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?"
"But that is him and it's a beautiful thing," says Damon. "It's not that he looks at the world with rose-colored lenses. He's realistic, too. He just chooses to engage with the world from that place of joy instead of cynicism."
Asked if Damon modeled his character on Crowe, he says that he's come to think that in Crowe's movies, "everybody's playing him a little bit."
"There's a look that he gets," says Damon. "I see it a lot with Rene (Zellweger) and (Tom) Cruise in 'Jerry Maguire.' I have it in this movie. It's that thing where somebody's explaining something to you and you're not quite sure what they're saying and you're trying to figure it out. It's this very Cameron kind of thing that's in all his movies."
Scarlett Johansson, who plays the zookeeper in the film, was impressed that after his down years, Crowe has been able to "maintain that enthusiasm and not be jaded or bitter."
"When he's nervous about something, he tells you he's nervous about it," says Johansson. "He's got this kind of purity to him."
Both actors had to adjust to one of Crowe's now-trademark methods: During the shooting of some scenes, he plays the music he expects to later soundtrack it with — a Who song for Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" or a Neil Young tune for Damon in "We Bought a Zoo." Damon thought enough of the tactic that he plans to use it when he directs next year.
Asked where he gets his positivity from, Crowe says, "It's innate and a goal, really, to battle back the daily hurdles or the challenges and just say, 'How can I turn this into a positive?' It's interesting how sometimes positivity is the door that opens to a greater understanding of how to deal with the darkness."
Crowe's films have often proceeded similarly. "Elizabethtown" begins with a shoe designer (Orlando Bloom) preparing to kill himself. "Jerry Maguire" starts with a sports agent's humiliating loss of his job.
Crowe says the idea of making "We Bought a Zoo" was ultimately "to put a little joy into the world, coming from grief." In it, Crowe sees a connection with another film about a widower, Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," which he deeply admires.
"Hopefully in some distant, rainy day future, the two movies live together in some strange way as, like, stage one and stage one and a half," says Crowe.
Another feature hiatus is unlikely. The ever-writing Crowe is eager to work rapidly. He's currently writing a script about a city with a rich music history. He's also focused on rewriting and honing a number of scripts so that he can "deal from a deck."
"My dream was always to be able to be like a guy like Spike Lee or Woody Allen or Truffaut where one day you can look at all the stuff and they all come together to give you a portrait of a human life, in different stages of it," says Crowe. "So I'm always looking for what's the next area of life to explore that will help me understand it and bring something universal to other people, too.
"I'll be doing that as long as I can, as long as there's a camera, or a page and a pen."