When people hear that there is a movie about a family that moves to a property that houses a zoo, they probably think it is going to be a cute, fluffy film with lots of slapstick humor. But the dramedy “We Bought a Zoo” is much heavier than what it may appear to be on the surface, since the story isn’t so much about wacky animal antics as it is about how a family tries to rebuild its life after the family matriarch has died from a terminal illness. Based on a true story (and the memoir of the same title), “We Bought a Zoo” shows what happens when a recently widowed journalist in Los Angeles named Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon) quits his job and moves his rebellious teen son, Dylan (played by Colin Ford), and his good-natured 6-year-old daughter, Rosie (played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones), outside the city to get a fresh start in the hopes of helping ease the pain of their grief.
The property that Benjamin impulsively buys has a dilapidated zoo that Benjamin invests all of his money into restoring and re-opening, against the warnings of his cautious older brother, Duncan Mee, played by Thomas Haden Church. (The real Benjmin Mee is British, and his Dartmoor Zoological Park is in England. The feature-film Benjamin Mee is American.) Benjamin has no previous experience in the zoo profession, so he must also win over the zoo’s skeptical staff, which includes no-nonsense zookeeper Kelly Foster (played Scarlett Johansson) and sensitive adolescent assistant Lily Miska (played by Elle Fanning), who develops a romantic interest in Dylan. Oscar winner Cameron Crowe directed “We Bought a Zoo,” he co-wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, and he is one of the film’s producers. At a New York City press conference for “We Bought a Zoo,” Crowe, Damon, Johansson, Church, Fanning and Ford gathered to share behind-the-scenes stories about making the movie, which was the first time most of the cast had worked with large animals, such as lions and bears. After the press conference was officially over, Crowe was nice enough to hang out a little bit longer to answer some more questions.
Matt, do you miss doing action stunts like you did in the “Bourne” movies?
Damon: [He says jokingly] Well, we had a whole “B” storyline [in “We Bought a Zoo”] where Thomas [Haden Church] and I fought crime, but when we looked at the whole movie, Cameron just didn’t think it fit in. [He says seriously] No, we get to switch it up enough. Each job is three to six months, so as long as you’re doing something different each time, it feels fine.
Scarlett, was one of your attractions to your role in “We Bought a Zoo” was that your character’s looks had no bearing on how well she did he job?
Johansson: Yes. [She says jokingly] Contrary to popular belief, I had more makeup on this film than ever before. [She says seriously] No, one of the main attractions for me in playing the role was exactly what you’re insinuating: playing a woman who had her own life that didn’t depend on anybody else. She’s kind of a forward-moving and motivated woman whose passion has nothing to do with where she’s going to find her next date or who her next romantic interest is.
The fact that the romance in this film is kind of a product of the story, I think is a really beautiful thing. There’s a different kind of romance in the film that has nothing to do with just two people finding one another. Even though it’s a byproduct, what attracted me is that it wasn’t the motivating force for the character.
Has anybody had a lost cause that you couldn’t give up on at all?
Church: I never gave up on me. I was my lost cause.
Damon: I think we all probably had some movies that we didn’t give up on that might have been lost causes in retrospect.
Who in the cast was the best with animals on the set?
Johansson: Pat had Crystal [the monkey] the whole time.
Crowe: Patrick Fugit had a deep bond with Crystal. Crystal was in every scene with Patrick. I think what’s amazing is — I feel it sitting here with the cast — we all got into this movie for all the right reasons: to just kind of explore how we could make this movie that was about a feeling, in a lot of ways. And the animals and the story and the whole fact of building a zoo was kind of a way to make a movie that made you feel differently.
So when you left, it wasn’t just about the animals or the love story. It was really about the environment we created. Everybody kind of took a flyer to do the movie and trust that we were on this journey and to try something a little different.
I’m sitting here with them all experiencing all of the stuff we were experiencing when we were making the movie. It was just a great team. And it happened to include animals and kids and all the stuff they say is a huge burden when you’re making a movie, but it didn’t feel that way to us. I think it was a quest to capture a feeling of love. I just wanted to say that.
What do you remember about the first time you went to the zoo?
Ford: Me being a kid, it wasn’t too long ago that I first went to the zoo. It was pretty cool. I probably went to the zoo in Atlanta. That’s where I grew up. And it was so cool seeing these animals: lions, tigers and bears. As a kid, I was going, “Oh my,” at all these giant animals. It was kind of a cool experience.
And then several years later getting to work with them and being on set with them every single day was kind of like being a kid and going to the zoo again. It was an incredible experience. It was a lot of fun.
