Cameron Crowe Reveals How He Seduced Matt Damon for 'We Bought a Zoo'; Names His 5 Favorite Movies

Issue 43 Cameron Crowe
Jeff Minton

In the wide-ranging interview, the We Bought a Zoo director discusses his six-year absence from filmmaking ("I got into such a script-writing mode that I lost sight of the joy of directing," he tells THR), why he once fired Ashton Kutcher, and what projects he wants to make next.

READ: Cameron Crowe Reveals How He Seduced Matt Damon for 'We Bought a Zoo'; Names His 5 Favorite Movies

COVER STORY: Cameron Crowe Reveals How He Seduced Matt Damon for 'We Bought a Zoo'; Names His 5 Favorite Movies

A custom playlist, a script and a copy of someone else's movie: The director tells the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter about what he sent Damon, and also talks about everything from why he and Will Smith didn't work out to firing Ashton Kutcher to what he's been doing all these years since "Elizabethtown."

In the newest issue of the The Hollywood Reporter, editor-at-large Kim Masters profiles director Cameron Crowe (with a little help from some of his friends: We Bought a Zoo stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, producer Paula Wagner and director/mentor James L. Brooks, to name a few). In the wide-ranging interview, the director discusses his six-year absence from filmmaking ("I got into such a script-writing mode that I lost sight of the joy of directing," he tells THR), how he wooed Damon to the unique comedy-meets-drama We Bought a Zoo with a compilation CD, why he once fired Ashton Kutcher and what projects he wants to make next. 


Crowe traveled to the set of the Coen brothers' True Grit in Austin and presented Damon with a script, a CD of songs that he'd burned and a copy of Local Hero -- a perfect little 1983 movie in which Peter Riegert played an oil-company executive sent to buy a remote village in Scotland, to woo him for Zoo. "My instructions were to not just read the script and make a decision," Damon says. Crowe had brought all the tools in his kit -- music, film and words -- not only to convey what he had in mind for this movie but to envelop Damon in the world he meant to create. "He said: 'I know what you're going to be afraid of; the bad version of this movie is really a movie you don't want to be in. That's what I'm afraid of too,' " Damon says. And that told Damon two things: that Crowe wanted to avoid making the bad movie and that he intended to fight against it with Damon as his brother-in-arms. Crowe was right: Damon didn't want to make what he calls "the Disney version" of the story about a grieving widower with two children who makes the unlikely decision to buy and restore a dilapidated zoo. "It might be popular, but it wouldn't be something that I'd be proud to be a part of," Damon says. As he listened to Crowe's music on a run through Central Park, though, he got a very different vibe. "There were all these songs I know but live versions that he got from sound boards," Damon says. "A song like, 'I'm Open' by Eddie Vedder -- he gave me a particularly moving version that I've never heard. I kind of finished that run and went, 'That's a really good feeling.'"

Here, Crowe shares the playlist he gave Damon: 

  1. Save It for Later … Pete Townshend
  2. I'm Open (Live) … Eddie Vedder
  3. War of Man (Live)  … Neil Young
  4. Soul Boy … The Blue Nile
  5. Mohammed's Radio … Jackson Browne
  6. Sanganichi … Shugo Tokumaru
  7. Airline to Heaven … Wilco
  8. Buckets of Rain … Bob Dylan
  9. The Heart of the Matter (Live) … Don Henley
  10. I Will Be There When You Die … My Morning Jacket
  11. Ain't No Sunshine … Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers
  12. Child of the Moon … Rolling Stones
  13. If I Am a Stranger … Ryan Adams
  14. Concrete Sky … Beth Orton
  15. Helpless (Live) … Neil Young
  16. Don't Be Shy (no piano) … Cat Stevens
  17. Nerstrand Woods … Mark Olson And The Creekdippers

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Fox production president Emma Watts came to him with a draft for We Bought a Zoo by Aline Brosh McKenna (27 DressesThe Devil Wears Prada). The script was based on the 2008 book by Benjamin Mee, the man who actually bought the zoo. Watts found herself pitching the project to Crowe on her phone in the Neiman Marcus parking lot, and she says her hopes weren't high. After all, Crowe had written pretty much every film he had directed, and most felt very personal to him. "I don't get nervous very often, but I actually did," she says. "I thought for sure I was dead because he was being so polite to me." But Watts was thrilled when Crowe said he would try a rewrite to see if he could find his version of the movie. "There's nothing quite like a turn through his typewriter," Watts says. There are so many lines from Crowe movies that stick in the popular psyche: "You complete me." "You had me at hello." "Show me the money." "The guy just writes lines that you think of your whole life," Watts says.

