We Bought a Zoo strives to be Cameron Crowe‘s biggest crowd-pleaser yet, and it’s coming after two of his most splitting features. Elizabethtown was not met kindly and Vanilla Sky either blew your mind or frustrated the hell out of you, despite being a film that made one of the most likable movie stars around a total narcissist often hidden under a nightmarish mask — and how many directors would transform their star in such a way? Not many. Crowe doesn’t exactly disfigure Matt Damon in his Christmas release, but the film does what Crowe usually does best: showing good-natured people simply trying their best.
While speaking to Crowe, he reminded me a lot of his films: someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, and not in an artificial way. He was kind enough to give me extra time, and even by the end of our interview, I felt like we barely scratched the surface of his career.
Here’s what Cameron Crowe had to say about Vanilla Sky, his writing process, how old films are like diary entries, and why it’s easier to make cynical films nowadays.
I have to ask, why haven’t you become jaded like the rest of us?
[Laughs] You know what’s funny? Right now it’s actually harder to make a movie that is uncynical, because people are going through such a tough time. So many of the movies and stories today are reflecting the grief, anger and rage, and it’s kind of easier to make that movie now. A movie that wears its heart on its sleeve has a rocky birth, so I was really proud to make it. Like, Billy Wilder is one of my favorites of all time, of course, and he’s a guy who had clear eyed… I wouldn’t call it cynicism, but a whimsical view of all the pain, strife and backstabbing in the world.
This one, for me, felt like an expression of joy. Sometimes you can’t experience joy without grief or loss, and that’s in there too. It’s that great happy-sad feeling that I love about music, which I thought this movie could catch. We Bought a Zoo felt like a great happy-sad story. When we got Jónsi‘s music in there it took that joyful feeling to another place.
My mom went to see an early screening on the sneak preview night. She went to the bathroom and walked up to a woman [in there] and asked, “So, what’d you think?” The woman just put her hands up and said, “I’m still in the feeling!” [Laughs] She blew my mom off. My mom told me that story and I was, like, “Yes! That was the goal, to create that feeling.” You can stay in that feeling a little longer than the movie.
[Laughs] That’s a rare experience to have with a movie.
Yeah! I remember seeing Close Encounters a long time ago, and it was an early screening as well. All these people were waiting to get in and they were asking, “What’d you think? What’d you think? What happens?” I was, like, “I must go for a walk! I can’t speak!” [Laughs] I was a little bit that way after seeing The Descendants, and that’s my favorite thing: when the movie takes you a little bit outside of your experience and you gotta still breathe that air.
Both The Descendants and We Bought a Zoo have those quiet or little interactions which speak loudly. I imagine you draw from real life when writing those touches?
Often it comes from real life, because that’s generally the stuff that comes out of me when I’m writing. The thing you’ve just gone through just bubbles to the surface and says, “Write me! Write that feeling you had yesterday when this and that happened!” Pretty much down the line, that’s what people respond to: the stuff that came from real life. That’s a good signal. Writing at its best can be authentic and create a universal feeling, ya know?
Do you always look inward while writing?
You don’t want to be looking inward all the time. I think it’s kind of a dance you do with yourself. Like, what’s the story that’ll mean something to you? Your life is the research for anything that you write. Generally, in writing, there are little things that become bullies you swim to in a project that just makes you go, “Well, there’s this scene and that scene.” I remember in Say Anything it was Lloyd talking into the tape recorder about his lost relationship with Diane. Everytime I didn’t feel like that was on firm footing or where we’re going with the movie, I’d always think of that scene with the tape recorder and we’d get back on track.
When we started showing the movie that was one of the scenes where people just really responded. I think Pauline Kael, in one of her last reviews, wrote, “I don’t get everything with this movie, but I love that sad John Cusack talking into a tape recorder!” [Laughs] I remember reading that in a mall when I had just got the New Yorker and I went, “Yeah!” It’s always been about a handful of scenes that have been your bullies. In this movie, it was the argument with the son in the hallway and the last scene of the movie, where Matt reenacts when he first his wife.
Was that process different at all on Vanilla Sky? Did the heightened style of that movie alter that process?
That’s a really good question. Again, it’s the stuff that’s grounded in the personal. I’ve always loved the idea of Noah Taylor saying, at one point, “Am I blowing your mind?” [Laughs] I love that. That was dialog I thought would be really fun. Or when that guy says, “This is the revolution of the mind,” that was a big thing. Also, sad Tom Cruise watching the Thanksgiving parade go past him his window in New York scene was another one of those bullies. It’s fun to think about it now.
