He’s a former rock journalist and possibly one of the most unique voices in contemporary Hollywood. A rock journalist turned screenwriter and director, Cameron Crowe first became known for creating realistic and funny portraits of modern youth. After writing the screenplay for Amy Heckerling’s seminal 1980s teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Crowe found further acclaim directing and writing another seminal 1980s teen comedy, Say Anything… (1989). Following Singles (1992), his engaging take on romantic angst among a group of young Seattle twentysomethings, he achieved his greatest commercial and critical success to date as the writer, producer, and director of the much-honoured Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire (1996).
Born in Palm Springs, but raised in San Diego, Crowe became a journalist at the age of 15, writing music reviews and articles for such major publications as Creem, Playboy, and Penthouse. A year later, he became a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and was later promoted to associate editor. During this period, he interviewed many rock music legends, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. At age the age of 22, he returned to high school to research a book on adolescent life and subsequently adapted the best-selling result into the script for Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). The film became something of a legend, not only because of its realistic, sensitive, and funny portrayal of teenage travails, but also for launching the careers of some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, notably Sean Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Crowe’s screenplay netted him a nomination for a Best Screen Adaptation award from the Writers Guild of America.
In 1989, Crowe continued to mine the lucrative adolescent vein with his directorial debut Say Anything…, again earning kudos for creating believable multidimensional characters in an age when most teen comedies were relying on sex jokes and flimsy stereotypes. With his next directorial effort, he delved into the lives of a group of friends struggling to become adults in the Seattle-set Singles (1992). The film was not as well-received as Say Anything…, but it did feature strong ensemble acting from a cast that included Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, and Kyra Sedgwick.
Jerry Maguire represented Crowe’s first foray into exploration of more adult concerns, although its presentation of a young career hotshot who acts upon an internal moral crisis has resonance with his earlier work. Following the success of Maguire, which earned Crowe a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination, as well as a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Cruise and a Best Supporting Actor statuette for Cuba Gooding Jr., Crowe laid low for awhile, working on his next project. That next project, initially called the “Untitled Cameron Crowe Project,” became Almost Famous (2000), the semi-autobiographical story of an aspiring teenage rock journalist who is given the chance to follow an up-and-coming rock band as they tour 1970s America. The film, which featured a stellar ensemble cast that included Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Patrick Fugit as Crowe’s alter ego, was embraced enthusiastically by critics and audiences alike, furthering its writer/director’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s most reliable and entertaining filmmakers and winning the Best Film Comedy award at the 2000 Golden Globes. When the time came to announce the winners of the 73rd Annual Academy Awards, Almost Famous was again victorious, with Crowe taking home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The following year Crowe would make his first venture into the land of remakes with Vanilla Sky. A reworking of Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes, Crowe retained that film’s star, Penelope Cruz, though he made a noted addition in casting Jerry Maguire star Tom Cruise. A surreal romantic thriller dealing with obsessive love, the shallowness of vanity, and the struggle with disfigurement, the film marked Cruise’s first film appearance following the actor’s well-publicized break-up with Nicole Kidman, and served as a catalyst for the budding romance between its two similarly named co-stars.
Crowe’s latest film, Elizabethtown, may well be the writer/director’s most personal film to date. The film revolves around Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who, after causing the Oregon shoe company he works for to lose hundreds of millions of dollars, is fired for his mistake, and promptly also dumped by his girlfriend, Ellen (Jessica Biel). On the verge of suicide, Drew is oddly given a new purpose in life when he is brought back to his family’s small Kentucky hometown of Elizabethtown following the death of his father, Mitch, as it falls to him to make sure that his dying wishes are fulfilled. On the way home, Drew meets a flight attendant, Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst), with whom he falls in love, in a romance that helps his life get back on track.
In this exclusive chat in the early hours of a Sunday evening, the always upbeat and ebullient Mr Crowe talked music and movies to Garth Franklin.
Question: First of all is, how personal a piece was this or do you think that you’re simply a part of all your various personal cinematic odysseys?
