Cameron Crowe's films have explored his teen years as a rock 'n' roll roadie, the loss of his father, and a charismatic sports agent. With his latest flick, We Bought a Zoo, Crowe casts his cinematic spell on the true story of a man who uproots his family to revitalize a broken-down zoo. Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, and Cameron Crowe sat down to discuss the thrills and challenges of working with wild animals and each other.
Shani Hashaviah: Can you share one of your 20 seconds of courage?
Matt Damon: I think my 20 seconds of courage stories…most of them took place when I was 16 and 17. I used to come down here to New York from Boston to audition for things as a young actor, and I remember, a lot of times, being nervous about walking into a room and auditioning for these people and feeling like I need to push through that moment. And if I could just get through that – even if I didn’t get that part – I was gonna be better for having had the experience and force myself to do it. So I think most of my stories were as a teenager.
SA: What type of challenges did you face with this film?
MD: As W.C. Fields said, “Never work with children or animals,” [laughs] so Cameron (Crowe) and I laughed a lot about that. We figured we were getting it all out of the way in one movie. So someone like Colin (Ford), who played my son -- he’s a professional actor. He understood the dynamic between the father and the son, he constructed the screenplay, he knew what he was supposed to do. But someone like Maggie (Elizabeth Jones), who is seven years old, we all made an effort to try to just make it fun for her, and because on one hand she’d prepare stuff; on the other, we wanted her to kind of get rid of that preparation and just be natural. So we’d play little games with her… Cameron and I spent time troubleshooting how to short-circuit some of that stuff so we could get some great little moments from her.
SA: How was working with animals? Did you have any interaction with them in the film, aside from what we see?
MD: With the big animals, we basically just did whatever they told us, because they’re really impressive when you see them up close. We’d come this close to them, and they’re beautiful, but they’re unbelievably powerful. So I think we were very respectful of that and really deferential to the trainers and basically just did what they said. But when it came to smaller…like the Capuchin monkey, Crystal, she’s in just about every scene with us, so she was always jumping around on our shoulders and everybody bonded with her.
SA: Would you say she was your favorite animal in the film?
MD: She’s certainly the one I spent the most time with, and when my kids would come, she was really great. My kids were nervous. Obviously they had never seen a Capuchin monkey before, but she interacted with them. I have all these pictures of her climbing on their shoulders and these smiles on their faces.
SA: How was it to work with Cameron Crowe? What did he bring to the film?
MD: This type of movie, my biggest fear would be that we make it really cheesy, and I wouldn’t have done this movie, had it not been for Cameron. Cameron just made a career out of making these really optimistic movies that, for me just as a moviegoer, I’ll have this cathartic experience that will really get me emotionally. I’ll laugh a lot. And nobody quite tells stories the way he does – he’s really unique. So that’s what really attracted me to this whole project – it was Cameron.
SA: What has been your favorite scene of all movies you’ve watched in your life?
MD: Boy, that’s a tough question. There’s a scene in Rain Man that I always loved, with Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman. At the very end of the movie, when Tom Cruise realizes that he has to send him back, and it’s just this dolly shot that pushes in, and they’re framed against this window, and it’s the two of them – it’s like a 50/50 shot, and it’s going in, and Cruise is explaining to him that he meant what he said and he had a great time with him, and at the end of it, he says, “I like having you for my brother,” and there’s this long pause, and he says, “I like having you for my big brother.” And maybe it’s because I have a big brother, that just always got to me. I don’t know if it’s the greatest scene of all time, but for me, it’s up there.
SA: I understand that there is a lot of music passion in the film and the soundtrack, and you were talking with Cameron about that. What are you playing on your iPod, or what’s your favorite music?
MD: I would always have said that The Beatles were my desert island band, if you could give me one band. But I think that they’ve been supplanted by U2. If I had one band that I could take the complete works of, I would take U2 to a desert island.
Shani Ashaviah: Can you please share with us one of your 20 seconds of courage?
Scarlett Johansson: I think probably as an actor, you have a lot of moments where you display 20 seconds of courage. We’re always jack-of-all-trades and master of none, and we’re constantly asked to look like we know what we’re doing in crazy situations, so whether that’s repelling off a building or running into a burning village, you’re just constantly thinking, “I don’t know how to do this. Okay, you’re rolling? All right, I’m just gonna wing it.” So it’s quite often, probably more often than if I was say a computer technician or something like that. [Laughs]
SA: What type of challenges did you face, working on this film? With animals or kids…?
SJ: No, we didn’t have any challenges. This film was so blissful, it was like the easiest… I mean, the job is always…when you’re trying to make scenes work and stuff like that, and you have a bit of a challenge when something isn’t quite working, and you need to find some kind of in, but I think that for a film that has animals, children, outdoor locations – kind of everything that you would imagine would be working against us – we were just incredibly fortunate. It was a very unique experience that way.
SA: What was your favorite animal in the film and in real life?
