Crowe on Crowe

The writer/director/producer discusses his works

Music Features Cameron Crowe
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(Above [L-R]: Jason Lee, Billy Crudup and Cameron Crowe on the set of Almost Famous)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

(1981, Author)

This book is probably still my favorite thing I’ve ever written. And it sort of defined a way of writing that was most natural for me—humorous in a real-life way, which is my favorite stuff to write. The fact that people related to it and that the book is still this sought-after thing just makes me really proud.

The Wild Life (1984, Writer/Co-producer)

A disaster. Because the script had heart and the movie does not. The movie celebrates something the script didn’t intend. Nobody set out to make movie that didn’t honor the best in all of what we could do; it just happened that way. And I love [actor] Chris Penn (Reservoir Dogs). He’s just one of these free, wild, great poetic beat thinkers. And in a way it’s interesting in that it’s Chris Penn’s Elvis movie. But it sort of took on an odd, dark life of its own that I’m not really happy with. I try to ask my friends never to rent it.

Say Anything (1989, Writer/Director)

My favorite film. It’s because of Lloyd. And I love the collaboration that happened with John Cusack, where he brought anger and resentment and pain to the character of an optimist, and in that it was something really timeless, and every time I watch it I feel like it’s lightning in a bottle and in that character. I used to think for a while that it would be the one movie I’d do a sequel to, because there was more to be said about Lloyd. Then I went to see High Fidelity, and I thought, “You know what, that movie says a lot of the things that I would probably want to say in a sequel to Say Anything, so congratulations, it exists.”

Say Anything was The first of two very inspiring experiences working with producer James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, Jerry Maguire, Spanglish), who's written some of the best scripts and characters of the last 30 years. In a field where most people are satisfied with adequacy, Jim never gives up, never quits inspiring you to look to your own life for the personal truths that can make a character great. For Say Anything, we came up with a premise: a movie about a valedictorian and golden girl (Diane Court) who was so smart that she picked a guy nobody thought to be her equal (Lloyd Dobler). And that guy ends up saving her life. The finished movie became a lot more about Lloyd, but without the underrated performance of Ione Skye the movie would never have been as good. Over time, I love Diane, the original star of the movie, more and more.

Singles

(1992, Writer/Director/Co-producer)

I feel like, as a movie, it’s sort of unsuccessful in that I was unable to tie all the stories together in the way that I probably would like to now. But I’m probably being too hard on it because it captures a moment in time that was really important in my life and in the lives of a lot of people I really love and admire, and that moment is gone in Seattle history. I guess I was always a little sad that the movie was on the shelf at Warner Brothers until grunge exploded and they had a reason to release it. And in some quarters, at the time, it was felt that somebody had gone out and immediately made a movie to capitalize on the grunge scene, when in fact it was a labor of love, to kind of help spotlight a lot of the local bands I really loved. And it was sort my version of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But I wish that the interlocking stories had worked [better] together.

The movie took a long time to figure out. All the pieces didn't quite come together for me, and I guess I was always a little bummed about Johnny Depp turning down the lead. “I'm not ready to say ‘I love you’ in a movie,” he told me at our meeting about the script. We were sitting in Barney's Beanery in L.A. “I'm still a TV guy,” he said that night. “Hopefully I'll make it out alive, and we'll meet up down the line.” I've always had an instinct he could do my stuff, and hopefully it'll pan out one day.

Jerry Maguire (1996, Writer/Director/Co-producer)

Jerry Maguire took a long time to write, and the gift of working that long on a script was that the cast was perfect. Everybody was perfectly cast and dying to come to work every day. And making it was tough, but it was a joy because as Billy [Wilder] talks about some of his favorite casts, you just love to see them put on a suit of clothes that make them that person and go out, always, every day, and bring you something a little extra, more than you anticipated.

I knew that when we saw the rough assembly that it worked and I wanted to do this for life—that I wanted to be a director for life, that it was a craft that you could actually get better at and learn on the job and do.

Jerry Maguire was a really personal movie again because I had felt that there was such a high premium to be put on loyalty, because Singles had not done that well. And all of a sudden I just looked around and—it was a good thing—many false friends disappeared. And the people that sort of stayed behind, who you realize were your true friends and would be your friends for life, were not the people I expected. And that became one of the first ideas that drove Jerry Maguire: what if you lost everything, or lost a lot, and you looked around and all those people that you thought would be there for life are gone. Who’s left?

