Author Benjamin Mee discusses the adaptation of his book We Bought a Zoo, available on Blu-ray and DVD April 3
In 2006, journalist Benjamin Mee, who was best known for his do-it-yourself columns in U.K.'s The Guardian, purchased the Dartmoor Zoological Park in Dartmoor, England. He eventually turned his tale into the non-fiction book We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives, adapted for the silver screen as We Bought a Zoo. This enthralling drama arrives on Blu-ray and DVD April 3.
I recently had the chance to speak with author Benjamin Mee over the phone about turning his true tale into a Hollywood movie. Here's what he had to say below.
I read that your actual purchase of the Dartmoor park took a lot longer to complete than in the movie. Can you talk about your initial desire to buy the zoo, and what kinds of things you had to do to be approved for the buy?
Benjamin Mee: The title of the film is the same as the title of my book, which details the process. It's interesting comparing the two, because every book has to lose things, to be translated into a movie, but (director) Cameron Crowe has done very well in keeping the essence of the story the same. Just as Matt Damon, in the film, wasn't looking for a zoo, we weren't either. We were actually looking for a big house for my mom to live in, with my sister and my brother and their kids, so that she wouldn't be on her own in her old age. The real estate details came through for this house, and it says there are 12 bedrooms and three bathrooms and 30 acres. Then you turn the page and it has seven tigers, three lions, and a pack of wolves, and you say, 'That's crazy. Who would buy that, and why is it for sale?' We made the big mistake of actually going to see it, because we're a real animal-loving family. I was writing a book on animal intelligence, when this thing came up, and we've all been interested in animals. So we thought we'd just see it, to rule it out, and as soon as we did see it, we absolutely fell in love with it. We thought we must do this, but it wasn't a simple process. The old guy who owned it, hadn't wanted to sell it, but he was forced to sell it by the bank. Something in him made him spike every sale for the past few years, and he was really hard to deal with, because he really couldn't bear to leave. I think if I would have been a proper businessman, I would've walked away, because he was so cranky. I'm not, and I actually ended up dealing with his sister instead. I'd call her, she'd call him, and she'd call me, and we'd move on, but it took about six months. It was very complicated.
Obviously, you hadn't set out to buy a zoo, let alone write a book about buying a zoo, so at what point in the process did you decide this is worth writing about?
Benjamin Mee: Well, I was a journalist before, and I knew that I could only do this thing if I could get some publicity for it. I was writing a weekly column on DYI, about putting up shelves and things, and I managed to squeeze in as many jokes as I could into it, to make it as interesting as possible. I thought buying and running a zoo was surely more interesting than putting up shelves, so I'm sure there would be interest there for a column. The column still hasn't materialized, but the book has done ridiculously well. I wrote it in three months, and people just kept coming up to me with this book in their hands, saying, 'Wow.' The TV series came, and now, unbelievably, this Hollywood movie with Matt Damon (Laughs).
Did you even have any inkling about who might play you, when the movie started to materialize? Does a thought like that even come into your head?
Benjamin Mee: It was out of my hands. The second you sign it over, they have total control, but they very kindly kept me involved in a lot of the process. They ran past all the major story line alterations past me, and explained to me. They always said to me, 'Don't get your hopes up, because these things often don't get made,' so I never relied on them. One day, I was building a treehouse for the kids, I think, and they called me and said, 'The writer is going to call you next week, and he wants a list of Hollywood A-listers that you like to play you. So think about that.' I said, 'What?' It's a Fox Christmas release, so it's going to be big and anyone will go for it. I asked some friends, 'Who would play me?' They came up with Hugh Grant, which I thought was a bit funny, Ewan McGregor, which I liked, but I was subsequently told that he was not a big enough star, and Matt Damon. I actually am a huge Matt Damon fan, because he's a hugely clever, funny, self-aware man, who has his feet on the ground. He's very aware of his position, and he uses it wisely for environmental causes and other things. He's got a sense of humor, and he's a writer. He wrote Good Will Hunting and got an Oscar for the screenplay, so I like him. There is something just grounded about him, and the others, you're sort of distracted by their star power, whereas with him, you just believe. So I thought, 'Yeah.' And he's got hair, which I don't have, which makes me look great (Laughs).
