I’m a little worried about “We Bought a Zoo.”
With all the hype about mega-marketed holiday films such as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol,” I fear moviegoers may forget all about Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon’s dramedy, or perhaps just dismiss it outright because the title is, admittedly, a little goofy.
They shouldn’t. For starters, Damon delivers one of the most authentic and likable star turns of his career as Benjamin Mee, the widower and father of two who, uh, well, buys a zoo. (In addition to being goofy, the title is also kind of a spoiler.)
I recently chatted with Damon and Crowe about the film for this Sunday Style piece, which, because of space limitations, couldn’t possibly capture the many topics covered during a 40-minute conversation. In addition to discussing New Yorker critic David Denby’s initial dismissal of “We Bought a Zoo,” we also talked about the impact that using music on the set (a signature Crowe move) had on Damon’s performance, as well as the acting abilities of their current multiplex competitor, Tom Cruise.
Here are more extracts from that interview, in which Damon uses big words like “amygdala” and says of Cruise, “He is a much better actor than I think people understand.”
Damon, on Crowe’s use of music during takes: There’s something that happens with music, and I’d never thought of using it this way, but it’s so brilliant because it’s so emotional. It’s like it leapfrogs your neocortex and goes straight to your amygdala and suddenly you’re feeling these things. It’s not rational; it’s going right really to your heart. As a performer, it’s just pulling stuff out of you.
That Jonsi music we have in the movie. . . . The song where I’m looking at the iPhoto stuff and looking at my wife [in the movie] — the song that’s in the movie is the song Cameron played that day, and it’s completely responsible for that whole sequence. It took me places that there is no amount of directing or cajoling or persuading he could have done to get me to that place. He didn’t say anything; he put the song on and we were gone. So that was something I’ve never seen before that’s an unbelievably valuable tool for me going forward, and eventually as a director.
Crowe, on why he changed his mind and decided to play music during certain takes of “We Bought a Zoo”: It happened on the first day when we were doing the scene in the hallway of the school. It was a close-up on Matt, and he kind of turned into the shot. I had two instincts: One is, wow, Matt has really connected to this character and this is the movie happening before me. And the second: I hear Tom Petty, “Don’t Come Around Here No More.”
So I put it on, on instinct, and something started to surge on Matt’s face and in the people around us, and it felt like music has always been for me, kind of an emotional partner. And suddenly we had kind of another character in the room, which was the music. As soon as the take was over, Matt and some other people came over and said, “Wow, I really felt that.” I think in that instant I pivoted and decided to keep doing it. And one of the reasons was because Matt just soaks up music. He’s a music fan, and the music was always a reminder of what movie we were in. And sometimes that’s so much more profound than anything you could say.
Damon, on whether he’ll use music when he makes his directorial debut next year: Definitely, definitely. I’m already thinking about that, when to use it and what songs. Because it really does work.
It was weird to come across a tactic — like, I thought I knew everything. Tactically speaking, without geeking out on theory, a lot of people make good movies, and I know a lot of them and we talk. And so, it was surprising to have this happen on the first day of filming. I was so excited. I had dinner with Ben Affleck that night, actually, and it’s all we talked about, was this Tom Petty thing that had happened. I just couldn’t believe it. I was like, man, you have no idea what this felt like. It was all about a feeling and being lifted by this music, and so yeah, it’s definitely something that I want to do. Because it works.
Damon, on what gets to him in Crowe’s movie “Jerry Maguire”:
There are a few parts, actually. I was watching it with my wife. It’s Tom [Cruise], is what gets to me. Tom’s performance is what gets to me, ultimately. He anchored that movie. He’s such a better actor than I think people understand, and that performance is still great 15 years later. It is worth going back and looking at again. It is one of the great leading-man performances.
When a movie gets to you, there are a bunch of things that start to work on you. The relationship between Cuba [Gooding Jr.]’s character and his wife, that starts to get to me. By the end of it I’m just so teed up for the final scene with Tom and Renee [Zellweger] in front of the women’s group. My wife looks over, and tears are running down [my face] and I’m wiping them away.
But it got to her, too. . . . I’m not ashamed to say that.
Crowe and Damon, on the possibility of Crowe making a movie that brings together Damon, Cruise and “Say Anything . . .” star John Cusack:
Damon: I love that idea.
Crowe: Oh, man. Tom Cruise came to visit the set when we were making “We Bought a Zoo,” and I kind of stood back at a certain point and watched the two of them talking, and I had the same idea. It’s like, damn. . . .
Damon: I had met [Tom Cruise] briefly a couple of times, but we really got to talk and, uh, spend a little time together. And then I talked to him on the phone after he saw some scenes. He dropped by the editing room and saw some stuff and called me. And that was amazing.