Benjamin Mee and Matt Damon
Upon its release this past Christmas, We Bought a Zoo found and moved an audience, despite not doing blockbuster numbers at the Box Office (read my review of the film here). The latest film from Oscar-winning filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) hits shelves on Blu-ray and DVD on April 3rd. A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of speaking with Benjamin Mee, the central character in the film played by Oscar-winner Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting). Mee and I discussed the process of adapting of his book into a screenplay, first by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), and then by Crowe. Mee also shared his experiences of meeting Damon, being an extra in the film, and finally seeing it with his family on the big screen.
Jackson Truax: Who approached you about the possibility of adapting We Bought a Zoo into a movie? What was your initial reaction?
Benjamin Mee: The first person I spoke to was Julie Yorn, the producer from FOX. At the time, it was really just optioning the rights. Everyone said, “There will be a little fee for this, which will help the zoo out…” Even in those days, the zoo was struggling. “But don’t get your hopes up.” So I did that. That was fine. Then I kept getting these calls from [Yorn]. Things kept moving forward… It was always, “Don’t get your hopes up,” right up until production actually [started]. Because these things have a habit of being pulled. [Yorn] was the lynchpin. It was fantastic to finally meet her, knowing how much energy she’d spent on the project.
Truax: Did you retain rights to final approval over anything such as the script, or the choice of the director or cast?
Mee: No, I had a pretty standard contract. Because it was such a long-shot that it would ever actually get made, I really didn’t spend a lot of time fighting on the contract at the time. There are one or two tiny things that, with hindsight, if I’d known it was going to be made, I’d have struggled a bit more on. But in terms of what they did with the story, and how it’s portrayed, I’m one hundred percent happy with it… Watching it, as I go in as a zoo professional, there are one or two zoological things that make me smile. Visiting the set during filming, Cameron was such a lovely and kind man. He asked my advice on some of the animal training that they were doing and kept me involved. The major storyline changes, which are necessary when any book is adapted for screen, they were run past me very carefully, so that I was able in understand the implications. Things like moving the death of my wife, which actually took place after we bought the zoo but before we opened it… [That] was a deal-breaker, basically for getting it made… That loss is not diminished at all. It underpins the entire movie. That this is about the bereavement and recovery of a family through building a zoo. Which is really what happened.
Truax: When did these story changes begin to take place? Was it part of the inception of the film when you were approached by Yorn? Was it in Mckenna’s initial draft? Or after Crowe came on as director and began rewriting?
Mee: Aline’s draft was the formative one… That was when they knew they had a film. I spoke to Aline at length before and during her process. I didn’t have much input as to what she was doing… She’s another very compassionate individual. It was quite interesting meeting her on-set. I was actually an extra in the film with my children. I don’t know if you know what it’s like, you spend the whole day [on-set] for a ten-second sequence. In between these shots, I had a meeting with Aline. She showed me the book she’d used to underline all the passages. She got really emotional and started to cry. And [when I was] on the edge [of crying] myself, we hear, “RIGHT! BENJAMIN MEE NEEDS TO BE ON-SET!” And I’m [thinking] “Oh my God. Now I have to get into character. I’m a happy zoo crowd person…” A lot of the sort-of humorous asides were probably put in by Cameron. And the basic structure was probably thrashed out by Aline.
Truax: Once Damon was cast to play you, did you spend any time with him?
Mee: No… He was cast, and there were rumors that he was going to come and hang out at the zoo, which would have been excellent… Having met him subsequently, he’d have fit in here really, really well. He’s a very down-to-earth, hands-on guy. He could have come ‘round with me knocking on fence post and doing all the things that I do, quite happily, side-by-side. We had a BBC series filmed about us in the first year that we were here. He watched that. He read the book. Then he just made his own interpretation. Amazingly, to me, we were invited onto the set about two weeks before the end of filming. So he’d done three months of playing this character, then I turn up. And it was just before quite a big, climatic scene where he’s deciding whether or not they should euthanize Spar, the tiger, which was my first major animal decision that I had to make when we got here. Add to that, they had the conflict with the son. That was an entirely fictional sequence… My son was always extremely cooperative and excited about the whole thing. So he had two or three months of playing the character, and then gets to meet the actual character and has to go on for another two or three weeks with the knowledge of having met me. So I was surprised that he put himself through that. But as far as I can see, it didn’t affect his interpretation. And I have to say, he makes me look great, reasonable, and honest, and friendly…. So I can’t complain at all.
Truax: What were your feelings once the film was completed and you and your family saw it for the first time?
Mee: I’ve only seen the film once, at the premiere. I’ve spent two years preparing myself for that moment… So I had done a lot of psychological preparation. My most important thought was [that] my children were there with me. I explained to them countless times that this could be quite unsettling for them… There’s a lot of stuff about their mom in there… [And] their characters are being played differently. My little boy is five years younger than [Ford]… He was totally [happy] with the buying of the zoo, where the [Ford] character is going through is adolescent rebellion phase and there’s a conflict there. But they were absolutely fine with it. I think by the end of the film, I was so distracted with how the children were reacting to the climax of all the stuff about their mom. The photographs that [Damon] is looking at…are based on actual family pictures that we have… Then those pictures come to life. And there is their mother, with us, playing with the dog and everything. It was so moving and emotional. I need to see it again. I was thinking, “How are my kids coping with this?” I’d really like to see the whole thing again. Several times, I think. I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity.
Truax: We Bought a Zoo is about to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Whether people saw it in theaters and are revisiting it, or are coming to it for the first time, what do you think the film has to offer people that they should make sure to seek out?
Mee: I think it ties very much with why I wrote the passage that I did in the book about my wife. That there is life afterwards. Actually going through the process of bereavement, it’s a terrible thing for anyone to endure. My background is health writing, among other things. I always try to reach out to people who might be suffering something that I was suffering or that I understood and to help them get through it. I think there’s a very positive message there about how you can look at these terrible things that happen to you and get through them through positive action. I think that’s it. It’s a very, very positive film, in the end, about an unpredictable, tragic event.
Filed under: LiC Interview