Damon: I just love so much that his [Colin Ford’s] voice is lower than when we shot the movie.
Crowe: I’m from San Diego. The San Diego Zoo is so huge that I think every bus takes you right to the San Diego Zoo. It doesn’t matter where you want to go. So it was a big thing in our town, but I never saw myself as a zoo fanatic, kind of until we made the movie, when I saw the ins and outs of how it’s really done and all the passion that people put into taking care of the animals. It was cool.
Matt, Scarlett and Elle, what kind of business would you like to start outside of showbiz?
Fanning: Well, I guess my hobbies outside of acting. I do a lot of ballet. So if I were to be not an actress, I would probably pursue my ballerina career, but you have to be so good at it. You’re either good or bad in that world. So I’d have to try really hard.
Johansson: I don’t know. There’s a lot of things I’d want to pursue. And hopefully, eventually will when all of this falls apart. I work with a lot of non-governmental organizations. I think it would be nice to perhaps — I don’t know if I’d start my own — I think I’d dedicate myself [and] more of my time to that. I also think it would be nice to have a vineyard somewhere and have an organic farm or something like that. It’s just a hippie-dippy wish.
Damon: But a good one. A very good one.
Johansson: A really good one. Where we’d have that “farm fresh” — all that stuff. Something like that.
Damon: Besides writing and directing, you mean outside of the movie business completely? Well, Water.org, which I co-founded. I’d probably put more time into that.
Church: Hang on a second. Hang on. Colin would like to start a coffee-bean plantation in South America. And I’d like to run away with the circus. Not that you were interested.
Matt, can you compare and contrast the scenes you had with the bear and the scenes you had with the snakes?
Damon: Well, the closest we got to the bear was Colin and I were in the car, and the bear actually did come right up to the window. But they put a little snack on the roof, so the bear didn’t really see us. It was more interested in the snack. And when we did the scene out in the field there, that was just split screen, because we didn’t want to relive “Grizzly Man.”
The snakes, I was actually much more nervous about the snakes, until Scarlett started making fun of me, and I tried to get over it as best as I could. And I think there was something about there being so many and watching the little kids handle them that I eventually got over it and was OK with it.
They were all different kinds [of snakes], but only a few poisonous ones, but you just didn’t know. No, I’m kidding. Obviously none of them were venomous, and none of them bit, so it was cool.
Church: They threw in a green mamba just for laughs. “They can kill you! OK, roll camera!”
Cameron, for the “We Bought a Zoo” soundtrack, you co-wrote the song “Gathering Stories” with Sigur Rós lead singer/guitarist Jónsi, who wrote the film’s score. Can you talk about the songwriting process for “Gathering Stories”?
Crowe: I’ve only written kind of “fake” songs for movie, where we spoofed other songs. And Jónsi hasn’t really written songs in the English language. So he would say, “Give me some ideas for a song that would be good for the movie.” And so I gave him some ideas, and he came back and said, “No, I mean lyrics, like, real lyrics.”
So we sat down and had a session. And I think anybody who’s written about music should go through that, because you see exactly how hard it is to write a real song. And what was great was that Jónsi — and I guess it’s true about any musician: there are words that they sing well and gravitate to.
So I’d say, ‘Let’s use this word like ‘trapped.” And he’d say, “‘Trapped’ I cannot sing.” And so it would be like finding words he was comfortable with and building a song around that. And it was great. And at a certain point, he said, “We’re done!” And so that’s the song that ends the movie.
Matt, was “We Bought a Zoo” the first time you’ve worked with big animals?
Damon: It was the first time I worked with big animals in Hollywood movies. No, I’m kidding. Other than horses. I’ve done a lot of movies with horses. But no, I’ve never done anything like this.
We would joke that you’re never supposed to work with children or animals because they always upstage you. And so we’d joke that we were just getting it all out of the way in one movie. The cutest kids and animals you’ve ever seen.
Did you befriend any of the animals?
Damon: Did we all stay in the same hotel? Well, no. The reality was everyone, we all acted with incredible deference to the trainers. And when the animals were on the set, it was all about them, particularly the really big scary [animals]. And so those sessions were very regimented by the trainers.
Cameron would kind of troubleshoot with them [about] where he could put the camera and what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed. And then we staged the scenes around that. You know, when the lion is coming out of the cage, it’s a big deal.
It’s not like everyone is sitting around like normal on a movie set talking to each other. Everybody is very quiet and very observant of the fact that the king of the jungle is amongst you. So those were kind of the most disciplined moments that we had in the entire process when the big animals were working.
