Cameron Crowe: It Starts With the Music

Cameron Crowe started his career at the age of 15 writing  for Rolling Stone magazine.  His first book later became his first screenplay for the hit film ‘Fast Times At Ridgemont High.’ He’s excelled in so many different facets of the business from  journalism to screenwriting and then finally directing.  Some of his most memorable films have included ‘Almost Famous,’ ‘Jerry Maguire,’ and ‘Say Anything.’  Crowe stopped by the  SiriusXM studios this week to talk with Ron Bennington about his newest film, ‘We Bought A Zoo.’  Below are excerpts from that interview.

Ron Bennington: Cameron Crowe in studio with us.   I think that you’re one of those guys that has the extra pressure of, everyone expects you to have a great soundtrack. Tarantino is another one who gets that, Scorsese, probably Wes Anderson too I think.

Cameron Crowe: Definitely Wes Anderson I love the music he uses.

Ron Bennington: So is that in the back of your mind when you’re putting this together?

Cameron Crowe: It’s actually always there. Because it starts with the music, I’m writing with the music, and then we cast actors according to the music sometimes. And then they end up either soaking up the music or not. I get a little thrill when we talk about some of the other directors who use music like that, because it’s my favorite thing in movies, when the movie just takes you on a little detour and gives you a soundtrack choice and you just go wow, thank you for taking me there.

Ron Bennington:  So when you’re writing with music do you pick the music saying this is the stuff I want to write to? Or do you just happen to write your best stuff while certain songs are on?

Cameron Crowe: I just go nuts with playlists. I just start throwing music into playlists that I know are going to be right for the movie, and it sticks around until the end. With We Bought a Zoo, it was really funny because the Sigur Ros stuff and the  Jonsi solo album Go really was a big influence.  And it started to influence Matt Damon to the point where he would ask for it to do some of the important moments in the movie, and it would spur him on because he said it would make him feel like he knew the movie he was in.

Ron Bennington: And Matt Damon’s character is in such a rough spot. That guy who suddenly, it seems to me he can’t even grieve his wife because he’s got little kids, you know?

Cameron Crowe: Right. Well said. Loss is covering him up. It’s like, how do I get out from under this increasing shadow? The movie really is how he kind of puts his life and everybody else’s life together and does so by following that little voice inside, which sometimes is tied to music. Sometimes a song you hear gives you an idea for how you can be more inspiring in your daily life. So I don’t know, it was great to kind of marry the purpose of the movie with the music and the right actor, which is Matt.

Ron Bennington: Yea, he’s so terrific in this. And I’ve always thought that the two regrets that most guys have is how they were as a father, and how they were as a son.

Cameron Crowe: Yea, wow, that’s really well said. I didn’t know that the father and son scenes of the movie were going to be as powerful as they ended up being, but I think that comes from me because I have two boys that are eleven, twins, and in the course of making the movie and writing the movie, those were some important years. And you really want to step up and be a dad as they are approaching teen time and stuff, and I was surprised about how much my personal experience was starting to filter into the movie. And then we started showing the movie. The scenes between the father and son would come up and there would be a stillness in the audiences. Nobody would move and you realized that wow, we’re into an area here, that’s kind of electrifying with how personal it is. And it’s exactly because of what you said. We have regret and promise and like, how am I doing in that regard?

Ron Bennington: The other thing of course I love about the film, I’m kind of a sucker for the, “hey we’re starting over, and we’ve found a whole new community to be with.”  And that’s the thing that I think everybody can relate to of, “ok the people who I work with, yea, they’re misfits but if we put everyone together it’s a decent gang.”

Cameron Crowe: I feel that way and I also try to do that. I think every movie that I’ve been lucky enough to make, I’ve tried to do that– create a family that you feel like you kind of know as you’re watching the movie.  And you might miss them when the movie’s over. That’s my favorite thing about movies, like, we talked about Wes Anderson. The Royal Tenenbaums? I come to New York City and I think of it as, the Tenenbaums are living here somewhere. And that’s like the greatest thing. If you’re able to do that, that’s everything in movies.

Ron Bennington: Apparently he’s got them living on 350th street. I’ve read that you had sent Matt this, and it’s one of my favorite films – Local Hero. And I think it’s also so cool that you put Peter Riegert in the film.

Cameron Crowe: Yea, me too. My tribute to Peter Riegert and Local Hero.

Ron Bennington: Who by the way, I think he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. I even try to bring that film up when people are feeling like life sucks. You don’t know where your spot is like that, where it’s not only a great place but there’s also all these people. You just haven’t been there yet.

Cameron Crowe: Boy I love the way you’re saying that because that was the intent of We Bought a Zoo. This place. This property that Matt Damon’s character falls in love with even before he knows that it’s a dilapidated zoo that he has to restore, feels like there is destiny there. This is going to be a place that’s going to matter to me. I think we all feel that way, like sometimes when you’re looking for a house or a new place to live you get a feeling when you walk in someplace. And everybody’s like “you don’t want to live there.” It’s like, “no, I like this place.”

