We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon and Director Cameron Crowe
We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon and Director Cameron Crowe discuss a scene on the set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox, Photo by Neal Preston

Cameron Crowe has lived quite a diverse life, graduating from high school at 15, and then going under cover at 22 as a high school student to research his book on teen life. It became a bestseller, and the motion picture Fast Times at Ridgemont High for which he received a nomination for Best Screen Adaptation from The Writers Guild of America.

He made his directorial debut in 1979 with Say Anything, which led to other movies including Singles, Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky and Almost Famous, which chronicled his life as a teen contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine.

His new movie We Bought a Zoo, is based on the true story of the Mee family. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist whose wife dies, leaving him to care for their two children, 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). In an attempt to bring his family together, he purchases a zoo called Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals, including lions, tigers and, yes, bears, reside under the care of the head zookeeper, Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).

Cameron Crowe spoke about his moving experience making the film at the press day for the picture in New York City.

Why was Matt Damon right for the role of Benjamin Mee?

We Bought A Zoo - Director Cameron Crowe
Director Cameron Crowe prepares to shoot a scene on the set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Matt always brings a cache of trust, and in the same way, Benjamin Mee is a character I trusted when I read the book and Aline (Brosh McKenna’s) script. Matt plays Benjamin from the heart, with a lot of truth, and that’s why you believe in his journey.

Were you concerned about making Dylan too dark?

That’s an interesting question. The first quest was to tell Benjamin Mee’s story because I think we all connected to the book, and there’s a wonderful documentary that the BBC did. He’s so much about authenticity and truth and he’s a great journalist.

So I always wanted the movie and the script to reflect his love of what’s authentic.

I think a lot of times in movies a disaffected youth is dressed in black and is super Goth and does the archetypal things, and what I knew from being a parent of younger kids than Dylan is in the movie, is there’s a high-pitched signal that goes out when you get it wrong, and it’s a movie character.

But when you get some of the details right, you’re capturing life in a different way. What I wanted was the kid to be angry and sad and acting out on the loss of the mother.

Was it hard for the actors and crew to work around the animals?

I think what’s amazing is we all got into this movie for all the right reasons to just explore how we could make this movie that was about a feeling in a lot of ways.

The animals and the story and the whole fact of building the zoo was a way to make a movie that made you feel differently, so when you left it wasn’t just about the animals or the love story, it was really about an environment that we created.

Everybody trusted that we were on this journey to try something a little different. It was just a great team and it happened to include animals and kids and all the stuff they say is a huge burden when you’re making a movie, but it didn’t feel that way to us. I think it was a quest to capture a feeling of love.

Why did you choose to bring in Jonsi from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros to write songs for the movie?

We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Director Cameron Crowe
Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Director Cameron Crowe consult on set © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Early on it was obvious that Sigur Ros’ music would have a profound effect on the making of We Bought a Zoo. In preparation for making the movie, we gave all the actors and crew members a copy of Sigur Ros’ transcendent documentary, Heima.

Jonsi arrived from Iceland with a toy sampler keyboard and a head full of ideas. Within a week, he had composed a series of themes that would reflect everything we’d hoped for. In this music were all the highs and lows and passionate in-betweens of the film itself. The instinct that made the movie come to life.

Can you talk a little bit about the songwriting process since you co-wrote one of the songs for this movie?

I’ve only written fake songs for movies, where we spoofed other songs. Jonsi hasn’t really written songs in the English language, so he would say, ‘Give me some ideas for a song that would be good for the movie.’ So I gave him some ideas and he came back and said, ‘No, I mean real lyrics.’

We sat down and had a session. I think anybody that’s written about music should go through that, because you see exactly how hard it is to write a real song.

What was the experience like for you writing and directing this movie?

In the end, telling Benjamin’s story ended up being as personal as anything I’ve done. One of the reasons I wanted to do the movie was to put some joy out in the world. I love that We Bought a Zoo is a movie that allows you to feel joy, to feel what it is to be alive, and is about turning loss into something inspirational.

Aline’s script was a character-driven story that reminded me of my favorite movies, and I really enjoyed it. It was the combination of her script and Benjamin Mee’s book that brought me all the way in; together, they were filled with promise. I could hear ‘music’ and feel the love of the Mee family

The story infuses you with a love of life, human and animal. And it’s about taking risks; a lot of the greatest things ever accomplished came from incredible risk. The story and characters are everything I love in movies.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.