Cameron Crowe: Hometown Hero

Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s genre-defining “Say Anything” set the bar for teen romantic comedies. It was devoid of pandering, light on slapstick and crammed with great music. When Crowe’s protagonist, Lloyd Dobler, can’t think of what to say to win back his girlfriend, he stands below her bedroom window — in the rain — a boom box held aloft, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” serenading them both.

Over the years, Crowe’s films have been full of similar scenes: small, life-changing, speechless instants. From “Say Anything” through “Jerry Maguire” to his new film, “Elizabethtown,” (starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst and Susan Sarandon), Crowe has made a career of filming the seemingly unfilmable — illustrating those fragile moments on which entire lives turn.

Crowe recently took a break from editing “Elizabethtown” to give MTV News’ Benjamin Wagner a call and talk about the new film, touring with rock stars and the “in-between” moments that matter most to him.

Exclusive photos from “Elizabethtown”
MTV: The gestation period on “Elizabethtown” has been …

Crowe: It’s been a while.

MTV: Give me some backstory, from the germ of an idea to where you are today.

Crowe: After “Vanilla Sky” — which is mostly about one guy’s head, and not my story, really — I wanted to do a real character story. I had this script I was working on that had nine characters. It was filled with things that people in movies do. It was summer 2002, and I was on the road with my wife. She plays with the band Heart, they were playing a summer tour, and she convinced me to get out of the house and see the world from the bus. I woke up one morning and looked out of the bus, and the hillsides were electric green landscapes. We were in Kentucky, where I’m from. I got off the bus, rented a car and drove around. And I started writing something new. I started writing about the family we don’t know we have and the things that happen when life intercedes to take you on a surprise journey. And tragedy [the death of Orlando Bloom’s character’s father] that ends up being a ticket to something wilder and greater and stronger than you anticipated. And it has a lot of music in it.

MTV: We count on you for that.

Crowe: I just have no high concepts — all this stuff kind of ends up being about music and people and life. I was just really happy that this one kind of hijacked what I’d been working on and said, “It’s time to write about your family.”

MTV: What strikes me is how much of this film and all your work counts on capturing those transformative, almost invisible moments in a person’s life.

Crowe: Right!

MTV: How do you film that? You must have remarkable confidence in your actors’ ability to demonstrate interior.

See the “Elizabethtown” trailer, plus a special 7-minute extended trailer cut by Cameron Crowe himself, in Overdrive.

Crowe: Well, I got lucky early on, working with John Cusack and Sean Penn and other actors who were able to make those moments real. Even guys like Judge Reinhold in “Fast Times.” People were like, “How are you gonna make a scene about a guy who’s longing for his sister’s friend and masturbating in the bathroom?” And we couldn’t even find anyone to direct that movie. Then Amy Heckerling came along and said, “I know how I can make this work.”

But those are the things that mean the most to me, the in-between moments. They’re also the greatest stuff to use music with, because it feels like your spying on life. It’s fun to write those quiet moments: falling in love, or how people watch TV …

MTV: Or driving a car, or walking through an airport …

Crowe: Exactly! There’s a whole thing at the end of “Elizabethtown” that takes place on a road trip across the country. Kirsten Dunst’s character makes Orlando’s character a mixmap [a map with musical cues] that’s really specific. It’s 42 hours and 11 minutes long, and it’s filled with music. He’s never really traveled, and she’s a flight attendant so she does nothing but travel. She says, “Look, I’m going to give you a map, but it’s not like the usual map. It’s very different, and you gotta really follow it. Call me when you’re done.” Before he knows it, he’s completely addicted to her words and music and where she’s taking him. It kind of goes back to that bus trip where you think your world is the world. And somebody pulls you out of it and says, “Come over here and see the world everybody else is living.”

I wanted to make the movie about that: what it’s like to truly be alive.

MTV: Kirsten strikes me as the type of woman who could transform a man like that. She sparkles. Not unlike Kate Hudson, or Phoebe Cates for that matter. Maybe you should take credit for that sparkle.

Crowe: [Laughs] Nah. It’s their eyes. But there are so many actors that you’re dying to work with that you can’t ever hire. Kirsten came very close on “Almost Famous.” She was almost in that movie, so we never really forgot her. And she’s a huge music fan. I play music during takes and she’s the first person I’ve worked with who’ll go, “Um, I don’t like that song.” The camera will be rollin’ and I’ll play “Trouble Man” by Marvin Gaye, and she’ll go, “Turn that Marvin Gaye music off! Put on some Rilo Kiley.”