Ron Bennington: And then this was a place that not only was he destined to go to, but those people needed him. Now he’s needed somewhere. Which is that odd thing. If you can find a place to give some kind of service, how much more you get back. When you wrestle through a film like this…you are I guess walking a razor’s edge the whole way though right?

Cameron Crowe: Yea, you want to be quietly inspiring. But if you say, I’m going to make an inspiring movie, chances are– ain’t gonna happen. If you just tell a story about some characters, I think, that stick with you, and their story feels real, you’ve got a chance to do it correctly like these movies we’re talking about. And my dream is that We Bought A Zoo Is kind of in that family of movies, that give you that sense of, “wow I just feel a little bit differently about life after I saw that movie, but mostly I laughed and I felt something.” I feel like a few of the movies that I’ve made or written have gotten into that ballpark and that’s the most satisfying thing.

Ron Bennington: And that’s not an easy place to go and not a lot of people are willing to do it the way you are.

Cameron Crowe: And particularly now, I think, it’s almost easier to get a movie made that’s about hopelessness than a movie that kind of wears its heart on it’s sleeve. And I’m proud of that.

Ron Bennington: One of the things that I think you’re willing to do is to say that you love something and hold it precious. Whether it’s music, or other films. And the coolest thing always to do is go, whatever, I don’t care one way or another. But to say…and you’ll do this in your documentaries, that this music– these songs are important.

Cameron Crowe: It’s good to be a fan of the things you love. And I’ve always felt, declare it. Declare it. And sometimes if you’re a journalist even you’re supposed to be distant and cool and removed, but you don’t have to be that way. You can write about your heroes and bring integrity and ask tough questions and do that stuff. But come on, if you’re going to spend a couple of hours or a couple of years working on a documentary, let it be about someone who inspires you. So I say declare your fandom. And Almost Famous was about that. You love music. Share it, declare it. What songs do you love and why. There’s quiet heroism in that for me. Even as a journalist sometimes people would say, oh hide, hide the stuff you care about. But I always thought there was a way that you could show your influences and pay tribute and also take people along on a ride where you shared what you loved with them.

Ron Bennington: But can you separate the work from the artist, the song from the singer? If you love the song does that mean you have to love the singer?

Cameron Crowe: Oh that’s an interesting question. No. You can love the work. I have this theory– often people pick apart an artist– like oh, the new album isn’t like the second album that was so perfect. My thing is sign on board for the body of work. If you love the artist and the artist has touched you in some way, go on the ride. Go on the big ride with them. Every album can’t be the same. Every movie can’t be the same. But if that person has meant something to you, sign on board for the whole experience and don’t be microscopic about what worked for you and what didn’t work for you. Try to get into the frame of mind of the guy that made it or the woman who made the stuff and just go, yes, alright, take me there.

Ron Bennington: I know that the Union, HBO picked that up. How did that come about for you?

Cameron Crowe: Well, Elton John, I had written about him early on, and then we used his music in a couple of movies. And he always gave us all the tracks and all the assorted variables with the raw version of the songs, which you don’t often get.

Ron Bennington: That scene in Elizabethtown…where my father’s gun is one of my favorite scenes.

Cameron Crowe: Thanks. We used it to score part of the movie because Elton John gave us all the various versions. So one day nobody else, he called up. You pick up the phone and it’s Elton John. And he said how would you like to film me writing. Nobody’s ever filmed my creative thing. They’ve filmed me doing everything else, but I’ve always been so private about it.  Would you be interested in doing that? Cause I thought of you for doing that. And I was like sure, let’s do it. So I showed up with some cameras real low to the ground and we started filming, and it ended up being the first day that he was having Leon Russell come to meet him after twenty-eight plus years. And so we ended up just filming the whole process of him recording this album. And it’s a real personal candid portrait of Elton John, one of the biggest stars ever. And how he is as a guy trying to make music and put something exciting together.

Ron Bennington: And what a perfect storm time for you to just suddenly show up for that. I mean who saw that project coming?

Cameron Crowe: Elton is the super fan and he’s also such a showman. We were editing that while we were doing this movie. And I was worried at a certain point, how are we going to do both things at once. How are we going to edit the Elton John documentary while doing We Bought a Zoo. And then I started watching the footage that we put together on Elton, and he has narrated his own story already. .So you just find that he’s turning to the camera at a certain point saying, “I’m a little nervous today. Leon’s not feeling well, we’re halfway through the album, and I have to go to Las Vegas and be at another rehearsal but I worry about Leon.” And I’m like, Elton, thank you!

Ron Bennington: He’s captain fantastic, man, he knows show business. We Bought a Zoo, out this Friday, and as always it’s just great to know that you’re out there making these films. I’ve been a fan of yours reading you since I was a kid, and you were a kid then too, so it’s the strangest thing to have the chance to talk to you. I’ll see you next time through.

Cameron Crowe: It’s an honor. See ya.


You can hear the interview in its entirety exclusively on SiriusXM satellite radio.  Not a subscriber yet?  Click here for a free seven day trial.

For more information on Cameron Crowe follow him on twitter @cameroncrow or visit his website You can also visit the film’s official website at