Crowe traveled to the set of the Coen brothers' True Grit in Austin and presented Damon with a script, a CD of songs that he'd burned and a copy of Local Hero -- a perfect little 1983 movie in which Peter Riegert played an oil-company executive sent to buy a remote village in Scotland, to woo him for Zoo.
"My instructions were to not just read the script and make a decision," Damon says. Crowe had brought all the tools in his kit -- music, film and words -- not only to convey what he had in mind for this movie but to envelop Damon in the world he meant to create. "He said: 'I know what you're going to be afraid of; the bad version of this movie is really a movie you don't want to be in. That's what I'm afraid of too,'" Damon says.
And that told Damon two things: that Crowe wanted to avoid making the bad movie and that he intended to fight against it with Damon as his brother-in-arms. Crowe was right: Damon didn't want to make what he calls "the Disney version" of the story about a grieving widower with two children who makes the unlikely decision to buy and restore a dilapidated zoo.
"It might be popular, but it wouldn't be something that I'd be proud to be a part of," Damon says. As he listened to Crowe's music on a run through Central Park, though, he got a very different vibe. "There were all these songs I know but live versions that he got from sound boards," Damon says. "A song like, 'I'm Open' by Eddie Vedder -- he gave me a particularly moving version that I've never heard. I kind of finished that run and went, 'That's a really good feeling.'"
Then Damon watched Local Hero and found it to be "a masterpiece."
Still, Crowe, 54, hadn't directed a feature since the poorly received Elizabethtown in 2005. Damon says he wasn't thinking about that film but rather about Crowe's 1996 hit Jerry Maguire. "I kept coming back to, this is the guy who did, 'You complete me,' " Damon says. "This is a guy who could aim for that small bull's-eye and hit it."
So he signed on to do We Bought a Zoo, happily succumbing like many before him to the delights of a Cameron Crowe seduction.
As for Crowe, he says it was the other way around. Fox was imagining a shortlist of candidates for the lead, but Crowe says it was all over for him halfway through his meeting with Damon. What lured him was the actor's obvious appetite to play the emotion in the film.
"He's, like, wide open to a thrilling new peak and searching for it," Crowe says. "There's nothing, 'Kid, this is how we did it with Clint' about it." So "it was purely him seducing me because halfway through our meeting, I was like, 'I can't do this without Matt Damon.' And I declared it."
For Crowe, the tactic produced the performance that he had to have. "What Matt does in the movie is that rarest of things: comedy and drama and real emotion," he says. "The list of people who can do that is the shortest list in acting, and it's the easiest thing to miss because he makes it look effortless. But it's not. It's the toughest. And for me, it makes the movie."