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. Here’s Part 2:
I’m sure you don’t have a ton of time to watch films, but do you get a chance to take your children Milo and Ella to the theaters from time to time? If so, what are your favorite films or favorite type of films?
I’ve always loved films, and my trajectory through life was shaped by a few, like Born Free, with Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. Here were normal people, like me, who drove around in a Land Rover with a lion on the roof. That looked like a great job, though I wasn’t completely sure what it was they actually did. Years later I bought an old Land Rover (now parked up at the zoo needing a bit of attention). And I do, astonishingly, actually have a lion. Two, in fact. Solomon immortalized in WBAZ, and Josie, his business-like killing machine of a daughter. But I can’t drive around with them on the roof of the Land Rover, partly because it doesn’t work at the moment, and partly because they would eat me.
Ring of Bright Water, about a writer who has a pet otter was another film which influenced me greatly as a child, and because of the power of these films over me I make sure that as a family we soak ourselves in films, watching DVDs most evenings.
The first film I took Milo to see was Finding Nemo, while we were living in France. That genre of incredibly high quality animated features seems like the biggest development in my lifetime. Dumbo and Bambi were amazing, but The Incredibles is as good as any – and better than some – James Bond films. Shrek, Toy Story, Ice Age, Monsters, Inc, Kung Fu Panda, Rango, How to Train Your Dragon; all great films in their own right. And the castings are becoming unreal. Robert De Niro as the voice of a shark?
I also throw in films I feel the children need to see as part of their “education,” lest they be lost. We watched Braveheart recently before a trip up to Edinburgh Zoo to see the pandas, to explain why the Scots are still wary of the English. They decided to use their mothers’ solidly Scottish maiden name of Carnegie for the trip. For some reason I have recently exposed them to the Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and The Green Mile, all prison movies. Just a warning I suppose. The kids call my choices “old people’s films.”
I usually let the children choose what to watch at the cinema, but retain the right of veto after I suffered permanent mental scarring sitting through Alvin and the Chipmunks.
Tell me about your experience visiting the set of the film.
Visiting the set was beyond surreal. Here were hundreds of people, talented professionals, who had spent the last three months immersed in our story. They’d spent so long lovingly recreating the tiniest details, it was as strange for them to meet us. I remember Pedro Barquin, one of the greens foremen for the set, sinking to his knees on the lawn as he welcomed us.
As soon as the children saw Crystal the monkey they went straight over, actually pushing past Scarlett Johansson to get to her. Matt Damon was as easy and approachable as he seems on screen. I’ve always been a huge MD fan, and when I mentioned him for the role I could not believe that Cameron was already in communication with him… and that he eventually said Yes.In France I watched the Bourne films, and in the extra features he came across as down to earth and likeable. The stunt crew obviously liked him, and he has a great sense of humour, which for me, is the most important thing. And he’s a writer – another man with an Oscar winning screenplay to his credit. A multitalented movie star AND a better writer than me. He seemed like he would fit in well at the zoo. But he’d probably do that better than me too. It was strange chatting to him while he was wearing a zoo keeper outfit with a name badge saying, “Benjamin,” on it. I asked him why he took the role, and without missing a beat he said, “To work with Cameron Crowe.” Not, “Your story was so amazing.” But quite right too. Watching Cameron work I could see why actors want to work with him. Apart from getting Oscar-nominated performances out of them (Tom Cruise & Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire, Kate Hudson & Frances McDormand in Almost Famous), the atmosphere on set was so positive…, with everyone busily working towards the common goal because they wanted to, and Cameron at the centre of it all, an amiable ringmaster, never shouting or ordering anyone around. The atmosphere was kind of how I aim for it to be at the zoo.
And Cameron was so kind to me, letting me sit next to him and watch the “Twenty Seconds” scene being filmed – in OUR tiger house. It was an almost exact replica of the building here at the zoo, even inside (but much cleaner). It was very strange sitting in such a familiar building, next to a familiar tiger, but with a huge movie camera, and Matt Damon dressed as me sitting in the corridor. As the scene started Cameron said, “Now for this scene, Benjamin Mee has to stand up.” As I started to rise he put his hand out to indicate that he didn’t mean me; it was the other Benjamin Mee he meant. Psychadelic indeed.
Matt Damon also posed for me wearing a Dartmoor Zoo T-shirt, and gave us permission to use the picture on our website, which was a massive help, as we were going through particularly bad financial problems at the time. I actually spent a lot of my time in Hollywood worrying about making the payroll when I got back, but that one image attracted a huge amount of corporate sponsorship in building materials and labour which was incredibly useful. We actually have a blow-up version of that picture of Matt as a DZP staff member in the Jaguar restaurant.