Despite the box office disappointment of his Almost Famous, Oscar winning writer/director Cameron Crowe remains one of Hollywood’s most unique voices, always striving for something new and challenging.
For his latest film, Vanilla Sky, Crowe has chosen to adapt the Spanish film Open your Eyes, and at the same time created his unique perspective on pop cultural America while remaining faithful to a complex original. The perennially upbeat director talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.
Question: What was it like working with Paul McCartney? (McCartney’s last original soundtrack contribution was Spies Like Us)
Answer: First of all, thank you, thank you. I know the movie’s a little challenging. If things whizzed by, I beg of you to give it another chance. We put a lot of clues in there and there are signposts along the way but mostly thanks for coming out today.
Question: Can we talk about that?
Answer: I can’t talk about Paul?
Question: Working with Paul and getting him to write the theme song? Answer: Can I tell you the story? Originally, I always thought I wanted the movie to have that “Paul is dead” game within it, where you could look for clues. There were things there that you maybe didn’t see the first time or a friend could say, Did you see this? I liked the way that made you feel as a fan, it involved you, so I dug that. That was always a tone thing I wanted in the movie and Beatles music and Paul stuff, his bootleg of Goodbye, the Mary Hopkins song, we played a lot making the movie. Vanilla Sky felt like a title that was evocative of Paul. We were sort of nervous about calling him to say would you do something for the movie but Danny Bramson, we did the music together, who I’ve talked with a lot about it just called and said we have this movie and we’d like Paul to come and take a look at whatever footage we have ready. Maybe give us a song. So sure enough in June, we get a call that Paul’s coming over and we didn’t tell anyone in our office that Paul McCartney was coming over and I actually got to see – I was as nervous as hell – but I got to see what life is for Paul McCartney because I was sort of walking around near him and I saw people looking up and just seeing him and not expecting him and it was just really bizarre. It was like a hall of freaks or something. He’s totally personable. We showed him about 40 minutes of the movie and he said, you showed me yours, let me show you mine. I’ve got this new album, Driving Rain that I’ve been working on. Come across town to the studio and I’ll play you some of the stuff. So Danny and I go racing across town to the A&M Studios and he played us some of the new album and said if you want to use any of this stuff, let me know. I said, Great, I really like the new stuff but also I always have liked your acoustic, folk, solo guitar mode. So if you ever get moved in the near future to write a song, a new song for the movie, it’s sort of about the sweet and sour in life, grasp every minute, just if anything comes to you. And he was like, OK, man. But this is recorded stuff, my new album that you can choose from too. And I’m like, thanks it’s cool. That was on a Tuesday. On Saturday, Danny’s cell phone rings and it’s Paul McCartney. He said, It’s Paul. Get to know me. I want you to know me because if you ask for something from me because if you ask for something from me I might just come up with it for you. I have a new song I’ve written called Vanilla Sky. If you don’t like it, I’ll just change the title to Manilla Envelope. C’mon over and I’ll play it for you. So we went racing across town again and he played us the song and we tried to use it a few different places in the movie and the ending is where it wanted to be because it sort of says, Here’s what the fable is about. The banquet of life. Thanks for asking me about Paul because it was an amazing thing that was sort of all wrapped up in the pop culture of the movie itself and I’m still shocked it happened.
Question: It’s a great song.
Answer: I dig it. I love hearing him say the words, Vanilla Sky, because I sort of had his voice in my mind when I came up with the title. Sorry to go on and on. It’s fun to talk about.
Question: Are you afraid your audience is going to get lost in this layered movie? It’s a dream within a dream?
Answer: It can be interpreted that way. The movie wasn’t ever meant to be something lofty and pretentious where it’s meant to confuse you. It’s meant to be a rich experience. Everything’s explained one way or another, but there’s a lot going by at various times in the movie. It sort of is genre-less in a way because it’s not really any one thing. If anything, it’s a love story, to me. I guess the thing is I wanted it to be challenging but I didn’t want it to be aware of itself being complex. Basically, people should want to talk about it afterwards. A lot of movies you don’t feel that way about it. But if you spend a minute or two talking about it saying, When did the dream begin. Well, you know, that’s a good thing to interact.
Question: You never adapt anything.
Answer: I don’t. No
Question: So what was it about the original film that you felt compelled to make your own?
Answer: I couldn’t get the original out of my mind. I though it left you with a feeling that I hadn’t experienced with another movie. And it also felt very modern. After we had done Almost Famous, while we were doing A.F., I really wanted to do something super contemporary. In movies, when you’re lucky enough to make one of them, you know instantly that they’re really hard to finish and create. It’s the greatest thing in the world and also so challenging. You sort of say to yourself, If there’s way to say No, you should. It’s hard to realize this big beast of a thing that’s a movie a lot of the times. This movie I couldn’t say no to. It felt right. It felt like the characters could speak more than in the original. I felt like our band could play that song.
