Interview: Cameron Crowe, Filmmaker, Writer and Director, discusses his new book about Billy Wilder
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Katherine Lanpher.
Film director Cameron Crowe already had a few movies under his belt–”Singles,” “Say Anything”–when he approached directing great Billy Wilder. Crowe was hoping the legend who made “Double Indemnity” and “Some Like It Hot” would consider playing a small part in his next film, “Jerry Maguire.” Wilder didn’t say, `Show me the money.’ What he said was, `No.’ But in the end what Cameron Crowe ended up with was far better than a cameo appearance in a film; a real-life friendship and a tutorial on filmmaking that is fondly transcribed in his new book, “Conversations With Wilder.”
The book is a return to print for Crowe, who had a young career as a writer for Rolling Stone and who write the book later made into a movie, “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” We’ll talk to Cameron Crowe today about his experiences as writer, filmmaker and unabashed fan. Cameron Crowe joins us from NPR’s LA bureau.
Cameron Crowe, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. CAMERON CROWE (Writer/Filmmaker/Director): Hi, Katherine.
LANPHER: Hi. Now you spent more than a year talking to Billy Wilder, but is it safe to say that your first meeting was less than auspicious?
Mr. CROWE: It was not the grand meeting I had hoped for, frankly, but I did get my poster for “The Apartment” signed. I tried to talk him into playing a part opposite Tom Cruise in the movie I was finishing up writing. And he gave me a little indication that he might do it, and then later when I called him he said, `No.’
LANPHER: Well, and didn’t you even eventually at one point go over with Tom Cruise hoping that the one star would attract the other?
Mr. CROWE: It’s true. It was a rainy day, we had just begun rehearsals and everybody was saying, `When is Billy Wilder going to show up? He’s going to play Dicky Fox, right?’ Then I said, `Well, let me call him.’ So I called him. He said, `Leave me alone. I’m an old man. I’m not an actor.’ And he hung up. And I kind of looked at my actors and we all looked at each other, and Tom said, `Let’s get in the car. Let’s go over there and talk him into it.’ So we went screaming through the streets to catch him at his office. And he talked to us for about 45 minutes and in every possible, elegant way you can imagine he told us, no.
But he did say this very funny and Wilderesque thing as we were leaving. He kind of looked at me and he looked at Tom, and he said, `Nice to meet you,’ to me and then his gaze turned to Tom and he said, `Nice to meet you, especially you.’ And I got the feeling that even at 91 at the time, he was buttering up his next star, Tom Cruise.
LANPHER: Now why Billy Wilder? I understand why you might have wanted him as a cameo in “Jerry Maguire,” but you aren’t the only young director to have made pilgrimages to Billy Wilder.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: You know, imagine there’s a young student out there who’s scratching their head and saying, `Who?’
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. I think a lot of us have made the trip to Billy’s office in Beverly Hills. And on good days, of which he has many, he’s very kind to young directors and talks to them and signs a book or a poster. But I had a deep need to pay tribute to this guy. He had really influenced me in my own study of screenwriting and he was very much the inspiration behind at least the structure of “Jerry Maguire.” And I believe in being a fan. I think there are not enough people you can call heroes these days, and if you have one and they’re still alive and you have an opportunity to meet them in some decent form, do it.
LANPHER: All right. Show me the homage to Billy Wilder in “Jerry Maguire.”
Mr. CROWE: OK.
LANPHER: It seems like they’re such just separate things.
Mr. CROWE: Well, I will reveal all, Katherine. “The Apartment” is my favorite movie. And it’s this truly great movie worth renting if you indeed haven’t seen it. It stars Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. And it really is a deeply soulful, deeply funny comedy about a little man in a big business world and, you know, the odd and wonderful things he gets involved in, not the least of which is his love affair with Shirley MacLaine. But I wanted to do a modern-day portrait of the same kind of young businessman struggling to make it. And I loved, at least, the visual concepts in “The Apartment”–Jack Lemmon at his desk in a sea of other desks. And if you watch the two movies back to back, “The Apartment” and “Jerry Maguire,” you’ll see a lot of similarities, even down to Renee Zellweger saying, `Shut up. You had me at hello,’ at the end of “Jerry Maguire” is my own little tribute to the last line of “The Apartment,” which is `Shut up and deal.’
LANPHER: That’s a famous gin game, correct?
Mr. CROWE: Yes. Shirley MacLaine’s playing a gin game at the end, and rather than get involved in a lot of messy `I love you’ business, as Billy might say, he just had her look lovingly at Jack Lemmon and say, `Shut up and deal.’