Crowe: (Laughter). This is a little more personal than usual and, I didn’t really have a choice in it. It kind of arrived and knocked the other story that I was working on completely out of the picture. And I’d always wanted to kind of tell a father/son story and it arrived when I was driving through Kentucky – and just looking back it was a very strong memory and probably even the hand of my father saying, “Check it out, a story set in Kentucky…” (Laughter) “…you know it could be good”. (Laughter) And he loved Kentucky.
Question: So is there a sense of autobiography or how much do you infuse with fiction?
Crowe: Well there were a few things from life that I knew had to be in the story, just things that had happened to me and I’d experienced, and then there were other things that were just part of a yarn that I wanted to kind of spin in a Garrison Keillor way that would just be a little portrait of real life in America right now. I always liked a story that kind of started with a big concept and introduced you to a bunch of characters, but by the end of the story it was a very simple point that it made – and in this movie it ends with the last word and it’s sort of the story completes itself on the last word in a very simple way, and I just like the structure of that too and, ah so it’s partially autobiography and part kind of a folktale.
Question: In terms of Orlando’ s journey – both metaphorical and physical, are there parallels between that journey and your own as a storyteller?
Crowe: Yeah, yeah. I mean when my father passed away in Kentucky it was a surprise and I was sent as the representative of the California side of my family to kind of deal with this sudden tragedy and it was a period of my life where I was feeling really alone in the world, and to be hit by this wall of being sent to the community and a family that I hadn’t even realised completely that I had was powerful. I never forgot that feeling of getting out of the car in Kentucky in the parking lot of a funeral home and just feeling a wall of cicadas and I think that when you’re writing a story one of the big things is atmosphere and location, and this one was so obviously about that place in the country – Kentucky in the summer – that it really started to dictate a lot about how the movie would feel. And it was my journey to kind of come to know my father even better later, and that’s Orlando’ s journey in the movie.
Question: How hard is it being a kind of personal filmmaker in a very mainstream Hollywood world, because you sort of balance the two of these things and I was wondering what the challenges are for you to be both personal and acquiesce to a sort of mainstream Hollywood system?
Crowe: Well it kind of is project to project because as a writer I think you always write to some degree about things that you know or things that happened – but my favourite filmmakers, my favourite movies of theirs tend to be the personal movies. I like, you know, even guys like Sturges, Billy Wilder and William Wyler who did kind of idiosyncratic, often character rich stories in the mainstream…And so I do try and mix it up – I mean it’s not… it’s not like I have to do a story about my life because my life is the important life… (Laughter)
Crowe: It’s more like can I build a group of characters and can I tell some universal truths that feel real and aren’t formulaic in the spirit of filmmakers gone by who’ve told American stories that were personal and universal as well.
Question: Why does music play such a vital, vital role – almost a secondary character – in your work? Where does that come from? (Laughter)
Crowe: Probably having fallen in love with music and movies at a young age and then first learning about writing by kind of following the path of writers like Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs and being a rock journalist. So the two – writing and music – were pretty indelibly hooked up early on. And then I started writing about film and loving film but that love of music is never far behind – particularly, having started falling in love with movies to the work of Hal Ashby too, who is a big music lover, and he would use music in his movies – Mike Nichols and The Graduate obviously – even up through Scorsese. I loved the guys that kind of slyly said within the frames of their movie, “Hey, man, I love music and I love film and sometimes I marry ’em both in a great way”. And I always loved the feeling that you got when the two link up.
Question: I’m waiting for a Cameron Crowe musical to come along…
Crowe: Yeah – this one is probably the closest.
Question: Yeah, I guess it is.
Crowe: People dance and we have a lot of music and… this might be the closet I get for a while.
Question: Now, critics have always treated your work either kindly or not depending and this one got a kind of a bit of a mixed reaction out in Toronto and my understanding is you went back and dabbled with it a little bit – did you do that or no?
