We Bought A Zoo
Tuesday 24th July 2012
We Bought A Zoo is a funny, inspiring and true story about the magical power of family to persevere in the face of extraordinary challenges. This is acclaimed filmmaker Cameron Crowe's (Jerry Maguire) first motion picture for all audiences and stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church. Damon portrays a single dad who, looking to give his family a much needed fresh start, moves to a home situated in the middle of a zoo, which he and his two children will attempt to bring back to its once glorious state.
Damon's Benjamin Mee is a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer who, as a single father, faces the challenges of raising his two young kids. Hoping that a fresh start and a new life will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and buys an old rural house on 18 acres outside the city that comes with a unique bonus feature: a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her dedicated team.
With no experience, limited time and a shoestring budget, Mee sets out with the support of his family and the local community to reopen the zoo. Now, Benjamin is no longer reporting an adventure story; he's living his own... and it is right in his own backyard.
At first look, We Bought A Zoo marks a departure for filmmaker Cameron Crowe, whose previous films, including Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, told deeply personal stories. Almost Famous, for example, was based on Crowe's experiences as a young reporter at Rolling Stone magazine. We Bought A Zoo, on the other hand, is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, titled We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever. "It's a different kind of movie for me, in that it wasn't meant to be personal", Crowe affirms. "We Bought A Zoo was generated from the desire to tell Benjamin Mee's story".
But the experience of co-scripting and directing the film led Crowe to a surprising revelation. "In the end, telling Benjamin's story ended up being as personal as anything I've done", he says. "One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was to put some joy out in the world. I love that We Bought A Zoo is a movie that allows you to feel joy - to feel what it is to be alive and is about turning loss into something inspirational.
"The story infuses you with a love of life - human and animal", Crowe continues. "And it's about taking risks; a lot of the greatest things ever accomplished came from incredible risk. The story and characters are everything I love in movies".
Before Crowe became involved in the project, Benjamin Mee's memoir had caught the attention of producer Julie Yorn, whose production company is based at Twentieth Century Fox. "I was immediately intrigued", she recalls. "What does that mean, 'We Bought a Zoo'? Who bought a zoo? I learned this was a man who, through a series of circumstances and sort of on a whim, ended up at this zoo with his family. It was a really heartwarming and inspirational story".
After reading the memoir and watching a BBC documentary about Mee's experiences, Yorn says she approached Mee personally and "implored him to trust me that I would find the right way to tell his story", she says. After securing the film rights, Yorn and the studio selected Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) to adapt the story for the big screen. McKenna says she found Mee's story compelling, inspiring and heartwarming. She recalls that the second she saw the cover of the book she envisioned the entire movie. "I love workplace movies and what a great, amazing workplace... a zoo! The second I read the book, I had this instinctive reaction".
Mee's predicament as an inexperienced, unexpected zoo director created opportunities for rich characters and storylines. McKenna says that his experiences make for an "amazing human story. It was always a little funny and always a little heartbreaking. It's also a classic fish out of water story. Benjamin is in this place that he knows very little about. It was a crazy thing that he did, but crazy in such a great way. You get to go backstage at the zoo and see what somebody deals with when they live on a zoo, day-to-day. Having the zoo as your backyard is sort of a fantasy. It's such an exciting idea that you would be able to have all these animals become part of your extended family".
After McKenna submitted her first draft of the screenplay, Yorn and the Studio began a search for a director. It quickly became apparent that acclaimed filmmaker Cameron Crowe's writing and directing sensibilities were a perfect complement to Mee's funny and poignant tale. Crowe's ability to blend comedy, drama, family and a spirit of optimism are unparalleled, as evidenced in such films as Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.
As much as Yorn was thrilled with the idea of Crowe taking the helm of We Bought A Zoo, she didn't hold out much hope he would be interested. "I knew Cameron had never made a movie he didn't originate", Yorn observes. "But I felt the story's themes of loss and healing spoke to some of his previous work - and I knew he had children - so I felt like there was something here Cameron would connect to. Still, I thought it was an incredible long shot to get him. So we were delighted to get a call saying, 'Cameron Crowe really likes your script.'"
"They called me and said they were going to send it to Cameron Crowe", McKenna recalls. "Among contemporary directors he's really one of my idols and inspirations, not just as a filmmaker but as a human being. For me the word that springs to mind when I think of Cameron's films is 'humanity.' He has such empathy for characters, is such a great observer of the culture and is funny and insightful about how people live their lives".
After meeting with Crowe, Yorn knew the story had gotten under Crowe's skin. "There was something about Benjamin's will and determination and the magic and poetry of the place, which resonated with him", she says. "The imagery started to speak to him as a filmmaker".
"Aline's script was a character-based story that reminded me of my favorite movies and I really enjoyed it", Crowe relates. "It was the combination of her script and Benjamin Mee's book that brought me all the way in; together, they were filled with promise. I could hear 'music' and feel the love of the Mee family".
Crowe took the script and "ran it through his own filter", Yorn explains. "He really wanted to honor the version of the film that Aline had conceived, but go back to the true story even more. Cameron wanted to dig deeper into the character of Benjamin and what made him tick and also give the film a little more soul and poetry. There's something soulful in Cameron's work that connects to the Mee family. Who could do this more soulfully than Cameron Crowe?"
With Crowe set to direct and co-write the screenplay, casting got underway to find the right cast to portray the members of an ordinary family placed in extraordinary circumstances. For the central role of Benjamin Mee, a single father out of his depth in several ways, the filmmakers wanted an actor who would bring a sense of decency, higher purpose and humor. For Crowe, both the real life Benjamin Mee and his cinematic counterpart are further defined by their relentlessness. "He does not give up", says the director. "And I love that he's that kind of guy. Nothing is going to stop him".
