We Bought a Zoo Cast
: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden ChurchDirector
: Cameron Crowe Genre
: Comedy, DramaRunning Time
: 123 minutesSynopsis
: From director Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire"), "We Bought a Zoo" is based on a true story about a widowed father who buys a dilapidated zoo in hopes of making a fresh start. Facing enormous odds, he and his children, along with a small but loyal staff, work to get the zoo re-opened.Release Date
: December 26th, 2011
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.
Matt 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, Benjamin 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, Benjamin Mee sets out with the support of his family and the local community to reopen the zoo. Now, Benjamin Mee is no longer reporting an adventure story; he's living his own
and it is right in his own backyard.
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," Cameron 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 Cameron Crowe to a surprising revelation. "In the end, telling Benjamin Mee'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," Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Benjamin Mee's experiences, Julie Yorn says she approached Benjamin 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, Julie Yorn and the studio selected Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) to adapt the story for the big screen. Aline Brosh McKenna says she found Benjamin 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."
Benjamin Mee's predicament as an inexperienced, unexpected zoo director created opportunities for rich characters and storylines. Aline Brosh 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 Mee 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 Aline Brosh McKenna submitted her first draft of the screenplay, Julie 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 Benjamin Mee's funny and poignant tale. Cameron 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 Julie Yorn was thrilled with the idea of Cameron Crowe taking the helm of We Bought A Zoo, she didn't hold out much hope he would be interested. "I knew Cameron Crowe had never made a movie he didn't originate," Julie 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 Crowe 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," Aline Brosh 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 Crowe'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 Cameron Crowe, Julie Yorn knew the story had gotten under Cameron Crowe's skin. "There was something about Benjamin Mee'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 Brosh McKenna's script was a character-based story that reminded me of my favorite movies, and I really enjoyed it," Cameron 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."
Cameron Crowe took the script and "ran it through his own filter," Julie Yorn explains. "He really wanted to honor the version of the film that Aline Brosh McKenna had conceived, but go back to the true story even more. Cameron Crowe wanted to dig deeper into the character of Benjamin Mee and what made him tick and also give the film a little more soul and poetry. There's something soulful in Cameron Crowe's work that connects to the Mee family. Who could do this more soulfully than Cameron Crowe?" Casting
With Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Matt 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 Cameron 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 Crowe," Matt 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 Crowe'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."
Matt Damon was intimately familiar with Cameron Crowe's ability to craft films infused with comedy, drama and memorable dialogue. "There are incredible moments in Cameron Crowe's movies where you're getting so much about who the people are and you're laughing at the same time," Matt 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 Crowe. 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 Aline Brosh 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 Cameron Crowe: "Matt Damon 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 Brosh McKenna's script. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee 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," Matt Damon says. "Benjamin Mee has traveled around the world and done all kinds of extraordinary things."
But as the story opens, Benjamin Mee finds himself struggling with the balancing act of raising two kids, ages 14 and 7. "Benjamin Mee 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 Matt 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 Mee and his family meet head zookeeper Kelly Foster, played by Scarlett Johansson. Kelly Foster is a no-nonsense, down to earth animal advocate and the voice of conscience for the zoo's occupants. "Kelly Foster is a very practical person, good-natured, and loves animals," says Scarlett 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."
Scarlett Johansson notes that Kelly Foster 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 Foster begins to see Benjamin Mee 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."
Scarlett Johansson says she was drawn to Aline Brosh McKenna's and Cameron Crowe's script. "It has this incredible dialogue I could wrap my head around," Scarlett 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 Johansson is she truly is a lover of animals and immediately understood and connected to that," Julie 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 Cameron Crowe: "Scarlett Johansson brings a great humanity to the role that conveys Kelly Foster's ferociously protective spirit. Kelly Foster is going to fight to save that zoo and its animals."
The Benjamin-Kelly dynamic provides one of the film's many surprises. Says Matt 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 Mee'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 Mee is ever skeptical about his brother's new mission. Despite his doubts, Duncan mee supports his brother. "Duncan Mee is the truth-teller in the movie," says Cameron Crowe. "For the first half of the movie, Duncan Mee is trying to convince Benjamin Mee that buying the zoo is the worst mistake of his life. Eventually, he becomes Benjamin Mee'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 Mee is supposed to be the voice of responsibility and accountability - not for the least of which he's an accountant," Thomas Haden 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 Mee 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 Cameron Crowe with actor Patrick Fugit, who made his film debut with the starring role as Cameron Crowe's alter-ego, William Miller, in the filmmaker's semi-autographical 2000 comedy-drama Almost Famous, based on Cameron 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 Cameron 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 Crowe for this role," Patrick 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."
