IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author Benjamin Mee Talks 'We Bought a Zoo' Blu-ray and DVD

Monday, 02 April 2012 15:11 Written by  Dana Gardner
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Author Benjamin Mee Talks 'We Bought a Zoo' Blu-ray and DVD

This Tuesday, April 3rd We Bought a Zoo will be available on BluRay/DVD. Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) directs a story based on a memoir by British journalist, Benjamin Mee, and stars Matt Damon (Contagion), Scarlett Johansson (Iron Man 2) and Thomas Haden Church (Sideways). The movie focuses on a single dad, Benjamin Mee (portrayed by Damon), struggling to raise his two children after the loss of his wife. Hoping that a fresh start will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and buys an old rural house, but there’s a catch: the house is part of a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) and her dedicated team. With no experience and a very tight budget, Mee sets out with the support of his family and his devoted staff to reopen the zoo. 

Featuring an incredible musical score composed by Jónsi of the band Sigur Rós, the We Bought a Zoo Blu-ray is loaded with over 2½ hours of special features including a 28-minute featurette called “The Real Mee” about the real life Benjamin Mee, giving some background on his life and the zoo.

The movie does an excellent job portraying Benjamin Mee’s experiences but his actual story is a bit more harrowing than the movie let’s on. I recently had a chance to speak with Benjamin Mee about We Bought a Zoo. He discusses how hard it really was to buy a zoo, what it was like to have Matt Damon play him on-screen, Do-It-Yourself skills, his animal wish list, close brushes with death, and about how some parts of his life were so dismal that they didn’t make it into the film.




Here is what he had to say:

IAR: What really happened in your life and how the movie portrayed it is quite different. Your wife, Katherine, didn’t pass away prior to your decision to purchase a zoo. As I understand it, the process began after your father passed away and you were seeking a house for your mother. In the movie, buying a zoo was as easy as meeting the right realtor and then suddenly you’re moving in. Was it that easy in real life?

Benjamin Mee: It wasn’t quite that easy, no! By the way, thank you for reading behind the story; that’s unusual. Anyway, yes, the process was extremely protracted. The first time we tried to buy it, our bid was rejected and we had to wait a whole year thinking that we failed and then I saw a story on the BBC news page that the zoo was up for sale again and that all the animals would be shot in eleven days if we didn’t act now. I thought, well this is a second chance that you don’t get often. So I down loaded everything and put all my efforts into trying to purchase it. There was a minefield of regulations that you have to go through. There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle as well as the finance, which was very, very complicated; that process took about another six months. It was so exhausting, but it was quite a useful preparation for the reality of running the place. So, yes, it was a much more protracted process. In the film there’s a point where he says to the little girl, ‘we bought the zoo!’ and they kind of touch thoughts and say ‘we did buy a zoo!’ and I’m thinking, already? But it had to be like that; the filmgoer wants to know what happens next so you can’t go through all those things in detail.

You were a Do-It-Yourself columnist for the Guardian. Was purchasing a zoo the biggest DIY project you’ve ever tackled?

Mee: It totally was! Even today I’ve managed to intervene and use some of my DIY skills to modify a post system that we’re using in the car park. That’s the bit I love. Unfortunately we’ve got loads of meetings going on where people are saying what are you doing with your hands dirty, you should be sitting down at this table going through the accounts and I realize that I do have account things to deal with; but that’s the bit I like the most. I was daunted at first because my approach to DIY was just like putting up a shelf in the house and doing something really simple but here, I’ll think okay I’ll just go and do that. Too late, five guys are on it and its done so quickly and so professionally and they’re on to the next thing and I’m thinking oh, yah, right, I could’ve done that but it would’ve taken me a bit longer. It’s not exactly the same but it’s lovely to have the opportunity occasionally to muck in.


In the movie you’re referred to as an adventure junkie. Is there enough adventure in owning a zoo to last a lifetime or do you see yourself wanting more someday? Some new, massive adventure project perhaps?

