Benjamin Mee Q&A

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Zoo Keeper and writer Benjamin Mee was special guest at a preview screening at London’s exclusive Mayfair Hotel. His book We Bought a Zoo has been adapted into a Hollywood Film starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johanssen. The film takes the broadest of Benjamin’s experiences of buying the dilapidated Dartmoor Zoo in South West England. Transposing it to the sunny Californian countryside. The humbling and very gracious man gave us a brief insight into his extraordinary journey.

Why Buy a Zoo?

It was my entire family who bought the Zoo. We were looking for a place for my mother to live. I was safely tucked away in France writing a book, and we wanted a big place for the whole family to be close to her. We made the mistake of actually going to see this run down place in Devon set on 30 acres with all these animals just to rule it out. And of course there it is, needing a lot of care and attention.

The owner was a cantankerous man who chased away all other buyers when it was less run down. So it was only us and a developer wanting to convert it into a nursing home who would of put down 3/4 of the collection of animals. So we stepped in. Also a light would of gone out in the region, it’s like a little jewel down there. Would I do it again- yes.

On watching the film about his story.

I was able to get even more from it this time and able to distance myself from the very personal bits. The basic story of changing your life and investing everything when people are telling you not to, but you think is right, that’s a really good message and that comes through the film. Cameron Crowe is a very human and humane, compassionate man and I am really glad he had the treatment to do this, because he has brought out all kinds of things I would not have noticed.

On who would get to play him.

They told me to come up with a list of any Hollywood A-lister.

How is the Zoo doing?

We are surviving. It costs 1000 pounds a day to run. Some days we get 5000 pounds a day, some we get 50. But there is a sense of optimism now. I dont think we could of survived without the film coming. Local businesses have pooled together to help us and the universities are getting involved. We have a whole lot of long term research projects going on.

On the book adaptation…

Inevitably, things are condensed and changed when they are adapted for Hollywood. The biggest thing is that my mother was the focus of why our family bought the zoo. So she really needs the biggest accolade of all for being brave enough to trust us. My brother was the staunchest ally, we literally stood shoulder to shoulder at adjacent cash machines, draining and melting out credit cards in the early days just trying to pay the wages. With his physical and moral support it could not have happened.

Was it a long decision to transform the book to a movie?

A very short decision that happened all behind closed doors in Hollywood. They are incredibly nice at consulting but you could feel that if you push against it there is no leeway.  It was entirely an economic decision (to film in California). My agent said  to me ‘if they want to film on mars just say yes’. It was cheaper to build an entirely new zoo than to film it in the existing one. Plus they said more people will see it if it’s set in the states because the audience is mainly American. Ironically they filmed War Horse about a mile away from Dartmoor Zoo.

Any benefits?

We are down for a small percentage of the gross profit. Which sounds great, but in Hollywood that’s exactly the amount it takes to make the film, so I’m not holding my breath.

We Bought a Zoo is out now in the UK. For more info on Dartmoor Zoo and Benjamin check out. http://www.dartmoorzoo.org/

Many thanks to the Mayfair Hotel.

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