Question: If you were told that you’re life from the past 10 years was a dream, would you want to continue in that state or join real life?
Answer: Wow. Whoa. What did Tom say? I’d be heartbroken and want to live a real life. But I’d definitely be heartbroken.
Question: Would you ever want to be frozen and suspended in time?
Answer: If it didn’t mean giving my soul away. Yeah. Which is a whole other question. How much would that rob you of spirituality or tamper with the opportunity of spiritual growth. It’s not something I think about all the time. I think you have to connect with humanity to live in this world and some of that stuff frightens me from a human perspective. But the pop culture perspective of it all is fascinating to me. If someone said you could build your life out of whatever you want, I would go for that moment from Free Wheeling Bob Dylan. I’d go for the feeling that I got from some songs.
Question: What elements of pop culture would you go back to?
Answer: I’d ask for Bjork, Big Time Sensuality. (laughs)
Question: A lot of secrecy around this movie but surprised it was so much like the original. Did you try to go in a different direction?
Answer: Yeah. What I wanted to do was play ball with the original. I didn’t to say, No way. We’re doing ours completely different nor did I want to say We’re going to be utterly faithful. What I wanted was to have a dialogue between the two movies. The wonderful thing is when Alejandro Amenebar (sp?) saw our movie, we finally had the dialogue I wanted to have. We were talking about why we made the choices we made. He said I love how you faded to white at the end and we faded to black. He thought the movie was like two brothers: one that was into opera and one that was into rock n roll. That was my dream that you could watch both movies and see some similarities and see that we took some different paths too. I did go back a number of times and watched the original again and go, damn, that’s how he did it. The shrink brought it up. That was fun. It was like collaborating with somebody I hadn’t met. Then I met him. I went to the premiere of “The Others,” and I had this joke prepared which was Good movie, what else have you done? And I tried it out on him and it just thudded like you wouldn’t believe. Then I chased him into the lobby, trying to be more humorous than I’d ever naturally be. It was just a bizarre thing. Later he saw the movie and he came to the stage and we dropped our various attempts to be fellow director with each other and just got into the fandom of this movie that he’d written.
Question: This was nearly an Almost Famous reunion.
Answer: Yeah. Billy Crudup’s in there somewhere. I swear to you.
Question: The director’s cut of Almost Famous.is coming out. How disappointed were you with what happened with A.F. and do you feel redemption now that the DVD is coming out?
Answer: I’m thrilled that we made Almost Famous. People have said aren’t you disappointed that it didn’t do more at the box office. To me my experience more often is that people caught up to the movie later. Like Say Anything and Fast Times (At Ridgemont High). Fast Times – very few people showed up at the theaters to see it. Eventually people found Almost Famous and bands discovered A.F. later and we’d hear from them at our website. It won an Oscar for the screenplay which I still have to pinch myself over. I’d be a fool if I was disappointed over any aspect of Almost Famous. Besides it’s a movie about being a fan in the face of the need for commercialism. So I’d be a hypocrite if I was disappointed. What’s cool is that we got to use all the footage that I was dying to get out there like some of the Billy Crudup scenes with Jason Lee. More of the band on stage. It’s like if you went to a swap meet to buy the bootleg version of an album you like, you might find this kind of thing.
Question: What personal things did you wanted to examine in Vanilla Sky?
Answer: I thought it might be interesting to get into some of the aspects of casual sex and how people kind of playact at the casual part of that. I liked the idea of having a scene as raw as Cameron Diaz’s scene in the car with Tom where you feel you’re a fly on the wall and maybe you shouldn’t even be hearing some of that stuff. That was kind of a personal thing to write. There were questions about life and stuff. I wanted the movie to knock you back a little bit in a good way. A lot of that comes from issues I think about a lot. Ray Bradbury is one of my favorite authors and I wanted the feeling of Ray Bradbury in there. That happened before I ever saw romantic comedies and fell in love with that whole side of art.
Question: Speaking of Ray Bradbury. This film is also a science fiction piece and yet it’s being marketed as a suspense-thriller. Have any control over marketing? And speaking of control, what about leaving in the World Trade Center?
Answer: Yes (to second question) and no (to first question). I’ve never been in a room where somebody said, Hey, I know exactly how to market your movie. It’s always the other way around. Paramount really believes in the movie and they’re still finding (out )how to tell people about it. It’s a complex movie. As for the World Trade Centre, when that awful event happened, the questioned immediately sort of coming up: Are you going to take it out? Other movies were doing it. My feeling was, I’m going to go see those movies and I’m going to be looking for where the World Trade Centre was so why not have it in as you filmed it with that life still around a year ago. Not only is it in (David’s) brain, that’s the future and his concept of the future. It’s also what we filmed a year ago and let’s be true to what we filmed.
Question: Do you have a favorite recurring dream?
Answer: That I break through writer’s block. (laughs) I had it last night.
Question: Are you writing at the moment?
Answer: Uh-huh. I’m halfway through a script. Finishing is very optimistic.