Six years ago, Cameron Crowe earned the worst reviews of his career. Since the release of that unfortunate film, Elizabethtown, he’s kept a relatively low profile and released two music documentaries (Pearl Jam Twenty and The Union, with Elton John). So when the director announced that his big return to feature filmmaking would be a family movie ridiculously titled We Bought a Zoo, it didn’t exactly seem like — to quote Say Anything’s Lloyd Dobler — a “dare-to-be-great situation.” After seeing the surprisingly sap-free Zoo (starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson), Vulture sat down with the good-natured Crowe, who explained how this trip to the Zoo lifted his spirits — and also shared tips on making mixtapes and stealing set lists from Pearl Jam.
It’s been reported that you courted Matt Damon for this role by making him a mixtape. Do you normally make mixtapes for actors?
Sometimes. With this one, the [cast] also made mixtapes for me. Because I started to ask them to give me something. Scarlett’s was great: like, Bob Dylan, some Tom Waits, old Rolling Stones. And Elle Fanning made a mixtape that was very heavy on Florence and the Machine. I’d play it while they were acting, and they would all have their own kind of musical world.
Your last two movies were music documentaries. Would you say you got disenchanted with making fictional feature films after Elizabethtown?
When you remove yourself and look at it, it looks like that’s the case. I just felt like writing and stockpiling stuff. So I did that.
What were you stockpiling?
The Marvin Gaye movie, which is called My Name Is Marvin. But it’s not going to [star] Will Smith; it’ll be somebody who arrives to be perfect for it. And an adaptation of Beautiful Boy and Tweak, David Sheff and Nic Sheff’s books [about Nic’s meth addiction]. It takes me a long time to write. It always felt like, “We finished a movie and put it out — and now it’s time to find another boulder and roll it back up the hill.”
Certainly the Elizabethtown reviews were hard to hear.
Elizabethtown definitely created some thoughtful times, but nothing paralyzing. To me, only if something comes from an inauthentic place should you feel vulnerable to the things that anybody might say. But if you look at yourself and say, “You know, tribute to my dad.” I stand behind it and didn’t feel savaged. It was a little brutal. But I get that people want to express themselves. I express myself, too.
Most of your previous features were somehow personal. What was your connection to We Bought a Zoo, which was based on the Benjamin Mee book?
I fell in love with the book, so I inhaled the whole concept of it, title and all. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna do a movie for my kid.” It’s a great story: Guy wants to get over loss, isn’t sure what he has to surmount. It’s got animals attached, and the animals end up being a metaphor for getting over grief. And it becomes a joyful story. And it was a lot like the Marvin Gaye movie, which we were ready to make [but Will Smith turned down the role]. Marvin is a tale about a guy who took his own personal pain and turned it into joy for the world. So this was kind of like another slant on that story.
So what’s your next movie?
I can’t tell you. But it’s more of a straight-out comedy.
I was hoping it was that Say Anything sequel you’ve said you wanted to make.
You might be in the minority, because there were many people who got upset when I said it’s the one thing I would think about doing — something more with Lloyd’s character or one of the side characters.
How about The Ballad of Joe, in which we learn what happened to Joe?
I love Joe — c’mon, man, Loren Dean? It’s almost like there’s an author that you like, and he brings back a character from a previous story. Like, Salinger, even. There’s a shadow of a previous story, but characters that you knew, sort of. And you go off on this tributary to another story with them. That’s how I would do a Say Anything sequel.
Is Lloyd Dobler still a kickboxer?
I have ideas where Lloyd would be — but let me surprise you with it.
Yeah, but what if you don’t make the sequel?
Uh, ask me in a year and a half.
Did you get to make requests on Pearl Jam’s rider while shadowing them?
[Laughs.] No. No. The best thing is — I’m addicted to set lists. I love set lists. I will literally rip set lists out of people’s hands and stuff. So I definitely do that with Pearl Jam.
Surely there are bigger perks of being a Pearl Jam superfan.
We could never get the whole band together to do anything for the movie. They did five hours of press after the movie in Toronto, and all sat together for every writer. And I would follow these writers out into the hallway and go, “You have NO idea.” So after we did the Jimmy Fallon show, we were all sitting around, and I asked them, “Who is the John Coltrane who would make A Love Supreme today?” Because I love talking about music, and those guys are super music geeks. It was the greatest conversation about music. I thought that at the time: This is why I love these guys.
But, like, did you ever jam with them?
Never! I play very bad guitar. The sort of guitar your dentist would play.