Unlike the rest of your filmography, in no way is that movie light-hearted. At the time, did you see it as going outside of your comfit zone?
I did, I did. I love Abre los ojos, and I liked that this was a movie that could shake it up. It was kind of a way I read other people talking about their punk rock experiences, where there would be one record they made and didn’t think about. They went in with a producer who knew how to work fast and just banged up this thing that may have rough edges but it was a snapshot of how they felt at the time, and that was Vanilla Sky: a chaotic look at an internal life through a prism of pop culture. You’re getting bombard with all these images of paradise and pain, and everybody’s throwing their images at you. Where’s the personal in the middle of that chaos? That was the idea. So we were going to make the movie the way the movie felt, with the search of meaning.
You know, I saw Vanilla Sky not too long ago and, I gotta say, there are things here and there that make me go, “Whoa, that could’ve been different or you could’ve done that instead.” Overall, it completely matched what we were going for. It felt like a cry the inner-caves of pop culture [Laughs].
[Laughs] When you rewatch your films, do you try not to think too much about what could’ve been done differently?
Oh yeah, definitely. We did this book on Billy Wilder and he was still recasting his movies, including Sunset Boulevard into his 90s! [Laughs] That’s a part of the, “I would’ve changed that or that chord.” But, really, it is exactly what you meant to do at the time. It’s always a snapshot of where you were then. Filmmaking is, like, a diary. When you go back and read a diary you think, “Oh man, was I really feeling that?” It’s the same with going back and changing a classic album for remastering, where you think, “No, don’t do that!” I wouldn’t really, but it is fun to play the parlor game.
I like how you describe Vanilla Sky as punk rock. At the time I remember my Dad seeing it, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but he hated it.
But, to me, it had that punk rock feel of, “He doesn’t get it, but I do.”
You know, Jack, when they first showed that movie I think people were still upset about 9/11 and it had been advertised a bit like it was a Fatal Attraction story. When it became obvious it wasn’t that and was more risky and psychedelic, they would send people up the aisles of the theater saying, “This is not the movie you think it is! This is a warning!” I was, like, “Wow, that’s like what they do for smell-o vision or something.” [Laughs] I thought, “We did something different here.” I gotta say, through the years, that is the movie I hear about the most, that and Almost Famous.
It almost seems like a post-9/11 movie, actually. There is that theme of finding meaning in a terrible situation.
Yeah. We made it right before 9/11 and it came out after 9/11. It was kind of like a message from pre-9/11 to post-9/11, and it was disturbing. I love Noah Taylor. Also, underrated Tom Cruise.
I love the idea of casting a movie star of that caliber and then making him a giant asshole whose face is behind a mask for most of the movie. When making that film, did you ever get a note saying, “What are you doing?”
No notes at all. Tom really wanted to bravely go right to that. [Pause] They’re handing me notes saying I gotta get off the phone, but we will hold them off! Tom was constantly driving the protective element of that movie in such a great way. Not only did he not want the paparazzi to get a picture of him in the disfigured make-up, he didn’t want anyone to know much about what we were doing. We ramped up fast, similarly to We Bought a Zoo. It was: “There’s a feeling, and let’s go quickly and catch it.”
Tom was really a big fan of us doing something different and surprising people. You know, not unlike going to the top of the building in Dubai for Mission Impossible, he was, like, “Man, you wanna clear Times Square? Let’s do it!” It was that kind of spirit of adventure that we were into. Again, when you get an actor like Tom or Matt Damon — who are just skilled, experienced, and trust you — you just feel like you can go, go, go. In the case of Vanilla Sky, it took years for people to understand what that movie was trying to do. Now, they get it. The Roots are obsessed with Vanilla Sky! When we were on the Jimmy Fallon Show and they told me that, I thought they were kidding at first. Man, they’re working on a tribute album with samples from Vanilla Sky! I just love it. It makes you feel like everything you do is like a rocket you send out and sometimes it lands way, way off into the future someplace.
When a movie like Vanilla and Elizabethtown receives a polarizing response, how do you perceive that?
I think you have to ask yourself, “Is it authentic? Are those songs meaningful to you? Did you write it from your heart? Did you tell that story from an authentic place?” The answer is such a resounding yes, for both of those movies. You kind of have to say, “If you’re lucky enough to do a bunch of stuff, some of them are going to affect people differently.” No, I don’t really rethink it. Elizabethtown was for my Dad, and that is really a souvenir of the feeling my dad left behind. In the way the personal stuff tends to resonate really strongly, it resonated strongly with the people it affected. Like, I love it for that. Yeah, no regrets.
We Bought a Zoo opens in theaters on December 23.