She stays up all night and downloads music from LimeWire. She needs to be arrested.

MTV: You’ve outed her.

Crowe: She does know music and it pours out of her. And it spread to Orlando, too, By the end of the movie he was going, “Um, put on that other song.” I felt like a DJ.

MTV: What songs did you gravitate to on set, or did they lead you to?

Crowe: Orlando really loves Jeff Buckley, so he always asked for “Lover You Should Have Come Over.” And he also loved this acoustic version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” from the Live 1975 Bob Dylan disc. And we all agreed on Ryan Adams, so there’s a lot of Ryan Adams in the movie. Kirsten really loved Rilo Kiley and Rufus Wainwright. We played a lot of My Morning Jacket and Patty Griffin. She was kind of a big early inspiration. Her 1,000 Kisses album was a big inspiration for the movie because the story — you know, that she went into her basement and recorded that album with no frills and that became her breakthrough album — was sort of the idea behind the way we wanted to do “Elizabethtown.”

MTV: Give us a sense of what songs are going to make the film. To what degree does Elton John’s “My Father’s Gun” play a role?

Crowe: Well, that’s gonna be in there because that’s the song we always used when we were auditioning guys looking into the father’s casket. Elton was very cooperative on “Almost Famous” and gave us all the separated tracks on “Tiny Dancer.” He’s one of the guys who trust us. Not many others do.

MTV: Come on, you got Led Zeppelin [on “Almost Famous”].

Crowe: They didn’t give us separated tracks [multi-track tapes that would enable the filmmaker to play, for example, just the piano from a song], though. But it’s really freeing to finally talk about this stuff. We have a new My Morning Jacket song called “Where to Begin” that we love and used when we were shooting. There’s a long phone call sequence that culminates in … well, actually I’m not going to tell you what it culminates in. There are too many months to go.

MTV: October’s coming soon. The release date’s not sliding, right?

Crowe: Yeah, it’s definitely October — the land of slasher and thriller movies. Hopefully, we’ll be a little different.

MTV: “Almost Famous” came out in the fall. It’s a fall vibe, man.

Crowe: It is. We’d be doomed if we came out in July. But “Elizabethtown” takes place in summer. I always thought it would be great to have a movie that opens in summer that’s about summer. But that plan evaporated because it’s more of a fall vibe, as you noted.

[Right now] the movie’s still a little long …

MTV: No!

Crowe: [Laughs] Can you imagine such a thing? The guy who runs the focus group asks, “What would you cut out?” And the group immediately starts arguing. One person says, “Well you can cut this,” and someone else says, “Are you crazy? You can’t cut that!” Then this girl says, “Well, you know, it’s really hard to know where to cut ’cause it’s long and important.” So we’ve been joking about that. We called the cut “long and important.” But it can’t be that long, or that important. We’re gonna cut it down.

MTV: I imagine that process is a little heartbreaking.

Crowe: You always have favorite moments that are kind of on the bench, waiting to get in the game. But we were walking around last night and we were just saying, “Ya know what? Let’s just admit the secret. This is really fun.”

MTV: Let’s see: riding on a tour bus, beautiful wife in a rock band, making a film from the heart, tremendous actors waiting in line to work with you. That ain’t bad, man.

Crowe: If you don’t question it, and treat it with great preciousness. You’re making me feel like I’m really on the right track, and thank you, but studios are not run by and populated by people with your perspective, or mine. You always end up in a room with a bunch of people staring at you saying, “This is an in-between movie.” They even said that the first time they saw “Jerry Maguire.” “This is not ‘Mission: Impossible.’ How are we gonna sell it?” “Almost Famous” barely got released. It’s hard getting people to believe that there’s an audience out there. It’s cool when you do run across people who believe in it and want to help, but that’s rare.

MTV: I wonder — and forgive me here — with the rise of the niche market, I wonder whether you’re able to find audiences more easily. When you mention all the musicians, I think of radio stations like WFUV or KCRW — audiences that are right in your creative wheelhouse. But it ain’t “Spider-Man.”

Crowe: No, it ain’t. But those people — they’re discerning, and they often don’t leave the house. So you just have to find some place where your blind optimism will work out and become a reality. It’s hard work to find people who will wave the flag with you.

However — “Spider-Man 4”? I’m available!

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