Matt Damon got the nod to play Benjamin Mee. For Damon, who has worked with the world's greatest filmmakers - including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Gus Van Sant, Anthony Minghella, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh and Paul Greengrass - the prospect of working with Crowe, a director he's long admired, was a key attraction for taking on the role. "The reason I came aboard was a hundred percent Cameron", Damon enthuses. "He sent me a script, but he also gave me over an hour's worth of music that he had selected, as well as the film Local Hero - he kind of gave this whole bundle to me and said, 'This is kind of the feeling of what I want to do. He explained that 'Local Hero' is a dramatic movie that's also a very funny movie, giving you a wonderful happy-sad feeling. It really gave me a great sense of the movie he wanted to make. Cameron's sensibility is unique and he's such a brilliant writer and director that I thought the film could really fly with him at the helm".
Damon was intimately familiar with Crowe's ability to craft films infused with comedy, drama and memorable dialogue. "There are incredible moments in Cameron's movies where you're getting so much about who the people are and you're laughing at the same time", Damon says. "You find yourself laughing and then unexpectedly affected by something. He's able to use humor to get your guard down. It just feels so real and yet it's so uniquely Cameron. In fact I think every character is some version of him. He kind of infects everybody around him with that little piece of him that we all relate to. It's why the films are tonally so tight and coherent, because in some ways it's come out of him".
Casting was still a long way off when McKenna was penning her first script draft, but she did something completely unexpected. "I decided to write the character of Benjamin Mee as if it were Matt Damon", she recalls. "He's sort of an everyman, intelligent, masculine and he has a great sense of humor. But it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that it would actually end up being Matt Damon". Adds Crowe: "Matt always bring a cache of trust and in the same way, Benjamin Mee is a character I trusted when I read the book and Aline's script. Matt plays Benjamin from the heart, with a lot of truth and that's why you believe in his journey".
Damon's Benjamin Mee, prior to beginning his new life at the zoo, was an adventure-seeking writer who in the course of his career had interviewed Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, flew into the eye of a hurricane and become encircled by thousands of killer bees. "At the beginning of the movie he's a journalist - he's been a journalist his entire adult life - he's always looking for an adventure and has had all these incredible experiences", Damon says. "Benjamin has traveled around the world and done all kinds of extraordinary things".
But as the story opens, Benjamin finds himself struggling with the balancing act of raising two kids, ages 14 and 7. "Benjamin decides that they need something new - and so he sets off to find a new place to live and he finds this beautiful piece of property - and it feels like destiny", says Damon. "Then they discover that there's an old zoo that comes with the property. Benjamin knows nothing about zoos, but in the spirit of adventure his late wife would have appreciated, he decides to go for it and buy the zoo".
Upon their arrival at their new home/zoo, Benjamin and his family meet head zookeeper Kelly Foster, played by Scarlett Johansson. Kelly is a no-nonsense, down to earth animal advocate and the voice of conscience for the zoo's occupants. "Kelly is a very practical person, good-natured and loves animals", says Johansson. "She's very much a person who gets it done and gets it done well and leaves no loose ends. This zoo and these animals are her whole life".
Johansson notes that Kelly is, initially, somewhat wary of the Mee family. "She thinks of them as yet another in a long line of owners who probably saw the zoo as their little project, threw some money at it and then disappeared. However, Kelly begins to see Benjamin take control of different projects and he seems to be totally dedicated and keeps sticking around. Through his apparent dedication she starts to believe in this guy and thinks, maybe this could be different".
Johansson says she was drawn to McKenna's and Crowe's script. "It has this incredible dialogue I could wrap my head around", Johansson says. "I also thought the story was very unusual because there's something old-fashioned about it. It's a film about family, about finding your passion and believing in yourself. It's very real and gritty. It deals with overcoming your own fear. It has a lot of those gritty, real-life qualities that makes it reminiscent of the classic films of the 1970s".
"The great thing about Scarlett is she truly is a lover of animals and immediately understood and connected to that", Yorn says. "It's very different from any part she usually plays. People have such an expectation of her being the femme fatale. In this film she really gets to show another side". Adds Crowe: "Scarlett brings a great humanity to the role that conveys Kelly's ferociously protective spirit. Kelly is going to fight to save that zoo and its animals".
The Benjamin-Kelly dynamic provides one of the film's many surprises. Says Damon: "You would think that they would get together and the movie becomes about that love story, but it's not. Among other things, the film is about two characters who both love the zoo. They build a friendship and closeness out of their shared passion for this project they're working on together. And out of that comes this really genuine thing between them, which by the end of the movie, probably becomes something else".
Duncan Mee, Benjamin's older brother and voice of reason, is played by Thomas Haden Church, who earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable role in Sideways. Whereas Benjamin Mee sees no obstacle that is insurmountable, Duncan is ever skeptical about his brother's new mission. Despite his doubts, Duncan supports his brother. "Duncan is the truth-teller in the movie", says Crowe. "For the first half of the movie, Duncan is trying to convince Benjamin that buying the zoo is the worst mistake of his life. Eventually, he becomes Benjamin's greatest ally in this outlandish endeavor. And he does it in a way that makes you feel that he'd be a great older brother to have".
"Duncan is supposed to be the voice of responsibility and accountability - not for the least of which he's an accountant", Church says. "He thinks the zoo may be the riskiest financial proposition to be conceived by anybody. But he has great affection for the kids and for his brother and ultimately his priority is their health and happiness. By the end of the movie, Duncan understands more about the humane thrust of what they're trying to do as opposed to the financial threat it poses to the family".
