The opportunity to cast Damon was another draw. He appreciates the actor's evident intelligence and the way he takes ownership of his roles. He recalls watching the dailies one day during the "We Bought a Zoo" shoot and coming to the realization that there was no one he would rather be watching onscreen than Damon.
"It's true, everything he does, to me, he makes unique," Crowe says. "He is like Cusack in that way where it's very much his personality and then the spins he puts on it vary from movie to movie, but it's like this central kind of electric humanity that he has that I really connected to."
There was another factor in casting Damon. Everyone around Mee is encouraging him to move on with his life, and with two children to raise, wallowing in grief is not an option. Yet he is not ready to let go of Katherine, and finding his way to embracing life again is part of the story. Crowe sensed that Damon would nail that aspect.
"There was a joy of life that came through Matt," Crowe says. "I wanted the movie, like Ben's story - even though it's about loss, at least at the beginning - to be about discovering joy. Even though there's pain and suffering all around you, what is your quest to find joy? I was so happy that we could make a movie that was about overcoming grief and finding joy, because there are so many stories that are about the overwhelming burden of grief. I like showing the other side of it, too. We all battle loss and setbacks every day."
More surreal than those phone calls was the trip Ben and his children made to the film set in April this year where they met Damon.
Ben says: “He was honest, friendly and a thoroughly decent and grounded man. I already respected him because he’s proved his mettle as a brilliant writer, having penned the movie Good Will Hunting with Ben Affleck. Although it was quite bizarre watching him shoot scenes for the movie playing the part of me, when I watched him interact with the big cats I saw what a brilliant actor he is.
“There were elements of the set that had been accurately reproduced down to the last detail. Standing in the tiger house in LA, I could actually have been in my tiger house on Dartmoor. Even the slats on the floor inside were identical.”
Fatherhood isn't always easy but it's Damon's greatest joy. When not working, his days are filled with the same everyday chores that consume all our lives. It's no big revelation but to hear a huge star like Damon speaking about such mundane things as making school lunches and dropping the kids at dance classes is unusual.
"A lot of it is the dotting the i's and crossing your t's, the daily stuff," he explains. "It starts at 6.30 in the morning and it's like, get the breakfast and get the clothes on. "At the end of every day, when Luc and I finally sit down, it's like, OK, we made it through today."
"To be a movie star or a director or whatever, there is an imbalance of power. If you ask for a coffee, somebody brings you a coffee, and I think the key is just not fooling yourself into thinking that is actually the way the world works, because then you really won't be able to have real relationships.''
On the topic of fame, Damon's approach is also refreshingly honest.
He says a steady group of family and friends prepared at all times to tell you to keep it real is the key. ``I think if you have that, then you are fine.''
“We Bought a Zoo” — a film about a widower who does exactly what that title suggests — marks the first time that Damon, 41, and Crowe, 54, have worked together. But during a 40-minute phone conversation with the two men — both sons of teachers, fathers, Oscar-winning screenwriters and strong believers in movies that earn their happy endings — they sound like longtime simpaticos.
“The list of guys who have been able to bring stuff that I’ve written to life is so short,” Crowe says. “When you see the words coming to life with the kind of depth and fun that Matt brings to it, it’s addicting.”
Says Damon of his director, who has a reputation for being an eternal optimist: “I imagine the Dalai Lama might be a little more positive. But he’s the only one I can think of.”
Regardless of what critics may presume about his work, Crowe seems committed to following his instincts. Which made this reporter wonder: Do Crowe’s instincts tell him that perhaps he should write a film that allows three of his previous warriors for positivity — Damon, Tom Cruise (Jerry Maguire) and John Cusack (boombox blaster Lloyd Dobler of “Say Anything ...”) — to work together?
“I love that idea,” Damon says immediately.
“You know, Tom Cruise came to visit the set when we were making ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ and I kind of stood back at a certain point and watched the two of them talking,” Crowe says, referring to Cruise and Damon. “And I had the same idea. It’s like... ‘Stay there. Keep talking. I’ll be back with some script stuff in a moment.’ ”