LANPHER: What did you mean when you wrote that you saw your talks with Billy Wilder as poignant links to the future?
Mr. CROWE: Oh, that’s great that you noticed that. I just feel in this quest that everybody has now to seize on the next big thing, study the next big thing, put the next big thing on every magazine cover and every evening “Entertainment Tonight” type show and then move on, there’s such a short shelf life for anybody in pop culture now. Let’s go back to a guy who was the next big thing 50 years ago and is still the big thing. I mean, if you talk to many screenwriters or film students, they’re still studying Billy Wilder. And what is it that makes a guy still relevant after more than 50 years of filmmaking? And what you find are values, you know, that people are going to experience over the holiday when they see a movie like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which isn’t, of course, Billy Wilder, but it’s simple, clear, soulful, funny storytelling. And I believe Billy Wilder is the king.
LANPHER: “It’s a Wonderful Life” is a holiday staple. Does that mean you’re going to be watching it this holiday?
Mr. CROWE: I might. You might find me…
LANPHER: You’re hedging.
Mr. CROWE: …luxuriating in that film. But I just–you know, I think it’s funny when people say, `Oh, these movies. You know, I’d rather see a remake in color than an old black-and-white movie.’ But if you get past black and white, I personally like black and white better than most color films, but what you get is a real substantial meal in your films in some of these movies that are still played a lot. And Billy’s films really stick to your ribs and never in a pretentious way, and not one rip-roaring camera move in his whole body of work. It’s all very simple and hilariously apropos of today, you know.
LANPHER: Are you saying his films are pot roast?
Mr. CROWE: Some are pot roasts. Some are very elegant, sumptuous, continental, European meals.
LANPHER: I’m Cameron Crowe and I’m your server today. I like this.
Mr. CROWE: That’s right.
LANPHER: We are talking to Cameron Crowe, director, writer, filmmaker, fan. If you’d like to join this conversation about film, it’s 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK.
Now you write that perhaps Billy Wilder’s greatest character is himself.
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
LANPHER: But now your next film coming out is autobiographical, which makes me wonder what work you’ve been doing on your character lately.
Mr. CROWE: I’ve been exploring the way I was when I was 15. The movie I’ve just finished is basically a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll. And I was lucky enough to be writing for Rolling Stone when I was–I started writing when I was 15. They…
LANPHER: How did you get that?
Mr. CROWE: Well, my mother is a teacher and she felt, for example, that fifth grade was unnecessary; I could start kindergarten at five. And what this all amounted to, Katherine, is that I graduated when I was 15, and I started sending articles that I’d written for a local underground paper to Rolling Stone and they gave me assignments without knowing truly how old I was. So I was on the road with Led Zeppelin when I was 16. And my mother, of course, at the time didn’t really know about the reputation of Led Zeppelin. She felt they were fine young boys.
LANPHER: I was just going to say, did she do car pool to Led Zeppelin? That’s quite the feat when you’re a teen-ager.
Mr. CROWE: I played her “Stairway to Heaven.” She said, `Oh, that’s a very substantial song. Based on the literature of Tolkien? Go ahead. Go ahead.’ So the movie is kind of about what it was like to be, again, you know, sort of what we were talking about, to be a fan and to also be a journalist. And there’s always a relationship that develops between the person you’re writing about and you the writer. And most of the time it’s just not proper to put yourself into the story, but there’s always a relationship between the lines. And so the movie is about that very delicate balance that you always strike as a reporter with your subject.
LANPHER: Well, so the journalism background helps? Or is it simply storytelling in general, having a sense of storytelling that helps?
Mr. CROWE: It’s funny. Billy himself, Billy Wilder, was a young journalist. And though he never made a movie about those days, I badger him about it throughout the book just because I would love to see the young Billy Wilder who interviewed Sigmund Freud, for example, and go thrown out of Sigmund Freud’s home. He never did that movie, but I wanted to do that movie and write about really the experiences that journalism gives you. And one of them was I always knew how people really talked from having transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews. So when I sit down to write a script, there’s some built-in alarm that goes off inside me when I write something that doesn’t sound like what people really sound like. So it gave me that gift, journalism.
LANPHER: We’re talking to Cameron Crowe. You might be familiar with his films “Jerry Maguire,” “Say Anything,” or “Singles.” We’re talking to him about his return to print, a book called “Conversations with Wilder,” a fond documentation of many conversations he had with legendary film director Billy Wilder. If you’d like to join the conversation, 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK.
We’re going to go to Everett in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Everett.
EVERETT (Caller): Hi.