We Bought A Zoo reunites Crowe with actor Patrick Fugit, who made his film debut with the starring role as Crowe's alter-ego, William Miller, in the filmmaker's semi-autographical 2000 comedy-drama Almost Famous, based on Crowe's own early life story as a teenage rock journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine. The 28 year-old actor - who was only 16 at the time of Almost Famous - notes that although he and Crowe kept in touch after that seminal experience, it had been a few years since they had spoken. "I was a little anxious about meeting Cameron for this role", Fugit admits. "I've grown a lot since then and he's grown a lot and so much is different now. But as soon as we started getting into the scenes, it was like I was 16 again".
Fugit plays Robin Jones, one of the zookeepers and its resident craftsman and handyman. Jones' constant companion is a capuchin monkey named Crystal, which spends most of her time perched on Robin's shoulder. "When I met with Cameron for this part and we had our reading, he mentioned, 'I think Robin is going to have a capuchin monkey,'" Fugit recalls. "During rehearsal, I met Crystal and her handler Thomas Gunderson, so we could establish a good rapport and make it look like we'd been hanging out a long time".
Elle Fanning, star of the thriller Super 8, plays Kelly Foster's bubbly cousin, the young beauty Lily Miska, who lives and helps out at the zoo and its restaurant. When the Mees move in, she becomes fascinated with Benjamin's teenage son Dylan. "Lily lives in her own world", says Fanning, who celebrated her 13th birthday during production. "She's been surrounded by animals her whole life, so she doesn't really know how to relate to people that well. Dylan is like an exotic creature to her. She starts wearing makeup and tries to flirt with him, but she doesn't really know how because she's never had a crush on a boy. Lily tries hard to impress Dylan".
Lily's feelings are reciprocated - but now Dylan is the one confused by his first brush with love. In depicting their burgeoning relationship, Crowe draws parallels to Benjamin's story of romantic longing years earlier when he first met his wife Katherine by mustering what he calls "20 seconds of courage". "Benjamin tells Dylan that all you need are those 20 seconds of insane courage and something great will come of it", Crowe elaborates. The fatherly advice resonates even more, he adds, "because Benjamin is realizing its importance to his own situation at the zoo".
The film's primary antagonist is patronizing zoo inspector Walter Ferris, played by John Michael Higgins, known for his roles in Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries" A Mighty Wind, Best in Show and For Your Consideration. Ferris poses the largest obstacle for Benjamin, because if the zoo fails his crucial inspection, Benjamin won't be able to open it in time for the prime summer tourist season. Higgins explains what makes Ferris tick: "Strangely, he's a bad guy with a really big heart for animals. He really cares about the animals, which is why he so carefully scrutinizes the Mee operation".
Peter MacCready, the zoo's passionate and visionary architect and enclosure designer, is played by Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen, best known for his role as Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson's 1995 Oscar-winning classic, Braveheart. The character name of 'Peter MacCready' went through several incarnations, but was finally settled upon after MacFadyen was cast in the role. When Crowe saw MacFadyen in his wardrobe for the first time, he was wearing a jumpsuit and Crowe thought he looked like Pete Townsend. So Peter became his first name. And MacCready (with a different spelling) is the last name of Mike McCready, the lead guitarist of the rock band Pearl Jam, about whom Crowe had recently completed a retrospective documentary.
To portray the Mee children, the filmmakers conducted a nationwide search and online open casting call before eventually deciding on Colin Ford and relative newcomer Maggie Elizabeth Jones, both natives of Atlanta, Georgia. Ford's Dylan is having a difficult time in his new environment. "He doesn't see eye-to-eye with his father", says Ford. "Dylan defies him - he's a real smart aleck - and does anything to get underneath his skin".
Matt Damon adds, "Benjamin's relationship with his son is pretty combative. The whole family is getting through the absence of the mom; they're all battling it. Dylan is at that rebellious phase, which combined with what he's going through, makes for a lot of friction between father and son".
Maggie Elizabeth Jones is Benjamin's lively daughter Rosie, who is full of joy, imagination and optimism. She's an old soul who's almost like a caretaker to her beleaguered father. Rosie is played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who recently made her acting debut in Footloose. "Rosie is really sweet and really nice and she's actually the one that gets the zoo to open", the young actress says about her character. When Benjamin and Rosie are first shown the Rosemoor facility on their initial house hunting excursion, it is Rosie's gleeful enthusiasm for the house and the animals that prompts her father to make it their new home. "Benjamin looks at his little girl and something clangs inside of him", says Crowe. "He thinks that her reaction of pure joy must be honored. And that's the beginning of him saying to himself, 'Damn, I gotta buy this zoo!'"
For Damon, a husband and father of young children, spending several months at the zoo set transcended work because it offered a lot of family time. "It was great to have all these kids around and have my kids come to set and interact with them", he notes. "I would have been unable to play this character ten years ago; I wouldn't have been able to relate to him. I think that whatever Cameron has gone through in his personal life and whatever I've gone through in my personal life has kind of lined us up to be interested by this material".
With casting complete, the actors settled in for two weeks of rehearsal. They also spent time with animal coordinator Mark Forbes for "animal school" at Moorpark College Teaching Zoo to meet and talk with the zookeepers and train with various species of animals with which they would be working. Two of the film's zookeepers, played by Patrick Fugit and Angus MacFadyen, underwent "job training", in order to help inform their performances in working with and maintaining the zoo's various animal enclosures.
