Matt Damon in WE BOUGHT A ZOO, a film by Cameron Crowe. Photo Credit: Neal Preston. TM and © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.
- Scarlett Johansson
- Thomas Haden Church
- Patrick Fugit
- Colin Ford
- Elle Fanning
- Maggie Elizabeth Jones
- John Michael Higgins
- Angus Macfadyen
- Peter Riegert
- Stephanie Szostak
- J.B. Smoove
* Most external filmography links go to The Internet Movie Database.Home/Social Media Links
We Bought a Zoo (2011)
Opened: 12/23/2011 Wide
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Trailer: Click for trailer
Rated: PG for language and some thematic elements.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a funny, inspiring and true story about the magical power of family to persevere in the face of extraordinary challenges. This is acclaimed filmmaker Cameron Crowe's (Jerry Maguire) first motion picture for all audiences, and stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church. Damon portrays a single dad who, looking to give his family a much needed fresh start, moves to a home situated in the middle of a zoo, which he and his two children will attempt to bring back to its once glorious state. The film weaves together warmth, laughter and a spirit of optimism that is perfect for the holiday season.
Damon's Benjamin Mee is a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer who, as a single father, faces the challenges of raising his two young kids. Hoping that a fresh start and a new life will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and buys an old rural house on 18 acres outside the city that comes with a unique bonus feature: a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her dedicated team.
With no experience, limited time and a shoestring budget, Mee sets out with the support of his family and the local community to reopen the zoo. Now, Benjamin is no longer reporting an adventure story; he's living his own...and it is right in his own backyard.
About the Production
At first look, WE BOUGHT A ZOO marks a departure for filmmaker Cameron Crowe, whose previous films, including Jerry Maguire and
Almost Famous, told deeply personal stories. Almost Famous, for example, was based on Crowe's experiences as a young reporter at Rolling Stone magazine. WE BOUGHT A ZOO, on the other hand, is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, titled We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever. "It's a different kind of movie for me, in that it wasn't meant to be personal," Crowe affirms. "WE BOUGHT A ZOO was generated from the desire to tell Benjamin Mee's story."
But the experience of co-scripting and directing the film led Crowe to a surprising revelation. "In the end, telling Benjamin's story ended up being as personal as anything I've done," he says. "One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was to put some joy out in the world. I love that WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a movie that allows you to feel joy -- to feel what it is to be alive, and is about turning loss into something inspirational.
"The story infuses you with a love of life -- human and animal," Crowe continues. "And it's about taking risks; a lot of the greatest things ever accomplished came from incredible risk. The story and characters are everything I love in movies."
Before Crowe became involved in the project, Benjamin Mee's memoir had caught the attention of producer Julie Yorn, whose production company is based at Twentieth Century Fox. "I was immediately intrigued," she recalls. "What does that mean, 'We Bought a Zoo'? Who bought a zoo? I learned this was a man who, through a series of circumstances and sort of on a whim, ended up at this zoo with his family. It was a really heartwarming and inspirational story."
After reading the memoir and watching a BBC documentary about Mee's experiences, Yorn says she approached Mee personally and "implored him to trust me that I would find the right way to tell his story," she says.
After securing the film rights, Yorn and the studio selected Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) to adapt the story for the big screen. McKenna says she found Mee's story compelling, inspiring and heartwarming. She recalls that the second she saw the cover of the book she envisioned the entire movie. "I love workplace movies and what a great, amazing workplace...a zoo! The second I read the book, I had this instinctive reaction."
Mee's predicament as an inexperienced, unexpected zoo director created opportunities for rich characters and storylines. McKenna says that his experiences make for an "amazing human story. It was always a little funny, and always a little heartbreaking. It's also a classic fish out of water story. Benjamin is in this place that he knows very little about. It was a crazy thing that he did, but crazy in such a great way. You get to go backstage at the zoo and see what somebody deals with when they live on a zoo, day-to-day. Having the zoo as your backyard is sort of a fantasy. It's such an exciting idea that you would be able to have all these animals become part of your extended family."
After McKenna submitted her first draft of the screenplay, Yorn and the Studio began a search for a director. It quickly became apparent that acclaimed filmmaker Cameron Crowe's writing and directing sensibilities were a perfect complement to Mee's funny and poignant tale. Crowe's ability to blend comedy, drama, family, and a spirit of optimism are unparalleled, as evidenced in such films as Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous.