EVERETT: Seems to me that “An Ace in the Hole,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Kiss Me, Stupid”–and by the way, I find it wonderful that a young director is interested in Wilder. But the one thing that links all these films, it seems to me, is what he’s talking about: How to make it in America; the price one pays for making it in America.
Mr. CROWE: Mm.
EVERETT: And I’d like Mr. Cameron to talk about that.
LANPHER: All right. Thanks, Everett.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. Well, Everett, that’s a great point. I’ve been talking to Billy even past the research for this book just about all kinds of things. I’d call him to ask him questions about filmmaking on my own movie. And one of the things I said to him the other day actually was, `You know, so many of your films are about opportunists.’ And he kind of blinked a little bit and said, `Mm. Not “The Apart”–well, yeah, “The Apartment,” too.’ And he sort of went through it in his mind. And I realized that it was nothing conscious with him. I think he came to America and found his way and loved America and saw it more clearly than a lot of people who were born here. And he naturally gravitates to writing movies about guys trying to find their–and women–trying to find their place in an American landscape. And it’s a beautiful theme that runs through his work. Sometimes it’s corrosive and nasty and sometimes it’s just hilarious, like in “The Apartment” or “Sunset Boulevard;” darkly hilarious.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to John in Cleveland, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JOHN (Caller): Thank you. Hi, Cameron.
Mr. CROWE: Hi.
JOHN: I’m a very big “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” fan. And I was wondering if maybe you could just comment a little bit on the making of that movie and if it’s still pertinent for today’s teens.
Mr. CROWE: It’s funny. When the movie first came out, people were–had spears in hand looking for the principal of that terrible school that’s characterized in “Fast Times,” but now that school seems so quaint and easy and gentle with no metal detectors or anything. So it’s a little nostalgic watching it now, but I really love the characters. And all those actors when we were making the movie were just deeply involved in their characters. Sean Penn, for example, never even let us call him Sean. He was known as Jeff Spicoli to all of us. It was only after the film was finished that this very polite young man in wing tip shoes and a brown jacket showed up and said, `Hello, I’m Sean.’ We all kind of looked at each other and said, `Bring back the surfer, he was more fun.’
LANPHER: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Katherine Lanpher. Today we’re talking about movies, directing and the great Billy Wilder with one of that director’s biggest fans, Cameron Crowe. He’s best known for writing “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” and making the film “Jerry Maguire.” He recently wrote a new book called “Conversations with Wilder.” If you’d like to join this conversation, our number here in Washington is 1 (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK.
Cameron Crowe, before we took that break we were talking about “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.” Now you went undercover to get the material for that.
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
LANPHER: How were you able to do that?
Mr. CROWE: You know, back then, Katherine, I had a young face. I still do, I guess. But my mom had skipped me those extra grades, and I was yearning for a prom. I was yearning to be the same age or closer to the girls I went to school with. And an editor that I’d been working with suggested a book about a year in the life of a high school. And so I started looking around and driving around with my mom actually, who knew all the schools in our area, and found a school that I would have liked to have attended as opposed to the rather strict school I went to. I went to a private school; I wanted to go to a public school. So I went in and talked to the principal and told him what I wanted to do, and he suggested that I get enrolled in some classes, so I did so over two semesters, and “Fast Times” is the book.
LANPHER: So they actually knew–so you weren’t necessarily undercover to everyone?
Mr. CROWE: Not to the faculty and not to a few of the students by the end of the second semester, but I had a pretty light second semester, I’m happy to say. But I did go to prom and took tests and just lived the life and actually was much more one of the gang the second time around.
LANPHER: Now there are some folks who look at your movies–they look at “Fast Times At Ridgemont High,” based on your book…
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
LANPHER: …then they look at “Say Anything,” which had that wonderful John Cusack role…
Mr. CROWE: Mm.
LANPHER: …of sort of the high school loner.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah, he’s great.
LANPHER: Yeah. Who falls for the brainy girl. Then there’s “Singles,” about people in their 20s.
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
LANPHER: There seems to be a progression. You were always about five years older than the subjects in these movies.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: So what’s the link between you and, say, the John Cusack character?
Mr. CROWE: Well, you know, the John Cusack character came from a lot of personal stuff. I mean, somebody told me, who read my last script–an actor who I was talking with said, `You know, I like this part you’re offering me, but the great parts in your movies are the Cameron parts.’ And I said, `What do you mean?’ `You know, the ones that are you, like Lloyd in “Say Anything” and the kid in this. I’m too old to play the kid.’ And I thought about that later, and it’s true. There’s usually one or two characters–really more accurately all of them are me in some way. But the main character is usually me trying to work out what happened about five years earlier, it’s true. And I like making that progression.