Crowe reunites with several key regular members of his behind the scenes team, including production designer Clay Griffith and editor Mark Livolsi, A.C.E. New to Cameron's team are director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, ASC/AMC and costume designer Deborah L. Scott.
Griffith notes that Crowe's visual palette for We Bought A Zoo was inspired by the Neil Young Harvest album, the 2007 Sigur Rós documentary, Heima and the aforementioned Bill Forsythe film, Local Hero. "The connective tissue between those three works is that they have soul", notes Griffith. "Cameron always likes to find the poetry in things". Over the years, Crowe and Griffith have developed a close working relationship and design shorthand. Griffith recalls that he would show Crowe images that would evoke thoughts and feelings they could bring into the set. "Cameron would counter with another photograph, so we had this kind of visual and verbal dialogue".
We Bought A Zoo also marks the first collaboration between Crowe and costume designer Deborah L. Scott, whose many credits include E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, Titanic and Avatar. Scott notes that Benjamin is an "everyman figure, so with him there's nothing that's too fashionable. It's just basic, functional 'man clothes' - he's a real guy's guy".
For Scarlett Johansson's Kelly Foster, Scott went for a modern day extension of legendary animal researchers and naturalists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. "Those women brought enormous sensitivity and femininity and warmth to the environment. When I looked at pictures of Jane Goodall and how beautiful she was, it just struck a chord".
Scott also designed clothing for Crystal, the capuchin monkey and sidekick to zookeeper Robin Jones. "I might have done something for a dog or cat on a movie, but never for a monkey", she laughs. "It came as a little bit of a surprise. Crystal was pretty amazing. Once I got the basic pattern down, she would stand there and you'd hold the little pants out and she'd step in just like a small child. It was easy. And no backtalk!"
We Bought A Zoo was filmed on locations around Los Angeles before moving 30 miles north to Greenfield Ranch in Thousand Oaks, where the Rosemoor Animal Park set was constructed. The completed zoo contained animal enclosures, walking paths, water features, diverse flora and fauna, an observation tower, a sculpture garden and an amphitheater. The Rosemoor Animal Park sets took nine months to design and build. The excavation and construction occurred over a four-month period, taking the combined efforts of over 140 carpenters, painters, prop makers, plasterers, sculptors, sign makers and landscapers, along with the art department staff of art directors, set designers and set decorators.
The Mee Family home, a 4,000 square foot, two-story, American Colonial farmhouse, painted in Cape Cod Gray, was the only residential structure built from scratch at the Greenfield Ranch location. Griffith says that aside from building the zoo, the farmhouse was the most enjoyable part of his job. "There's something viscerally exciting about building a house from the ground up", he relates. "What I really found interesting what the house's size, its relation to its setting, the age of the trees and the big, pastoral landscape behind it. You're definitely in another world".
Finding the spot on the sprawling property to erect the eight-acre zoo was a challenge. When the property was first scouted there was no road leading to the eventual site. (Griffith recalls it was just "five foot tall grass and rattlesnakes".) But from a specific perspective, the area looked like Dartmoor Zoo, the real-life zoo purchased by Benjamin Mee.
Once Griffith began his design work for the zoo, he and his art directors met with animal coordinator Mark Forbes to determine and coordinate the placement of the animal enclosures. He recalls Forbes telling him, "Don't put the tigers near the bears. Don't let the lions and the tigers see each other. And don't ever, ever, ever let the lion, tigers and bears see any of the hoofed animals. "I told Mark, 'Great, you just spread the zoo out everywhere", Griffith laughs. 'I can't have anything that's even remotely near each other.' But it worked out really well, although we spent an exorbitant amount of time plotting out where each specific enclosure would go".
Griffith and his team did extensive research on what each enclosure would need to house its respective animal. "We looked at small zoos and large zoos", he says. "We talked to people from the LA County Zoo, the Orange County Zoo and the Tucson Zoo, where my art director spent a week looking at their operations. Part of what Cameron wanted to do was show what it's really like to be behind the scenes at a zoo".
Overseeing the exotic and domesticated animals featured in the film, is veteran animal coordinator, Mark Forbes, whose company Birds & Animals Unlimited has provided and trained animals for many productions. Forbes and a team of 30 specialized animal trainers worked with the nearly 75 animals featured in the film, including an African Lion, Bengal Tigers, North American Grizzly Bears, White-Backed Vultures, White-Faced Capuchins, Hamadryas Baboons, Eurasian Eagle-Owls, Crested Porcupines, Asian Small-Clawed Otters, a Binturong, Grevy's Zebras, Ostriches, Chilean Flamingos, Indian Blue Peacocks, Peahens, a Zebu, Dromedary Camels, Alpacas, a Kangaroo, a Leopard, a Red Fox and a Scarlet Macaw.
During production, the zoo animals were not kept in the enclosures at the zoo set. Instead, they were brought in on a daily basis as needed. The animals were all housed with their respective owners and trainers and various animal compounds in the Southern California area.
Music informs Crowe's creative process, from writing to rehearsal, to playing music on set during filming and ultimately to finalizing the music featured in the completed film. Crowe uses music extensively during production to inspire the actors' performances and create the appropriate mood. It also helps the crew understand the tone of the scenes they are filming.
During production, We Bought A Zoo was broadly "temped" with solo material from Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Simon and Garfunkel, Leon Russell, Warren Zevon, Kanye West, Bon Iver, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, U2 - and famed recording artist Jónsi, of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Jónsi would go on to compose the film's score. Crowe would cue a production assistant to play snippets of songs before, after and even during scenes - all culled from a laptop containing Crowe's partial iTunes library filled with over 20,000 songs and a playlist for nearly every scene.
