Griffith notes that Crowe's visual palette for WE BOUGHT A ZOO was inspired by the Neil Young Harvest album, the 2007 Sigur Rós documentary, Heima, and the aforementioned Bill Forsythe film, Local Hero. "The connective tissue between those three works is that they have soul," notes Griffith. "Cameron always likes to find the poetry in things."
Over the years, Crowe and Griffith have developed a close working relationship and design shorthand. Griffith recalls that he would show Crowe images that would evoke thoughts and feelings they could bring into the set. "Cameron would counter with another photograph, so we had this kind of visual and verbal dialogue."
WE BOUGHT A ZOO was filmed on locations around Los Angeles before moving 30 miles north to Greenfield Ranch in Thousand Oaks, where the Rosemoor Animal Park set was constructed. The completed zoo contained animal enclosures, walking paths, water features, diverse flora and fauna, an observation tower, a sculpture garden, and an amphitheater.
The Rosemoor Animal Park sets took nine months to design and build. The excavation and construction occurred over a four-month period, taking the combined efforts of over 140 carpenters, painters, prop makers, plasterers, sculptors, sign makers, and landscapers, along with the art department staff of art directors, set designers, and set decorators.
The Mee Family home, a 4,000 square foot, two-story, American Colonial farmhouse, painted in Cape Cod Gray, was the only residential structure built from scratch at the Greenfield Ranch location. Griffith says that aside from building the zoo, the farmhouse was the most enjoyable part of his job. "There's something viscerally exciting about building a house from the ground up," he relates. "What I really found interesting what the house's size, its relation to its setting, the age of the trees, and the big, pastoral landscape behind it. You're definitely in another world."
Finding the spot on the sprawling property to erect the eight-acre zoo was a challenge. When the property was first scouted there was no road leading to the eventual site. (Griffith recalls it was just "five foot tall grass and rattlesnakes.") But from a specific perspective, the area looked like Dartmoor Zoo, the real-life zoo purchased by Benjamin Mee.
Once Griffith began his design work for the zoo, he and his art directors met with animal coordinator Mark Forbes to determine and coordinate the placement of the animal enclosures. He recalls Forbes telling him, "Don't put the tigers near the bears. Don't let the lions and the tigers see each other. And don't ever, ever, ever let the lion, tigers and bears see any of the hoofed animals. "I told Mark, 'Great, you just spread the zoo out everywhere," Griffith laughs. 'I can't have anything that's even remotely near each other.' But it worked out really well, although we spent an exorbitant amount of time plotting out where each specific enclosure would go."
Griffith and his team did extensive research on what each enclosure would need to house its respective animal. "We looked at small zoos and large zoos," he says. "We talked to people from the LA County Zoo, the Orange County Zoo, and the Tucson Zoo, where my art director spent a week looking at their operations. Part of what Cameron wanted to do was show what it's really like to be behind the scenes at a zoo."
Overseeing the exotic and domesticated animals featured in the film, is veteran animal coordinator, Mark Forbes, whose company Birds & Animals Unlimited has provided and trained animals for many productions. Forbes and a team of 30 specialized animal trainers worked with the nearly 75 animals featured in the film, including an African Lion, Bengal Tigers, North American Grizzly Bears, White-Backed Vultures, White-Faced Capuchins, Hamadryas Baboons, Eurasian Eagle-Owls, Crested Porcupines, Asian Small-Clawed Otters, a Binturong, Grevy's Zebras, Ostriches, Chilean Flamingos, Indian Blue Peacocks, Peahens, a Zebu, Dromedary Camels, Alpacas, a Kangaroo, a Leopard, a Red Fox, and a Scarlet Macaw.
During production, the zoo animals were not kept in the enclosures at the zoo set. Instead, they were brought in on a daily basis as needed. The animals were all housed with their respective owners and trainers and various animal compounds in the Southern California area.
Music informs Crowe's creative process, from writing to rehearsal, to playing music on set during filming, and ultimately to finalizing the music featured in the completed film. Crowe uses music extensively during production to inspire the actors' performances and create the appropriate mood. It also helps the crew understand the tone of the scenes they are filming.
During production, WE BOUGHT A ZOO was broadly "temped" with solo material from Pearl Jam, Eddie Vedder, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Simon and Garfunkel, Leon Russell, Warren Zevon, Kanye West, Bon Iver, Daniel Lanois, Joni Mitchell, U2 - and famed recording artist Jónsi, of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós. Jónsi would go on to compose the film's score. Crowe would cue a production assistant to play snippets of songs before, after, and even during scenes - all culled from a laptop containing Crowe's partial iTunes library filled with over 20,000 songs and a playlist for nearly every scene.
Upon the completion of principal photography, Crowe began finalizing his plans for the music and soundtrack. Jónsi's work is an integral part of the film's emotional landscape.
Written and recorded in short order, over four months this summer and fall at the famous Village Studios in Los Angeles and at the singer's home studio in his native Iceland, the soundtrack to WE BOUGHT A ZOO comprises more than a half-hour of brand new music from Jónsi, including two full songs and nine achingly beautiful themes, plus reimaginings of songs from Jónsi's acclaimed solo album, Go, as well as what might well be regarded as Sigur Rós' most memorable tune, Hoppípolla.
"Jónsi arrived from Iceland with a toy sampler keyboard and a headful of ideas," says Crowe. "Within a week, he had composed a series of themes that would reflect everything we'd hoped for. In his music were all the highs and lows and passionate in-betweens of the film itself. The instinct that made the movie come full circle."
Cameron's relationship with Jónsi and Sigur Rós goes back almost as far as the band's position in the international spotlight, to 2001 and the director's much-noticed inclusion of three of the band's songs in his successful film Vanilla Sky, starring Tom Cruise. Crowe has long heralded the band and their filmwork, to the extent that the secret project name for WE BOUGHT A ZOO was, in fact, "Heima," in honor of the band's 2007 tour film.
"Early on it was obvious that Sigur Rós' music would have a profound effect on the making of WE BOUGHT A ZOO," says Crowe. "In preparation for making the movie, we gave all the actors and crew members a copy of Sigur Rós' transcendent documentary, Heima."
The closing scene of WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a cinematic homage to a specific moment in Heima when gleeful crowds stream in a Sigur Rós show in the far North of Iceland or, in this case, the newly opened zoo.
Among the original score and new songs is Gathering Stories, a song co-written by Jónsi and Crowe, in a collaborative first for the notoriously private Icelander. Orchestral arrangements on the score have been handled by previous Jónsi working partner, and composer Nico Muhly, who brings his quixotic genius to the string and brass sections.
As Crowe finalized the music and other post-production activities, he reflected on what he hopes audiences will experience watching WE BOUGHT A ZOO. "What I like best is that the film packs a wallop before you even realize it; it's telling a story that's deeper than you expected it to be, and then it kind of gets under your skin. You come in expecting something - and you get that, plus something extra. A lot of my favorite movies do that: you walk out of the showing and say, 'Man, I didn't expect to go to that place. I miss those characters a little bit."
The art of adaptation