I think it’s great if you can look back on a body of work and say here’s a guy that wrote about the times he lived in and we sort of grew up with him. And when I went back and studied films, this was around the time I was directing “Say Anything,” it’s when I discovered Billy Wilder. I also discovered Francois Truffaut, the great French film director. And I would hear directors refer to Truffaut and I’d always think, `Ah, these pretentious guys making references.’ But then I discovered Truffaut and I thought Truffaut was just wonderful and hilarious and great. And he too sort of grew up with his characters. And he had one character that always played him, and he’d return to that guy every few years. And to look at those movies in order now, it takes your breath away.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to Rawley in Culver City, California. Rawley, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
RAWLEY (Caller): Hi. How you doing?
LANPHER: All right.
Mr. CROWE: Hey, Rawley.
RAWLEY: You know, I wanted to ask you about the depth and the clarity of black and white in a movie such as “Double Indemnity” and what you thought about it.
Mr. CROWE: Well, Rawley, that’s the movie that many people choose as Billy’s best. I think Woody Allen calls it the greatest American movie ever. And one of the reason is that it is so depthy and not pretentious, again. Billy Wilder based that on a film called “M,” which starred Peter Lorre. He loved the look of that movie and how it was very cinematic but also felt like it could have been a newsreel. And so the texture is really gorgeous in that film, as is the acting. And then, of course, if you get into the casting, Billy Wilder often chose somebody who was known for being a nice guy or a bad guy and cast them completely opposite. Fred MacMurray was kind of a benign actor and he would always play a villain in Billy’s movies, much to his chagrin, and then later he’d be happy about it. But it’s just one of the little subversive tricks that Billy would involve himself with working in the mainstream. He would always make the mainstream his own. Much like the independent filmmakers today, Billy would accomplish all of that by making movies in Hollywood.
LANPHER: And let’s just go through sort of a brief roll call of these movies, because it really is rather stunning when you hear them assembled together.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: And you’re the expert so I’ll let you.
Mr. CROWE: Well, there’s “Double Indemnity,” that we just talked about.
Mr. CROWE: There is some great comedy that he wrote before he became a director, “Ninotchka,” which he wrote for Ernst Lubitsch, who is Billy’s idol. “Sunset Boulevard,” of course, the great film, the great dark masterpiece about Hollywood, which still applies today. There’s “Some Like It Hot,” the original “Tootsie,” with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis posing as women to escape mobsters and they get hooked up in an all-woman band, which features Marilyn Monroe. And that’s one of his great movies. “The Apartment,” we’ve talked about. And sprinkled throughout these well-known films are beautiful gems like “Foreign Affair.” Even “Sherlock Holmes,” his sort of gutted masterpiece, is worth checking out.
LANPHER: Well, and then he did “Sabrina” as well, didn’t he?
Mr. CROWE: Oh, man. “Sabrina,” one of his two great Audrey Hepburn films. This is a guy who really knew how to do a romance that guys could appreciate as well as women. And “Sabrina” is one, and “Love in the Afternoon” is another, both starring Audrey Hepburn. Just luminous.
LANPHER: I want to go back to your guy analysis here.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: What did he do that made–in other words, you’re describing the perfect date movie.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: So what did he do that made something like “Sabrina” just as appealing to men as to women?
Mr. CROWE: Well, you have–good question. You have William Holden, who plays kind of the bumpkin brother who doesn’t appreciate Audrey Hepburn, who is right under his nose as the chauffeur’s daughter. And Holden is hilarious. Humphrey Bogart plays a man’s man. There’s a very clear-eyed romanticism about Billy Wilder’s stuff. It’s not all gooey. It’s not, you know, what Nora Ephron would call a chick movie. It’s about love, but it’s about the hard-core truths of love, as well as the grandness and romanticism of love. You know, it’s hard not to go wrong with Audrey Hepburn in her prime staring longingly at a guy she’s in love with from afar. But then it’s also great that the guy she’s in love with is a hilarious, foolish, wonderful, realistic character, too. In Billy Wilder’s films you get it all because Billy couldn’t involve himself in a movie that wouldn’t entertain him, and he’s a tough critic of his own stuff.
LANPHER: Now speaking of the goo factor…
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
LANPHER: …how do you think that you deal with romance? On the goo-ometer, where do you put yourself?