SJ: I think everybody wants Crystal, the Capuchin monkey. She’s a little diva. One of the entertainment magazines actually compared our box office grosses – mine, Matt’s, and Crystal the Capuchin monkey – and Matt was far above me, and then Crystal soared above – she’s like the Jerry Bruckheimer of apes.
SA: How was it to work with Cameron? And what did you feel he brought to this film?
SJ: I had been auditioning for Cameron for ten years practically. I’ve always wanted to work with him, and I think this was just the right project for us at the right time. He’s got a sort of a contagious enthusiasm. You can practically hear him squealing with delight behind the monitor, and he’s throwing out all kinds of motivations and dialogue, and music he plays before and after and during a take. And he’s just got this quiet command over the set.
SA: Talking about music, what is your favorite music? What’s playing on your iPod or iPad?
SJ: I’m listening to all kinds of music right now. I’ve been listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil and 4AD stuff, and I just got the new Black Keys album which is great, and I like a band called The Antlers, which is awesome. Just all kinds of stuff.
SA: What would you like the audience to take from this film?
SJ: Whenever I watch a film, I always just want to escape into another world for a couple hours, so I hope audiences are able to do just that – to be able to have their own emotional journey with this film and be able to escape into it.
SA: What is your favorite scene of a movie of all time?
SJ: Wow, that’s a grand, big…that’s a lot of room there. I cannot pick a favorite scene or my favorite film of all time. But I have to say I absolutely love Groundhog Day. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and I think probably any scene in that – and I could recite every single scene in that film – I just find it to be absolutely hilarious. So any scene after he decides that his life is falling apart and this will all be his demise and he just throws caution to the wind and tries to kill himself eight times in a row [laughs] – any of that stuff is good.
Shani Ashaviah: Can you share your 20 seconds of courage moment?
Cameron Crowe: I think the 20 seconds of courage came into play making this movie. I think I’m just realizing that now, actually. It was something I felt like I had to do, but working with exotic animals and telling this kind of story was new to me, and I’m so glad I did it because I think the movie leaves you with a feeling that I’ve always wanted to have in one of the movies that I’ve directed. So it all worked out, but that’s one of them. Personally, every day you’re facing an opportunity to take a risk and be courageous.
SA: What were your challenges making this movie? Was it with the animals or working with kids…?
CC: All of it. [Laughs]
SA: Tell me about it. [Laughs]
CC: I think it’s a story that’s very personal, but the elements of it are wild. It’s a big cast, and I love the actors that we have because they threw themselves into it totally. And we took this journey together. We didn’t know if it was going to be a family movie, a story about a father and son, and it ended up being about all of it and about embracing the joy of being alive. And it happened very much from the heart, and all the elements needed to come together to do it, but there were a lot of them.
SA: I know you’re used to working with big stars, but how was work with Matt and Scarlett on this film?
CC: Matt Damon is gonna be a wonderful director. He’s worked with so many really great directors, and I think he took lessons from all of them, so he’s the consummate pro but has the enthusiasm of a teenager. Same with Scarlett. You’d think that after all the movies and projects they’ve worked on, they’d be like, “What’s the next shot?” No. They’re alive with the opportunity of telling the story, and that’s consistent with all of the people that have become super famous making movies. The joy of doing it comes through in their performance, and it’s real. It’s who they are.
SA: Music is a very important team in the film, and you gave Matt a CD of music that you like. What is your favorite music? What is playing on your iPod or iPad?
CC: I’m listening a lot to this artist AA Bondy. I love singer/songwriters. I love the fact that they’re telling personal stories, and I always like the beginning of a song when it’s just song and guitar, but I listen to everything, and Internet radio is the greatest because you can find all kinds of playlists everywhere. And we were just talking about Florence and the Machine – she’s amazing. I think music has never been more alive in a way, so I’m always listening.
SA: Did you always want to make a Christmas movie, or the opportunity just presented itself?
CC: It arrived. They called me up and said, “How about if we put We Bought a Zoo out in Christmastime, and immediately I got so excited because I love the holiday and I love Christmas music, and I love the idea that you can see this movie and go out into the cold night and feel a little bit of life and promise, and also the score by Jonsi is a little bit like when Bruce Springsteen used to play holiday shows and he’d tell stories, and Roy Bittan would play piano behind him. I always loved that feeling, and when we were making the movie and putting the music on it, I’d turn to the guys and said, “This is like one of those Springsteen concerts.” And it’s all wrapped up in the holiday and the feeling of the holiday.
SA: What is your favorite scene of all movies?
CC: The last scene in The Apartment by Billy Wilder because the whole movie leads to that one scene, and the last line is Shirley MacLaine, instead of saying “I love you” to Jack Lemmon – they’re playing cards – she says, “Shut up and deal.” And it’s just the greatest last scene. I’m such a fan of last scenes, and the last scene in We Bought a Zoo was the reason to make the movie, to me. We had this extra little scene where we actually hear the words of the woman that the whole movie has been about. I love last scenes.
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation's 'We Bought a Zoo' is released on December 23, 2011.