Cameron Crowe admits that he wasn't a big animal fan growing up, even though he grew up in San Diego -- the home to one of the most famous zoos in the world. Schooled in the world of rock 'n' roll instead, the only beasts Crowe really encountered up close had guitars strapped on and/or slung microphones in the air.
But something peculiar happened when the acclaimed writer-director began work on his latest film "We Bought a Zoo." Crowe, the intrepid Rolling Stone journalist-turned-Oscar-winning filmmaker, discovered that his furry, four-legged stars had just as much soul as any actor or musician he's ever encountered.
"What I didn't realize was, like humans, animals crave personal attention," Crowe told me in a recent interview. "Often I'd see the animals with their trainers, and you could see just how the animals soaked up that love and devotion of the trainer, and it enhanced the personality of both of them."
"That was an amazing thing to see -- and an unexpected gift because the movie was always about characters to me and about the guy who unexpectedly saves his own life and family why trying to save the animals," Crowe added. "That wasn't a story I would have ever written."
Opening in theaters Friday, "We Bought a Zoo" tells the incredible true story of Benjamin Mee, a widowed journalist who seeks a fresh start for himself and his two children with a purchase and attempt to renovate a dilapidated zoo stocked with more than 200 exotic animals. Crowe co-adapted the screenplay from Mee's book "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever."
"I fell in love with Benjamin Mee's book," Crowe said, humbly. "I just felt like it was my purpose to tell that story."
Crowe, of course, has always been known as an introspective filmmaker, a reputation that started with his first script in 1982, an adaptation of his high school chronicle "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Crowe also believes there's a part of him in "We Bought a Zoo," even though his story doesn't reflect Mee's.
"Even if somebody is just doing a job for hire, it's their personality that's up there on the screen. You can see what's important to them and what's not." Crowe observed. "It's even true for journalism. The stuff that matters the most to you is going to matter for other people, and it should be that way."
Sometimes, though, Crowe added, things get to the point where your most deeply personal film causes little bits of confusion.
"For me, whenever I've ever been the most open-hearted, it's what affects people the most, and 'Almost Famous' is really so much my own family's story. My mom (Alice) is a constant house guest and she's now reached the point where she's part Frances McDormand," Crowe said in a burst of laughter, referring to the actress who played his mom in the film. "Francis wasn't even trying to play my mom -- and now they've morphed."
As the writer-director behind such hits as "Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous" (which earned the filmmaker a Best Original Screenplay Oscar) and "Vanilla Sky," Crowe, of course, didn't have any trouble attracting top-notch talent to star in "We Bought a Zoo." And even though he got Matt Damon (who plays Mee) and Scarlett Johansson (as the head of the zoo staffers who refuse to leave their new owner's side) to topline the film, the A-list stars were downgraded to the B-list when the real Mee came to visit the set.
"Benjamin showed up while we were filming and he said, 'Bypass the humans, I want to bond with the animals. Bring me to the tiger, I want to see the grizzly bear,'" Crowe said with a laugh. "It was such a unique thing. He's such an animal guy."
Crowe is happy to say he became more of an animal guy after "We Bought a Zoo," and in the process of making the film, he learned a valuable lesson: that man's best friend can be also be a director's most difficult actor.
"I loved dogs growing up, and ironically, the dog was the toughest animal to work with in this movie," Crowe said, laughing. "Every other species was just a dream."