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With Crowe set to direct and co-write the screenplay, casting got underway to find the right cast to portray the members of an ordinary family placed in extraordinary circumstances. For the central role of Benjamin Mee, a single father out of his depth in several ways, the filmmakers wanted an actor who would bring a sense of decency, higher purpose and humor. For Crowe, both the real life Benjamin Mee and his cinematic counterpart are further defined by their relentlessness. "He does not give up,” says the director. "And I love that he's that kind of guy. Nothing is going to stop him.”

Matt Damon got the nod to play Benjamin Mee. For Damon, who has worked with the world's greatest filmmakers – including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, Gus Van Sant, Anthony Minghella, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh, and Paul Greengrass – the prospect of working with Crowe, a director he's long admired, was a key attraction for taking on the role. "The reason I came aboard was a hundred percent Cameron,” Damon enthuses. "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.”

Damon was intimately familiar with Crowe's ability to craft films infused with comedy, drama and memorable dialogue. "There are incredible moments in Cameron's movies where you're getting so much about who the people are and you're laughing at the same time,” Damon says. "You find yourself laughing and then unexpectedly affected by something. He's able to use humor to get your guard down. It just feels so real, and yet it's so uniquely Cameron. 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's come out of him.”

Casting was still a long way off when McKenna was penning her first script draft, but she did something completely unexpected. "I decided to write the character of Benjamin Mee as if it were Matt Damon,” she recalls. "He's sort of an everyman, intelligent, masculine, and he has a great sense of humor. But it never occurred to me in my wildest dreams that it would actually end up being Matt Damon.”

Adds Crowe: "Matt always bring a cache of trust, and in the same way, Benjamin Mee is a character I trusted when I read the book and Aline's script. Matt plays Benjamin from the heart, with a lot of truth, and that's why you believe in his journey.”

Damon's Benjamin Mee, prior to beginning his new life at the zoo, was an adventure-seeking writer who in the course of his career had interviewed Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, flew into the eye of a hurricane, and become encircled by thousands of killer bees. "At the beginning of the movie he's a journalist – he's been a journalist his entire adult life – he's always looking for an adventure and has had all these incredible experiences,” Damon says. "Benjamin has traveled around the world and done all kinds of extraordinary things.”

But as the story opens, Benjamin finds himself struggling with the balancing act of raising two kids, ages 14 and 7. "Benjamin decides that they need something new – and so he sets off to find a new place to live, and he finds this beautiful piece of property – and it feels like destiny,” says Damon. "Then they discover that there's an old zoo that comes with the property. Benjamin knows nothing about zoos, but in the spirit of adventure his late wife would have appreciated, he decides to go for it and buy the zoo.”

Upon their arrival at their new home/zoo, Benjamin and his family meet head zookeeper Kelly Foster, played by Scarlett Johansson. Kelly is a no-nonsense, down to earth animal advocate and the voice of conscience for the zoo's occupants. "Kelly is a very practical person, good-natured, and loves animals,” says Johansson. "She's very much a person who gets it done and gets it done well and leaves no loose ends. This zoo and these animals are her whole life.”

Johansson notes that Kelly is, initially, somewhat wary of the Mee family. "She thinks of them as yet another in a long line of owners who probably saw the zoo as their little project, threw some money at it, and then disappeared. However, Kelly begins to see Benjamin take control of different projects and he seems to be totally dedicated and keeps sticking around. Through his apparent dedication she starts to believe in this guy and thinks, maybe this could be different.”

Johansson says she was drawn to McKenna's and Crowe's script. "It has this incredible dialogue I could wrap my head around,” Johansson says. "I also thought the story was very unusual because there's something old-fashioned about it. It's a film about family, about finding your passion and believing in yourself. It's very real and gritty. It deals with overcoming your own fear. It has a lot of those gritty, real-life qualities that makes it reminiscent of the classic films of the 1970s.”

"The great thing about Scarlett is she truly is a lover of animals and immediately understood and connected to that,” Yorn says. "It's very different from any part she usually plays. People have such an expectation of her being the femme fatale. In this film she really gets to show another side.” Adds Crowe: "Scarlett brings a great humanity to the role that conveys Kelly's ferociously protective spirit. Kelly is going to fight to save that zoo and its animals.”

The Benjamin-Kelly dynamic provides one of the film's many surprises. Says Damon: "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. And out of that comes this really genuine thing between them, which by the end of the movie, probably becomes something else.”

Duncan Mee, Benjamin's older brother and voice of reason, is played by Thomas Haden Church, who earned an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his memorable role in Sideways. Whereas Benjamin Mee sees no obstacle that is insurmountable, Duncan is ever skeptical about his brother's new mission. Despite his doubts, Duncan supports his brother. "Duncan is the truth-teller in the movie,” says Crowe. "For the first half of the movie, Duncan is trying to convince Benjamin that buying the zoo is the worst mistake of his life. Eventually, he becomes Benjamin's greatest ally in this outlandish endeavor. And he does it in a way that makes you feel that he'd be a great older brother to have.”

"Duncan is supposed to be the voice of responsibility and accountability - not for the least of which he's an accountant,” Church says. "He thinks the zoo may be the riskiest financial proposition to be conceived by anybody. But he has great affection for the kids and for his brother and ultimately his priority is their health and happiness. By the end of the movie, Duncan understands more about the humane thrust of what they're trying to do as opposed to the financial threat it poses to the family.”


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