Starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, We Bought A Zoo is an adaptation of the real-life-story of Benjamin Mee, a journalist who quit his job and uprooted his family in order to bring an ailing zoo back to life after the death of his wife. While the film forages into new territory for writer-director Cameron Crowe – it’s his first venture into family-friendly entertainment – it still possesses all of the qualities that have come to define Crowe’s movies: sharply-defined characters, a well-crafted story, beautifully iconic, “magic” moments, a romantic, empowering sense of hope and idealism, and of course, a killer soundtrack.
Movies sat down with Crowe at the recent New York press day for We Bought A Zoo, where the director discussed those hallmarks, both in terms of embracing and subverting them. Additionally, he offered a few insights into how he assembles those wonderful soundtracks for his films, and observed how he’s able to integrate the themes he explores into the process of assembling interesting stories around them.
Movies.com: I love the musical choices you make in the film, but is Cat Stevens just the perfect musical accompaniment to any scene, or how aggressive are you in finding new or more obscure artists to fill out your soundtracks?
Cameron Crowe: A lot. That really connected with Elle Fanning, so that’s really where that came from. She had a couple of different things – she really loved Florence and the Machine, she loved all kinds of stuff, and we tried all kinds of stuff, but for some reason, “Don’t Be Shy” kind of became her theme. But I’m not addicted to ‘70s rock, I’m really not, and “Don’t Be Shy” will forever be a Harold & Maude song, but that was kind of like the perfect storm that brought us back to Cat Stevens.
Movies.com: Do you have to think consciously about choosing songs for your films? Because as much as I love Martin Scorsese’s use of pop, he seems pretty firmly rooted in a narrow spectrum of musical choices.
Crowe: No, I just keep – I have playlists, and each one is an hour point two [in length], so I just throw stuff into the playlists, and the playlists become what I play on the set, and what I go back to when I’m writing. And that’s part of the addiction, and it’s kind of like the best part of writing is that you have this little collection of music that inspired you along the way. And the music is a diary of how you felt and everything, and that’s what I pull from – and it’s just so fun. The playlists go on forever, and they’re naturally eclectic because I listen to everything. But I want to keep expanding; like Jonsi for me as a scoring artist was an attempt to be slightly expansive, because I hadn’t done a score-score, even though we have records in the movie, but the last part of the movie is mostly score, and I wanted to try that. But yeah, I’m not stuck in that gear, and “I’m never moving out of that gear, man!” and I don’t purely listen to just Almost Famous-era stuff. I listen to all kinds of stuff.
Movies.com: Are you conscious at this point of the things that have come to be hallmarks of your movies, in terms of either embracing or avoiding them?
Crowe: “I’ve done this before – it’s what I do!” I think that’s dangerous. I liked what Woody Allen said in this interview just recently when he said, “people wonder if my audience left me. I left them. I couldn’t make Annie Hall or Manhattan again, and again and again, and I understand that they’re not into what I do sometimes. Because when I see a Bob Hope movie, I want to see a funny Bob Hope, I don’t want to see Bob Hope being serious. So I get it, and I left them unfortunately.” It’s not quite that way with me; it’s that I just follow a feeling, so you like what you like, you don’t want to do the same thing, so I’m kind of aware if we’ve done a scene that’s like that. But for example, the scene where Matt Damon is remembering his life with his wife and we’re listening to the Jonsi song “Singing Friendships,” I felt like I hadn’t done a scene like that before, even though it’s about memory and feeling and love. And that’s an example of like you’re doing something new, and it’s about something you’re interested in – and I like that. That’s kind of a good growth step. But really, you end up doing what you would want to see yourself, and that’s what I go by.
Movies.com: One thing I think you excel at is creating these magical, iconic moments. I mean it as a compliment when I say I think the reason maybe some of Elizabethtown wasn’t as well-received as your other films is that-
Crowe: Beautifully and delicately put, my friend.
Movies.com: Thanks. But it seems like that whole film is trying to be made up of those moments. How difficult is it to create a scene like, say, the “Tiny Dancer” scene in Almost Famous, and balance it with more straightforward storytelling to ensure that those moments are genuinely special?
Crowe: F**king great question. And what you want to do is earn those moments, because there are two things I love in movies, almost as much as anything else: one is the earned sidestep, like we’re talking about – magical moments. It’s the thing you could have cut out of the script, but it ends up being the thing you might remember. The other thing is a random moment, just a random thing, like in a song when somebody just misses a chord or something, and that’s what you remember about the song. And the random moment is what you end up quoting from a movie later, the thing somebody says to somebody else in an elevator that makes no real sense but it makes all of the sense in the world. So like those two things I love, and both of them have to be earned. And when you earn them correctly, it’s a giddy joy – so what we’re talking about is balance, and earning it. And I always try to earn those things when they happen in a movie, but I always try for them because I love it so much.
It’s like a tracking shot if you like tracking shots – you want to push yourself to try a tracking shot that you haven’t done before. But you’ve failed when you break the wall and you make people realize they’re watching a director doing a movie moment, I think; it should always feel like it comes from a story you’re being told, like somebody’s taking you on a ride and saying, “well then, the guitarist was on acid, and f**king nothing was going to work and our band was broken up. And then this silly Elton John song came on and we all ended up singing it, and none of us ever talk about it because it’s so embarrassing.” And you go, “but that’s classic!” So it’s just all part of storytelling. And I’m honored that the stuff that worked is memorable enough to be brought up years later.
This movie, one of the buoys that you kind of swim to when you do a project, make a movie, whatever, you do it to do the things that stick in your head, like, “I’m going to get to that moment, and that’s the moment that’s important.” And to me, it was the last scene in the movie, when you realize that this woman who hadn’t spoken and wasn’t even alive in the course of the movie was going to end the movie with the last two words the first time she speaks. And that was an important thing, because I wanted to tell a story about like what we take with us from a broken relationship or a lost love or another time in our life when everybody makes such a big case for moving on or moving forward. But sometimes the proper look over your shoulder is as important as moving forward, so that was what I wanted so badly for this movie, to catch that, that she, Catherine, the dead wife, had inspired the whole adventure. And that was worth like gathering animals and kids and doing all of this other stuff to tell this story, which ends up amounting to a family story, or a story that a family can go see. But to me the intention wasn’t to do a kids’ movie, or a movie with kids even; it was to tell that story.
Movies.com: Ultimately, “why not?” is a theme that runs through the film. How capable are you as a filmmaker of saying “why not?” when you’re crafting a story? Can you really be unfettered to structure or logic or larger thematic ideas?
Crowe: Sometimes, sometimes. You can only know as you’re writing. I don’t know if you’re in love with writing, or in love with the end result – how are you with that? What part of the process of writing do you get the most satisfaction from?
Movies.com: Probably the writing process itself.
Crowe: Yeah, me too. Like, taking those explorations, the “why not?” part of it, because I don’t have a set formula. I mean, I obviously have things that appeal to me and stuff – and sometimes it’s surprising. A woman came up to me the other day and said, “put a brunette in your movie, for God’s sake!” I’m like, what are you talking about? Scarlett, doesn’t she have dark hair? And she said, “please.” What? I’m truly not obsessed with blondes, you know, but it happened that way – and I like that people are paying attention. But I don’t have a formula, and that sometimes means you go around the block a few times before you park your car, but I love what you’re saying, though. Because I think “why not?” is essential in the writing period, and I try to be the “why not?” person making the movie, too.