We Bought A Zoo – San Diego Union Tribune

Zoo Director Cameron Crowe Talks Movies

The ‘Uni’ High and City College alum salutes his local roots in new movie

Had everything gone as originally planned, the ambitious new film “We Bought A Zoo” would have become the first major motion picture to be filmed and set in — wait for it! — Jamul.

“That’s exactly right, and it’s written in the script as Jamul,” said “Zoo” director and co-writer Cameron Crowe, 54, who grew up in San Diego and won an Academy Award in 2001 for his screenplay for “Almost Famous.”

For a variety of reasons, the $50 million “Zoo” ended up being shot in Thousand Oaks, not Jamul (an East County community with a population of just over 6,000). The movie opens today in theaters.

“Zoo” stars Matt Damon as a veteran newspaper reporter and recently widowed father of two. After quitting his job, he buys a zoo, literally, in an effort to pull his family back together. An unabashed love story that is equal parts comedy and drama, “Zoo” is based on an autobiographical 2008 book by former English newspaper columnist Benjamin Mee. It co-stars a decidedly unglamorous Scarlett Johansson and the radiant 13-year-old actress Elle Fanning.

By turns charming and mawkish, heartfelt and predictable, the lovingly crafted “Zoo” ultimately transcends its potential pitfalls. A gently uplifting celebration of family and humanity, it is boosted by a pivotal scene of a cathartic argument between Damon’s character and Colin Ford, who plays his rebellious 14-year-old son.

“It definitely wears its heart on its sleeve,” said Crowe, who co-wrote the “Zoo” screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna.

“I’m proud we made this movie, because it’s such a tough time for so many people, and it’s easier to get a movie made that reflects hopelessness, rather than hope. This movie is an emotional road map to hope, to dialing down the cynicism, to being open to all the possibilities in life.”

Crowe is best known for the Oscar-winning “Jerry Maguire,” the third film he directed. “Zoo,” his seventh outing as a director, is the first he did not write alone.

While he helmed a documentary to commemorate this year’s 20th anniversary of the band Pearl Jam, along with a documentary about Elton John and Leon Russell’s recent joint album and tour, “Zoo” is Crowe’s first feature film since 2005’s critically savaged “Elizabethtown.” Both he and 20th Century Fox, which is releasing “Zoo,” hope its family-friendly message of transcendence will strike a major chord.

“I think everybody can use a story about how sadness can be transcended (to a place) where euphoria feels like the best place to be in the world, for however long it can last,” Crowe said. “This feels like a good one for the holidays, kind of like (Bruce) Springsteen telling a story at his shows. … It’s about a feeling, and that’s what ‘We Bought a Zoo’ does, hopefully.”

A graduate of San Diego City College, Crowe was 13 when he submitted his first record review to the University High School newspaper in Linda Vista. (“It was of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Cosmo’s Factory,’ ” he proudly recalled.) He was soon covering music for an underground newspaper, the San Diego Door, whose freewheeling staff also included future “60 Minutes” TV producer Lowell Bergman.

“And the great Dave Coddon and I started our underground newspaper together at Uni High, ‘Common Sense’,” Crowe recalled. “Pretty good name for a paper, now that I think about it!”

He chuckled.

“Years later, I came back to film a few ‘Almost Famous’ scenes at Uni, and one of the teachers, well, I was not feeling the love of the returning Uni graduate,” Crowe said.

“I was like: ‘Come on, man. I’m the Uni High don, coming back!’ And there was this icy chill in the air. I later found out the teacher was still (angry) that we started that underground paper in 1971, and this was 30 years later! So we really got under the skin of the (school) administration!”

At 15, Crowe became the youngest contributing editor on the staff of Rolling Stone magazine. That adventure largely inspired his screenplay for “Almost Famous.”

His impetus for writing about rock music is neatly summarized by his mother, longtime Linda Vista resident Alice Crowe, who is a retired San Diego City College professor and guidance counselor.