Upon the completion of principal photography, Crowe began finalizing his plans for the music and soundtrack. Jónsi's work is an integral part of the film's emotional landscape. Written and recorded in short order, over four months this summer and fall at the famous Village Studios in Los Angeles and at the singer's home studio in his native Iceland, the soundtrack to We Bought A Zoo comprises more than a half-hour of brand new music from Jónsi, including two full songs and nine achingly beautiful themes, plus reimaginings of songs from Jónsi's acclaimed solo album, Go, as well as what might well be regarded as Sigur Rós' most memorable tune, Hoppípolla.
"Jónsi arrived from Iceland with a toy sampler keyboard and a headful of ideas", says Crowe. "Within a week, he had composed a series of themes that would reflect everything we'd hoped for. In his music were all the highs and lows and passionate in-betweens of the film itself. The instinct that made the movie come full circle".
Cameron's relationship with Jónsi and Sigur Rós goes back almost as far as the band's position in the international spotlight, to 2001 and the director's much-noticed inclusion of three of the band's songs in his successful film Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise. Crowe has long heralded the band and their filmwork, to the extent that the secret project name for We Bought A Zoo was, in fact, "Heima", in honor of the band's 2007 tour film.
"Early on it was obvious that Sigur Rós' music would have a profound effect on the making of We Bought A Zoo", says Crowe. "In preparation for making the movie, we gave all the actors and crew members a copy of Sigur Rós' transcendent documentary, Heima".
The closing scene of We Bought A Zoo is a cinematic homage to a specific moment in Heima when gleeful crowds stream in a Sigur Rós show in the far North of Iceland or, in this case, the newly opened zoo. Among the original score and new songs is Gathering Stories, a song co-written by Jónsi and Crowe, in a collaborative first for the notoriously private Icelander. Orchestral arrangements on the score have been handled by previous Jónsi working partner and composer Nico Muhly, who brings his quixotic genius to the string and brass sections.
As Crowe finalized the music and other post-production activities, he reflected on what he hopes audiences will experience watching We Bought A Zoo. "What I like best is that the film packs a wallop before you even realize it; it's telling a story that's deeper than you expected it to be and then it kind of gets under your skin. You come in expecting something - and you get that, plus something extra. A lot of my favorite movies do that: you walk out of the showing and say, 'Man, I didn't expect to go to that place. I miss those characters a little bit".
Benjamin Mee - The True Story
In 2006, Benjamin Mee, a British DIY columnist for the UK's Guardian newspaper, moved his family from their peaceful existence in the south of France to the shuttered Dartmoor Zoo in the British countryside in Devon. Benjamin's family consisted of his wife Katherine, his mother, his brother Duncan and his two small children, Ella and Milo. "It was about an 18 month period between 2006 and 2007 where our family, more or less accidentally, decided to buy a zoo", Mee recalls. "We were looking for a large house, where my mother could live with her extended family, after my father died.
"The estate agent's details came through with lots of different properties and this one looked ideal", Mee continues. "It was a once-grand twelve-bedroom house with a 30-acre garden in a nice part of the country. But it had the complication of 250 exotic animals in the garden. So you'd look through the details and it was kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms....along with various animal enclosures.
And of course we laughed at first, but we went to see it anyway. We had always loved animals and we just fell in love with it straight away and knew we had to do it. It was going to be closed if someone didn't buy it and about half of the animals would have been destroyed, because it's really difficult to relocate these kinds of animals on such short notice. So we immediately had a sense of mission and purpose to pull out all the stops and get the place. Once we had done that we had to make sure it could earn its living and open it to the public again, which is a whole process in itself".
Within a few months after purchasing the zoo, Benjamin's wife Katherine, who was in remission from cancer, became ill again and she died at the age of 40. Three months later, Mee opened the zoo. Mee says that in simple terms the impending opening of the zoo was a good distraction from the grief he and his family were going through. "It was a very cathartic process, working so closely with animals depending on you for their daily existence. In the midst of what we were going through, we could look out of the window and see life going on outside. People were coming in to work to feed the animals and to look after them. You're very much in touch with the whole cycle of life. It's just a nice environment in which to recuperate".
As a journalist and newspaper columnist prior to buying the zoo, Mee knew he could write a book about his experiences, but at first he thought he'd write a newspaper column. "I figured that this was an interesting subject matter and even when Hollywood bought the rights, I didn't expect it to actually get made. And when it did, I didn't expect it to get made on such a fantastic scale, with the stars and director that were chosen".
Mee's true adventure was chronicled in his 2008 bestselling memoir, "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever". In the fall of 2007, prior to the book's release, Mee's story was documented in a popular four-part BBC two documentary series entitled Ben's Zoo.
Since then, Mee has divided his time between operating the zoo and public speaking, in which his focus is on encouraging others to pursue their dreams. "I'm stubborn in that I don't give up when people tell me that something's impossible. You'll definitely fail if you just give up. If you try, you've got a chance, even when it looks impossible. If people find that message inspirational, then I'm delighted. If I can encourage people in some small way to seize their dream and see it through despite the odds, then I'd be happy about that".
Matt Damon (Bejamin Mee) has been honored for his work on both sides of the camera, most recently earning Academy Award® and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award® nominations, for Best Supporting Actor, for his portrayal of South African rugby hero Francois Pienaar in Clint Eastwood's true-life drama Invictus. In addition, he garnered dual Golden Globe® Award nominations in 2010: for Best Supporting Actor for Invictus; and for Best Actor for his performance in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! Earlier in his career, Damon won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay and received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, both for his breakthrough feature Good Will Hunting.
