Cameron Crowe's own personal 'Zoo'

Courtesy photoAt the helm: Cameron Crowe directed and co-wrote “We Bought a Zoo

What’s in a name? A lot, if you ask Cameron Crowe, who co-wrote and directed “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous” and the disarmingly uplifting family drama “We Bought a Zoo,” opening Friday.

 “It’s important to have a name that’s fun to say,” says Crowe, 54. “You think about buddies you went to high school with, and when you say their names it evokes a time and a feeling, and that’s how you want your characters to be.”

“I knew Jerry Maguire was a Jerry, but it took me months to figure out his last name. Then I went to breakfast with my mom, and I saw a newspaper headline that mentioned ‘McGuire.’ It made me think of a guy I used to work with. I changed the small ‘c,’ but the name stuck.”

Crowe didn’t have to dream up a name for Benjamin Mee, the real-life owner of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, who defied conventional (and, most would argue, financial) wisdom by raising his two children among the animals after his wife’s untimely passing.

It’s the kind of premise that sounds too good to be true.

Is Crowe worried that the movie’s carefully choreographed melodrama will strike some as a touch too sweet?

“[Led] Zeppelin always used to say there’s shadow and light,” Crowe says.

“They were more shadow than light, but I’m the opposite. Yet you need both. My parents took me to a movie — ‘Bread and Chocolate’ — and my dad said to me, ‘That feels like life.’ That helped define what I love in movies. It’s that concoction of everything, all those emotions together, as long as they feel true.”

Crowe didn’t expect to be as moved as he was by Mee’s story, which he wrote in hopes of finding the passion to return to directing after a six-year hiatus.

But rediscovering his muse didn’t take long: Crowe, who attributes its absence to both the creative process and a painful personal breakup, identified with his subject’s grief.

“I related to his loss,” he says. “I had a divorce in the last five years. Nobody’s prepared for that, not really, but that’s life. People kept telling me, ‘It’s all about moving on,’ and I wondered — ‘Is it?’

“What if, instead of moving on, you take the gift of what was there in your past, the best of what you had with this person you really love, and you hold on to a piece of it? Isn’t that what life is all about? That was my way into this movie.”

IF YOU GO

We Bought a Zoo

Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
Written by Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Rated PG
Running time 2 hours 6 minutes

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