“Free records!” she said after a recent “Zoo” screening at Fashion Valley. (Mrs. Crowe has two cameos in the movie.)

Cameron Crowe laughed appreciatively when told of his mom’s succinct observation.

“Yep. That’s it for sure,” he said, speaking by phone from New York. “I tried to sell records, (working) at Swap-A-Tape, down by the San Diego Sports Arena. I lasted one day, because I messed up and the cash register got fried. That made me realize I was probably better at reviewing records than I was at selling them.”

Music plays a key role in all of Crowe’s films, including “Zoo,” for which Sigur Ros member Jonsi composed the score. The movie also includes songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and other Crowe favorites.

Crowe spends hours creating mix tapes featuring songs and artists that he believes best capture the tone of specific scenes in his movies, then plays the songs on the set. As part of his campaign to get Damon to star in “Zoo,” Crowe burned a CD for the actor that featured songs by everyone from Cat Stevens and former San Diegan Eddie Vedder to Wilco and Beth Orton.

“Even if it’s not music that ends up in the film, it’s the feeling that counts,” Damon told The Hollywood Reporterrecently.

Crowe, in turn, praises Damon for his responsiveness to the music.

“Matt was great with that,” Crowe said, speaking by phone from New York. “The first day (on the set), we played Tom Petty & The Heartbreakerss ‘Don’t Come Around Here No More,’ and we used it in the same scene. Tom Petty’s music works in everything . There’s nothing he’s done that isn’t authentic, so it always feels like something that feels true to the character or true to the idea. Something about Tom Petty seems to comment on life in a really great way, probably because he’s not trying to steal any moment.”

However, not all of Crowe’s musical references in his filmsare audible, or overt.

In one memorable scene in ‘Zoo,’ Damon’s character pages through a book of his son’s drawings. When he gets to the middle of the book, there is a two page rendering of a tormented-looking man, mouth agape, who appears to be screaming in terror.

Might this be an unspoken homage to the striking album cover art on “In the Court of the Crimson King,” the classic 1969 debut album by the pioneering English art-rock band King Crimson? Or was this interviewer hallucinating?

“Bingo! You are not hallucinating,” Crowe replied, laughing heartily.

“This is the kind of moment that we work real hard to put in — little detail spikes in all the movies (I do) — where if you’re able to watch it again and you find yourself looking at one scene, you recognize one little thing. That’s a big win for us (and) I think that comes from (my background in) journalism. We try and pack the frame with all these little (music-related) tributes. With this drawing in ‘Zoo,’ it was the King Crimson album cover and a tribute to (the Edvard Munch painting) ‘The Scream,’ as well.

“That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie. ‘Almost Famous’ and ‘Vanilla Sky’ have the highest ratios of little (visual) tribute flashes.”

Movie-goers viewing “Zoo” in San Diego will enjoy the added bonus of local references, be it Damon’s character making a wry reference to “El Cajon” or fondly recalling eating at “Filippi’s,” long one of Little Italy’s most popular pizza restaurants.

“And Balboa Park! Yeah, it is deliberate” Crowe said.

“I wanted some San Diego roots to be showing in the movie, I also love the idea that anybody who really knows the kind of terrain we were covering, geographically, would wonder: ‘Wait a minute! (Damon’s character) quit working at the Los Angeles Times, and now he’s talking about El Cajon and Balboa Park?’ I used to spend a lot of time at Filippi’s.”

With or without the allusions to San Diego, Crowe acknowledges that ‘Zoo’ marks a major turning point — one that could point to a new direction in his film-making career.

“I think this will be the first in a series of movies I’ve directed — rather than written the screenplay for from scratch — and I’m happy just to direct,” he said.

“It started when I was doing the Pearl Jam documentary. I realized missed directing, and I knew it There’s something that happens when you feel the energy of a previous project and keep going. ‘We Bought a Zoo’ feels like an openhearted first project (for me to be) back as a director.”

Courtesy of the San Diego Union Tribune – George Varga – December 23, 2011