We Bought A Zoo – Manila Bulletin

Cameron Crowe: Life is Zoo… and the little moments of insane courage

He has given the world “You had me at hello,” and “You complete me.” He’s taken viewers backstage at rock concerts where people who were almost famous find redemption—and themselves—in rock music and doing the right thing. But Cameron Crowe isn’t done delivering uplifting stories.

Crowe’s trademark of warmth, humor and humanity is at the core of the life-affirming “We Bought A Zoo,” a story he directed and co-wrote based on the book by—and real-life experiences of—Benjamin Mee, who actually took over an ailing zoo in England and brought it back to life.

“I loved the extraordinary idea of buying a zoo,” Crowe says. “I would never have thought of doing anything like that myself. But it was a great story for me to tell because I related to it so much.”

Reading Mee’s book, and seeing a documentary about the author’s family buying the zoo in England, proved to be a bit of a calling for Crowe. “I could not get the story out of my brain or my heart. It’s about a man who throws himself into an impossible task to save his family.”

To sign up his lead star, Crowe went to Texas to see if he could get a meeting with his “first choice; the only actor I wanted for the role of Benjamin Mee,” who happened to be filming “True Grit” at that time. As luck would have it, Matt Damon “made time at the end of a long shooting day. Twenty minutes into our conversation I knew that I could only make the movie with him and I told him that. Luckily he loved the script and said ‘yes,’” Crowe shares.

His lead female cast was also “the firs person I thought of for the role of Kelly,” the director would say. And Scarlett Johansson wasn’t that hard to convince, as it turned out. “It’s interesting because she was the first person I talked to about the film. Before she had even read the script, she was in tears talking about animals.”

At that time Johansson had recently visited a zoo for her birthday and, according to Crowe, “she became emotional discussing her experience.” It wasn’t an audition or anything but the director knew then that the actress had the “pure essence of what the character had to be.”

“We Bought A Zoo” finds Benjamin at a crossroads in his life and dealing with the death of his wife, Katherine, whom he still loves very much. The script, therefore, is propelled by a metaphor on loss—in the film, Benjamin takes to an ailing tiger named Spar, whom he can’t let go.

Crowe explains. “The people around Benjamin can tell that his emotional state is not just about the tiger, but about his own grief.” He adds, “I think the point of the movie is that we don’t have to let those people we love go. Everybody says, ‘You have to move on,’ but the movie asks the question: do you have to move on?”

Crowe has become known for working with music on the actual set during filming. “The first time I did it was on a ‘Jerry Maguire.’ Tom Cruise loved it and it worked really well. He said, ‘I love acting this way. Let’s figure out a dance we can do where the music can come in; I can say my lines and the music can go away,’ so I started doing it.”

However, Crowe notes, “It doesn’t work for everybody. I wasn’t going to do it on ‘We Bought A Zoo.’ But on the first day, we were filming a scene with Matt and I said, ‘I am going to play this Tom Petty song.’ Matt said afterwards, ‘I love that song you played while I was doing the scene. Let’s do more of that.’ So we actually did it a lot and it worked so well because Matt was a willing dance partner. It was also a way to try out the music that we wanted to include in the film.”

Crowe recalls how the music—from this artist called Jónsi—took his actor “to another universe.” For an emotional scene where Damon’s character was looking at photos of his wife, Crowe played him Jónsi’s song called “Sinking Friendships.”

“That flipped the switch in Matt. He wept and it was very real,” Crowe remembers.

And as with Crowe’s most famous movies, this one comes with another wonderful line that could very well make it onto the list of the most memorable movie quotes:  “All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage and I promise you something great will come of it.”

“That line worked well because it felt natural,” the director says. “I think if a movie makes a pronouncement to the audience, you are dead in the water. It will fall flat. You feel like you are being preached to. What I love is when a character says something that is real so that you think about it later and realize, ‘That’s something I can take with me from this movie. I will remember that.’”

And although Damon would probably never say so, Crowe noted that, “We wrote that line together… but he’s shy about it… I went to Hawaii to visit him while he was on vacation with his family. He said, ‘Come over and we’ll work on the script.’ So we did and it ended up being one of the greatest collaborative experiences I’ve ever had, and that line came out of it.”

“We Bought A Zoo” will open in local theaters in January 2012.

Courtesy of the Manila Bulletin – Annie S. Alejo – December 26, 2011