Earlier this year, Damon starred in director Steven Soderbergh's thriller Contagion; in Kenneth Lonergan's drama Margaret. He also lends his voice to the animated feature Happy Feet Two, directed by George Miller. Earlier this year, Damon starred in George Nolfi's thriller The Adjustment Bureau. In 2010, he starred in the Coen brothers' Oscar-nominated remake of the classic Western True Grit, Clint Eastwood's drama Hereafter and the action thriller Green Zone for director Paul Greengrass. He had previously starred under Greengrass's direction in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum. Damon originated the title role of Jason Bourne in Doug Liman's 2002 action blockbuster The Bourne Identity.
His other recent film credits include Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning Best Picture The Departed, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg; Robert De Niro's dramatic thriller The Good Shepherd, with De Niro and Angelina Jolie; and Stephen Gaghan's geopolitical thriller Syriana, with George Clooney. Damon also teamed with Clooney and Brad Pitt as part of the all-star casts of Soderbergh's heist comedy hit Ocean's Eleven and its sequels, Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen.
For the small screen, Damon both executive produced and appeared in the History Channel project The People Speak, based on a book co-written by historian Howard Zinn and featuring dramatic readings and performances from some of the most famous names in the entertainment industry.
Hailing from Boston, Damon attended Harvard University and gained his first acting experience with the American Repertory Theatre. He made his feature film debut in Mystic Pizza, followed by roles in School Ties, Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend and the cable projects Rising Son and Tommy Lee Jones' The Good Old Boys. Damon first gained attention with his portrayal of a guilt-ridden Gulf War veteran in 1996's Courage Under Fire.
Together with his lifelong friend Ben Affleck, Damon co-wrote the acclaimed 1997 drama Good Will Hunting, for which they won an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award, as well as several critics groups awards for Best Original Screenplay. Damon also garnered Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, in addition to his Oscar nomination, for Best Actor. Additionally in 1997, Damon starred in Francis Ford Coppola's The Rainmaker and appeared in Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy.
The following year, Damon played the title role in Steven Spielberg's award-winning World War II dramaSaving Private Ryan and also starred in John Dahl's drama Rounders, with Edward Norton. Damon earned his third Golden Globe nomination for his performance in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley, directed by Anthony Minghella. Damon's subsequent film credits include Kevin Smith's Dogma, with Affleck, Robert Redford's The Legend of Bagger Vance, Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses, the Farrelly brothers' comedy Stuck on You, Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm and George Clooney's Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
Damon and Affleck formed the production company LivePlanet, which produced three Emmy®-nominated seasons of Project Greenlight, chronicling the making of independent films by first-time writers and directors. The Project Greenlight films produced includeStolen Summer, The Battle of Shaker Heights and Feast. LivePlanet also produced the documentary Running the Sahara, directed by Oscar winner James Moll. In addition, Damon is the co-founder of Water.org and a founder of Not On Our Watch.
Scarlett Johansson (Kelly Foster) is a four-time Golden Globe nominee and BAFTA winner. Recently, she won critical acclaim and a Tony® for her Broadway debut in the Arthur Miller play A View from a Bridge, opposite Liev Schreiber. Johansson was seen in the box office hit Iron Man 2 playing the role of Black Widow and will reprise that role with The Avengers, opening in May 2012. She has started production on the independent film Under the Skin for director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast); Johansson plays the lead role.
Johansson received rave reviews and a Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival for her starring role opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation, the critically-acclaimed second film by director Sofia Coppola. She was recently seen in the box office hit He's Just Not That Into You. Prior she starred in the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona and played Mary Boleyn in The Other Boleyn Girl.
In 2009, Johansson released her second studio album of duets with Pete Yorn, called Break Up, which received multi-platinum status. Before that, she released the album, Anywhere I Lay My Head, a collection of Tom Waits covers featuring one original song. At the age of 12, Johansson attained worldwide recognition for her performance as Grace Maclean, a teen traumatized by a riding accident, in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. She went on to star in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, garnering a Best Supporting Actress award from the Toronto Film Critics Circle. Johansson was also featured in the Coen Brothers' dark drama The Man Who Wasn't There, opposite Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.
Her other film credits include the critically acclaimed Weitz brothers film, In Good Company, as well as a role opposite John Travolta in A Love Song for Bobby Long, which garnered her a Golden Globe nomination (her third in two years.) and Woody Allen's Match Point, which garnered her fourth consecutive Golden Globe nominee in three years. Other film credits include The Spirit, Girl with a Pearl Earring opposite Colin Firth, The Island opposite Ewan McGregor, Brian DePalma's The Black Dahlia, Christopher Nolan's The Prestige and The Nanny Diaries.
Johansson's additional credits include Rob Reiner's comedy North, the thriller Just Cause, with Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne and a breakthrough role at the age of 10 in the critically-praised Manny & Lo, which earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Female Lead.
Thomas Haden Church (Duncan Mee) received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Jack starring opposite Paul Giamatti in Alexander Payne's critically acclaimed film Sideways. The Fox Searchlight Pictures release premiered at the 29th Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win numerous awards in 2004 and 2005, including a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Picture, Broadcast Film Critics award for Best Picture, a Screen Actors Guild / SAG Award for Best Ensemble Cast and six Independent Spirit Awards. Church was also honored as Best Supporting Actor by the Broadcast Film Critics and the Independent Spirit Awards.
Upcoming is the Voltage Pictures crime thriller Killer Joe, which premiered at The Venice Film Festival and where he worked alongside Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsh, Juno Temple and Gina Gershon. Prior to this Church filmed Another Happy Day in which he stars opposite Kate Bosworth, Demi Moore, Ellen Barking, Jeffrey DeMun and Ellen Burstyn. Church was seen in Sony Screen Gems' Easy A, a comedy co-starring Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Lisa Kudrow, Stanley Tucci, Penn Badgley and Patrica Clarkson with Will Gluck directing. The film opened to critical accolades and has preformed well at the worldwide box office.
