinson, Penelope Wilton and Toby Jones which is released in cinemas next week

Art Parkinson and Nellie star in Zoo, the movie inspired by the story of Belfast's 'elephant angel' during the Second World War

HAVE you heard the one about the woman who kept an elephant in her back yard during the Belfast blitz? You have? Well, luckily writer/director Colin McIvor has put a new spin on this historic stranger-than-fiction tale with his new movie, Zoo.

Taking the famous 'elephant angel' story of north Belfast woman Denise Austin as its inspiration, Zoo is a family-friendly adventure centred on three Belfast youngsters who conspire to save a young African elephant called Buster from being euthanised by the Ministry of Public Security during the Second World War.

The film finds Tom (Art Parkinson), Jane (Emily Flain) and Pete (Ian O'Reilly) staging a daring night-time raid on Belfast Zoo – run by Mr Shawcross (Ian McElhinney) and patrolled during daytime hours by beady-eyed security guard Charlie (Toby Jones) – to liberate baby Buster (played by Nellie) and hide him in the back yard of eccentric animal lover Mrs Austin (Penelope Wilton).

However, with a price on Buster's head and German bombs raining down on the city nightly, the children and their new four-legged friend remain under constant threat in a film which doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of wartime.

"I'm very excited – and relieved, to be honest," enthuses Antrim-born McIvor (41) of his second feature film, shot in just over six weeks in Northern Ireland and Canada.

"It's been quite a long time coming and now we're finally getting it out there – thank God!"

Donegal actor Art Parkinson, best known for his role in Game Of Thrones, in new Belfast-set movie Zoo

Released in the US earlier this month, Zoo has already received rave reviews from American critics won over by its mix of kid-centric adventure and wartime drama.

"It's had absolutely fantastic reviews from the likes of the LA Times, Variety and Hollywood Reporter," McIvor tells me. "That's been overwhelming to be honest, because you just want to make a movie, get it out there and show it to your peer group and the guys who worked on it and make them happy.

"So for an audience and people who don't know you to really be liking it, particularly an audience in the States, is absolutely brilliant."

With a 'day job' directing television adverts, McIvor has been working on Zoo for a several years following the release of his first feature, 2010 romantic comedy Cup Cake.

Taking its inspiration from the 'elephant angel' story as well as the likes of Rob Reiner's classic Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me, McIvor's script quickly gained support from the British Film Institute, Northern Ireland Screen ("they have been amazing flag-wavers for local talent," he tells me) and Irish Film Board.

Next came the battle for financial backing and the realisation that a few familiar faces would be required to get Zoo up and running.

"That was a learning curve for us," admits the writer/director, a former pupil at St Louis Grammar School in Ballymena who first caught the film-making bug while studying at Belfast School of Art.

"You can have the best screenplay in the world or even the best production team or director, but the people who you're looking finance from have got metrics to say that 'this person will put so many bums on seats'

"Getting those 'names' is what it comes down to."

Tom (Art Parkinson), Mrs Austin (Penelope Wilton), Pete (Ian O'Reilly) and Mickey (James Stockdale) in Zoo

Happily, Zoo was able to trade on a strong Irish Game of Thrones connection through Moville-born leading man Art Parkinson and Belfast-born supporting actor Ian McElhinney, both featured prominently in the HBO hit, while Downton Abbey's Penelope Wilton and Dectectorist Toby Jones (who plays the villain in the new Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) also bolstered the name recognition of the adult cast.

"Toby came on quite late,"explains McIvor.

"We were looking for authenticity and Toby Jones is a one man movie validator, in my opinion. He read it and said lovely things about the screenplay. When I got the call to say he was in I was over the moon.

"He came over and we shot with him for about four days. To get him and Dame Penelope as well was an absolute home run for us."

As for 'young' Art Parkinson (16), the film-maker admits that the production was engaged in a running battle to keep him looking realistic as a schoolkid in short trousers.

"Art surprised us with how quickly he was shooting up, so that became a bit of a ticking clock for us," chuckles McIvor.

"It was important that taking Buster out looked like a real task for Tom – if he got too big it might just look like a bloke dandering an elephant down the street."

He adds: "This is definitely a family film, but I'm sort of hoping that fans of Game of Thrones will want to see Rickon Stark [Parkinson] and Ser Barristan [McElhinney].

Toby Jones as Charlie in Zoo

"When we were filming the elephant scenes with them in Canada, some of our crew turned out to be Game of Thrones mega-nerds.

"They were just like 'this is the best job ever!'"

McIvor is also full of praise for Parkinson's co-stars, Lisburn's Emily Flain (15) – "This was her first acting role filming in front of two cameras and a crew of 30 people but she absolutely nailed it," he enthuses – the scene/film-stealing James Stockdale as wisecracking youngster Mickey and the one cast member without whom Zoo simply would not have been possible: Nellie the elephant.

"It was a massive undertaking to go out to Canada and film with the elephant but it had to be done because it was so integral," the director explains of the international trip to Hamilton, Ontario, to get a genuine pachyderm performance on film.

"We'd made a rod for our own backs and for years people had told me 'just CGI it, do it like Dumbo' – but it had to look real."

Which begs the big question: how do you direct an elephant?

"They're amazingly intelligent but to be honest we weren't asking it to do much apart from just stand and eat hay or lie down," chuckles McIvor of working with Nellie and her elephant family to get his all-important shots.

"I did think 'God, how much of a nightmare is this going to be?', but luckily we had a great team of guys working with us who had reared the elephants since birth, so it was actually quite simple.

He adds: "Some of the scenes with Art were pretty staggering in terms of how Nellie opened up to him. Her handler said that the way she seemed so comfortable around him so quickly was very uncommon.

"The connection they had was quite spectacular."

:: Zoo is released in cinemas on Friday June 29.

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