We thought it would be fun to look back on We Bought A Zoo through the eyes of Benjamin Mee. Ben took the time to provide some detailed and thoughtful answers on how the film came together from his perspective. We will share a different question and answer over the next few days…
What was your reaction when you found out Cameron would be directing the film? Had you seen any of his previous films?
When I heard that Cameron Crowe was directing the film, I think the first thing I felt was daunted. Firstly I thought; this film is now going to get made. And secondly, it’s going to be made searchingly, by a writer. A writer who started out as the kid in Almost Famous, writing by the seat of his pants (something I am familiar with), and who then turned that psychedelic baptism of a road trip into an Oscar winning screenplay, which still stayed true to his passions and ideals. And all I’d done was write a book about buying a small, broken down zoo. I thought, this man is going to get to the bottom of this story. What’s in it? What did I put in there that Hollywood liked? And what’s Cameron Crowe going to bring out?
The producer Julie Yorn reassured me that Cameron’s reputation was for compassionate biographical films, but even that is a little unnerving, given the intensely personal nature of the subject. Just buying the zoo was actually a pretty traumatic experience, shortly after the death of my father. There was a lot of family upheaval and financial difficulty, followed by the death of my wife, and I wrote the book shortly after that, in the relatively short period of three months.
In Jerry Maguire, Cameron unflinchingly explores excruciating emotions, which I found difficult to watch in places, so I was a little apprehensive that this perspicacious gaze was about to be turned on me.
Had it had been a more mainstream director, who would turn out a traditional schmaltzy Hollywood treatment, I would have easy deniability. But Cameron, I knew, would get to the heart of the matter. So I was hugely relieved when that heart turned out to be a love story, about me and my wife. And my close relationship with my brother Duncan, and my children. What an amazing accolade to those relationships, to have them immortalized by Mr Crowe.
I also knew that Cameron produces characters and phrases which pass into popular parlance: “You had me at hello,” “Show me the money.” So what was going to be the memorable phrase forever associated with We Bought a Zoo? “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it.” This is something I do truly believe, but didn’t actually put in the book. It’s a great quote, and the best thing is, lots of people now think I wrote it. Ha!
What was your correspondence like with the filmmakers before filming began?
Cameron was always really rude on the phone. No, just kidding. In fact, I spoke mainly to Julie and Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the first draft of the screenplay. They were unbelievably kind and supportive, and Julie frequently called me to give me reassuring up-dates from Tinsel Town – very surreal to receive while standing in the mud and rain of Dartmoor. One call came while we were taking delivery of four ostriches, one of which was on antidepressants, which we hadn’t been told about. So as I listened to the good news coming from the sunshine of California, I was watching a mentally disturbed ostrich gradually work the entire African paddock into a stampeding frenzy. As the first fence post cracked, I had to cut short the call.
Julie told me that Cameron was working hard on the script, and wanted me to see it before he submitted it, which was always “going to be soon.” He kept tinkering, and wouldn’t let go of it for weeks (something else I can relate to). And when he finally sent it over, with a lovely letter attached, reading the script felt like watching the film. I laughed out loud and I cried. Which is what almost everyone does when they see the film.
I sent Cameron a Thank You copy of my book of DIY columns, and so far he hasn’t come up with a screenplay for that. But I live in hope.