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Denim Richards on Writing 'The Zoo'

July 9, 2020
3 min read time

According to actor-writer-director Denim Richards, “The arts chose me, I didn’t choose the arts.”

Acting in childhood plays is where the Good Trouble star first caught the acting bug.

“I remember thinking, ‘I always want to feel this feeling,’” he said.

After dabbling in theatre, Richards turned his attention to film and television. He currently stars opposite Kevin Costner in Paramount Network’s Yellowstone and will also appear in the upcoming feature film The Chickasaw Rancher.

Recently, Richards moved behind the camera, making his directorial debut with a short film he also co-wrote called The Zoo.

Inspired by true events, The Zoo highlights the black experience during the Holocaust. This particular journey follows the unlikely relationship between an Afro-German prisoner and his captor, a Nazi scientist conducting brutal experiments as Hitler seeks to colonize Africa.

When it came to his transition to writing, Richards said being a history buff, he was open to developing a story that was both historical and inspiring to him. He found that story in The Zoo.

He started researching the project in 2012 after a viewing of Schindlers List inspired him to research people of color affected by the Holocaust.

Throughout that year, Richards uncovered enough research and information, which eventually transpired into an idea for a film. He told his agent back in 2012 that he wanted to write the script. However, he recalled asking, “Is the world even ready to receive a story like this now?”

It probably wasn’t, which is why Richards thinks his patience in telling the story paid off.

“Not only because of the current atmosphere we’re in, but also because I was able to delve deeper into my research,” he said.

I think it’s really important for people of color to know the truth of our history, including the triumphs we’ve experienced and risen above. And I think that’s what the story of The Zoo is really about.”

He adds, “I’m a really big believer in knowing about our history, especially if we don’t want things that have happened to repeat.”

While Richards had some basic experience of writing short films, he admits the writing of The Zoo’s script required more discipline and time than he realized. After working on the script for more than two years, he was introduced to scribe Ryan Gibson, who would become his co-writer.

“He was able to add so many different layers and levels,” Richards said.

The foundation of Richards’ writing process included hundreds of hours of research.

“I’m the type of person that I will force-feed myself information. Then after a few days I will process what I’ve watched and learned and then go back and reread or rewatch everything that I just did.”

From there, Richards said he made bullet points of major themes to explore. Then he delved into the character work and how they would support the story.

“I like to build stories based on doing the research and then extrapolating upon that information,” he said.

“When you’re getting into World War II, there are so many different layers of emotion and stories going on. And then within these concentration camps and within these zoos, there were different worlds created.”

Ultimately, after digging into that emotional research, “You have to love the creative process,” Richards said.

“Once I was able to get the ingredients together, then it was easier to sit down … If I was a chef in a kitchen, I can’t just make something up; I need a list to guide me so I can cook something. It’s easier for me to see everything, to line everything up; then everything makes sense.”

Being close to the project made him an obvious choice to direct the short.

“I was able to go really into the material with the artists and was able to pour in all the information and emotion I had experienced over the last eight years,” he said.

“It was like, ‘Okay, you have two weeks to experience everything I have in eight years,’ so I think it was helpful to be there. It just really supported the vision I had in my head for all that time.”

As for how audiences can see it, there is a trailer available online. So far, the film has been submitted to various festivals. According to Richards, once it has gone through the film festival circuit, he and his team will determine how else the film might be able to reach people, including partnering up with colleges and universities since “the project is just as historic as it is an artistic piece.”

He’s also hoping to have it streamed on various platforms, where there’s already been some interest.

In addition to the short film, Richards is writing a limited series based on The Zoo, which he says will “go deeper” into the lives of the characters. A feature film is also a possibility.

“I just feel so blessed to be able to tell this story,” he said.

“Not a lot of people know about this story, so I think that’s what has been so beautiful about this experience; to be able to bring different conversations to the table that we’re not used to having.”

When it comes to giving advice to those actors who might be interested in writing their own projects, Richards recommends it because he thinks writing gives another depth to artistry.

“You get to really understand the process more; I think you become more relatable to other writers. You’re able to attach yourself to the project more easily. You’re like, ‘yeah, I know why you’re writing it like this’ or why this network or platform has this particular style of writing,” he said.

“Your artistry should always be under construction, and writing is a really nice way to expand outside your regular routine of consciousness.”

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