We Bought A Zoo – Arizona Republic

Interview: Director Cameron Crowe Talks We Bought A Zoo

Cameron Crowe is a talker.

He’s also a director and writer, having written “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” based on his book about going undercover as a high-school student. He also wrote and directed “Jerry Maguire,” “Say Anything …” and “Almost Famous,” for which he won a best-screenplay Oscar.

But get him on the phone and he’ll chat enthusiastically about almost anything. After a discussion of John Lennon’s death in 1980, we got around to talking about his latest film, “We Bought a Zoo,” which opens Friday, Dec. 23.

Question: While waiting for you, I listened to “The Dan Patrick Show” on the radio, and they were doing “Say Anything …” bits word for word.

Answer: Well that’s cool. That’s so great.

Q: It must be satisfying.

A: It’s just kind of a flashlight guiding you forward in a way. You just want to stay in a groove where you can connect and tell stories that people say, “That reminded me of my brother,” or “I went through that myself.” It makes me feel kind of like a songwriter who was able to write a song that was personal but it reached people.

Q: The scene with Lloyd holding up the boom box and playing “In Your Eyes” certainly did.

A: It’s funny that the stuff that you think, “Well, that’s a gunfight in ‘Vanilla Sky,’everybody can understand that,” it’s never those things that people respond to. It’s always the personal stuff. It’s always the stuff that you were slightly embarrassed to even write that affects people. And when I look back on it, that’s the stuff that affects me.

In the movies that I love, I like the stuff that’s sort of startlingly personal. Like in “The Descendants,” probably my favorite movie of the year, that random kiss that comes out of nowhere between George Clooney and Judy Greer, I think about that all the time. That’s just a random piece of electricity that came out of that movie, yet that’s what you remember.

And if you go for it — if you go for memorable — you’ll never get there. It’s just kind of put your best personal foot forward and tell a story that means something to you, and generally that’s been, probably with the exception of “Elizabethtown,” probably the stuff that connected to people the most.

Q: You consider a lot of projects. How does a story like “Zoo” rise above?

A: It was a script that was sent to me … and I was so involved in other stuff, and I read it, and then I read … Benjamin Mee’s book, and then I started watching this documentary, because it had been offered to me and I wanted to do the homework on it to be able to respond.

It was the kind of thing where at the beginning you go, “Oh, that’s cool, that’s a good story. I’m still on the horse I’m on.” And something about it kept scratching at me, and when I look back on it, it was the metaphor of the tiger as a stand-in for the guy’s memory of his wife. And so that just stuck with me, that opportunity to do a local-hero-type movie, where a guy enters into a world he never expected he would enter.

It kind of came together in a way where I thought, you know what, with the right cast I could do this and have a blast and really tell this story, because it’s about turning loss into joy, which is a theme I was kind of working on and thinking a lot about.

Q: Matt Damon is really good in it.

A: He’s so good. He’s such a good writer. There was a real collaboration with him as we were making the movie on script stuff and dialogue. It was the strongest collaborator I’ve had in that way.

Q: Do you think he’s underrated as an actor?

A: He’s way underrated. Matt’s more of the Jimmy Stewart guy. The template for that guy — or Cary Grant — is they make it so invisible that you don’t go, “Anthony Hopkins? Matt Damon.” You should, ’cause that stuff is so hard. What he does in the movie, I think, is as hard as it ever gets as an actor — to be light when you need to be and then warm when you need to be and then be completely internal … and arguing with his son. That was a moment when Matt stepped away from the camera and I was kind of blown away that there was an extra dimension that we had gone to with the scene. And Matt said, “Well, I haven’t done that in a movie before.”

That might have been one of the top three proudest moments I’ve ever had as a director. Because you look at Matt, he’s totally an energetic guy, but you look at his body of work and it’s like, long. So for him to say he went to a new place is great. But he’s so good at it, he makes it look like it’s the easiest tennis swing. It’s that thing. It’s the hardest thing.

Q: One nice thing about “Zoo” is that you underplay a lot of the emotional stuff.

A: I always feel when somebody’s coming at you with a tin cup begging for your emotion, I never want to give it. I just don’t. That was actually something we talked about when we were making the movie. I would say, “Let’s not have a tin cup out.”

Q: They always say don’t work with kids or animals. Here you do both. Do you try to direct the animals, or let the experts handle it?

A: It’s part that, it’s part just planning it out so that you know exactly what you want to do, and it’s being prepared, and then a trainer comes. The animals don’t live on your zoo that you built. They live on a compound with all kinds of area to roam. They have a super-personal relationship with their trainer. The amazing thing to watch is the bond between the trainer and the animal, because the animal is so connected to that trainer…. I was pleasantly surprised. If I had thought about it too much, I would have really stressed. The lion, of course, peed on me 30 seconds after I met the lion. It was good from there, but it started out a little wet.

Q: So, other than that it went well with the animals?

A: It was really the beagle who was hard to work with (laughs).

Q: What does a director do with adults? What does a director do, period?

A: I think you set the environment, and you get the right person to play, that you believe in, their instincts, and let ’em go. And then if it doesn’t feel right, chances are they’ll feel it’s not quite right, too. But it’s instinct, and it’s who you pick as your dance partner, really.

Courtesy of The Arizona Republic – Bill Goodykoontz – December 20, 2011