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Last weekend, stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford and Elle Fanning gathered with director Cameron Crowe in New York City to discuss their holiday film We Bought a Zoo. The cast’s chemistry was apparent during the upbeat conversation, which touched upon working with exotic animals, the collaborative effort surrounding the film’s musical inspiration and the timely importance of making an uplifting movie.
The film, which centers upon a widower’s foray into zoo ownership with his son and daughter, is very much a story about not giving up on seemingly lost causes. When asked if any of the cast has had a lost cause that they couldn’t give up on, Church (who provided comedic commentary throughout the event) joked, “I never gave up on me. I’m my own lost cause.” Damon chuckled, “I think we all have probably had some movies … that are lost causes, in retrospect.”
Ford recalled the first time he ever went to a zoo, laughing, “I mean, me being a kid – it wasn’t too long ago!” He then nodded toward his mother, who was in attendance, asking, “I went to, mom – the Zoo of Atlanta, right? That’s where I grew up. It was just a really cool experience, and several years later getting to work with them [the animals] and be on set with them every single day was kind of like being a kid again. It was a lot of fun.”
Damon interjected, “I just love so much that his voice is lower than when we shot the movie.”
Crowe chimed in: “I’m from San Diego … I think every bus takes you to the San Diego Zoo, doesn’t matter where you want to go. So it was a big thing in our town, but I never saw myself as a zoo fanatic, kind of until we made the movie and I saw all the in’s and out’s of how it’s done, and all the passion that people put into taking care of the animals.”
Fanning divulged what business she’d be in if she weren’t an actress through fits of her trademark giggling, saying, “Well I guess, like, my hobbies, like, outside of acting – I do a lot of ballet, so … I would probably really pursue my ballerina career. But you have to be so good at it – you can either be good or bad in that world, so I’d have to try really hard.”
Johansson added, “I dunno, there’s a lot of things that I’d want to pursue, and hopefully eventually will when all this falls apart.” The audience laughed at the sarcastic quip, and she continued, “I work with a lot of non-governmental organizations … I think I’d dedicate more of my time to that. I also think it’d be nice to have a vineyard somewhere, or have an organic farm or something like that. That’s just, like, a hippy-dippy wish.”
Damon intervened, “That’s a good one,” to which Johansson quipped, “Farm fresh!” Damon continued the thread, saying, “Well, water.org – I’m the co-founder, so I’d probably put more time into that.”
Before journalists could move on to the next line of questioning, Church joked, “Hang on a second, hang on. Colin would like to start a coffee bean plantation in South America. And I’d like to run away with the circus. Not that you were interested!”
Of two infamous scenes in the film – one starring a large grizzly bear, and the other involving hundreds of loose snakes – Damon said, “The closest we got to the bear was the scene where Colin and I were in the car and the bear actually did come right up to the window. But they put a little snack on the roof so the bear didn’t really see us, he was more interested in the snack. And when we did the scene out in the field … that was just split screen because we didn’t want to relive Grizzly Man. I actually was much more nervous about the snakes until Scarlett started making fun of me. And I think there was something about there being so many, and watching the little kids handle them that eventually I kind of got over it and was OK with it.”
What kinds of snakes were in the batch, exactly? “They were all different kinds,” Damon said. “There were only a few poisonous ones, but you just didn’t know which ones,” he laughed. “No, obviously none of them were venomous … so it was cool.”
Church chimed in, “They threw in a green mamba just for laughs.”
And what of the on-set environment when it came to working with the animals? Damon recalled, “When the animals were on the set, it was really all about them. Those sessions were very regimented by the trainers. Cameron would troubleshoot with them where he could put the camera and what was allowed and what wasn’t allowed, and then we staged the scenes around that. When the lion is coming out of the cage, it’s a big deal – it’s not like everyone is sitting around like normal on a movie set talking to each other. Everybody’s very quiet and very observant.”
Because We Bought a Zoo is an uplifting movie, the cast also reminisced about why the feel of the film is important for audiences to experience. “I know when Cameron talked to me about the movie very early on, one of the first things he said was, ‘I see this as a piece of joy. And I think this is a good thing to put out into the world right now,'” Damon recalled. “And I always held on to that.”
Church added, “An Italian writer asked me last week [in Italian accent], ‘So – the wife-a. She die. And, eh, the animals-a – they are in peril. How is this a Christmas movie?’ I said, ‘What part of Italy are you from?’” The audience broke out into yet another round of laughter. “No, but I said – it’s a human story, it has all of those spices in it – tragedy and comedy and kind of the dramatic interaction between a father and a son and a brother and a brother and a woman desperately trying to hold on to something that she considers to be such a humane endeavor. In the end, it’s very hopeful and very life-affirming, and I think this movie would fit in anywhere – a summer movie, whatever, an Arbor Day movie [laughter].”
Crowe is known for emphasizing music in his movies, often creating classic soundtracks. His process with We Bought a Zoo’s compilation was a collaborative effort with his cast. “We had playlists that we went to a lot when we were making the movie,” the director said. “Scarlett made a mix and Elle made a mix and Thomas and I had many talks about the music and Matt’s a great music fan, and Colin, too, so we all kind of pooled our musical influences while we were making the movie. And then a few of the songs really bubbled up to the top while we were editing – the Sigur Rós stuff and Jónsi’s music, Bon Iver – really kind of connected to the movie.”
“We always talked so much about music, and music’s played constantly when you’re working as well, which is such an exciting and – at first – quite shocking experience,” Johansson added, “and then you kind of don’t know how you ever worked without it. I listen to music all the time, and I rarely share what’s in my headphones with everybody else on set, but this was inviting, that kind of environment. That’s the sort of musical community that Cameron created.”
Fanning reminisced, “I remember doing my first scene and walking to set for the first time. I always am nervous on the first day, and after I did my scene everyone was like, ‘What’s your theme song gonna be?’ And I’m like, ‘Theme song?’ I never experienced that before! And then Cameron played “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens and then – whenever Lily had a scene – he would put that song on. And then it made it into the film … her first appearance was “Don’t Be Shy” by Cat Stevens.
Church, always with the hilariously sarcastic last word, added, “He never asked me for any music, but I sent it anyway. Uh, Black Sabbath. Slipknot. Sick Puppies. None of it made it into the movie.”
We Bought a Zoo opens today nationwide.