Mr. CROWE: Good question. Again, I love Billy’s style of romanticism, but I also love the messiness of love. And if you have a gooey moment–I always like writing something in that reminds you that you’re not in heaven where nothing can go wrong. In “Jerry Maguire” Renee Zellweger, as she’s finally making out with Tom Cruise on the porch, finds that he breaks her strap, the strap on her black dress. Or in “Fast Times” the sex is messy, embarrassing. Or in “Say Anything” it has to happen in the back of a car, but the song that plays on the radio, Peter Gabriel’s song, kind of makes the moment unforgettable. All of this stuff is basically things I’ve observed or they’ve happened to me or friends have told me about it. And I feel like if you’re close to real life, you’re not too far off the beaten track in terms of fighting the dreaded goo factor in a romantic situation. I try. I try, Katherine.
LANPHER: Well, it’s interesting, though, how you have–it’s often remarked upon that you were so caught up in the emotionalism of some scenes directing “Jerry Maguire” that you yourself were brought to tears, and this isn’t always mentioned in a positive light. What does that mean?
Mr. CROWE: You know, I’ll tell you, I think most directors don’t like to admit that they get caught up in some of the scenes that they’re doing. But you know what? I’ll tell you a secret: They do. They do. And if an actor is doing an amazing job, whether it’s a big dramatic scene or it’s just walking into a room and the light catches them perfectly, I don’t say you cry every time, but sometimes you just kind of say, `Cut,’ and you walk over to the actor and you say, `Damn, that is better than what I wrote. Thank you. ‘ And actors love it because their job is to be emotional on command, and it’s good to be emotional with them.
Of course, I asked Billy about this and he said, `No. I never cried in front of an actor.’ I said, `Why not?’ And he goes, `Then they would expect you to cry all the time. And if you didn’t, you’d be disappointing them.’ Which is a good point, but I’ll wager that even the master, Mr. Wilder, got a little choked up during some of those moments. They’re so beautiful. And when everything goes right–God knows they go wrong making a movie enough times–when they go right–you’ve got a lot invested–I think it’s OK to break your tough stance and go over and say, `Way to go. That was great.’
LANPHER: We’re going to go now to Libby in Jacksonville, Florida. Libby, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LIBBY (Caller): Thank you.
LANPHER: What is your question?
LIBBY: My question is, my son is a film student and director of some of his own films and, Cameron, if you could give me three things that you would say for him to know to be successful in following in the footsteps of Billy Wilder, what would those be?
Mr. CROWE: Well, I’ll tell you, Libby, you know, I say you don’t even have to buy the book, “Conversations with Wilder.” Go into a bookstore–I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but go into a bookstore, open it up to the back and read Billy Wilder’s tips for writers. He’s got about 12 of them. I know a lot of people that have already Xeroxed that list and put it by their typewriter. And, you know, you can’t find a better–there’s no better film school really than listening to the–to what Billy Wilder says.
One of them–I’ll give you an example. One of them is: He say, `Let the audience add up two plus two. Don’t tell them four and they’ll love you forever.’ For example, you know, don’t beat them over the head with what you’re trying to say. Make it very clear. Let them put it together. And, you know, then you’re in a true movie-going experience.
And, it’s funny, I just ran into somebody the other day on the street who actually recognized me from the jacket of my book and said, `That thing about two plus two. I work in the business. We make films and we’re applying that to all of our movies. Two plus two. We’re going to let the audience add it up.’ So I love that. Billy got that from the great Ernst Lubitsch and it just kind of warmed my heart to think that somehow, even through this book, Billy is able to pass along his own heroes’ best advice to people making films today.
LANPHER: Cameron Crowe, I have to take a moment here to say I’m Katherine Lanpher. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We’re continuing with our conversation with Cameron Crowe. You might know him as the director of “Jerry Maguire,” the movies “Singles” or “Say Anything.” He’s also returned to print with a book that lovingly documents his many conversations with film directing great Billy Wilder. The book is called, “Conversations with Wilder.”
If you would like to join our conversation, it’s 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK. If you have an e-mail, it’s email@example.com.
Now, Cameron Crowe, we have an e-mail here for you. `At the beginning of the show, you began with an excerpt of Tom Cruise’s `We’ll do it our way’ speech. How does that fit in with Cameron’s view of the new wave of independent movie making, i.e. “Fargo” and “Blair Witch”?’ This is from Eric in Seattle.
Mr. CROWE: Well, Eric, I think it’s great. All kinds of filmmaking are wonderful. It’s almost like directors or the musicians or the rock stars of the early ’70s where anybody could write a song, everybody was heard in some way, music was everywhere; same way with films now. You can make a film on a Hi8–Hi8 film, Hi8 video–and blow it up as they did on “Blair Witch,” I think. And it’s great when a movie like that rocks Hollywood. It’s also great when somebody like Sam Mendes does “American Beauty,” which is a Hollywood film, but it has its own unmistakable personal stamp. And, by the way, Sam is a great fan of Billy Wilder’s too and pays homage to Billy in “American Beauty” in the voiceover that’s basically from the grave that begins that movie.