Says Crowe: "I knew talking on the phone to Emma that Benjamin Mee's real-life story had all the elements I love in storytelling: humor, great characters, love and an impossible dream. I could already hear the music too. … That story came knocking in a big way, and it didn't go away. You wait for the zing, and the zing happened on We Bought a Zoo."


Crowe was never a director to crank out one film after another: There were generally gaps of about four years from Say Anything (1989) to Singles (1992) to Jerry Maguire (1996) to Almost Famous (2000). But with a longer break than usual, it has been natural for some of Crowe's old associates in the industry to surmise that he had not made a film since 2005 because of disappointment. His 14-year marriage to Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart ended in divorce in 2010. And Elizabethtown, a $45 million film pairing Kirsten Dunst and Orlando Bloom, had fizzled at the box office and brought unaccustomed wrath from critics. The Village Voice panned it under the headline "Almost Shameless," while The New York Times dismissed it as "a strange, messy stew of a movie." But Crowe seems baffled and a bit dismayed by the supposition that he was in a funk or somehow affected by the chilly reception of his most recent film. "Elizabethtown was a movie made for all the right reasons, and people who connect with the movie really connect to it," he says. "It's not the biggest group of people ever, but I still really believe in Elizabethtown. It wasn't, like, a savage blow."

VIDEO: Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon Star in 'We Bought a Zoo' Trailer


When he cast Ashton Kutcher in Elizabethtown. Kutcher was then still part of That 70's Show, and Crowe told him he had to set aside a few weeks to focus only on the film. But sources involved with the project say Kutcher didn't heed Crowe's words. Although he promised he would deliver when the cameras were rolling, Crowe lost faith. "The thing about Cameron is, he never gets angry," says one involved in the production. He simply dropped Kutcher and, despite Paramount's resistance, cast Bloom. "I'll spend months working with an actor, and I think I spent four months with Ashton," Crowe says. "At a certain point, it's like, 'This is not meant to be.' " And though the film didn't succeed with Bloom, Crowe says, "It felt like a noble crusade."


Instead of avoiding the movie-making industry, Crowe says he simply got engaged in writing scripts, including a long and ultimately frustrating effort to make a Marvin Gaye biopic with Will Smith. "We had many meetings where we talked about it," Crowe says. "And at the end, he couldn't say yes. It's a tough thing to play Marvin Gaye. He's a towering figure. … Who would want to be the guy who played Marvin and didn't nail it? Will isn't wrong; the guy who plays it should be a guy who tears into it and knows it's the right thing, and I don't think he ever came around the corner on it."

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Now that he's gotten back in the chair on We Bought a Zoo with such happy results, Crowe says he's eager to direct again. Not that he has any shortage of other projects. He's still doing journalism and has recently done an interview with Neil Young that is scheduled to run in Rolling Stone next year. He's also working on a compilation of his reporting on rock. "It's called Hamburgers for the Apocalypse and includes new interviews with the artists I profiled in the day, from Zeppelin to Bowie to Joni Mitchell," he says. Crowe says he has scripts that he wrote in the past few years and hopes one of them will turn into his next directing gig. (He's just sent out a spec script which he says is Preston Sturges-influenced.) "Character comedy-drama is really hard to get made right now, and I think that's a statement that feeds on itself," Crowe says. "But it's not necessarily true. It's the nourishing thing that people crave. … People are going to go where they get characters that they remember. I don't think people are ever going to a place where they're like, 'I'm over stories about character and love.' "


Crowe's Five Favorite Films

  • Quadrophenia (1979)
  • Local Hero (1983)
  • Stolen Kisses (1968)
  • The Rules of the Game (1939)
  • The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


To read the cover story in full, click here