California ranch transforms for 'Zoo'

  • Article by: DIMA ALZAYAT , Los Angeles Times
  • Updated: December 26, 2011 - 5:18 PM

The storied property, used for decades by Hollywood productions, is the centerpiece of the new Matt Damon film.

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Scarlett Johansson, left, and Matt Damon star in "We Bought a Zoo," which was filmed at the 450-acre Greenfield Ranch in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Photo: NEAL PRESTON, 20th Century Fox

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An hour from the heart of Hollywood in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Greenfield Ranch has drawn dozens of film, TV and commercial productions over the years. Now the bucolic ranch is playing a starring role in the 20th Century Fox movie "We Bought a Zoo."

The 450-acre property, where Roy Rogers and Gary Cooper once shot westerns, was transformed over several months into a makeshift zoo that is the centerpiece of the Cameron Crowe-directed film.

The $50 million production, adapted from a memoir of the same name by former British journalist Benjamin Mee, stars Matt Damon as a widowed father who moves his family from Los Angeles to the countryside to renovate and reopen a dilapidated zoo.

The book was set at Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, but the movie takes place in the fictional Rosemoor Wildlife Park, a rundown animal sanctuary in an unnamed rural Southern California town.

Filmmakers had considered shooting in Georgia but settled on Ventura County, citing the mild weather, a state tax break and the unique properties of Greenfield Ranch.

Location scout Lori Balton discovered the property north of the Santa Monica Mountains while searching for locations for Universal Pictures' 2003 movie "Seabiscuit." With its low-lying buildings and 1920s horse stable, the ranch fit the architectural needs of the Depression-era horse-racing film.

When Balton began to seek locations for "We Bought a Zoo," the ranch instantly came to mind.

Production designer Clay Griffith, whose work with Crowe dates to the director's 1989 movie "Say Anything," was immediately sold on the ranch, with its barley fields and scenic rolling foothills dotted with oak trees.

"I knew it as soon as I saw it," Griffith said. "We were looking for a spot where we could build a zoo and a house for the family to live in."

In September 2010, construction began on a two-story farmhouse and the zoo. An existing structure once used as a bunkhouse for cowhands on the ranch was converted into a restaurant, a centerpiece in the movie as the gathering place for zoo workers at the end of the workday.

As for the zoo, which was constructed half a mile from the farmhouse, 20 animal enclosures had to be built for the zebras, camels, flamingos and dozens of other animals featured in the film. In all, the picture used 40 species, mainly obtained from California trainers.

Moats were constructed for more dangerous animals such as tigers, lions and bears. Roads leading to the zoo's entrance were paved. Griffith recalls that more than 400 laborers were building the sets at one point. Work on the ranch began in January, with 13 of the 15 weeks of production taking place at Greenfield.

Established in 1875, Greenfield is one of the oldest stables in Hidden Valley, an affluent ranch community. Robert Ash, who with his family has owned Greenfield since 1988, uses the property to grow oats and barley. He farms the land with the help of ranch manager Gary Robertson. These days Greenfield is used equally for filming and farming, with the cost to film on the ranch running $3,000 to $5,000 per day, Ash said.

Greenfield Ranch has a long Hollywood history. Rogers and Cooper, among others, filmed several westerns there in the 1930s and '40s, Ash said. The 1940s movie "Down Argentine Way," starring Betty Grable, also was filmed there.

Other productions shot on the property include the 1993 films "Heart and Souls" starring Robert Downey Jr. and "Bitter Harvest" starring Stephen Baldwin.

More recently, Greenfield has been home to many commercials and TV shows, among them "True Blood," "Monk," "Bones" and "Criminal Minds."

"We film on the ranch quite a lot, but having a production here for so long was special. From the time of the first scout to completion, it was over a year's time," Robertson said. "It was absolutely amazing. I watched my back yard transform into a zoo."

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