In 2009, Church starred opposite Elisabeth Shue and Melissa Leo in Don McKay, which premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Church was also seen in Twentieth Century Fox's dark comedy All About Steve, opposite Sandra Bullock and Bradley Cooper, as well as in Paramount Pictures' family film Imagine That, starring Eddie Murphy.
Church will next be seen in the Disney Pictures' sci-fi, adventure John Carter of Mars, starring opposite Willem Dafoe, Bryan Cranston, Samantha Mortona and Taylor Kitsch. Disney will release this film in the summer of 2012. Church gained worldwide notice for starring as the villian Sandman, aka Flint Marko, in the third installment of Sony Pictures franchise, Spider-Man 3, which was 2007's biggest box-office success. That year, Church also starred opposite Dennis Quaid and Sarah Jessica Parker in the Miramax film, Smart People.
Church won an Emmy Award and received a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his role as Tom Harte opposite the legendary Robert Duvall in the critically acclaimed western epic, Broken Trail, directed by Walter Hill, which premiered on AMC/ American Movie Classics. In 2006, Church utilized his unique voice in two voiceover roles: as a cow in DreamWorks' Over the Hedge and then as the crow, Brooks, in the remake of the classic, Charlotte's Web, released by Paramount Pictures.
Church made his feature film debut in Tombstone, in 1993. His performance is hardly noteworthy, save for the way that he was riddled with bullets at the O.K. Corral. Church first gained prominence for his role as the bucket-headed mechanic Lowell Mather on the long-running NBC series Wings. He is also known for his lead role in the Fox series Ned and Stacey, in which he starred opposite Debra Messing as the self-righteous Ned Dorsey. In 1997, Time magazine proclaimed that the character of Ned was one of the six reasons to watch television. That same year and for the same performance, Church was declared unfit to live with dogs by National Public Radio.
Church has also had roles in numerous feature films, most notably opposite Brendan Fraser in the box-office blockbuster George of the Jungle and the straight-to-cable Free Money, opposite Marlon Brando. In addition, Church is co-screenwriter and director of the film Rolling Kansas, which premiered as an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival in 2003. Acclaimed by no one, it now comfortably resides on Comedy Central.
We Bought A Zoo marks the reunion of Patrick Fugit (Robin Jones) with writer-director Cameron Crowe, for whom he made his Hollywood movie debut in the 2000 coming-of-age tale, Almost Famous, when Fugit was 16. Discovered in a national casting search, Fugit became widely known for playing William Miller, a young rock-fan-turned-reporter based on the early career of its director Cameron Crowe, the youngest journalist for Rolling Stone Magazine. Already a classic, Almost Famous is touted as one of the ten best movies of the decade from 2000-2010.
Fugit was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. His mother, Jan, a dance teacher who raised Fugit and his younger siblings, encouraged the youngsters to perform. Fugit credits Jan with developing his early interest in the dramatic arts. From junior high and into high school, he also began studying the craft of acting in theatre school during his summer vacations. Fugit made his stage debut in a school production while in the seventh grade. Inspired by his love of performing, he decided to become a professional actor and went on to land several guest roles in locally shot television episodes throughout his teens.
Following his 2000 debut in Almost Famous, Fugit played a sweetly geeky, aspiring comic book artist in the 2002 drama White Oleander and a naive drug addict in the indie dark comedy Spun. His next film, Saved! was a satirical look at the religious right in high school. In 2005 Fugit starred in The Amateurs, an independent comedy about a sleepy town that comes together to film a porno and in 2007 he starred in Wristcutters, A Love Story. In 2009, Fugit portrayed the role of Evra the Snake Boy in the 2009 fantasy-thriller Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. Earlier this year, he was seen in HBO's Cinema Verite alongside James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins. The film tells the behind-the-scene story of the groundbreaking 1973 PBS Documentary series, An American Family.
Elle Fanning (Lily Miska) made her feature film debut in 2001, at the age of two, when she co-starred as Young Lucy in New Line Cinema'sI Am Sam. Since then she has starred in more than 10 films and numerous episodes of television (including Criminal Minds, Dirty Sexy Money and The Lost Room miniseries). She co-starred opposite Eddie Murphy in the family comedy Daddy Day Care, for Revolution Studios. In 2004, Elle appeared in Focus Films' The Door in the Floor, from director Tod Williams.
In 2005, Elle starred as the young Sweetie Pie Thomas in Because of Winn-Dixie, with Cicely Tyson and Dave Matthews. In 2006 Elle appeared in Paramount Pictures' Babel, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett; and in Touchstone's Deja Vu, directed by Tony Scott, starring Denzel Washington.
In 2007, Elle filmed Reservation Road and The Nines. In 2008, she appeared in director David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, opposite Brad Pitt. Also that year, Elle starred in the independent film Phoebe in Wonderland, opposite Patricia Clarkson, Felicity Huffman and Bill Pullman. The film had its world premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, where Elle received rave reviews. The movie tells the story of a nine year old girl who won't, or can't, follow the rules as she struggles with Tourette's Syndrome.
Late last year, Elle starred alongside Stephen Dorff in Sofia Coppola's Somewhere. It won the 2010 Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion Award. It has also been named one of the top 10 independent films of the year by the National Board of Review. Elle was nominated for a Critics' Choice Award for her performance in the film. Earlier this year, she starred in two films: Super 8, for director J.J. Abrams and Twixt Now and Sunrise for director Francis Ford Coppola, where she stars opposite Val Kilmer and Bruce Dem. Then came Pure Life, a Van Fischer film, where she is to star opposite Vera Farmiga.