LANPHER: Which is…
Mr. CROWE: See, Billy did that in “Sunset Boulevard.”
LANPHER: I was just going to say that’s how he began “Sunset Boulevard.” I’m so glad that you mentioned the phrase `Hollywood movie.’
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
LANPHER: `Cause I know that you were misunderstood, if you will, when “Jerry Maguire” came out and you were very frustrated that people kept referring to that as the Hollywood heavy film that was facing down all these independent films.
Mr. CROWE: How did you know that? I thought I just said that in my kitchen.
LANPHER: Someone’s been eavesdropping, I’m afraid.
Mr. CROWE: How did that get out?
Mr. CROWE: How did that frustration get out? Yeah. I mean, it’s funny. “Jerry Maguire” was the only, you know, so-called Hollywood film that was nominated for best picture in the Oscars that year. It was the year of the independent film. But, you know, those titles are just so misleading. I believe at least two of the other films that were nominated that year were–well, “English Patient” was made by a major studio, by Disney. And so, you know, it’s just–it’s kind of a fad. It’s fading away now a little bit of it. It’s a fad to make the big distinction between independent film and Hollywood film.
And “Jerry Maguire” was a very personal film for me and a lot about my life. Nobody told me to apply a cookie cutter, you know, pattern to that film. It was protected and made as a very personal statement. Nobody thought that it would be huge. In fact, it was sort of seeming like it was going to be Tom Cruise in an art film when we were making it. But then it came out and seemed to speak to people. I was very grateful for that.
LANPHER: Now, it’s interesting that this was happening to you because sometimes Wilder was pooh-poohed for liking the studio system for making Hollywood pictures.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. But yet he got enough early success so that he was protected for his writing vision, which is one of the beautiful things about his career is that he never did somebody else’s movie. He did his own movies. And I just think–you know, I think it was Libby that called earlier about her son making films. But the truth is, if you have strong, creative voice or a great idea, I think Hollywood generally would prefer that to a cookie cutter type film. The problem is, cookie cutter films are easier to make; you can make more of them. And everybody needs product, so…
LANPHER: Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Katherine Lanpher. Today, we’re talking with writer, director, producer Cameron Crowe about the film industry and about his favorite director, the great Billy Wilder. If you want to join our conversation, our number here is (800) 989-8255. That’s (800) 989-TALK. And, again, if you have an e-mail, query or observation for us, it’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re going to go now to Sam in New York. Sam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
SAM (Caller): Yeah. Hi. Thanks. I just wanted to make a comment. I think Billy Wilder is a national treasure. And I just had this weekend, coincidentally, the opportunity to show my new wife “Some Like It Hot” for the first time. She’s a big Marilyn Monroe fan and never seen it.
Mr. CROWE: Wow.
SAM: And I was really struck by just how wonderfully written it was…
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
SAM: …and how they had inside jokes, like, they have Tony Curtis is doing a very bad Cary Grant imitation, and Jack Lemmon looks at him at one point and says, `Nobody talks like that. What are you doing?’ And another point, they have George Raft who plays–has one of his henchmen who’s flipping a coin and he says, `Where did you get that from?’ You know, that sort of inside stuff. I always found that quite amazing.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. There’s even more inside stuff there because Cary Grant was the one actor that Billy Wilder never was able to work with; the big fish he was never able to land. And so his joke with Tony Curtis was basically that he was going to get Cary Grant into one of his movies even if Tony Curtis had to do an imitation. And then later, I guess, Cary Grant really loved the imitation in “Some Like It Hot.” But, sadly, Cary Grant never worked with Billy Wilder.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to Justin in Seattle. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
JUSTIN (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.
JUSTIN: I just wanted to know–my question–we’re kind of talking about Billy Wilder, but my question is for you, Cameron. And I was just wondering how you came to get behind a camera at such a young age. It seems to me that in Hollywood most young directors are not given opportunities to direct their own movies. I was wondering how you got that opportunity.
Mr. CROWE: First of all, say hello to Seattle for me, my other hometown, Justin.
JUSTIN: OK. I will.
Mr. CROWE: Got to work that in.
JUSTIN: All right.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. I was touched by the success of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” basically, along with a lot of the actors. We got noticed–and Amy Heckerling, the director, did such a good job on that movie. We all kind of got another shot. And mine, ultimately, was to do a movie for James L. Brooks, the writer-producer “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News.”
