Hollywood star playing me was 'beyond surreal'
BENJAMIN Mee didn't set out to buy a zoo. There just happened to be one on the market at the time. It's funny how a sudden whim can turn into a complete, radical life change.
The journalist, his wife Katherine, their two young children and his mother bought Dartmoor Zoo in 2006. Amazing animal adventures loomed on the horizon.
Tragically, though, Katherine died from a brain tumour several months later, leaving Mee battling to re-open the zoo and raise their children.
If it all sounds like the stuff of amazing true-life stories, it won't surprise you that the Guardian columnist wrote a book about his tumultuous experiences. Little, though, did he imagine his words would be turned into a Hollywood movie.
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On the whole Mee seems pleased with the Hollywood version of his life. Surprising really, because once he'd signed the contract he knew full well they could do what they liked with his words, even write an entirely fictional story, if they liked.
"I think about half of our story made it into the film which is inevitably a simpler, slightly sweeter version of reality, as Hollywood is," he says. "But they didn't shy away from the big stuff. There's the tragedy in the middle of our story with the death of my wife.
"They could have shied away from it completely or changed anything but they did do their best to keep true to the essence of our story."
Mee describes himself as "hugely relieved" that Cameron Crowe who is "probably the kindest man working in Hollywood" directed the film.
"Matt Damon, too, is a thoughtful, clever, family man," he says. "Between them they came up with a very compassionate film, I think."
Mee found watching Damon on the big screen, playing him, "beyond surreal". A few days before the premiere he found himself overwhelmed by mundane and messy mishaps.
"There were flood problems, mud, animal feed and things. I thought, 'Hang on I'm supposed to go to Hollywood to a premiere where Matt Damon is playing me in a film in three days. Is that real? Did I just dream that?'"
Apparently, Mee's kids, Milo and Ella, saw the film for the first time at the premiere and were incredibly moved.
"The presence of my wife is felt throughout the film and towards the end, there's a bit where Damon is looking at the family photos and they really are based on our family photos of us playing in the fields in France when my wife was alive and the children were very little. The photos came to life in the film and Katherine was seen running around in the fields.
"Obviously the children were quite affected by it. We've all now seen the film four times and we've got used to it. We are now having fun picking out the bits that we recognise and the bits that are made up."
The movie, thankfully, has caused an upturn to zoo visitor numbers. Americans now include it in their holiday itineraries.
"People are impressed that Solomon is a real lion who does really roar," he laughs. "You can't go in with him though. In the film one of the keepers goes into Solomon's enclosure to fix the gate from inside. It's okay because Scarlet Johansson is on the other side of the enclosure distracting the lion. You just think, 'No'. The lion would just look at Scarlet and think, 'Nice but she's on the wrong side of the wire and I'm going to eat this man now'," he laughs.
The zoo, which houses the largest collection of big cats in the South West, is about a two hour drive from Barnstaple and well worth a visit.
"We have huge Siberian tigers, lions and a jaguar and cheetah," says Mee. "Also three European bears which is very unusual to have in English zoos."
As many people have now read the book or seen the movie, they seem to take ownership of the zoo when they visit.
"They understand the story and see how the place is evolving," adds Mee. "They come and see it and it's like a little jewel in the middle of the Devon countryside. It's all this lush, English overgrown foliage everywhere and then there are tigers looking at you through the trees, which is amazing."
Dartmoor Zoological Park is near Plymouth. To find out what you can do there visit www.dartmoorzoo.org
The film, We Bought A Zoo, which has already been in cinemas, comes out on DVD and Blu-ray this week. It has two and a half hours of special features including one on the real zoo.