We Bought A Zoo – Atlanta Journal Constitution

Q&A, film director Cameron Crowe: Shooting for dialogue that sounds like ‘real life’

Cameron Crowe said he approached his new movie “We Bought a Zoo” as a good tale that he could tell without it becoming personal, unlike his best-known, self-penned movies “Almost Famous” and “Jerry Maguire.

But as the director got deeper into revising Aline Brosh McKenna’s adaption of British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir of losing his wife and then making a fresh start by moving with his kids to and reviving a fading zoo, more and more Crowe entered the story.

Divorced a year ago from Heart singer Nancy Wilson and the father of twin 11-year-old sons, Crowe found his film’s center in Benjamin’s (Matt Damon) struggles through complicated feelings of loss with his young daughter Rosie (button-cute Atlantan Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and, particularly, his adrift 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford).

A family film, though much more naturalistic and adult-focused than that phrase would imply, “We Bought a Zoo” feels like a departure for Crowe, whose scripts usually boast a hip youthfulness. Ditto for Damon, who delivers a soulful performance as a dad desperate to find new footing and to keep his clan together.

We talked to Crowe whose film opens Dec. 23, from New York …

Q: What did you see in Benjamin Mee’s story and how did your interest evolve as you went along?

A: It’s a father and son story. … Some people are born super-effective dads, but I think a lot of us struggle to find a rhythm to it. I feel in the last five years or so I’ve really found my rhythm and I definitely feel like I want to go back and do [ages] 3 through 7 again [laughs]. But I’ll do my best from here on out.

And that ended up in the movie: the drawings that the kid makes at school that you take a look at [and try to make sense of], or that conference you go to where they say, “You know, your son told me this …” And you’re like, “WHAT?”

And you realize that there’s so much to be on top of and understand about another human being, much less your own kid, that that whole side of the story of “We Bought a Zoo” got personal.

Q: What were some of the things you changed?

A: In the first draft, Dylan was a kind of disaffected youth, spiky hair, dark clothes. I thought, well, I’ve seen that guy. And that’s not the guy I see at home, so I’m just going to try and be a bit more authentic to what I know.

Q: What do your sons think of the movie?

A: They love the tougher stuff. I guess the Pixar guys know this for sure, that you can challenge and not be generic and actually reach the younger mind watching the movie fully. You know, they’re ready for more. Most of these [family] movies aren’t challenging enough even for 8-, 9-, 10-year-olds.

Q: Did you intend it as a movie that would appeal to parents and kids at the same time?

A: No, Benjamin Mee’s book is not for kids; it’s the story of a full-blown adult struggle. You know, the title is kind of ironically a youthful title, but I wasn’t ever sure the movie would be. It kind of turned out to be that.

Q: Your last narrative film, “Elizabethtown,” came out in 2005, and you’ve made two documentaries since. Have the demands of fatherhood been a factor in the years between story films?

A: Yeah, man, I guess [“Sideways” director] Alexander Payne had the same time between movies, too, and his answer is so much better than mine. Mine is that I was writing and we got close to making a couple of movies like the Marvin Gaye story [“My Name Is Marvin”] but couldn’t get the cast and budget right. Payne’s answer is more succinct: [Stuff] happens.

Q: Why did you think Matt Damon fit this role?

A: I saw his parenting skills and how much he cared about that part of his life. He’s one of those guys who’s not always looking over your shoulder while you’re talking to him, waiting to see who’s coming in the restaurant, what bigwig he’s going to connect with.

He’s the guy with a BlackBerry going off about when homework starts … You see this guy who’s just filled with natural human nobility and also takes care of his job and also takes care of stuff at home. And I just thought that guy — pounding on the kid’s door saying [as Benjamin does to Dylan in the movie], ‘I’ll teach you how to shave!” — I can’t make the movie without him.

Q: Damon’s been quoted as saying that every character in the film is some version of you. True?

A: I think that’s funny. I think it’s true, and it makes me want to hide myself more on the next one. But I think that’s [also] true of some of the writer-directors I really love, like Woody Allen… My favorite would probably be [François] Truffaut, where you sense him in all the different worlds of his different movies.

I’m just trying to make sure that everything sounds like something you might overhear in real life.


Cameron Crowe did a creative sales job to get Matt Damon to star in “We Bought a Zoo.”

Crowe traveled to the set of “True Grit” in Austin, Texas, and plied Damon not only with a “Zoo” script, but also with a CD he’d compiled and a copy of the 1983 Scottish movie “Local Hero.” He told Damon not to decide based on the script alone, but to listen to the music and to watch Bill Forsyth’s comedy-drama, both of which would give the star a sense of the wistful feeling for which the director was aiming.

A lot of the songs on the CD were live versions from concert soundboards that Crowe, a long-ago Rolling Stone writer and noted music hawk, had scored, including “I’m Open” by Eddie Vedder. Other tunes included Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain,” Beth Orton’s “Concrete Sky” and Wilco’s “Airline to Heaven.”

“Local Hero” is the whimsical tale of a Houston oil executive (Peter Riegert, who Crowe cast in “Zoo” as an obvious tribute) assigned to buy out a village on Scotland’s west coast to make way for an oil refinery, but who ends up falling in love with the eccentric people and their laid-back way of life.

The connection between the two films, Crowe explained, is, “‘Local Hero’ was good for the intoxicating world that a guy slightly out of his depth enters. … I thought that that was a good guideline for us, for the zoo that Benjamin Mee wants to save.” He acknowledged that his main character deals with pain and loss deeper than anything in “Local Hero,” giving “Zoo” a different resonance.

In any case, the DVD, CD and script worked their magic on Damon.

“He got it,” the director said. “I think he wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to be the Disney version of the story. And once he kind of trusted that we were going to try something different, and, yes, he was going to be emotional in a way he might not have ever been in a movie before, but he’d be in good hands, he said yes. And he never looked back.”

Courtesy of the Atlanta Journal Constitution – Howard Pousner – December 23, 2011