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Q&A: Real-Life 'Zoo' Keeper Benjamin Mee on Being Played by Matt Damon

Benjamin Mee
Getty Images

"We Bought a Zoo" was something of a digression for writer-director Cameron Crowe, who was aiming to make a more family-friendly and openly sentimental film than his previous work. But it was also a digression for Benjamin Mee -- the journalist whose life provided a template for its story -- who saw his experience transformed into a sweet and uplifting film, even if it didn't always adhere to the details of what actually happened.

NextMovie spoke to Mee recently to discuss his thoughts on "We Bought a Zoo," which debuts on DVD and Blu-ray this week. In addition to offering an opinion on being played by Matt Damon, Mee talks about the changes the filmmakers made in adapting his life to film, and reveals why he was initially "crestfallen" to hear that Scarlett Johansson had been cast in the movie.

How does it feel to have been portrayed by Matt Damon? Are you disappointed they didn't cast someone more handsome?
[laughs] Yeah, and he could have been so much taller. No, I was so absolutely delighted; he was my first choice when they encouraged me to [suggest] "any Hollywood A-lister." I don't have a list of A-listers up my sleeve for who I'd like to play me, so I asked some friends to make one, and his name was on it. I thought, of course! I really like that guy. I watched the "Bourne" films when I was living in France, and I watched the making of the "Bourne" films on the DVD extras, and saw Matt Damon behind the scenes just being a regular guy that everybody gets on with, and you can see he's a thoughtful, engaged individual.

Benjamin Mee and Matt Damon
Getty Images

Interestingly, when I came over for the promotions in New York in early December, I was sitting on [Anderson Cooper's] chat show ... right next to [Matt Damon]. And they said to me, "What's it like to be played by Matt Damon?" And I thought, well, I've got a load of things to say about this, and I was just about to launch into my spiel, and I just looked at him and said, "Ha!" I was just about to say all of the nice things about Matt Damon that I thought, and then they just cut and moved on to something else. So the only time he's heard me talk about him playing me, I've just gone, "Ha!" I feel really bad about that. But maybe he'll [read] this.

How many of the events in the film synchronized with what really happened -- and which ones were necessary changes you know they had to make?
Well, the essence of the film I think is very similar to what actually happened in real life. It's just been kind of transplanted to sunny California [from England], because I think the thinking was more people would want to see it. I also think it was easier to make it nearer to the trained animals that Hollywood draws on.

Many of the specific scenes have been changed slightly for dramatic effect; I mean, the biggest change that they made was the timing of the death of my wife, which actually happened after we bought the zoo and before we got it reopened. I spoke to them about this at the time and said, in terms of what actually happened, it would be accurate to portray it in there ... And they said it was actually too sad, and it would put people off, so ... what they tried to do was basically to show the struggle of a family trying to rebuild itself whilst rebuilding a zoo in the aftermath of a bereavement. So that's really the truth of it that's come through, and I have to say I think they dealt with that exceptionally well.

Did you have any initial trepidations about them dramatizing the events in your life?
Oh, of course! Trepidations isn't the word. I mean, you sign a piece of paper, and they say it's very unlikely to get made, most of these things don't get past that stage -- they're optioned and that's it. So I didn't think too closely about it until two or three years ago, and as it got nearer and nearer and more and more things were happening, I was like, whoa, they could do anything with this. But luckily, of course, Cameron Crowe is probably one of the more compassionate directors around, and Matt Damon is a very thoughtful actor who is not going to be involved anything that's other than an entirely honorable and honest. I couldn't have been in safer hands at all.

We Bought a Zoo
20th Century Fox

One thing that initially surprised me and made me slightly crestfallen was when they cast Scarlett Johansson ... I thought, if she's going to be cast as my wife that's great for the film because she's a huge name and a draw, but she's nothing like my wife … In fact, Scarlett was cast really as a composite of about three people, two female keepers and the head keeper at the time, so she's sort of a fictional character entirely. And she filled those roles really, really well. My wife was cast as the French actress, Stephanie [Szostak], who is actually very like my wife – she's gentle and mellow and there's a sort of grace about her that chimes very closely.

How do you feel about the film's depiction of Ben's decision-making skills? The film dances on an edge between supporting that choice and questioning how smart it is.
It's interesting, I think Matt Damon's been interviewed a few times and called this an act of desperation, which in the chronology of the film, post-bereavement, you can see that he's almost a little bit too wild. Whereas we spent as a whole family a very long time considering this -- again, another slight discrepancy. We actually bought the house for my mother, and it was a joint [purchase] between all of us; we have five siblings, and four of those agreed that's what we should do. And we combed through business plans and presented it to financiers over a period of about six months ... So we didn't feel we were going into it blind, and ironically I knew that if I could generate some publicity through my journalism for the zoo, it would benefit us enormously. That was kind of my ace in the hole, and I had no idea that the publicity would come this far and become a Hollywood film.

Also Check Out: Matt Damon Buys Zoo in 6 "We Bought a Zoo" Clips

On the Blu-ray there's a featurette highlighting you and the actual zoo. What did you especially want to emphasize or explore in that for audiences familiar only with the movie?
They came over and spent a day filming at the zoo, and just asked me everything. And I haven't seen it for so long, but they were always very keen to keep me abreast of big things, like [how they presented] the death of my wife. It was interesting -- my literary agent said, "Don't argue with them ever. Just say yes. If they want to set the film on Mars, just say yes." Whereas I did argue -- not in a horrid way, but they were open, they wanted to talk, and I wasn't just going to roll over. I was going to offer my opinion, because it's my story and I wrote it and I have an interest in how it turned out.

Do you have other experiences, be they with the zoo or just other journalistic projects you've undertaken, that you think would be worthy of a film as well?
I'm writing a sequel to "We Bought a Zoo," and it occurred to me, there's no reason why it can't be a sequel to the film … Matt Damon would obviously have to marry Scarlett and then go off to a Caribbean island and pick up a dolphin tank, because actually that's kind of one of my back-burner issues in my life – I always wanted to work in a dolphin center. I need a seaplane in my life, and I can see how that would look really good on the screen. But also, like every journalist, I have a screenplay that I've been working on for years, and I now at least I know who to submit it to.

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