Mee: Well, in fact, the zoo is so demanding I never have time to go and do things and I see all these opportunities you know, as a journalist, I would have been on the plane on my way to get a story. You’re quite right; it’s very, very exciting. Sometimes in a bad way, on a daily basis, I mean probably my closest brush with actual death has come from in here rather than out in the field. Things like free-fall parachuting or dog sledding or whatever I used to do are nothing compared to this. Standing next to a tiger when the tiger is supposed to be under anesthetic and it stands up, that’s dangerous and that’s probably the closest I’ve come to being eaten or killed. About two months ago I was in with the tiger, she again had an anesthetic and I thought this could happen again. There are more people in here and if she wakes up in this little room we’re all in a lot of trouble. So, yes, I think there’s a lot of excitement in here that I don’t need any more stimulation from the outside.

As I understand it your wife, Katherine, passed away shortly after moving into the zoo. What the movie didn’t portray is how you had to cope with the death of your wife while you were taking over ownership of the zoo. When your life’s turned into a movie, does it make it easier when there are differences between real life and how the movie portrayed it? Or did it ever become frustrating at times that they didn’t just tell the story how it actually happened?

Mee: Well I did speak to the screenwriter and the producer about that particular chronological change because in terms of drama, a three-act drama, the first is hope, in the second act something terrible happens, and then the third act it all comes together. I thought, well, what could be more dramatic and horrible than what actually happened? But they said. “It was too bad and it would put people off going to see the film.” They said, “If you want the film to hit a big audience they would need to move those details around.” So it wasn’t right there in the forefront and I can see why. They haven’t lessened it or cheapened it in any way because the character constantly refers to his wife and his relationship with the wife. The process of the story during the film is about rebuilding of the family whilst rebuilding a zoo and that is really what happened after my wife died. Bereavement of someone so close to you like that is a terrible thing, I mean it knocks you out. You’re lethargic and you just want to lie down for a long time, for weeks, and I didn’t lie down for weeks because I would look out of the window and there were things that needed doing and it was my input that was needed. We had a deadline; there were animals and people depending on us getting out there and performing. My brother Duncan, portrayed by Thomas Haden Church, was a vital help actually, he wasn’t the naysayer that the Church character is; and that’s sad for him. Just like my little boy who was also portrayed as someone who didn’t want to move to the zoo whereas, in fact, he did. But of course they represent other things like my brother’s character represents pretty much everyone else we knew who said to us, “Don’t be stupid, what do you think you’re doing?” They’re sort of magpie-like taken from the story and made to represent other things. I just take my hat off to them. I think Cameron and Aline (Brosh McKenna), the original scriptwriter, used the components of the story extremely well to make a very compelling movie that is actually still true to what happened.


So you’re British, your zoo is actually called Dartmoor Zoo, which is in the UK, but the movie takes place in California with an American actor portraying you. What was it like having Matt Damon portray you?

Mee: Well it’s fantastic. They asked me for a list of A-listers I would like to play me, which is a really unusual question that you don’t often get asked, and I just had no idea. Initially I asked some friends and one of them came up with Matt Damon and I thought yeah, I like that guy. I’ve seen him in a lot of films and I’ve seen him in the making of a lot of films. You look at the director’s commentary of the Bourne films and there’s Matt Damon just hanging out with the stunt guys and being like a normal guy. When I met him on the set he didn’t disappoint at all. He wasn’t full of himself like a big star; he was talking to me about environmental concerns just as you would with any kind of informed person. I’m hugely privileged and lucky that he portrayed me. At one point Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, all these other people the director and scriptwriter have worked with in the past, were mentioned, and I thought well it’s an honor, and all these people would be an amazing honor, but with Matt Damon, there was just nobody that would have been better.

Lastly, in an article that you wrote several years back you mentioned that giraffes, Galapagos tortoises, and elephants were on your long-term wish list. What’s the status of that wish list? Have you been able to acquire any of those animals?

Mee: Not yet! None of those actually but we’re inching toward the giraffes. We’re getting zebras this year as part of our African palette. Once we’ve got the zebras settled in we can start thinking about the giraffes but it’s a really long, slow process bringing animals like that in. But I’m hoping the success of the film means more people through the gate, which will give us some money and some opportunities to move towards that direction. Elephants are the ultimate goal!

We Bought a Zoo is available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning April 3rd. 


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