Also, Tom Cruise is a very underrated comedian. Just watch Risky Business or those great moments in Magnolia and Collateral. Billy Wilder was a big fan of his, too. There's nothing more fun than watching him in the pressure cooker, trying to keep from blowing sky-high. One of my favorite moments in Jerry Maguire is when he's fighting to keep Cushman as a client at the NFL draft. That vein on his forehead is like a pressure gauge, pinning the meter. [The film is] another one of my collaborations with James L. Brooks, too, and we both lived and breathed every line of the script for close to four years.

Almost Famous (2000, Writer/Director/Co-producer)

Almost Famous was the movie I always had in my back pocket, that I knew, one day, if everything worked out, I’d be able to make, and it would be a love letter to rock. And I was lucky enough—because of the success of Jerry Maguire—to make it.

And it was funny to me that when the movie first came out, the least rock ’n’ roll people would be the ones who would say, “Come on, there’s no cocaine and there’s no heroin, and there’s… it’s rose-colored glasses. Where’s the drugs? Where’s the sex? This can’t be realistic, come on!” But the real rockers, the guys who were f—ed up in the day, were the ones that were first in line to say, “Thank you for making a movie, man, about why I f—ing picked up a guitar, because I loved the feeling that music gives me.” And it was those guys that were the biggest fans of Almost Famous, that said, ‘Yeah, sex and drugs and stuff are a part of rock ’n’ roll, but a true musician never picks up the guitar at first because they just want sex and drugs.’ It’s usually because a record blew their head off, and they never could go back to whatever they wanted to be before. And that’s what I think Almost Famous is about—it’s about getting your head blown off by a piece of music, and everything else is secondary.

But it’s the music that puts you on that path, and whether you’re gonna be a groupie or a musician or a rock journalist, or just somebody that craves music through your entire life, the real culture of rock is about what happens in a three-minute or four-minute record that you hear randomly or a friend turns you onto, and you’re never the same. I felt that the movie kind of hit the note, as Duane Allman would say. It made me feel like it felt back then. And I was very proud of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester. So I did my best, and all the actors did their best.

Conversations with Wilder (2001, Author)

I think about Billy [Wilder] every day because he’s just such an inspiring guy. I think about him on the soundstage, mixing the movie; I thought about him when we were making the movie, you think about him a lot writing and you think about him a lot as a person wondering how to live a life. How do you want to be at 83? Yeah, it’s fun to say I want to live a long life, ‘Yeah, I want to live to be 90.’ But where are the people you’re gonna look to [in order] to know what being 90 can truly be. Well, check out Billy Wilder. He lived every moment of his life to the very end with unending curiosity and his influence goes on. It’s fantastic.

Vanilla Sky (2001, Writer/Director/Co-producer)

Vanilla Sky felt like a real kind of palate cleanser of a movie to have done. We were trying to beat an actors’ strike. We made the movie like the way people talk about having made their punk-rock albums. ‘Bash it out! Do it! The truth will come from that process.’ So I’d done that, but it didn’t feel totally like me or the version of the writing that I know I can do when I have time to kind of marinate with it and really get my heart into it all the way. I loved Abre Los Ojos and I thought we could bring a little something to it. I was the American brother who was listening to rock ’n’ roll when [Amenábar] was listening to classical and those were the two movies we made on the same themes.

It’s the movie [Tom Cruise] gets asked about most, and it drew a line through every audience who ever saw it. Oddly, it opened the door for me to be able to make more visual movies, and to think about different ways to write and put stuff on screen. And I’m really proud of it. I was not prepared for how polarizing it would be, but I think you can’t keep making the same movie, nor should you, and that ended up being as personal, I think, in its own way, as many of the other things that I’ve done

Another amazing thing was Paul McCartney writing the theme song. Working with him as a composer was an amazing thing, because his stuff that he’s done for movies is—there hasn’t been a lot of it, but he’s really been fascinating and sort of underrated with his movie stuff, and he really took that seriously and really kind of crafted a song for the movie.