It’s probably not hard to imagine director Cameron Crowe would be such a cool guy. After all, when you have so many beloved classics, including Say Anything…, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire, under your belt, you figure the guy who wrote and directed those movies, a former music journalist who has interviewed many rock legends, has to tap into something within himself to create such personal work that resonates with so many people.
After laying low for a number of years, Crowe is back with We Bought a Zoo, an adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s bestselling memoir of the same name, co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and starring Matt Damon as Mee, a single father of two kids who buys a large house that happens to be on the grounds of a rundown zoo. Working with the frustrated zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the family comes together to try to revive the zoo in time for an important inspection that will allow them to reopen for the summer.
Of all the movies opening this busy Christmas weekend, “Zoo” feels like the one that’s the most likely to really appeal to everyone in the family even if it may not immediately seem like the slamdunk must-see of some of its tentpole franchise competition. While it is an adaptation “based on a true story,” fans of Crowe’s previous work will immediately be able to see his fingerprint on the story both in the strong character dynamics and the film’s soundtrack (written by “Jonsi” of Icelandic ambient group Sigur Rós).
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Cameron Crowe at the New York junket for the movie where the filmmaker proved to be a warm and affable guy, making it immediately evident why so many actors love working with him. (We’ll have video interviews later this week with the cast of “Zoo” confirming our own impressions.)
ComingSoon.net: I believe this is your second adaptation–I’m not sure if you consider “Vanilla Sky” an adaptation perse–so what’s your process for doing something like this, where you have a book written and based on a real person and then you have a screenplay written before you got involved.
Cameron Crowe: I love collaborators, so it’s almost like another body enters the room, another person with ideas and a point of view, and I was also collaborating with Aline Brosh McKenna, who had written a script. She did the first draft adaptation. We were never in the same room, but I felt like Benjamin Mee and Aline had both presented stories, and I got to come in with a little bit of a director’s hat on and jam with them. That’s what it was with “Vanilla Sky,” too. Amenabar had kind of done a classical version of this story, and we wanted to do the rock version, almost the punk rock version, that it was even more chaotic and pop culture based. So it’s fun, and I would definitely do it again for sure with the right story. it was just good, because I tend to write my own stuff and spend months and months in my own head collaborating with a single idea, so it’s good.
CS: With “Zoo,” you got to explore some of the themes you’ve done before for instance being a father, Benjamin’s relationship with his son, and I guess grief and loss you’ve touched upon. Can you talk about how you instilled some of that into Benjamin’s story? Was a lot of that in the book?
Crowe: I went back to his book for a lot of stuff and the Jaguar and that whole idea of the restaurant that’s on the property as a clubhouse for everybody. Also, in the documentary, you really see a lot of the stuff like his relationship with Kelly where they’re arguing over the death of the animal and putting the animal down and she’s saying in the documentary, “It’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” That’s from the documentary and we put that in the movie.
CS: What documentary?
Crowe: It’s called “Ben’s Zoo” and it was a four-hour documentary that the BBC did. It’s great! So we had that to work from, but the main theme that really got me was turning sadness and loss into joy, which I really like as a theme, because there are a lot of movies and stories that are really basically a portrait of sadness or a portrait of grief or a portrait of loss, and I wanted to be at least a half step past that, so you can see what’s around the corner from this overwhelming feeling that you might have. “I’ll never get over this. I’ll never get over her.” Well, you do sometimes in a way you least expect it, and that’s what I liked about this.
CS: It seems more cerebral than your normal holiday family fare.
Crowe: For sure.
CS: I saw one of those early promo screenings around Thanksgiving, and I got to see how people reacted to the movie, enjoying it but also leaving them with stuff to think about. It’s fascinating to see how you mixed a very commercial movie with more character-driven ideas.
Crowe: Didn’t intend to. To me, we never really talked about it as family fare. Yes, it deals with animals and has kids in it and stuff, but it was always movies like “Local Hero” or even the Sydney Pollack sensibility, things like that we were drawing from. It almost accidentally arrived in a place where all ages would be able to relate to it, because I was surprised when we first showed it that little kids would understand and be silent and riveted by the scene where Matt and his son are arguing and yelling at each other. You wouldn’t put that in a (raising voice like a TV announcer) “Family movie!” That would be the first to go really, but it’s part of the experience where kids, when they’ve gone with their parents–and I’ve never had this before–they go and talk about it afterwards or little kids turn to their parents sometimes and say, “I love you so much. I never want to lose you.” It touches things inside of them that they’re not used to seeing in their movies, so who knows what’s going to happen? I’ve been really surprised as we started to show it in that area.
