To paraphrase “The Dark Knight,” Cameron Crowe’s movies may not always be the ones we want, but they’re almost always the ones we need. Since his earliest days as a screenwriter, Crowe has always been a tireless optimist, crafting detailed, thoughtful and uncharacteristically earnest stories about people who prevail over cynicism through a combination of idealism and perseverance. Suffice it to say that moviegoers haven’t always embraced his upbeat visions – the disastrous shark’s-fin shoe In “Elizabethtown” feels like a fitting metaphor for the filmmaker’s own well-intentioned but unsuccessful ambitions with that film. But in the selfsame style of his resilient protagonists, Crowe survived those disappointments and returned to the director’s chair unafraid to try again. His latest film, “We Bought a Zoo,” finds the filmmaker more hopeful than ever, as he recounts the based-on-real-life story of Benjamin Mee, a journalist (played by Matt Damon) who attempts to resuscitate a struggling zoo while coming to terms with the death of his wife.
Sentimentality is something that has never scared Crowe – the raison d’etre of the journey in “Jerry Maguire” is to discover that commitment without love means nothing. But in dealing with a deceased wife, a couple of troubled kids, and a zooful of animals, the filmmaker seemed to be testing even the limits of his own ability to render it in dimensions that are unabashed without being overbearing. Speaking to The Playlist at the recent New York press day for ‘Zoo,’ Crowe explained that it took a shrewd eye to know where to pull back and where to go full out when bringing this story to life.
“The key is to bring a fan’s instinct, and to know when it’s over the line and when it’s not over the line,” Crowe said in an interview last week. “Like, Billy Wilder said there’s good sentimentality and there’s bad sentimentality, and you always know when it’s bad sentimentality. And you know, you have your own Geiger counter, hopefully.” Keenly aware of the pitfalls of working with subject matter that is often associated with treacle, Crowe created a mantra for the production to remind everyone what they were aiming for. “The thing I would say on the set of this movie is, ‘let’s not be the people with a tin cup out for emotion – no. Let’s just be real.’ ”
“If you’re missing your wife, let’s be simple and do a scene about that,” he said simply. “But anything that is aware of a goal, no. I am not a fan of schmaltzy movies; I like it when it’s a movie like ‘The Apartment,’ where it’s earned through the characters. So that’s always the goal – the key is always going to be the characters.”
In the film, Mee quits his newspaper job before he finds another one – which, needless to say, is a questionable decision in today’s economic climate. But Crowe said that thought was foremost on his mind as well when he was putting the story together, and felt it was important in revealing something about Mee. “You are a mind reader,” he said. “That’s what I said when I read the script, and that’s what I said when we were like putting it together. What I wanted to get across was that print journalism is having a hard time, and if it was part of paring down a staff, and part misguided bravado, I think that it was valid. But it was a very touchy subject for me, because when I first read the script, that was the thing that I really bumped on.”
Meanwhile, like in almost all of Crowe’s films, ‘Zoo’ features a male protagonist, but one not just supported by females, but “completed” by them, if you’ll pardon the reference. Scarlett Johansson plays a young veterinarian who shoulders the responsibilities of taking care of the zoo’s animals, and then is additionally challenged to teach her boss how to do the same. When time came to create a character who was as interesting and multidimensional as Damon’s lead, Crowe said he remembered an important lesson he learned while auditioning actresses for “Jerry Maguire.” “I do think about that, because in the course of making a movie, or doing both, you hear that so much – why doesn’t someone write a female character that exists independently of the guy’s journey, man?”
“But there was an interesting thing that happened when we were doing ‘Jerry Maguire’ when Elisabeth Shue came in to read for the Renee Zellweger part,” Crowe recalled. “She said, ‘Look, I wasn’t going to come in, and I’ve done my Tom Cruise movie – I’ve done ‘Cocktail’ – so my hat is not in this ring. But I will tell you something as an actress who has a stack of scripts this high in my room at home, that whenever you first meet the woman in the movie, and it’s through the eyes of the man, she will always be that – she will never be anything more than somebody who he sees as part of his life. So my advice to you is to give this character some life before Jerry Maguire sees her. It’s just a tip, I like your stuff, I wanted to tell you that, good luck, and I’ll see you again down the line.’ ”
Crowe said that he continues to consider that every time he writes a female role, much less when he shoots their introductory scene. “I think about that every time I do an entrance for a female character,” he revealed. “I saw [Elisabeth] a couple of years ago, and I thanked her for that, and she said, ‘I said that? Shit – I should have just read for the part! That would have been great to be in that movie.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, there’s destiny there.’ But I thought that was so smart and so true. I love that, and I’ve tried to do that every time – and that’s why you see Scarlett before he sees her.”
Stories like his experience with Shue hint at the ongoing maturation Crowe has experienced through making his films. But if you look at each of his previous works, they deal with issues in an almost chronological way, almost as if his fans are watching the filmmaker grow up via his work: “Say Anything” was about falling in love for the first time, “Jerry Maguire” was about professional maturity and discovering the challenges of a real commitment, and “Elizabethtown” dealt with failure, loss and personal rediscovery. While a natural next step for Crowe’s cinematic evolution might be parenthood, he denies that there’s much verisimilitude between what happens in his films and what happens in his real life.
“Sometimes subliminally that happens, but there was no time when I thought, it’s an opportunity to capture what it feels like to be a father,” he insisted. “I’ve done characters with kids and stuff before, and probably got lucky in getting some moments that were authentic enough. There is stuff in this movie that happened the way it happened as a result of being a parent, but I think ultimately it’s just, what story raises its hand and says, ‘I’m next. If you’re lucky enough to get the opportunity, pick me.’ And that was this one.”
That said, although the film’s troubled relationship between Damon’s character and his son is mostly fiction, Crowe admitted that its execution was probably influenced by the fact he’s a father of boys himself. “The father and son stuff kind of bubbled to the surface probably because I have sons and there are things that I relate to,” he confessed. “But it’s funny – I also did this adaptation of ‘Beautiful Boy,’ the Adam Scheff book, and combined it with his son’s book, ‘Tweak,’ and it’s a story about meth addiction, and I picked it just because the books really spoke to me. But I guess subliminally even after I’d written it, I thought, well, you know, it’s father and son, and I’ve been a father and a son.”
As much a cinephile as a music lover, Crowe observed that he’s hardly the first filmmaker whose work has formed the life story of a person, even if he’s not that person himself. “François Truffaut is one of those directors that his stuff is naturalistic, most of it, but you could look at the whole of it and it tells the story of a human life in a great way. And some of it is genre stuff and it has nothing to do with his personal life that much, but the feeling is personal, and it spans all kinds of characters and ages – and that’s what I’m going for.”
“It always ends up being a dance that you do with what feels like a diary and what’s less so,” he said. “It’s like a beautiful banquet that has all kinds of stuff that you can pick from, but the best stuff is personal.”
“We Bought a Zoo” opens this weekend, December 23, in wide release.