Crowe: Yeah, I mean I had to cut past what we showed in Toronto, Venice and Deauville, cause I kept working after the deadline to make the film festivals, and that sort of goes back to journalism days, I’ll keep working to the deadline, and I knew there was a little more work to be done on the movie so I asked that the movie be characterised as a work in progress in all of those cities. Even though the movie got standing ovations in Venice and Deauville and Toronto in the public screenings, I knew I was going to go back and I’d have a couple of days to finish this cut that I’d been working on – and it was sort of the last day in Toronto that I saw the last couple of tweaks and came back and did them and finished the movie – and the movie is shorter for no other reason other than, like any comedy you tune it based on showing it to people, so, I realised later that saying ‘work in progress’ sometimes is a code for other things in a first press screening for the movie isn’t finished or hasn’t been sold or may not come out or it’s in trouble. But in this case it was shockingly a work in progress and that was exactly the case. And it served really as the last round of finishing the movie – watching it with those audiences – and now, under nobody’s pressure other than my own I kind of found the right rhythm for the movie.
Question: Would I notice any changes if I saw it again?
Crowe: Yeah, yeah. It’s got a little bit of a different rhythm and there’s a few cuts towards the very end, but what I always wanted to do was earn that road trip and earn the all night phone call, and a few of those set pieces that are big chunks of film so there’s a version – that’s probably the version you saw – that’s more of the atmospheric version of the movie…and then there’s this version that supports a little bit more of the comic tone of the script but also is emotional. So I think that was the right blend.
Question: What, other kinds of films do you see yourself making? I mean what aspirations do you have at this particular point in your career as a writer?
Crowe: Well all kinds of movies that you wouldn’t expect that I’d want to do, both bigger scale and smaller scale than the ones I’ve done. I just want to pick up the pace a little bit, because I love making movies and because I have a journalistic background the details consume so much time that I’m learning to combine the work processes…The big and small details get taken care of a little faster.
Question: Why was this one shrouded in so much secrecy? I mean I remember doing interviews with various cast members throughout the time that the movie was being made and they couldn’t ever talk about it. Why do you like being so secretive when you work?
Crowe: Well… actually I’m probably the least secretive person you’ll interview. I think it’s just good – I read something Ray Bradbury wrote once which he was addressing a bunch of writers and he said, “Is everybody here working on something” and you hear the murmur of a lot of writers saying something and he says, “Good, don’t talk about it. Write, don’t talk about it.” And I liked that whole idea that energy comes from not disseminating your ideas and talking about them. Do it then talk about it. And I learned that from a lot of friends who are screenwriters – they’d sit around in restaurants and talk about their ideas to the point where everybody discussed and argued them out of ever wanting to write. So I kind of made a decision early on – do it, don’t talk about it. (Laughter)
Question: Do you miss being a journalist?
Crowe: No, I’m still a journalist.
Crowe: Yeah, I wrote a story for the L.A. Times today.
Question: You did?
Crowe: Yeah – on music and movies. You can’t stop me, Paul! You can’t take that away!
Question: Apparently not. (Laughter)
Crowe: No, and I loved doing the book on Billy Wilder, I saw Robert Towne in the lobby when we were in Europe and I was just like dying to talk to him about Hal Ashby and some other stuff but I didn’t have a tape recorder on assignment… (Laughter)
Crowe: It was killing me.
Question: Now you know how we feel.
Crowe: Yeah. (Laughter)
Crowe: I do.
Question: So what are you working on now?
Crowe: A new script and it’s a little more of an out-and-out comedy than I’ve done in the last couple. I have a desire to work with some actors I really like, so I hope to get out there soon and be back at it – maybe a little less music in the next one.
Question: No, no, no… a Cameron Crowe without all the music is not a Cameron Crowe movie.
Crowe: This is how I start, you know, I say no music in the next one and then I go and hear something on the way home and go, “Whoa, maybe a little bit of music”.
Question: And then the triple CD comes out…
Crowe: Then the triple CD comes out – like – ‘here’s the music light movie’…