CS: Doing those promo screenings is kind of brilliant, because it’s unprecedented. They do these sneak previews a lot but not that far in advance of a release.
Crowe: Yeah, it was a bold move, and I think it was really great, because it’s a big Christmas for the tentpoles–and I want to see those movies, too–so what’s going to cut through, especially if it has a title like “We Bought a Zoo.” “What is it?” It’s not a sequel. “What is it? Matt Damon’s in it. Tell me more.” I think the first round of ads were really oxygenated and fun, and I think as we go now, more layers are going to get peeled away so that we’ll reveal more to people so that they know it’s a story with a lot of dimension to it.
CS: This is the second time that Matt Damon is playing a father this year. Did you realize he was playing a father in Soderbergh’s movie?
Crowe: I didn’t, nor did I knew that he was going to lose his wife in a different movie, too. (laughs) But ours happens before the first scene, so no, I think what’s happening a little bit is Matt’s such a truthful actor and he’s such a devoted father, and that’s clear when you meet him and that’s clear when you read about him. You see it in front of you and you go, “That’s gotta be in a movie,” so Soderbergh probably felt the same thing. He brings such authenticity to it that you feel like you’re not watching an actor, you’re watching another Dad or somebody that’s at your school or your brother. That’s a magical quality.
CS: You famously cast Jonathan Lipnicki in “Jerry Maguire”
Crowe: Who is now a stud, right? He’s turned into this studly guy! (laughs)
CS: For this one, you cast this little girl who is such a scene stealer that when you watch the movie with an audience, they love her so much and almost forget about Matt. Can you talk about how you go about finding these kids for movies like this?
Crowe: I work with a woman named Gail Levin, she’s the casting director and we’ve together since “Jerry Maguire,” and she scours the globe looking for actors and we’ll look at tapes and QuickTimes and everything, and Maggie, the young girl from “We Bought a Zoo,” was from Atlanta, and was just through the roof when we first watched her. She knew how to do the lines, and our thing was “If we fly her out, will it all disappear?” No. We hired her. “Will it all disappear now that she has the job?” No. So she was a steamroller, man.
CS: One of the things that impressed me as I was reading the notes was how the visuals of the movie were influenced by Neil Young’s “Harvest” record and Sigur Rós, who you’d worked with before. Your music background has played a large part in your work, but is this stuff you visualizing while you write it. I also liked how you used Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” in the movie.
Crowe: Yeah, there are little messages back from the beginnings of the inspiration I think that end up in the movie, but I’ll always be a journalist in many ways, so to me, it gets built up through details. Pictures, music, sequences, things that would be in a character’s pocket and stuff. That’s kind of the beginning, so I always kind of end up building from the inside out, and that’s fun for me. I’m doing it now. I did it last night walking around writing. You see a detail and that’s the birth of what’s ultimately going to be a scene or even a movie, I love it that way.
CS: Were you able to work with some of the people you’ve worked with before, in terms of production designers, DP, so when you come to them with these ideas, they understand immediately what you mean?
Crowe: That’s a great question. Clay Griffith, the production designer, we’ve done every movie. Well, he was my assistant on “Say Anything…” so he grew into this job of production designer and the casting director, Gail Levin, I’ve worked with since “Jerry Maguire” so we have our little team.
CS: Your previous movies have had so many iconic moments whether it’s John Cusack with the boombox in the rain in “Say Anything…” and the plane going down in “Almost Famous.” Which moment in this movie would you like people to remember ten years from now?
Crowe: I would pick the last scene in the movie when he comes back and performs his own flashback for his kids. That gets me every time, and I feel that’s unique to Matt, too, because it was his idea. I was talking about “What kind of wig are we going to put on him? What kind of haircut? When we flashback and he’s…” and he’s like “Dude, I can act it out for the kids,” and I’m like, “Whoa, nice!” and I just love the way that scene turned out, so I’d pick that.
BONUS FEATURE! Cameron Crowe’s statement got us thinking, reminding us of when we spoke to Inside Job director Charles Ferguson about having Matt Damon do the narration for his Oscar-winning doc, and also talking to George Nolfi earlier this year for The Adjustment Bureau about his collaborations with Damon. So earlier in the day, we asked Matt Damon about his take on collaborating and what he brings to the table as an actor who is also an Oscar-winning writer, especially when working with a writer like Crowe.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled interview with Cameron Crowe:
CS: In terms of the music, I loved the use of the Cat Stevens tune. The songs you used really are quite perfect and they’re not conventional modern movie songs. Because of your music background, are you able to get these things a lot easier than other filmmakers may be able to get them?
