Benjamin Mee

Benjamin Mee

Benjamin Mee turned his life upside down back in 2006 when he left his journalism career behind and bought and then opened a zoo.

In 2012 his story was brought to the big screen by director Cameron Crowe with Matt Damon taking on the central role.

I caught up with Ben to talk about the movie and how the success of the film has impacted on the zoo.

- We Bought A Zoo is about to be released on DVD and it is inspired by yourself so how did the movie come about? And what were your initial thoughts when they came to you with the idea?

Well we bought a zoo in 2006 and being a journalist I wrote a book called We Bought A Zoo, which raised some money for the repairs that we needed to do.

Then a couple of years later Hollywood called and said that they wanted to make it into a film.

I was completely amazed because I didn’t think that there was anything that unusual about our story - I suppose when you stand back and look at a family that changes direction and buys a zoo I suppose it is interesting.

They said 'don't get your hopes up because a lot of these projects don't get made' but the producer Julie Yorn kept calling me back every few months saying 'it has moved to the next stage'.

Finally in January 2011 they started filming and they invited us onto the set and so we could see it was real. So yes it was quite a strange thing.

- Did you have any initial worries about the dramatising of the events in your life?

Oh totally, you sign a piece of paper and you think 'it is going to be good for the zoo whatever happens.' Then you read the contract and they can put anything they want in the film, they can make it entirely fictional.

The word Hollywood is sometimes used as a symbol for crass and insensitive and they could have so easily done something really horrible with out story - which is a very personal family story.

It was amazing because we got allocated Cameron Crowe and he is probably one of the kindest and most humane directors in all of Hollywood. Matt Damon who is also a very thoughtful family man.

And between them they both really thought ‘what it would be like to lose their wife and raise their children on their own?’ so that injected a lot of compassion into the film and gave it a bit of resonance and depth than the average Hollywood family film.

- You have touched on my next question really I was wondering how much were those fears quelled when you see the likes of Cameron Crowe in the director’s chair and Matt Damon heading the cast list?

I read a reviewers review and they said that they 'went to see the film because they trusted Matt Damon's decisions in the film roles that he takes' and I thought that that was exactly right.

As soon as he is on board, while you are still staggering around getting use to the idea that Matt Damon is going be playing me, you think 'that's great because he is going to do it as well as he can and as thoughtful and sensitive as he can.'

I have actually done a few chat shows in the States with him when we were promoting it and listening to him speak about his preparation and putting himself in the role of a single father and losing his wife was very moving indeed - he really did say it from the heart.

And that is one of the amazing things about the film as you get to see him go through the whole range of emotions from elation to crying in abject depression; and that is a useful thing for people to see.

I do a lot of book signings and of the hundred people who are waiting only four have lost someone close to them quite recently.

And they get something from it knowing that there are other people out there in a similar situation and that life does continue and if you put all your energy into something positive you can actually use the energy to grow through it.

- Obviously with any movie like this there is artistic license and things get changed and so on but many of the events in the film really were what happened -- and which ones were necessary changes you know they had to make?

For all of the similarities to the basic story there were so many things that were changed, obviously the setting; they said that it would be cheaper to build a new zoo in Hollywood than come and film here.

My mother was central to the story, we bought the zoo as a house for my mother and extended family to live in, she doesn't make it into the film.

My brother was very on side and he represents the voice of all the doubters because they have to streamline the story and they can't put twenty phone calls from all your friends saying 'you are mad'.

So they had to instil it into one person and sadly for Duncan that is him but he couldn't have been a stronger ally and I couldn't have done it without him.

And of course the biggest one was my little boy Milo was nothing like Dylan who is several years old and a surly adolescent who didn't want to go to the zoo.

Milo couldn't have been more in favour of coming to the zoo and he would spend all his time in the education room giving little talks on reptiles so he is a totally different character.  

- You have mentioned that you were invited onto the set of the movie while they were filming so how was that experience?

