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We Bought a Zoo – Matt Damon on acting with a bear and snakes

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We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon
We Bought A Zoo - A happy Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Cameron Crowe’s new movie We Bought a Zoo is based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, entitled We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever.

The story has been transplanted from England to America with Matt Damon starring as Benjamin Mee, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer, who as a single father faces the challenge of bringing up two young children alone when his wife dies.

Hoping that a fresh start with restore his fractured family, Mee quits his job and buys a zoo named Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozen of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her team.

Matt Damon spoke about the joy of playing a father, a role that reflects his real life, and working with writer/director Cameron Crowe.

What was it about this project that appealed to you?

We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) gets up close and personal with one of his new four-legged neighbors © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

The reason I came aboard was a hundred percent Cameron. 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.

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 comes out of him.

Was it fun to play something that reflects your own life, being a father?

We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson. Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Patrick Fugit and monkey, Carla Gallo, Elle Fanning and Colin Ford
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) gets the grand tour of his newly-purchased zoo from head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).  Along for the expedition are: Benjamin’s young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, far right), zookeeper Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and monkey, Rhonda Blair (Carla Gallo), Lily Miska (Elle Fanning) and Benjamin’s son Dylan (Colin Ford, rear) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

It was great to have all these kids around and have my kids come to set and interact with them. 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.

Can you talk about Benjamin’s relationship with Kelly in this?

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.

Out of that comes this really genuine thing between them, which by the end of the movie probably becomes something else.

Was this the first time in your career where you have worked with big animals and were there any close calls?

We Bought A Zoo - Colin Ford with Matt Damon
Dylan (Colin Ford) with his fahter Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) who shows off a poster of the Zoo’s grand re-opening © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

It’s the first time I’ve done a movie with big animals, other than horses. I’ve done a lot of movies with horses. I’ve never done anything like this. You’re never supposed to work with children or animals because they always upstage you.

So we joked that we were just getting it all out of the way in one movie, with the cutest kids and animals you’ve ever seen.

The reality was we all acted with incredible deference to the trainers, and when the animals were on the set it was really all about them, particularly the really big, scary ones. And so those sessions were very regimented by the trainers.

Cameron would troubleshoot with them where he could put the camera and what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed, and then we staged the scenes around that.

When the lion is coming out of the cage it’s a big deal. It’s not like everyone’s sitting around talking to each other like on a normal movie set. Everybody’s very quiet and very observant of the fact that the ‘King of the Jungle’ is amongst you. So those were the most disciplined moments that we had in the entire process.

Can you compare and contrast your scenes with the bear and the snakes?

We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is pleased with the purchase for his family © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

The closest we got to the bear was the scene where I was in the car and the bear actually did come right up to the window. But they put a little snack on the roof, so the bear didn’t really see me, he was more interested in the snack.

When we did the scene out in the field, that was split screen, because we didn’t want to relive Grizzly Man!

I was actually much more nervous about the snakes until Scarlett starting making fun of me, and then I tried to get over it as best I could. I think there was something about their being so many and watching the little kids handling them that eventually I got over it and was okay with it.

There were all different kinds of snakes and none of them were poisonous and none of them bit, so it was cool.

This is a movie that talks a lot about letting in the light. It’s a particularly dark, cynical time in America, do you think it’s important for films to hold out a glimmer of hope because people may not be able to find one elsewhere?

I know when Cameron talked to me about the movie very early on, one of the first things he said was, ‘I see this as a piece of joy, and I think this is a good thing to put out into the world right now.’ I always held onto that, because I think I intuitively agreed that that was true.