Crowe: Sometimes, sometimes, not every time. You find I think that… like I’ve done liner notes and stuff and kind of stayed in touch with a lot of the artists whose stuff I’ve used, so it makes it slightly easier to call back and say, “I want to use such and such a song” but sometimes, guys intervene and say, “Hey, break it up, you two, there’s money involved!” And we’ve had to switch and change songs.
CS: Anything you didn’t get that you were really heartbroken that you weren’t able to use? I don’t know if you want to say.
Crowe: No, sure, sure. The main one was “Stairway to Heaven” but we worked around it and I wasn’t too upset, because Led Zeppelin had already given us four songs at a nice price but they said, “Stairway to Heaven” we’re not going to give to anybody, and we had already shot a scene that was to “Stairway to Heaven” so what was great was we ended up putting the scene on the DVD and saying “Put your record on NOW and score it yourself” which is good, but no, I think we generally have gotten everything. Sometimes there are clips that we’ve wanted to use like in the documentaries that we weren’t able to get, but I’m lucky that I have a good relationship with the Bob Dylan people, because they’ve been really good to me. I’ve used his stuff a lot.
CS: What did Patrick Fugit do to you since you working together on “Almost Famous” that you made him have a monkey on his shoulder the entire movie?
Crowe: I wanted him to pay penance for the missed scenes in “Almost Famous.” No, he’s been doing stuff. He’s done a couple movies and he’s a quietly diligent guy, and I love the idea of bringing him back and I want to work with him more. I like the idea of there are cast members that you see in subsequent movies, I love Patrick.
CS: I also want to ask about the comedy, because you have some great comic actors including John Michael Higgins, who is always amazing. I was talking to Matt Damon earlier who said you throw out ideas on set, so can you talk about working with those comic guys who are very funny.
Crowe: They’re incredible.
CS: Did that change your approach a lot when you’re on set and you see them deliver lines you’ve written earlier?
Crowe: I’ve always been that way. I’ve thrown out stuff as we were making the movie, because I’m the writer, too, generally, so it’s good to do that. It’s kind of on-the-spot writing. I went to visit Judd Apatow on the set of “Knocked Up” – he does the same thing. I feel like I was swimming in the warmest water. This is good. I love it, and they way he does it is very comedy-based, so he’s pitching and riffing with the dudes as they’re doing the scene. It’s fantastic. So we did a little bit of it like that with JB (Smoove) and Higgins. Higgins is a f*cking technician, man. That guy is like… it’s math to him, and you can see him calibrating and doing his stuff. He’s incredible and JB is just like a buzzsaw. He brings the ruckus, he just throws it all out there, and I think he’s used to a lot of the stuff he does for movies being cut but we used it.
CS: I was just saying downstairs that I wish John Michael Higgins would do junkets because he’s in so many movies and he’s just great in all of them.
Crowe: He’s amazing.
CS: Are you developing over the last few years since “Elizabethtown”? I assume you must have been writing this whole time.
Crowe: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re going to do a new comedy in the Spring and that’s the plan right now. I just gotta get a cast ’cause that’s going to start soon, and then there’s an adaptation of “Beautiful Boy” and “Tweek,” the books written by David Sheff and Nic Sheff that I did, which is really fun to do, to adapt two books into one, and a couple originals, so I’m in that lucky place where I got some stuff on the burners, so I have to figure out which one comes next.
CS: I really liked “PJ20″ a lot…
CS: I have to admit that I was not a big Pearl Jam fan. I was more into Tad and Nirvana and Mudhoney…
Crowe: Tad’s amazing. They say the Tad documentary is amazing, I haven’t seen it.
CS: Do you think you’ll continue exploring your love of music through these movies?
Crowe: Maybe. I love the way the Elton John documentary turned out, too. The “PJ” movie I gotta say, I just thought I’d approach it really personally and make it like a conversation across the dinner table between people and one person says “What’s Pearl Jam like?” So that was the whole intent of the Pearl Jam doc.
We Bought a Zoo opens nationwide on Friday, December 23. Look for our video interviews with Cameron Crowe’s cast, including Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, later this week.