Well that was the most surreal part of everything I think because the zoo was going through a very different winter as the banks were withdrawing all of their support and we on a knife edge, which is not an unusual position for us, and then it was tickets out to America and we were staying in a nice hotel.

We were then driven on to this sun baked set where such a crew of experts had lovingly tried to re-create things from the book and the TV series; there would be craftsmen coming up to me saying 'was your dining room table like this? We have looked at the photos and tried to make it the same.'

They just put so much care in and it was amazing to see such a team of experts. And then every now and again they would stop and film a little bit of our life. So it was very very strange but it was a hugely positive experience. 

- So what did you think of the movie when you saw it for the first time?

Again I was swept up by it because it wasn't literal and it didn't look like our place. It starts with Benjamin Mee as a journalist and I was thinking 'yeah I did do adventure travel stuff along with health and science' and you quickly lose track that he is Benjamin Mee until he picks up his phone and he says 'Hello, Benjamin Mee' and you just think 'whoa' (laughs).

When he gets chased out of the porcupine enclosure and lands heavily on his back that really did happen to me.

I did that in the middle of the night six years ago and I though it was really funny to have been chased out by a porcupine and so I wrote it down and then there is Matt Damon dressed as me doing the same thing. It was incredible. 

- So how have you seen the success of the movie impact on the zoo?

It has been huge. The website just starring buzzing from five hundred people to nearer twenty thousand and that happened really quickly.

Visitor numbers over Easter were monumentally big; we estimate three to four times as many visitors came up the drive than they normally do.

Of course we were blessed by the weather there and looking out of the window at the moment it is just relentless rain all over the country. 

- You bought the zoo in Dartmoor back in 2006 so what was it about the idea of owning a zoo that intrigued you so much?

Personally I have always been obsessed with animals and I was writing a book on animal intelligence. Where most people would dismiss a zoo as a liability stuck on the edge of a house our whole family looked at it as an opportunity to explore animals more.

I was writing a book as I say about dolphins, apes and elephants but from the safety of a desk and studying academic research and I thought 'it is going to be very very different and very hard and challenging but it will be in the same direction'.

At the moment, because we haven’t got a huge amount of money to expand, I have got together a team of people whose interests are enriching the lives of the animals that we have and that is the main thing.

Already we have one of the highest density of research projects of any zoo in the country it seems - we have got studies on every kind of nuance of behaviour.

The cheetah spends a lot of time looking at the lions and ignores the tigers and you just think 'why is she doing that?' So we did a study on it and some poor girl had to shimmy up a tower and watch her for six months and measuring how much time she spent looking.

And it's hugely significant because she evolved alongside lions and not tigers, the smells are different and the science is completely different, so it's a biological pre-disposition that her instincts, even though she was born in captivity, are still in tact - that has implications if you ever want to breed them to release back into the wild.

- You were a journalist and a writer so how did you find the journey to zoo owner when you look back on it now?

Initially it was quite awkward because when someone asks you what you do and you say Journalist it is quite a good answer and people think 'oh that's quite interesting' and they can pigeon hole you quite easily.

But suddenly you have to say zoo director (laughs) it sounds really strange and it triggers a whole torrent of questions but I have got use to that now.

But it is not that dissimilar because as a journalist you have to interview three or four experts for one story and sift their opinions and take the middle line and that is what I have had to do from the start here.

I speak to lots of experts that are not in my field but work out what they are saying and take the middle line. In journalism you end up with a little article but here it is a life and death decision about an animal or public safety.

- Finally what’s coming up for you?

This year we are getting zebras, which is going to Africanise out African paddock; ultimately we want to aim towards giraffes in that paddock.

But most importantly find the elephants as they are clever and gorgeous animals that are in danger in South East Asia and they need a home. But bringing them from the jungle to the rain of Dartmoor isn’t necessarily a kind thing and so we have to work that out.

I am looking to get them a heated pool and some sort of massive shelter and that is probably an expensive operation. So there is plenty to think about in the next few years.

We Bought A Zoo is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now

FemaleFirst Helen Earnshaw

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