Patrick 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 Crowe for this part and we had our reading, he mentioned, 'I think Robin is going to have a capuchin monkey,'" Patrick 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 Mee's teenage son Dylan Mee. "Lily lives in her own world," says Elle 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 Mee 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 Miska tries hard to impress Dylan Mee."
Lily Misk's feelings are reciprocated - but now Dylan mee is the one confused by his first brush with love. In depicting their burgeoning relationship, Cameron Crowe draws parallels to Benjamin Mee's story of romantic longing years earlier when he first met his wife Katherine by mustering what he calls "20 seconds of courage." "Benjamin Mee tells Dylan Mee that all you need are those 20 seconds of insane courage, and something great will come of it," Cameron Crowe elaborates. The fatherly advice resonates even more, he adds, "because Benjamin Mee is realising its importance to his own situation at the zoo."
The film's primary antagonist is patronising 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. Walter Ferris poses the largest obstacle for Benjamin, because if the zoo fails his crucial inspection, Benjamin Mee won't be able to open it in time for the prime summer tourist season.
John Michael Higgins explains what makes Walter 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 scrutinises 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 Peter MacFadyen was cast in the role. When Cameron Crowe saw Peter MacFadyen in his wardrobe for the first time, he was wearing a jumpsuit, and Cameron Crowe thought he looked like Pete Townsend. So Peter Townsend became his first name. And Peter MacCready (with a different spelling) is the last name of Mike McCready, the lead guitarist of the rock band Pearl Jam, about whom Cameron 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.
Colin Ford's Dylan is having a difficult time in his new environment. "He doesn't see eye-to-eye with his father," says Colin Ford. "Dylan defies him - he's a real smart aleck - and does anything to get underneath his skin."
Matt Damon adds, "Benjamin Mee'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 Mee 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 Mee looks at his little girl, and something clangs inside of him," says Cameron 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 Matt 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 Crowe 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. About the Production
Cameron Crowe reunites with several key regular members of his behind the scenes team, including production designer Clay Griffith and editor Mark Livolsi, A.C.E. New to Cameron's team are director of photography Rodrigo Prieto, ASC/AMC and costume designer Deborah L. Scott.
Clay Griffith notes that Cameron Crowe's visual palette for We Bought A Zoo was inspired by the Neil Young Harvest album, the 2007 Sigur Rós documentary, Heima, and the aforementioned Bill Forsythe film, Local Hero. "The connective tissue between those three works is that they have soul," notes Clay Griffith. "Cameron Crowe always likes to find the poetry in things."
Over the years, Cameron Crowe and Clay Griffith have developed a close working relationship and design shorthand. Clay Griffith recalls that he would show Cameron Crowe images that would evoke thoughts and feelings they could bring into the set. "Cameron Crowe would counter with another photograph, so we had this kind of visual and verbal dialogue."
We Bought A Zoo also marks the first collaboration between Cameron Crowe and costume designer Deborah L. Scott, whose many credits include E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future, Titanic and Avatar. Deborah L. Scott notes that Benjamin is an "everyman figure, so with him there's nothing that's too fashionable. It's just basic, functional 'man clothes' - he's a real guy's guy."
For Scarlett Johansson's Kelly Foster, Deborah L. Scott went for a modern day extension of legendary animal researchers and naturalists Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. "Those women brought enormous sensitivity and femininity and warmth to the environment. When I looked at pictures of Jane Goodall and how beautiful she was, it just struck a chord."
Deborah L. Scott also designed clothing for Crystal, the capuchin monkey and sidekick to zookeeper Robin Jones. "I might have done something for a dog or cat on a movie, but never for a monkey," she laughs. "It came as a little bit of a surprise. Crystal was pretty amazing. Once I got the basic pattern down, she would stand there and you'd hold the little pants out and she'd step in just like a small child. It was easy. And no backtalk!"
We Bought A Zoo was filmed on locations around Los Angeles before moving 30 miles north to Greenfield Ranch in Thousand Oaks, where the Rosemoor Animal Park set was constructed. The completed zoo contained animal enclosures, walking paths, water features, diverse flora and fauna, an observation tower, a sculpture garden, and an amphitheater.
