We Bought A Zoo – USA Today Pop Candy

A Chat With. . . Director Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe’s films occupy a special place in my heart.

I know I’m not alone when I say I’ve seen Say Anything,Singles and Almost Famous countless times, and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching (or quoting) them.

On Friday the director returns with his latest feature, We Bought a Zoo. It comes just a few months after he releasedPearl Jam Twenty, a documentary chronicling the band’s career.

Cameron is a longtime supporter of Pop Candy, though we had never spoken on the phone until a few days ago. It was a conversation I’ll remember for a long time:

Cameron: Whitney! Hello! How’s it going?

Me: It’s going well. I’m so thrilled to talk to you!

You, too. I am a fan, so I’m really happy to be talking to you.

Oh, I’m blushing. You know, you sent me an e-mail about a decade ago, and I can’t tell you how inspiring that was to me. It meant a lot.

Excellent. I always thought you knew my stuff, so I always felt grateful about that.

I feel like you’re a mentor to a lot of people, especially folks my age who perhaps have grown up with your movies. I wanted to ask you about the importance of mentors in your life.

It’s amazing — that’s the greatest gift of putting out a movie right now. I’ve been out doing signings and talking to a lot of people, and I’m just really grateful.

You know what it’s like: You write this stuff in a room and it means something to you, and you kind of send it out into the world. It comes back to you in interesting ways, sometimes years later. I think I’ve probably heard more about Vanilla Skyin the last week than I have in the entire time since we made it. It makes me think that some stuff has its own cycle and reaches whoever it’s meant to reach whenever it’s meant to happen.

And part of that is what I’m feeling about what you’re saying, which is the dream was always to do some stuff that gave people a sense of being alive and loving the things they love, and hearing the music that matters to them. We made these movies or have written stories that were basically about trying to share that feeling, and there are people out there that share it with you. It’s very inspiring.

Right now I’m immersed in the new Pauline Kael biography. Did you ever get to meet her?

I didn’t, but she reviewed Say Anything, and it was toward the end of her reviewing days. I just remember going to a mall, picking up the New Yorker and reading her review. She picked out the scene that was my whole reason for deciding I had to try directing, which is Lloyd talking into his little tape recorder about the history of his breakup with Diane Court. (Laughs) It was amazing to read Pauline Kael picking that scene out, and I’ll always remember sitting in this mall in Seattle, reading that review and going, “Pauline Kael understands!”

Later I met Quentin Tarantino, and he’s like, “Man, you got to be reviewed by Pauline Kael. I missed that train! You’ve gotta feel so f–kin’ lucky, man!” And I’m like, “I do!” So I feel like I got to graze her consciousness in some tiny way.

Journalism is so different now compared to when you started at Rolling Stone. Are you glad you’re not in the field anymore?

No, because I feel like I’m still a journalist. Journalism-wise, being able to make a couple documentaries made me feel like when we were at Rolling Stone and could stretch out and write a long profile. So there’s still ways to do it. I think there’s always satisfaction that comes from digging in and telling a story and being on the front line and writing about it. I think there’s a venue available if you look. Even print journalism is in good shape in areas. How do you feel about it?

Well …

That’s optimistic!

(Laughs) I think there are certain venues where there’s still great journalism. But it’s stressful in a way that it never was before. For instance, I’ve had people sitting next to me in the morning and then in the afternoon, I’m not working with them anymore. Also, with blogging … it has its advantages, but it’s also weirdly competitive in a way where it used to be more supportive.

Yeah. A lot of blogging is a pose, too. I feel like it’s a pose, and it’s a style thing as much as it’s detail-gathering or fact-gathering. I love your stuff because it’s not a pose — you’re just kind of authentically who you are, and that’s what comes across. I think it’s great.

Well, thank you.

Sometimes you wonder if the person you’re reading is really the person they want you to be reading, you know? (Laughs) It just doesn’t feel authentic.

Anyway, we’re talking because you’re on my list of people of the year. And I put you there because I loved your Pearl Jam documentary. It gave me the same feeling of when I’ve seen Pearl Jam live.

That was the goal.

What have you learned from the band?

My instinct was always that their story was something that needed to be told. People knew pieces of it, but they didn’t know a lot of it. And I always felt lucky, because I’d seen them play, and I kind of had enough sense of their history to know what was behind the songs a little bit.

I would always feel so emotional watching them, because I remembered their whole journey from Mother Love Bone days until now. And I just thought, “If we make this movie correctly, we can tell that story.”

I thought if we could just quietly tell this story and hang out in Stone’s house and Stone could just tell us what it felt like to live through this. And Jeff could be in Montana, and (if) we could see that guy that it would all add up to the feeling of what it’s like to love Pearl Jam. I felt Andy Wood’s voice so strongly making it.