You mentioned how Fox kept you in the loop, but did you go on the set at all? Did you take a look at what was being built, and did it take you back, or was it a different environment?
Benjamin Mee: It was so uncanny. They were very, very thorough. I went just towards the very end of the shoot. If I was Damon, I'd be very distracted to meet the person I'm playing, having been playing him for the past seven or eight weeks, but he took it all in stride. It was uncanny because some buildings, like that tiger house, was replicated perfectly in the Hollywood Hills. You look left and it's Hollywood, and you look right, and boom, there's Devon (the English county Dartmoor is located). It was just very strange filming inside there. I sat next to (writer-director) Cameron Crowe, inside the tiger house, where everything is the same. There's a tiger, which I'm very used to, and everybody else seemed uneasy around the tiger. There's this huge camera behind the tiger, and then there's Matt Damon dressed as me, sitting in front of him. Cameron Crowe says, 'OK, for this scene, Benjamin Mee has to stand up.' So I said, 'OK, and I started to stand up. He said, 'No, not you, him.' OK yeah, this is very strange.
(Laughs) That's awesome. Cameron has done so many wonderful films throughout the years. Can you talk about getting the chance to see him work on the set, and what you thought was perfect about having him on this project?
Benjamin Mee: I'm full of admiration for him. I had only seen Almost Famous before, but that was enough. I was just bowled over by his kindness and humanity, not just being nice and polite to me, but everybody on the set. There was a real air of friendliness, busy friendliness, and I thought it's very much like the zoo now, where everybody is like a big family, all working towards the same aim, not out of coercion, but out of sharing this common purpose, with Cameron standing very calmly and smiling in the middle. Everything he did was gentle and positive and thoughtful and compassionate. He was a real inspiration, and he was astonishingly giving. I said to him, 'OK, you're a director. When we normal people see directors, they look at video monitors again and again and then say, Ah ha! That's the one. How do you know that's the one?' He said, 'Come and see.' So he invited me into the tiger house to watch a very emotional scene with Matt Damon and his son, deciding whether or not to euthanize this tiger, and discussing this '20 seconds of bravery' motif. That took about two hours, and these poor actors are choking with emotion, delivering these lines, and slight variations on the lines, again and again and again, really professionally. It was awesome, and I could see how Cameron was working. He said, 'It's just like writing. You're a writer. You could do this. Watch, you build a bit, and you've got that, you build a bit more, and you've got that.' It was awesome. I could sit next to that man for a long time.
Can you talk a bit about how the movie has affected your actual zoo? Has business picked up more than normal, since the movie has come out?
Benjamin Mee: It certainly has, yeah. The film has only been released in the U.K. for a few days, but it has been a very busy few days, let me tell you. Yeah, we've gotten some huge traffic on our website, which is much needed, because for the last few years, we've been facing closure every month. I've been literally having sleepless nights about paying wages and even at the beginning of February, our card was declined. I paid the wages and the mortgage, and that was it. There was no money buy milk for the next day, until three o'clock in the afternoon, when somebody came through. We've been living right on the edge, but I think this year, we might end up being a little more secure.
What would you like to say to anyone who didn't get a chance to see We Bought a Zoo in theaters, about why they should pick up the Blu-ray or DVD on April 3?
Benjamin Mee: Well, I think it's more than just an average family film. Because it's based on a true story, it has some resonance. I've seen it four times (Laughs), because of the various premieres I've had to attend, but I've gotten more out of it each time, and not just because it's about me. What I'm really impressed by, is how it deals with the process of bereavement, and how you can evolve through that and adapt. If you compare the film with the book, it's quite an interesting thing. There's also story of regenerating something, when everyone else says, 'Forget it. Just get on with your life.' How would he feel if he would have gone on with his life, and just bought a little house? He'd always be thinking, 'Oh, what if I had done that?' If you just feel that you can, even if people are saying you can't, maybe you should go and do it. I think that's a really good message from this film.
Great. Thanks so much, Benjamin. It was a real pleasure.
Benjamin Mee: Thank you very much.