Yet another great figure in Hollywood doing personal, wonderful comedies. And he was the producer of “Say Anything.” And I wrote that script for James Brooks, and we decided we would try and get three directors to direct that movie and if none of them said yes, then I would try and jump in the deep end myself. And they all turned me down, so it was left to me to do the movie, and that’s how I started directing.
JUSTIN: All right. Thank you.
LANPHER: Thanks for your call, Justin.
Mr. CROWE: Thank you.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to Susie. She’s calling us from Stuttgart, Germany.
Mr. CROWE: Wow.
SUSIE (Caller): Yes. Hello. Thank you very much for taking my call. You sound like such a nice person, Cameron. It sounds as though you know the people you’re speaking with and you enjoy people. First of all, did Billy Wilder also have this, or perhaps I’m wrong? And second of all, do you have to dislike a nasty character or do you ever dislike a character?
Mr. CROWE: Boy, some of the nasty characters you love the most. They’re so much fun to write.
SUSIE: Is that right?
Mr. CROWE: They write themselves in a lot of ways and you never have a problem of finding an actor to play them. And it’s the ones that have to say, `I love you’ that I always have such a hard time getting cast.
Oh, man. They want to hold the gun and, you know, burst into the liquor store. They don’t want the hold the girl. Except for Tom Cruise. Now, Tom Cruise, we have to say Tom Cruise is a man that knows the value of both.
Mr. CROWE: And same with John Cusack.
And I love actors. And I love actors that can throw themselves completely into a character. And I know Billy Wilder was the same way. He actually is very good with people. Although, I heard he could be a bit of a storm trooper while directing. I don’t think he ever sat down in 50 years–this according to his wife, Audrey. But, no, he’s great with people and he–while he was very brisk with me, when his friend, the journalist Karen Learner(ph) suggested that we get together and start doing interviews for this book, Billy was wide open to it because he liked what I’d written in Rolling Stone, the journal I’d done of “Jerry Maguire,” and he was–he liked “Jerry Maguire” and was rooting for us in the Oscars that year and just, you know, he was a great guy.
SUSIE: And he liked people in general.
Mr. CROWE: I think he’s fascinated with people. He’s now 93 and sharp at a tack. And he’ll be rooting wildly for, you know, his football team tonight, watching Monday night football. He says curiosity has kept him alive all these years, and I believe it’s true. He’s endlessly curious and has the curiosity of a very young man, which helps with all aspects of life, I think.
LANPHER: Cameron Crowe, I want to get back to something else that Susie was commenting on, which is that you seem like such an affable young director. Now, Premiere magazine named you as one of the 100 most powerful people in Hollywood. Is there a subset there? Sweet, powerful people? I mean, you need some teeth there in Hollywood to survive, don’t you?
Mr. CROWE: Well, I advise you to check out a scene in the new movie, which is still untitled. But the girl that our main character’s in love with, played by Kate Hudson, says, `You’re so sweet. Maybe you’re just too sweet for rock ‘n’ roll.’ And this kid, who is my alter ego, I must say, says, `Sweet? I’m not sweet. I’m dark and mysterious and I’m dangerous, and you should know that about me.’ So I say that to you, Katherine, I’m dark and mysterious, and you should know that about me.
LANPHER: OK. It’s under advisement.
Mr. CROWE: OK.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to Steve in East Lansing, Michigan. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
STEVE (Caller): Hi. Thanks very much for taking my call. Cameron, I really enjoyed the soundtrack for the movie “Singles,” especially the Paul Westerberg songs.
Mr. CROWE: Oh, great.
STEVE: I was just curious how you came to work with Paul, if you were a Replacements’ fan and what that experience was like working with him.
Mr. CROWE: Great question. I am a huge Replacements’ fan, and their music is in “Say Anything.” And it’s also in “Singles” through Paul Westerberg, their front man and song writer.
Mr. CROWE: And, you know, you talk about a guy like Billy Wilder who is celebrated while he’s alive and, you know, attributed all the time. Paul Westerberg is a musical genius that doesn’t get enough recognition.
And his stuff, once again, gets co-opted and turned into hits by others. But Paul Westerberg’s a true original and a great song writer. And any time I get the chance to put his music in one of my movies, you know, I’m going to do it. The soundtrack for “Say Anything”–or the soundtrack for “Singles” was really a road tape that I made for my car, and it was, again, a labor of love. And this is so funny how usually it’s the labor of love projects that people respond to the best.
LANPHER: Thanks for your call. We’re going to go Gary now in San Jose.
GARY (Caller): Hello.
LANPHER: Hi. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
GARY: Thank you. I’m–first I have to say I loved “Say Anything.” I absolutely loved that. John Cusack was incredible in that movie.