The Rosemoor Animal Park sets took nine months to design and build. The excavation and construction occurred over a four-month period, taking the combined efforts of over 140 carpenters, painters, prop makers, plasterers, sculptors, sign makers, and landscapers, along with the art department staff of art directors, set designers, and set decorators.
The Mee Family home, a 4,000 square foot, two-story, American Colonial farmhouse, painted in Cape Cod Gray, was the only residential structure built from scratch at the Greenfield Ranch location. Griffith says that aside from building the zoo, the farmhouse was the most enjoyable part of his job. "There's something viscerally exciting about building a house from the ground up," he relates. "What I really found interesting what the house's size, its relation to its setting, the age of the trees, and the big, pastoral landscape behind it. You're definitely in another world."
Finding the spot on the sprawling property to erect the eight-acre zoo was a challenge. When the property was first scouted there was no road leading to the eventual site. (Griffith recalls it was just "five foot tall grass and rattlesnakes.") But from a specific perspective, the area looked like Dartmoor Zoo, the real-life zoo purchased by Benjamin Mee.
Once Griffith began his design work for the zoo, he and his art directors met with animal coordinator Mark Forbes to determine and coordinate the placement of the animal enclosures. He recalls Forbes telling him, "Don't put the tigers near the bears. Don't let the lions and the tigers see each other. And don't ever, ever, ever let the lion, tigers and bears see any of the hoofed animals. "I told Mark, 'Great, you just spread the zoo out everywhere," Griffith laughs. 'I can't have anything that's even remotely near each other.' But it worked out really well, although we spent an exorbitant amount of time plotting out where each specific enclosure would go."
Griffith and his team did extensive research on what each enclosure would need to house its respective animal. "We looked at small zoos and large zoos," he says. "We talked to people from the LA County Zoo, the Orange County Zoo, and the Tucson Zoo, where my art director spent a week looking at their operations. Part of what Cameron Crowe wanted to do was show what it's really like to be behind the scenes at a zoo."
Overseeing the exotic and domesticated animals featured in the film, is veteran animal coordinator, Mark Forbes, whose company Birds & Animals Unlimited has provided and trained animals for many productions. Forbes and a team of 30 specialised animal trainers worked with the nearly 75 animals featured in the film, including an African Lion, Bengal Tigers, North American Grizzly Bears, White-Backed Vultures, White-Faced Capuchins, Hamadryas Baboons, Eurasian Eagle-Owls, Crested Porcupines, Asian Small-Clawed Otters, a Binturong, Grevy's Zebras, Ostriches, Chilean Flamingos, Indian Blue Peacocks, Peahens, a Zebu, Dromedary Camels, Alpacas, a Kangaroo, a Leopard, a Red Fox, and a Scarlet Macaw.
During production, the zoo animals were not kept in the enclosures at the zoo set. Instead, they were brought in on a daily basis as needed. The animals were all housed with their respective owners and trainers and various animal compounds in the Southern California area. Music
Music informs Cameron Crowe's creative process, from writing to rehearsal, to playing music on set during filming, and ultimately to finalising the music featured in the completed film. Cameron Crowe uses music extensively during production to inspire the actors' performances and create the appropriate mood. It also helps the crew understand the tone of the scenes they are filming.
During production, We Bought A Zoo was broadly "temped" with solo material from Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Simon and Garfunkel, Leon Russell, Warren Zevon, Kanye West, Bon Iver, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, U2 - and famed recording artist Jónsi, of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Jónsi would go on to compose the film's score. Cameron Crowe would cue a production assistant to play snippets of songs before, after, and even during scenes - all culled from a laptop containing Cameron Crowe's partial iTunes library filled with over 20,000 songs and a playlist for nearly every scene.
Upon the completion of principal photography, Cameron Crowe began finalising his plans for the music and soundtrack. Jónsi's work is an integral part of the film's emotional landscape. Written and recorded in short order, over four months this summer and fall at the famous Village Studios in Los Angeles and at the singer's home studio in his native Iceland, the soundtrack to We Bought A Zoo comprises more than a half-hour of brand new music from Jónsi, including two full songs and nine achingly beautiful themes, plus reimaginings of songs from Jónsi's acclaimed solo album, Go, as well as what might well be regarded as Sigur Rós' most memorable tune, Hoppípolla.
"Jónsi arrived from Iceland with a toy sampler keyboard and a headful of ideas," says Cameron Crowe. "Within a week, he had composed a series of themes that would reflect everything we'd hoped for. In his music were all the highs and lows and passionate in-betweens of the film itself. The instinct that made the movie come full circle."