Have you been to any shows this year that affected you?

Yes. I’d say Joseph Arthur at the Troubadour. He was great. I think the guy would be successful in any era, because he puts his heart out there. And even though it was a small club — packed, but small — maybe in another era he would be playing a much bigger place. But it didn’t matter to him. He was giving it everything, and painting too, onstage.

This guy is not wasting one element of the musical experience. He’s giving his fans everything and just putting it out there with no second-guessing. That was probably the best show I’ve seen this year — that and PJ in Toronto.

Joe lives near me, and he always says he’s going to take me to get a tattoo. He’s covered in tattoos.

I would trust in Joe. Would he create the tattoo? Would it be his art?

Oh, I don’t know! (Laughs) How do you discover new music?

I mostly just go tooling around. Genius sometimes helps, but I kind of read a lot of stuff and see who has put something out, and then I’ll check that out. I think there’s such good music being made right now that if you seek it out, it’s there.

So is having a movie open on Christmas a positive thing?

It is! And it has that feeling, I think … There’s always a hint of sadness in Christmas music, or just a beautiful melancholy, because the year’s almost gone and now it’s time to turn and face the future. There’s always a tingly feeling of promise. That’s how We Bought A Zoo ends, and I love the idea you might leave and get that feeling still in the air.

I have high hopes because my mom went to one of the previews. She’s in the bathroom after, and there’s a woman in the bathroom, and of course my mom rolled right up to her and said, “What did you think of the movie?” And the woman put up her hand and said, “I’m still in the moment.”


I thought, that’s a good sign!

Now, are you out to make people cry with this one? Because I’ll tell you, that scene in Elizabethtown with the Southern funeral — I don’t often cry at the movies, but that did strike a chord with me.

I guess the goal is that you believe in the characters enough to care. That’s what the dream is. But I’ll take laughter, I’ll take tears, I’ll take getting lost for a minute and feeling like you’re not watching a movie but spying on life — that’s my favorite thing. And I don’t really try for that — I think sometimes if you try for that, it can feel like a manipulation.

But I cry at movies just when the movie feels utterly real. It can be Midnight in Paris, just when it’s a stray shot of Owen Wilson listening to Ernest Hemingway. That gets me. So you never really know.

Matt Damon is playing the love of a woman who died before the movie even begins. And he’s so committed to playing a love story to this woman he’s lost … that really gets me. And the last two words of the movie … that’s probably the thing I’m proudest of. I watch it and we get to the last scene, and I go, “Yep. That’s the reason for making the movie.” That’s the “Lloyd talking into the tape recorder” scene of We Bought a Zoo.

Have you ever had times in your career when it was difficult for you to make any work?

I’m always writing. A friend of mine once said, “You avoid re-writing by writing.” Which is kind of a good point, because re-writing seems to be mostly about craft, and writing is just, like, getting out your passion on a piece of paper. That part is the most fun part, so I’m always doing that. Re-writing … I’ve been delinquent in re-writing for periods for sure.

I was just going through some boxes the other day, and I found all these scripts that were started a long time ago. I may finish one or two of those. But no, I’ve never had writer’s block in that way. The Marvin Gaye movie we were looking to make a couple years ago and couldn’t get the casting right … that was probably one of the most frustrating times that approximates what you’re talking about. What about you?

Yeah, I actually had a period of depression where I was unable to work.

For how long, Whitney?

Um, almost a year. I mean, I had to produce something for my job, but I was unable to work creatively the way I wanted to.

How’d you get over that?

Lots of therapy and medication! (Laughs) I wish I had a better answer.

That’s a great answer.

Episodes of Seinfeld helped as well.

This is the human adventure — you found your way. AndSeinfeld … it’s that feeling of “Damn, they’re in such a groove, and it’s so good. It can’t be that hard to write! It can’t be!”

What are some of your goals for next year?

I think to just keep directing. I’ve got this little Moleskine notebook, and I was working on what, hopefully, our next movie will be. I was walking around New York and felt so ready to tear into the next one, it felt really good.

I was stopping to get a hot dog, and this guy in a wheelchair was looking at me and he said, “Are you Cameron?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m a director, and I’m working on my plays and writing, and I can’t wait for the next one.” I was like, “Me too!” (Laughs) We had this moment, and it just felt like, man, I’m just plugged into the fabric of writing and ready for the next year. It was one of those solidarity moments that happens sometimes.

What would you say was your happiest moment this year?

Probably fishing with my sons. They’re 11 years old, and we go fishing on Sundays sometimes and fry up the fish at the end of the night.

Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I know it’s valuable, especially when you’re trying to promote a movie.

There’s nothing more fun than this.

Thank you, Cameron.

Courtesy of the USA Today – Whitney Matheson – December 21, 2011