As much as Yorn was thrilled with the idea of Crowe taking the helm of WE BOUGHT A ZOO, she didn't hold out much hope he would be interested. "I knew Cameron had never made a movie he didn't originate," Yorn observes. "But I felt the story's themes of loss and healing spoke to some of his previous work -- and I knew he had children -- so I felt like there was something here Cameron would connect to. Still, I thought it was an incredible long shot to get him. So we were delighted to get a call saying, 'Cameron Crowe really likes your script.'"
"They called me and said they were going to send it to Cameron Crowe," McKenna recalls. "Among contemporary directors he's really one of my idols and inspirations, not just as a filmmaker but as a human being. For me the word that springs to mind when I think of Cameron's films is 'humanity.' He has such empathy for characters, is such a great observer of the culture, and is funny and insightful about how people live their lives."
After meeting with Crowe, Yorn knew the story had gotten under Crowe's skin. "There was something about Benjamin's will and determination, and the magic and poetry of the place, which resonated with him," she says. "The imagery started to speak to him as a filmmaker."
"Aline's script was a character-based story that reminded me of my favorite movies, and I really enjoyed it," Crowe relates. "It was the combination of her script and Benjamin Mee's book that brought me all the way in; together, they were filled with promise. I could hear 'music' and feel the love of the Mee family."
Crowe took the script and "ran it through his own filter," Yorn explains. "He really wanted to honor the version of the film that Aline had conceived, but go back to the true story even more. Cameron wanted to dig deeper into the character of Benjamin and what made him tick and also give the film a little more soul and poetry. There's something soulful in Cameron's work that connects to the Mee family. Who could do this more soulfully than Cameron Crowe?"
With Crowe set to direct and co-write the screenplay, casting got underway to find the right cast to portray the members of an ordinary family placed in extraordinary circumstances. For the central role of Benjamin Mee, a single father out of his depth in several ways, the filmmakers wanted an actor who would bring a sense of decency, higher purpose and humor. For Crowe, both the real life Benjamin Mee and his cinematic counterpart are further defined by their relentlessness. "He does not give up," says the director. "And I love that he's that kind of guy. Nothing is going to stop him."
Matt Damon got the nod to play Benjamin Mee. For Damon, who has worked with the world's greatest filmmakers -- including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Gus Van Sant, Anthony Minghella, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Greengrass -- the prospect of working with Crowe, a director he's long admired, was a key attraction for taking on the role. "The reason I came aboard was a hundred percent Cameron," Damon enthuses. "He sent me a script, but he also gave me over an hour's worth of music that he had selected, as well as the film Local Hero -- he kind of gave this whole bundle to me and said, 'This is kind of the feeling of what I want to do. He explained that 'Local Hero' is a dramatic movie that's also a very funny movie, giving you a wonderful happy-sad feeling. It really gave me a great sense of the movie he wanted to make. Cameron's sensibility is unique and he's such a brilliant writer and director that I thought the film could really fly with him at the helm."
Damon was intimately familiar with Crowe's ability to craft films infused with comedy, drama and memorable dialogue. "There are incredible moments in Cameron's movies where you're getting so much about who the people are and you're laughing at the same time," Damon says. "You find yourself laughing and then unexpectedly affected by something. He's able to use humor to get your guard down. It just feels so real, and yet it's so uniquely Cameron. In fact I think every character is some version of him. He kind of infects everybody around him with that little piece of him that we all relate to. It's why the films are tonally so tight and coherent, because in some ways it's come out of him."
Casting was still a long way off when McKenna was penning her first script draft, but she did something completely unexpected. "I decided to write the character of Benjamin Mee as if it were Matt Damon," she recalls. "He's sort of an everyman, intelligent, masculine, and he has a great sense of humor. But it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that it would actually end up being Matt Damon."
Adds Crowe: "Matt always bring a cache of trust, and in the same way, Benjamin Mee is a character I trusted when I read the book and Aline's script. Matt plays Benjamin from the heart, with a lot of truth, and that's why you believe in his journey."
Damon's Benjamin Mee, prior to beginning his new life at the zoo, was an adventure-seeking writer who in the course of his career had interviewed Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, flew into the eye of a hurricane, and become encircled by thousands of killer bees. "At the beginning of the movie he's a journalist -- he's been a journalist his entire adult life -- he's always looking for an adventure and has had all these incredible experiences," Damon says. "Benjamin has traveled around the world and done all kinds of extraordinary things."
