On Location: Thousand Oaks ranch becomes an animal sanctuary
An hour from the heart of Hollywood in Thousand Oaks, Greenfield Ranch has drawn dozens of film, television and commercial productions over the years. Now the bucolic ranch is playing a starring role in the upcoming 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 opening Friday.
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 country to renovate and reopen a dilapidated zoo.
While the book was set at Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, the movie takes place in the fictional Rosemoor Wildlife Park, a run-down animal sanctuary in an unnamed rural Southern California town. Filmmakers had considered shooting in Georgia but settled on Ventura County, citing the mild weather, the state tax break (“We Bought a Zoo” was approved for a $7.6-million California film tax credit) and the unique properties of Greenfield itself.
Location scout Lori Balton discovered the property, which sits 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. “The contours of the land lent itself to the zoo," Balton said. “Cameron liked it because he likes the setting and location design of a film to seem real, natural, and the ranch did that.”
Production designer Clay Griffith, whose work with Crowe dates back 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.
Griffith scoured several other ranches in the area, including the Disney-owned Golden Oak Ranch in northeast Los Angeles County, but only Greenfield had the roads and infrastructure necessary to support such a large production.
“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 of animals, mainly obtained from local 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 of this year, 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 and farms the land himself 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, is the earliest known title to have 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 numerous 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,” said Robertson who has managed Greenfield for 22 years and acts as the site rep for productions. “It was absolutely amazing. I watched my backyard transform into a zoo.”
-- Dima Alzayat
Photo: A scene from 20th Century Fox's "We Bought a Zoo" starring Matt Damon, right, which filmed primarily at Greenfield Ranch. Credit: Neal Preston / 20th Century Fox.