Matt Damon admits movie magic was used to make it look like he faced down an enormous bear in "We Bought a Zoo," but he is quick to note he got up close and personal with dozens of real snakes in writer-director Cameron Crowe's first family film.
In the movie, Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and widower who tries to give his two children a fresh start by buying a small zoo, and then having them help fix it up and care for the animals.
Scarlett Johansson plays Kelly, the kind-hearted, knowledgeable zookeeper Ben isn't quite ready to date, while Thomas Haden Church plays Duncan, the protective brother who attempts to persuade him not to sink all of his money into what looks like a lost cause.
Rounding out the cast are Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Angus MacFadyen, John Michael Higgins and Colin Ford. The film is based on the real Mee's memoir "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever."
Although most of the movie focuses on Ben's relationships with his kids and the people who work at the zoo, there are plenty of funny and touching scenes in which he connects to the animals, as well.
Asked at a recent press conference in New York about a scene in which his character tries to coax a scary-looking bear home after it escapes from the zoo, Damon said: "The closest we got to the bear was the scene when Colin and I were in the car.
"And the bear did come right up to the window, but they put a little snack on the roof, so the bear didn't really see us. He was more interested in the snack.
"And when we did the scene out in the field, it was a split-screen because we didn't want to relive 'Grizzly Man,'" the 41-year-old actor said -- referring to a documentary about a naturalist killed and eaten by a bear in 2003. "I was actually much more nervous about the snakes until Scarlett started making fun of me and then I tried to get over it as best I could. I think there's something about there being so many. But watching the little kids handle them, I eventually got over it and was OK with it.
"There were all different kinds, but there were only a few poisonous ones," joked the native of Cambridge, Mass. "You just didn't know which ones. No, obviously, none of them were deadly."
"They threw in a green mamba just for laughs," added Church, who was sitting beside Damon on the panel.
Best known for his work in the films "Good Will Hunting," "Dogma," "True Grit" and the Jason Bourne franchise, Damon noted he didn't have much experience working with animals before signing on as the male lead in "Zoo."
"I've never done anything like this," acknowledged the married father of four daughters. "We would joke how you're never supposed to work with children or animals because they upstage you, so we were getting it all out of the way with one movie with the cutest kids and animals you've ever seen."
In the film, Ben advises his teenage son Dylan, played by Ford, to summon up "20 seconds of insane courage" to tell the girl he loves how he feels.
So, what would Damon do with a third-of-a-minute of pure fearlessness?
"I think most actors have experienced that numerous times in auditions," he confided. "I started when I was Colin's age and I remember feeling that if I could just push through this fear right now, whether I get the part or get rejected there, not going through the door is going to be bad for me. There's something better for me on the other side of the door. I remember feeling that way a lot and the experience -- as any of the people up here can tell you -- you get rejected a lot, but it gets easier each time you get rejected and becomes a gallows humor amongst actors about parts you didn't get or particularly exquisite rejections that you remember. But they tend to inoculate you as you move forward down that road of being a professional actor."
Damon said one of the many things he found intriguing about the project was how Crowe pitched the film to him as "a piece of joy" and told him he thought it would be "a good thing to put out into the world right now."
"That's exactly what he said," Damon recalled. "And I always held on to that because I just intuitively kind of agreed that was true."
"It's a human story," Church offered. "It has all of those spices in it -- tragedy, comedy, dramatic interaction between a father and a son and a brother and a woman desperately trying to hold on to something she considers such a humane endeavor. ... It's a human story that covers whatever those struggles are and how you define those struggles and, in the end, it's very life-affirming. I think this movie would fit in anywhere -- a summer movie, Arbor Day movie, but I think it works."
Crowe, whose film credits include "Almost Famous," "Jerry Maguire" and "Say Anything," seemed to agree with his actors' assessments.
"I think we all got into this movie for all the right reasons -- to kind of explore how we could make this movie that was about a feeling in a lot of ways," Crowe said. "And the animals and the story and the whole fact of building a zoo was a way to make a movie that made you feel differently so when you left, it wasn't just about the animals or the love story. It was really about an environment we created. Everyone kind of took a flier to do the movie and trust we were on this journey to try something a little different. I'm sitting here with them all and I'm experiencing all the things we experienced when we were making the movie. It was just such a great team and it happened to include animals and kids and all the stuff they say is a huge burden when you're making a movie. But it didn't feel that way to us. I think we were on a quest to capture a feeling of love." "We Bought a Zoo" is in theaters now.