But as the story opens, Benjamin finds himself struggling with the balancing act of raising two kids, ages 14 and 7. "Benjamin decides that they need something new -- and so he sets off to find a new place to live, and he finds this beautiful piece of property -- and it feels like destiny," says Damon. "Then they discover that there's an old zoo that comes with the property. Benjamin knows nothing about zoos, but in the spirit of adventure his late wife would have appreciated, he decides to go for it and buy the zoo."
Upon their arrival at their new home/zoo, Benjamin and his family meet head zookeeper Kelly Foster, played by Scarlett Johansson. Kelly is a no-nonsense, down to earth animal advocate and the voice of conscience for the zoo's occupants. "Kelly is a very practical person, good-natured, and loves animals," says Johansson. "She's very much a person who gets it done and gets it done well and leaves no loose ends. This zoo and these animals are her whole life."
Johansson notes that Kelly is, initially, somewhat wary of the Mee family. "She thinks of them as yet another in a long line of owners who probably saw the zoo as their little project, threw some money at it, and then disappeared. However, Kelly begins to see Benjamin take control of different projects and he seems to be totally dedicated and keeps sticking around. Through his apparent dedication she starts to believe in this guy and thinks, maybe this could be different."
Johansson says she was drawn to McKenna's and Crowe's script. "It has this incredible dialogue I could wrap my head around," Johansson says. "I also thought the story was very unusual because there's something old-fashioned about it. It's a film about family, about finding your passion and believing in yourself. It's very real and gritty. It deals with overcoming your own fear. It has a lot of those gritty, real-life qualities that makes it reminiscent of the classic films of the 1970s."
"The great thing about Scarlett is she truly is a lover of animals and immediately understood and connected to that," Yorn says. "It's very different from any part she usually plays. People have such an expectation of her being the femme fatale. In this film she really gets to show another side." Adds Crowe: "Scarlett brings a great humanity to the role that conveys Kelly's ferociously protective spirit. Kelly is going to fight to save that zoo and its animals."
The Benjamin-Kelly dynamic provides one of the film's many surprises. Says Damon: "You would think that they would get together and the movie becomes about that love story, but it's not. Among other things, the film is about two characters who both love the zoo. They build a friendship and closeness out of their shared passion for this project they're working on together. And out of that comes this really genuine thing between them, which by the end of the movie, probably becomes something else."
Duncan Mee, Benjamin's older brother and voice of reason, is played by Thomas Haden Church, who earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable role in Sideways. Whereas Benjamin Mee sees no obstacle that is insurmountable, Duncan is ever skeptical about his brother's new mission. Despite his doubts, Duncan supports his brother. "Duncan is the truth-teller in the movie," says Crowe. "For the first half of the movie, Duncan is trying to convince Benjamin that buying the zoo is the worst mistake of his life. Eventually, he becomes Benjamin's greatest ally in this outlandish endeavor. And he does it in a way that makes you feel that he'd be a great older brother to have."
"Duncan is supposed to be the voice of responsibility and accountability - not for the least of which he's an accountant," Church says. "He thinks the zoo may be the riskiest financial proposition to be conceived by anybody. But he has great affection for the kids and for his brother and ultimately his priority is their health and happiness. By the end of the movie, Duncan understands more about the humane thrust of what they're trying to do as opposed to the financial threat it poses to the family."
WE BOUGHT A ZOO reunites Crowe with actor Patrick Fugit, who made his film debut with the starring role as Crowe's alter-ego, William Miller, in the filmmaker's semi-autographical 2000 comedy-drama Almost Famous, based on Crowe's own early life story as a teenage rock journalist writing for Rolling Stone magazine. The 28 year-old actor -- who was only 16 at the time of Almost Famous -- notes that although he and Crowe kept in touch after that seminal experience, it had been a few years since they had spoken. "I was a little anxious about meeting Cameron for this role," Fugit admits. "I've grown a lot since then and he's grown a lot, and so much is different now. But as soon as we started getting into the scenes, it was like I was 16 again."
Fugit plays Robin Jones, one of the zookeepers and its resident craftsman and handyman. Jones' constant companion is a capuchin monkey named Crystal, which spends most of her time perched on Robin's shoulder. "When I met with Cameron for this part and we had our reading, he mentioned, 'I think Robin is going to have a capuchin monkey,'" Fugit recalls. "During rehearsal, I met Crystal and her handler Thomas Gunderson, so we could establish a good rapport and make it look like we'd been hanging out a long time."