Cameron Crowe's relationship with Jónsi and Sigur Rós goes back almost as far as the band's position in the international spotlight, to 2001 and the director's much-noticed inclusion of three of the band's songs in his successful film Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise. Cameron Crowe has long heralded the band and their filmwork, to the extent that the secret project name for We Bought A Zoo was, in fact, "Heima," in honor of the band's 2007 tour film.
"Early on it was obvious that Sigur Rós' music would have a profound effect on the making of We Bought A Zoo," says Cameron Crowe. "In preparation for making the movie, we gave all the actors and crew members a copy of Sigur Rós' transcendent documentary, Heima."
The closing scene of We Bought A Zoo is a cinematic homage to a specific moment in Heima when gleeful crowds stream in a Sigur Rós show in the far North of Iceland or, in this case, the newly opened zoo.
Among the original score and new songs is Gathering Stories, a song co-written by Jónsi and Cameron Crowe, in a collaborative first for the notoriously private Icelander. Orchestral arrangements on the score have been handled by previous Jónsi working partner, and composer Nico Muhly, who brings his quixotic genius to the string and brass sections.
As Cameron Crowe finalised the music and other post-production activities, he reflected on what he hopes audiences will experience watching We Bought A Zoo. "What I like best is that the film packs a wallop before you even realise it; it's telling a story that's deeper than you expected it to be, and then it kind of gets under your skin. You come in expecting something - and you get that, plus something extra. A lot of my favorite movies do that: you walk out of the showing and say, 'Man, I didn't expect to go to that place. I miss those characters a little bit." Benjamin Mee - The True Story
In 2006, Benjamin Mee, a British DIY columnist for the UK's Guardian newspaper, moved his family from their peaceful existence in the south of France to the shuttered Dartmoor Zoo in the British countryside in Devon. Benjamin Mee's family consisted of his wife Katherine, his mother, his brother Duncan, and his two small children, Ella and Milo. "It was about an 18 month period between 2006 and 2007 where our family, more or less accidentally, decided to buy a zoo," Benjamin Mee recalls. "We were looking for a large house, where my mother could live with her extended family, after my father died.
"The estate agent's details came through with lots of different properties and this one looked ideal," Benjamin Mee continues. "It was a once-grand twelve-bedroom house with a 30-acre garden in a nice part of the country. But it had the complication of 250 exotic animals in the garden. So you'd look through the details and it was kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms....along with various animal enclosures. And of course we laughed at first, but we went to see it anyway. We had always loved animals, and we just fell in love with it straight away and knew we had to do it. It was going to be closed if someone didn't buy it, and about half of the animals would have been destroyed, because it's really difficult to relocate these kinds of animals on such short notice. So we immediately had a sense of mission and purpose to pull out all the stops and get the place. Once we had done that we had to make sure it could earn its living and open it to the public again, which is a whole process in itself."
Within a few months after purchasing the zoo, Benjamin Mee's wife Katherine, who was in remission from cancer, became ill again and she died at the age of 40. Three months later, Benjamin Mee opened the zoo.
Benjamin Mee says that in simple terms the impending opening of the zoo was a good distraction from the grief he and his family were going through. "It was a very cathartic process, working so closely with animals depending on you for their daily existence. In the midst of what we were going through, we could look out of the window and see life going on outside. People were coming in to work to feed the animals, and to look after them. You're very much in touch with the whole cycle of life. It's just a nice environment in which to recuperate."
As a journalist and newspaper columnist prior to buying the zoo, Benjamin Mee knew he could write a book about his experiences, but at first he thought he'd write a newspaper column. "I figured that this was an interesting subject matter and even when Hollywood bought the rights, I didn't expect it to actually get made. And when it did, I didn't expect it to get made on such a fantastic scale, with the stars and director that were chosen."
Benjamin Mee's true adventure was chronicled in his 2008 bestselling memoir, "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever." In the fall of 2007, prior to the book's release, Mee's story was documented in a popular four-part BBC Two documentary series entitled Ben's Zoo.
Since then, Benjamin Mee has divided his time between operating the zoo and public speaking, in which his focus is on encouraging others to pursue their dreams. "I'm stubborn in that I don't give up when people tell me that something's impossible. You'll definitely fail if you just give up. If you try, you've got a chance, even when it looks impossible. If people find that message inspirational, then I'm delighted. If I can encourage people in some small way to seize their dream and see it through despite the odds, then I'd be happy about that."