We Bought A Zoo: Writing, zebras, and asking “why not?”

We Bought A Zoo is such a Cameron Crowe movie, in the most awesome of ways.

Quirky, self-aware yet beautiful dialogue? Check. Heartwarming scenes that stumble over themselves to move you (and always succeed)? Check. Naturalistic, charming performances? You know it. Eddie Vedder and Bob Dylan on a (killer) soundtrack? Of course. Heartbreaking/epic use of Sigur Ros music? Duh. Awkward relationships that blossom in the end? Yep. A seemingly insurmountable situation that… well, spoiler… gets surmounted in the best, most uplifting, “happy tears” and punch your fist in the air kind of way? Hell yeah.

Basically, there is a surplus of things to love about this movie, and that’s all down to Cameron Crowe’s singular and inspiring vision.

And, as a writer, there are two added bonuses: a perfectly constructed and naturalistic script, full of character revelations, callbacks, heart, humor and forward momentum; and this most true and undeniable fact:

We Bought A Zoo is one of the best analogies for being a writer that I’ve ever seen.

Think about it: when you write, you’re basically trying to do what Matt Damon does in the movie. You take a massive leap into the absolute unknown, risking everything, while trying to wrangle a zoo’s worth of wild animals (AKA plot points, act breaks, characters etc), while rebuilding the infrastructure, moving walls, extending boundaries, deciding what to keep and what to lose (and kill), all while you constantly readjust to this ever-changing new world. So many moving parts, all seemingly with a will of their own. It’s frustrating and rewarding, despairing and uplifting, with success dependent often on the whims of outsiders, with people frequently telling you that you’re crazy (“stop just before zebras get involved”) and that you should be an accountant or work in sales; and it all builds up to the opening date, when you have NO IDEA if anyone at all will even show up. It could be the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, something that touches the lives of others and moves them, inspires them; or, it could be nothing. A lion roaring in an empty zoo with no one around to hear it still makes a beautiful sound; but it’s a lonely one.

Writers: always include the zebras.

Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras
Scarlett Johansson, Matt Damon, zebras

Crowe may not have intended this — his movie is more generally about taking that leap, choosing the thing that scares you, starting over, asking yourself “why not?” — but it mirrors the life of the writer in eerily accurate and joyous fashion. It resonates emotionally, like all his movies do, because his movies have spectacular heart. He’s sometimes/often on the receiving end of criticism that his movies are too sentimental. No. They are unashamedly sentimental, yes, but they mean it. They mean it so much and so hard and so intensely that it’s impossible not to feel it too. He writes about connections between people, the incredible joy in a certain smile at the exact right moment, the rush of taking twenty seconds of insane courage to do the thing you want to do  (for writers, that could be 20 months or 20 years of insane courage), and the extraordinary happiness when it all works out.

No cynics allowed, in Cameron Crowe movies or in writing. You just have to believe. When you inevitably ask yourself if you should continue because it seems crazy, there’s only one real response, one question to ask yourself.

Why not?

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2 thoughts on “We Bought A Zoo: Writing, zebras, and asking “why not?”

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