Elle Fanning, star of the thriller Super 8, plays Kelly Foster's bubbly cousin, the young beauty Lily Miska, who lives and helps out at the zoo and its restaurant. When the Mees move in, she becomes fascinated with Benjamin's teenage son Dylan. "Lily lives in her own world," says Fanning, who celebrated her 13th birthday during production. "She's been surrounded by animals her whole life, so she doesn't really know how to relate to people that well. Dylan is like an exotic creature to her. She starts wearing makeup and tries to flirt with him, but she doesn't really know how because she's never had a crush on a boy. Lily tries hard to impress Dylan."
Lily's feelings are reciprocated -- but now Dylan is the one confused by his first brush with love. In depicting their burgeoning relationship, Crowe draws parallels to Benjamin's story of romantic longing years earlier when he first met his wife Katherine by mustering what he calls "20 seconds of courage." "Benjamin tells Dylan that all you need are those 20 seconds of insane courage, and something great will come of it," Crowe elaborates. The fatherly advice resonates even more, he adds, "because Benjamin is realizing its importance to his own situation at the zoo."
The film's primary antagonist is patronizing zoo inspector Walter Ferris, played by John Michael Higgins, known for his roles in Christopher Guest's "mockumentaries" A Mighty Wind, Best in Show and For Your Consideration. Ferris poses the largest obstacle for Benjamin, because if the zoo fails his crucial inspection, Benjamin won't be able to open it in time for the prime summer tourist season.
Higgins explains what makes Ferris tick: "Strangely, he's a bad guy with a really big heart for animals. He really cares about the animals, which is why he so carefully scrutinizes the Mee operation."
Peter MacCready, the zoo's passionate and visionary architect and enclosure designer, is played by Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen, best known for his role as Robert the Bruce in Mel Gibson's 1995 Oscar-winning classic, Braveheart.
The character name of 'Peter MacCready' went through several incarnations, but was finally settled upon after MacFadyen was cast in the role. When Crowe saw MacFadyen in his wardrobe for the first time, he was wearing a jumpsuit, and Crowe thought he looked like Pete Townsend. So Peter became his first name. And MacCready (with a different spelling) is the last name of Mike McCready, the lead guitarist of the rock band Pearl Jam, about whom Crowe had recently completed a retrospective documentary.
To portray the Mee children, the filmmakers conducted a nationwide search and online open casting call before eventually deciding on Colin Ford, and relative newcomer Maggie Elizabeth Jones, both natives of Atlanta, Georgia.
Ford's Dylan is having a difficult time in his new environment. "He doesn't see eye-to-eye with his father," says Ford. "Dylan defies him -- he's a real smart aleck -- and does anything to get underneath his skin."
Matt Damon adds, "Benjamin's relationship with his son is pretty combative. The whole family is getting through the absence of the mom; they're all battling it. Dylan is at that rebellious phase, which combined with what he's going through, makes for a lot of friction between father and son."
Maggie Elizabeth Jones is Benjamin's lively daughter Rosie, who is full of joy, imagination and optimism. She's an old soul who's almost like a caretaker to her beleaguered father. Rosie is played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who recently made her acting debut in Footloose. "Rosie is really sweet and really nice, and she's actually the one that gets the zoo to open," the young actress says about her character.
When Benjamin and Rosie are first shown the Rosemoor facility on their initial house hunting excursion, it is Rosie's gleeful enthusiasm for the house and the animals that prompts her father to make it their new home. "Benjamin looks at his little girl, and something clangs inside of him," says Crowe. "He thinks that her reaction of pure joy must be honored. And that's the beginning of him saying to himself, 'Damn, I gotta buy this zoo!'"
For Damon, a husband and father of young children, spending several months at the zoo set transcended work because it offered a lot of family time. "It was great to have all these kids around and have my kids come to set and interact with them," he notes. "I would have been unable to play this character ten years ago; I wouldn't have been able to relate to him. I think that whatever Cameron has gone through in his personal life and whatever I've gone through in my personal life has kind of lined us up to be interested by this material."
With casting complete, the actors settled in for two weeks of rehearsal. They also spent time with animal coordinator Mark Forbes for "animal school" at Moorpark College Teaching Zoo to meet and talk with the zookeepers and train with various species of animals with which they would be working.
Two of the film's zookeepers, played by Patrick Fugit and Angus MacFadyen, underwent "job training," in order to help inform their performances in working with and maintaining the zoo's various animal enclosures.