Were any of you big animal fanciers before doing “We Bought a Zoo”? And if so, was that an incentive to work with them? What did you learn about animals from doing this movie? Do you feel differently about them now?
Crowe: I know, Scarlett, you’re an animal person. I remember when we first met and talked about the movie, you really felt it deep inside, the whole experience. And I really felt that thing talking to you, that you really understood animals.
Johansson: Right before I met Cameron, you know, Tippi Hedren has that big cat rescue. And I had been there on my own. It was so incredible. It was an amazing experience. And it just happened to coincide with meeting [Cameron Crowe] and we talked about that.
And one of the guys had worked there … he was a caretaker for two elephants for many, many years. And there was a beautiful book of his journals and photographs. And I remember I sent [Cameron Crowe] that stuff.
I have a dog. I grew up with cats. I love animals. I know Elle loves them too. She was very excited. It’s hard to work with animals, of course, because they’re not on the same routine, exactly. But you never know what to expect; they’re unpredictable.
But I think that … there was a respect for the animals that were working on the film. It wasn’t like everybody stood around eating their Subway sandwiches, as Matt described when the lion came out of the cage. But there was a kind of a community of people that had such high respect for the animals being there. It was this sort of relaxed environment. I don’t really know who to describe it. I think it’s captured in the film.
It just seemed like everybody we were working with were all animal lovers. I don’t know if it was a prerequisite in hiring them for the production, but it felt that way. Everybody on set was so respectful and enthusiastic and kind of loving toward the animal community that was part of the film. I think it was all of us, in a way.
Cameron, were you concerned about making Colin Ford’s Dylan Mee character too dark, because clearly, he needs psychiatric help?
Damon: [He says jokingly] The actor or the character?
Crowe: Colin, it’s time for treatment.
Damon: Colin, we brought you here for a reason.
Crowe: Because we love you. That’s why we’re here.
Ford: Is this an intervention?
Did you cast JB Smoove and John Michael Higgins to bring in some much-needed comic relief?
Crowe: It’s an interesting question. The first quest was to tell Benjamin Mee’s story. I think we all connected to the book. And there was a wonderful documentary that the BBC did. And he’s so much about authenticity and truth. And he’s a great journalist.
So I always wanted the movie and the script to kind of reflect his love of what’s authentic. I think a lot of times in movies, a disaffected youth is dressed in black and is super-Goth and does the archetypal things. But what I knew from being a parent of younger kids than Dylan is in the movie is that there’s a high-pitched signal that goes out when you get it wrong when it’s a movie character. But when you get some of the details right, you’re capturing life in a different way.
And what I wanted was the kid to be angry and sad and acting out a little bit on the loss of the mother. And it’s coming out in the drawings. And it’s coming out in the behavior. And here’s a guy that looks like Matt, and the characters look alike, but what’s coming out is nothing you would say or do.
And that’s what I kind of built on: What is this thing that is growing in your own home that’s built on anger and loss? And how can we wrench the family back into shape? Which is what Matt [as Benjamin Mee] does so beautifully at the beginning of the movie. He’s a guy who’s drowning, but he’s trying not to show it to everybody. And that can be funny, and that can be dramatic. And we tried to capture that whole spectrum of emotions in telling that story.
But JB came along because we just loved his style of improv. And that happened naturally. And they got into a hurricane of improv in that car. But what I wanted it to do was feel like life and all the ups and downs and darkness of life. But thanks for asking that question. I did want Dylan’s character to be truthful. There’s darkness and light in that.
In “We Bought a Zoo,” there’s this idea of doing something you want in 20 seconds of insane courage. If you had 20 seconds of insane courage, what would you do?
Damon: I think most actors have experienced that numerous times in auditions. I know I started [acting] when I was Colin’s age. And I remember feeling that “If I can push through this fear right now, whether I get the part or get rejected, not going through the door is going to be bad for me. There’s something better for me on the other side of the door.” And so I remember feeling that way a lot.
The experience, as any of the people up here can tell you, you get rejected a lot, but the experience gets easier each time that you get rejected. You get used to it. There’s kind of a gallows humor among actors about parts you didn’t get or particularly exquisite rejections that you remember, but those tend to inoculate you as you move forward down that road of being a professional actor.
This is a dark, cynical time in America. Do you think it’s important for films to hold out a glimmer of hope when people can’t find it elsewhere?
Damon: I know when Cameron talked to me about the movie very, very early on, one of the first things he said was, “I see this as a piece of joy. This is a piece of joy, and I think it’s a good thing to put out into the world right now.” It’s exactly what he said. And I always held on to that. I think I just intuitively kind of agreed that that was true.
