With same vim, new animals, Cameron Crowe returns

By Jake Coyle

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Dec. 9, 2011 photo, director Cameron Crowe poses for a portrait in New York. Crowe's latest film, "We Bought a Zoo," is based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee about how he purchased a dilapidated zoo on the English countryside.

Charles Sykes, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Fresh off an inspired writing session, Cameron Crowe is pulsing with enthusiasm.

He spent the previous night sitting outside New York's Plaza Hotel, a spot that made him recall one of his first trips to New York — as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone — in which he stayed at the Plaza while chronicling a Led Zeppelin tour.

"I was just thinking, 'Man, it's like no time has passed,' says Crowe. "This is the future time. That's what it was. You always wonder, 'In the future time, what will this all mean? What will it all amount to?' That was kind of the revelation of last night: Here I am. And it feels like no time."

After six years of uncertainly, the present is feeling good for Crowe, the writer-director of earnest, personal films such as "Say Anything ..." and "Jerry Maguire." He's back with his first feature film since 2005's critical and box-office misfire "Elizabethtown": "We Bought a Zoo," an unabashedly warmhearted family film about a father (Matt Damon) who, after his wife dies of cancer, impulsively buys a rundown zoo to re-energize himself and his two kids.

"I don't look at the time post-"Elizabethtown" as the bottom of the roller coaster," says the perpetually writing Crowe. "I kind of look at it as a gathering time."

In those years, Crowe plotted a film about Marvin Gaye that failed to get off the ground (he hopes to still make it), scripted an adaptation of David Sheff's "Beautiful Boy" and "Tweak" (a pair of books about an addict father and his son) and made two music documentaries (the Pearl Jam retrospective "Pearl Jam Twenty" and "The Union," about Elton John's collaboration with Leon Russell).

He was also divorced from his wife of 24 years, Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, with whom he has 11-year-old twin sons. Crowe says Wilson remains a "close collaborator" with the children, and that he eagerly voted for Heart in this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

The parallels with "We Bought a Zoo" — which includes moving scenes of Damon's character fondly reminiscing about his wife — aren't lost on Crowe.

"This movie is about keeping souvenirs of a lost love," says Crowe. "Even in the broken relationships or people that have died or moved on, there's valuable luggage to be kept that guides the future."

Crowe, himself, is a big collector. His largest collections might be his LPs and various music memorabilia, such as treasured set lists and ticket stubs. But he also keeps things from his movies. The boombox John Cusack raised over his head in "Say Anything ..." sits in his garage. His most cherished item is a signed Vans sneaker from Sean Penn, who played the Vans-wearing stoner Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — Crowe's first script.

Though no masterpiece, "We Bought a Zoo" is considerably better than its title and plot synopsis suggest. It's a rare film Crowe has directed but hasn't written (he shares screenplay credit with Aline Brosh McKenna, who adapted Benjamin Mee's autobiographical book), and it bears many hallmarks of the director. Last week on "The Daily Show," Damon, realizing the movie didn't sound like the most artistic enterprise, took to shouting at the crowd the simple justification: "Cameron Crowe directed it!"

That's often all a film has needed to draw moviegoers. In person, Crowe has many of the qualities of his films: He's uncommonly upbeat, sincere and utterly engaging. Over a lunch interview, he's as likely to learn about a reporter as the reporter is to learn about him. He's one of few famous Twitter users who uses it almost exclusively to reply personally to fans.

When Damon first met Crowe (he came to Austin, Texas, while Damon was making "True Grit"), he asked himself, "Is this for real?"

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