John Michael Higgins (Walter Ferris) is known for surprising audiences by his chameleon like character changes. The guy who played David Letterman in the highly acclaimed HBO film The Late Shift is indeed the same guy who played the flamboyantly gay Shih-Tzu handler Scott Donlon in Christopher Guest's blockbuster comedy Best in Show.
Higgins appears in the upcoming Universal Pictures feature Everybody Loves Whales, directed by Ken Kwapis, starring Drew Barrymore. Earlier this year, Higgins was seen in the Columbia Pictures comedy, Bad Teacher, directed by Jake Kasdan. Higgins co-starred in the Columbia Pictures romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth opposite Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, as well as the Universal comedy Couples Retreat, alongside an all-star cast that included Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis and Malin Akerman.
In addition, Higgins co-starred in the Warner Bros. comedy Yes Man, opposite Jim Carrey and in Fired Up!, a cheerleading themed comedy for Screen Gems Pictures. He starred opposite Vince Vaughn in Fred Claus, in Evan Almighty opposite Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman, as well as in The Break-Up, with Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston and in the latest Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration, which reunited him with his cast mates from Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Higgins previously co-starred in the Sony film Fun with Dick and Jane opposite Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni, as well as David Goyer's Blade 3 opposite Wesley Snipes.
Higgins had a recurring role on TNT's Raising the Bar. He also starred opposite Selma Blair and Molly Shannon in Kath and Kim, on NBC. Higgins has many other television credits including roles on Arrested Development and Ally McBeal. Additionally, he has provided countless over-the-top voices for Cartoon Network'sHarvey Birdman Attorney At Law and for FOX's CGI animated show Game Over. Higgins is also the spokesperson for DirecTV and can be seen starring in their commercials. Higgins starred in the title role of the Lincoln Center / Broadway premiere of the A.R. Gurney play Big Bill, a searing drama about the fall from grace of the great American tennis champion Bill Tilden. He reprised this role from his Williamstown Theatre Festival triumph, where he is a very popular fixture.
Christopher Guest, when planning his comic triumph A Mighty Wind, asked Higgins not only to star as Terry Bohner, the color-cultish leader of the New Main Street Singers, but also to write razor-sharp parody songs and create the complex vocal and instrumental arrangements for the film and the bestselling soundtrack. Higgins also toured to instantly sold-out dates with the New Main Street Singers at the most prestigious music venues in the United States.
Colin Ford (Dylan Mee) was born in Nashville on September 12, 1996, where he lived twenty-four hours before his family relocated to Atlanta. At age four, Colin modeled in print ads for regional and national retailers in Atlanta magazines and newspapers. At age five, Colin broke into film as Clinton, Jr. in the feature, Sweet Home Alabama and he was forever hooked on film acting. Ford was cast in such independent films as Moved, The Book of Jane and When Harry Met Lloyd: Dumb and Dumberer. In 2004, Colin portrayed Matthew Steed in the movie, The Work and the Glory.
The year 2005 began with a high-profile photo shoot for W Magazine opposite Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, in which Colin portrayed one of Pitt's children. Then, Colin was cast in a recurring role on Smallville. He played Matthew Steed in The Work and the Glory: American Zion followed by a leading role, as Jackson Patch, in The Dog Days of Summer, with veteran actor Will Patton. Capping off a busy year, Colin played Zeph, the son of Jason Statham (Farmer) and Claire Forlani (Solona) in the epic adventure, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Story, released in 2006.
In addition to print, television and film, Colin has a passion for voice work. Colin voiced the role of Mikey in Disney Playhouse's Alligator Manners. In addition, he voiced Dart, the reindeer, performing with Kathy Bates, Andy Griffith, Jay Leno, Ed Asner, Shirley Jones and many others in the film Christmas is Here Again, released in 2008.
At age 10, Colin was cast as Jack in the independent film, Jack and the Beanstalk. He starred opposite Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek in the feature film Lake City, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2009. Ford's other film credits include Push and the independent film, Ticket Out, released in late 2010. He recently starred in the independent film, Eye of the Hurricane. Ford's extensive television credits include guest starring roles on Journeyman, Private Practice, CSI: Miami, Close, Hawaii Five-O, Close to Home and American Family. He is most remembered for his recurring portrayal of young Sam on the CW's hit series, Supernatural. Colin had the role of Jake in the Playhouse Disney series, Jake and the Never Land Pirates.
Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Rosie Mee) began her acting career in a television commercial in 2007. Born in October 2003, the eight-year-old has since done several commercials and print advertisements. In 2010 she booked her first theatrical role in Footloose, in which she plays Amy Warnicker, the cousin to the film's star, Kenny Wormald. She also guest starred in the FOX Network pilot, Most Likely to Succeed.
Angus Macfadyen (Peter MacCready) was born in Glasgow, Scotland and attended the prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He found work on stage and screen, quickly gaining international acclaim for his tour-de-force performance as Robert the Bruce in the Oscar-winning film Braveheart.
Over the course of his 20-year career, MacFadyen has appeared in dozens of feature films and television shows. His incredible range as an actor has led to roles with some of the greatest talents in Hollywood, including starring roles in projects such as Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood opposite Sandra Bullock, Equilibrium with Christian Bale, Julie Taymor's Titus with Anthony Hopkins and Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. He also continues to perform on stage, most recently starring in Medea opposite Annette Bening.