Johansson: And I think historically, films are always an opportunity for people to escape into two hours of someone else’s life, someone else’s adventure. It doesn’t always have to be gloom and doom to reflect mirrors of truth. I think that this film, there’s a lot of love in it, but … it’s complex.
These are real people. They’re dealing with grief. They’re dealing with finding their own identity. They’re struggling with making human connections, and then making them, and juggling them, and figuring out who they are, as they are reflected through other people and their experience. There’s a lot of complex themes within the story. I don’t think it necessarily has to be a big, old fun, crazy animal movie or something dark and twisted for people to emote and relate.
Ford: When anyone asks me what it was like to be on set every day at the zoo, the only word I could use to describe the experience and the feeling was “magical.” Because I think that our zoo experience was so magical, and I think it’s perfectly displayed on screen. And I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
Church: I think an Italian writer asked me last week. He said, [He says in a European accent] “So the wife, she died. And the animals are in peril. How is this a Christmas movie?” And I said, “What part of Italy are you from?”
Damon: Apparently, the Irish part! [Joking about Church’s attempt at an Italian accent]
Church: Did it sound Irish?
Church: I said, “It’s a human story. It has all of those spices in it: tragedy and comedy and the kind of dramatic interaction between a father and a son, and a brother and a brother, and a woman trying to desperately hold on something that she considers such a humane endeavor. And I just think it’s circumspect.
It’s a human story. It covers whatever those struggles are and however you define those struggles. And in the end, it’s very hopeful and very life-affirming. I think this movie would fit in anywhere: a summer movie, an Arbor Day movie, but I think it works. The guy [the Italian journalist] took such a critical stance with the material, but I think that it’s ultimately very life-affirming.
Cameron, can you talk about your choice of songs in “We Bought a Zoo”?
Crowe: We had playlists that we went to a lot when we were making the movie. Scarlett made a mix. Elle made a mix. Thomas and I had many talks about music. And Matt’s a great music fan. And Colin too.
So we all kind of pulled our musical influences and stuff and played [them] a lot when we were making the movie. A few of the songs really bubbled up to the top while we were editing. The Sigur Rós stuff and Jónsi’s music. Bon Iver really kind of connected to the movie when we were in the editing room. But what’s wonderful is they all soak up music in such a great way.
You can tell the difference when it’s a music lover and somebody who kind of moves with the rhythm of music and when you’re not that way. And they all are. So it was a joy to work with the music in the editing room. I love that it’s such a musical movie.
To the actors, can you elaborate on the music you enjoyed while working on “We Bought a Zoo”?
Johansson: We always talked so much about music. Music is played constantly when you’re working as well, which is such an exciting and at first quite shocking experience. And then you don’t quite know how you ever worked without it. I listen to music all the time, but I rarely share what’s in my headphones with everybody else on set. But this was invited, that kind of environment, that sort of musical community that Cameron created.
Fanning: Yeah, I remember doing my first scene [in “We Bought a Zoo”] and walking to set for the first time. And I’m always nervous on the first day. And after did my scene, everyone was like, “What’s your theme song going to be?”
And I was like, “Theme song?” I’d never experienced something like that before. They had been shooting before I came in.
And then Cameron played “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens. And then whenever Lily had a scene, he would put that song on. And it made it into the film, in her first appearance: “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens.
Church: He [Cameron Crowe] never asked me for any music, but I sent it anyway. Black Sabbath, Slipknot. What else did I send? Sick Puppies. None of it made it into the movie.
How involved was the Mee family in the movie “We Bought a Zoo”?
Crowe: Benjamin was involved from the very beginning. We totally wanted to honor his story.
Did you create anything for the film that wasn’t in the book?
Crowe: No, I think everything pretty much happened as it happened. Kelly had more of a flicker of a possible romance in the movie than in the book. The real Kelly is actually no longer at the zoo. But working with Benjamin, we made sure that everything was in accurate ratio to his story
Can you talk about how you related to Benjamin Mee as a journalist and how more journalists are working for online media, which is alluded to in “We Bought a Zoo”?
Crowe: I’m always honoring journalism. I’m still a journalist. I’m still writing for Rolling Stone. Some of my friends got fired from their print jobs, so I wanted to tip a hat in the direction of then empty editorial office that’s now being occupied now mostly by empty seats. It’s a quest to protect the written word and honor it. And I just wanted to have a flavor of that in the movie.
For more info: “We Bought a Zoo” website
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