His films and soundtracks are better known than he is — Cameron Crowe talks animals and music with ShortList’s Jonathan Pile
We Bought A Zoo. On a scale of literal film titles (albeit taken from the equally literal eponymous book) it sits firmly beside the self-explanatory likes of Man On A Ledge and Driving Miss Daisy. You know there will be a group of people in it. You know they’ll buy an animal park. Presumably, hijinks will then ensue.
And given that it’s a Cameron Crowe film — the 54-year-old Oscar-winning director and writer of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous — you can be confident in assuming the one critic-proof aspect of it will be the music. Crowe, after all, is the man who re-popularised forgotten Elton John track Tiny Dancer, gave John Cusack his most iconic moment (holding a stereo blaring Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes above his head in Say Anything…) and had his film Elizabethtown described as “a soundtrack in search of a film”. Clearly, music matters to him. As a former Rolling Stone journalist, it’s hardly surprising…
Your soundtracks are almost as famous as the films they come from. What’s the secret to picking the right songs? In the past I’ve played music on set, but I wasn’t going to do it while we were making We Bought A Zoo. Then on the first day we were doing a scene and I saw a shot on the monitor that reminded me of Don’t Come Around Here No More, the Tom Petty song, so I put it on. Matt Damon instantly said, “Hey, that’s good. Keep the music playing.” So I did. But you never know — sometimes you get to the editing room and put on the song that meant so much to you at the time and you’re like, “What? That makes no sense at all.”
Do you have an example of a song like that?
When we did Say Anything…, the song John Cusack has on the boombox at the end was a Fishbone [US alternative rock band] song called Bonin’ In The Boneyard. We went into the editing room and it looked like there was a stalker outside the window. We searched and searched and eventually we tried In Your Eyes and it was like it was meant to be. And I always felt Ryan Adams was born to do the end title song in Elizabethtown, but we never got it right. He ended up recording a whole bunch of songs in pursuit of it. They’re collected together on a bootleg. But it’s OK — you know Ryan Adams, he’s probably recorded an album in the time we’ve been on the phone [laughs].
Does your reputation help you get songs approved?
Bon Iver let us use Skinny Love. He turns down a lot of stuff. And director David Russell called me up and said, “Can you help me with Led Zeppelin?” — he wanted to use Good Times, Bad Times in The Fighter. I said, “Let me give it a try,” and attempted to throw my limited weight around [laughs]. He got to use it. I’m a spread-the wealth guy.
Did working with so many animals on We Bought A Zoo slow down the filmmaking process?
You know what? The toughest animal of the whole bunch was the dog. The dog! He wouldn’t stay in shot. The other animals were so disciplined, but sometimes we had to put a big fat hunk of meat or even a zebra behind the actor [to keep their attention].
It’s been seven years since your last film, Elizabethtown. What are your feelings on the negative criticism it received?
Well, people who love it, love it. And people who don’t love it, they don’t love it a lot. And that’s fine. It always goes back to, “Why did you make that movie?” It was a pure thing for me — it’s for my dad. The memories he left behind.
Looking back, would you change anything?
I’d make different decisions on all of them. You always feel like you’re second guessing, but every once in a while something comes out, particularly if you wrote it fast, that captures the moment and that’s that. It’s the punk rock album or the EP you did on a full moon, and that’s the way it should be. I’m still recasting Singles [Crowe’s 1992 Seattle-based romantic drama] in my mind.
Who’s getting the lead?
Actually, Campbell Scott [who played the part] was brave about that because at the time nobody wanted to say, “I love you” in a movie. So I said to all these guys, “Do you want to play the lead in Singles?” and they said, “Well, you know, I’ve got this other movie where I blow away 50 guys — it’s just something I can relate to better” [laughs].
So who turned it down?
Matt Dillon — he played the other part. Johnny Depp said, “I’ll get there one day, but I can’t say ‘I love you’ yet on screen.” And I’m like, “Can that one day be in the next few months?” [laughs]. But Kate Hudson was never meant to play Penny Lane in Almost Famous. That was supposed to be Sarah Polley [Polley eventually felt the part wasn’t right for her]. And Jerry Maguire was originally written for Tom Hanks.
And yet you can only imagine Tom Cruise in that role…
It’s a time and place thing. I remember saying to Tom Cruise that the “You complete me” line might be a bit cheesy, but he said, “Give me a crack at it. I know how I want to say it. I don’t need to rehearse it. You will see it on the night, it will be from the heart and you tell me if it’s cheesy or not.” I think he wanted to say “I love you” to his wife on the big screen. I remember standing there and these old guys holding electric cords and stuff started crying. I just thought, “I’m in.”
You’re friends with Cruise — he’s had some bad press over the last few years, how has he coped with it?
I’ve never seen him down or wallowing. He’s the nicest guy and I just love him. He’s also the hardest working and most enthusiastic. Tom will build a body of work that will overshadow anything anybody says in a snapshot of time. And I’ll tell you something else about Tom Cruise — he does stuff that nobody knows about. We had a different kid playing the son in Jerry Maguire but it didn’t work out. I found out afterwards that Tom had been quietly working with the kid’s parents to make sure that he didn’t feel like he’d failed in his attempt to be an actor.
You’ve been on the road with bands as a Rolling Stone journalist and shut down Times Square to film a scene for Vanilla Sky — what’s the single most incredible moment of your career?
Definitely Times Square. We did seven takes and finished in about 45 minutes but Times Square was still empty, so Tom said, “Why don’t you get some running shots.” So he just ran back and forth for an hour and a half.
Tom Cruise is one of cinema’s greatest runners. There are YouTube compilations of his running scenes…
It’s true. And it’s not like you have to beg him. He’ll just say, “There’s a big space, want me to run?” And he will. He gives you emotional depth and running. And if you have to choose one — running.
We Bought A Zoo is at cinemas nationwide from 16 March