Mr. CROWE: Yeah.
GARY: Cameron, I had coincidentally, absolutely coincidental, which made me make this phone call–I had dinner with an old friend of yours that I think you kind of credit with starting your career in writing. And you wrote the preface to his book.
Mr. CROWE: Ben Fong-Torres.
GARY: Right. And I read…The reason this is such a funny question is…
LANPHER: Gentlemen, I have to stop right in here. For the rest of the nation who might not know who Mr. Torres is, can you just give us a little context here?
Mr. CROWE: Ben Fong-Torres was the music editor at Rolling Stone magazine who gave me my first assignment not knowing I was 15. He later called and I was gone, and my sister got on the phone and said, `Do you know that he’s 15 years old?’ So she busted me, but Ben was the first guy to give me an assignment. Well, the second guy actually. The first guy was a rock writer by the name of Lester Banks(ph), who has left us, but is a character in the new movie, as is Ben Fong-Torres.
GARY: Oh, I’m going to have to say that Ben is such a–Ben is a character.
Mr. CROWE: He is. He is. It’s great to kind of write about real-life people sometimes.
GARY: Yeah. The–what made me call is I read your preface…
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
GARY: …and in that you said that you wanted to be a lawyer after, what was it, “To Kill a Mockingbird”–Was that was it was?
Mr. CROWE: Yeah. Mm.
GARY: And your mom didn’t want you to have anything to do with rock ‘n’ roll. And the funny thing is that I’m reading this and I’m thinking, `I wonder what his Mom is thinking about his career now.’ He’s obviously very successful. And then I turn on TALK OF THE NATION and here you are. I’ve got to call and ask you, `What does your mom think about you now?’
Mr. CROWE: Not only is my mom one of my closest friends as well as a true, great critic of my stuff, she won’t stop pestering me to put her in the movies as an actor. So, once again, I’ve fallen victim to her charms. And she’s in the new movie as well. She’s in “Jerry Maguire.”
LANPHER: Don’t you think that’s the least you can do after she car pooled you to Led Zeppelin. Come on.
Mr. CROWE: Absolutely, plus she says, `Martin Scorsese puts his mom in his movies. You can do that for me. And she goes on and on and on for very long scenes,’ so.
LANPHER: All right. It’s time for me to say again, I’m Katherine Lanpher. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we’re returning to our conversation with Cameron Crowe. He has a book out, a return to print, called “Conversations with Wilder.” It’s a loving dissertation, a translation, if you will, if his conversations with film great Billy Wilder. If you would like to join the conversation we’re having right now, it’s 1 (800) 989-TALK; 1 (800) 989-8255. We have some e-mail queries here as well.
Here we go from John in Berkley, `What comic film or literary tradition does Wilder see himself as following? Are there echoes of Arthur Schnitzler?’
Mr. CROWE: Oh, once again, very, very astute question. Yes. But mostly it’s Ernst Lubitsch, you know, the director of “Ninotchka” and “Trouble in Paradise” that still inspires Billy. You can mention the name Lubitsch to him, his eyes light up, he starts talking about Lubitsch’s work and, you know, again, it’s an argument for the greatness of having heroes, even at 93. He has a sign up in his office that says, `How would Lubitsch do it?’ And Billy is so unpretentious, even now, that he refuses to believe that people have signs in their own writing rooms that say, `How would Wilder do it?’ But they do, and I’m one of them.
LANPHER: Another e-mail here, `Cameron, my 12-year-old son and I love “Jerry Maguire.” I was particularly touched by the relationship in the film between Cuba Gooding Jr. and his wife. Please discuss. Thanks. Alison in Berkley.’
Mr. CROWE: Oh great, Alison. It’s–it was sort of my statement. I remember going to a theater and seeing a bunch of trailers before an action movie, and they were all films about African-Americans killing other African-Americans. And one of the people in the theater actually commented, and she said, `You know, why do we have to shoot each other in all these movies?’ And it always stuck with me. And when I came to write “Jerry Maguire,” I wanted to write about that. And I can’t remember now if that speech is still in the movie, but in one of the scenes, Cuba Gooding’s wife in the film actually says that, you know, `Brother shootin’ brothers. Why don’t they let us see other kinds of films? I mean, I loved’–I think she says, “Terms of Endearment” or something. But I just sort of wanted to show a loving relationship that was sort of color blind, and they performed it very well.
LANPHER: We’re going to go to Adam. He’s calling us from Vakaville(ph), Florida.
ADAM (Caller): Hi, Cameron.
Mr. CROWE: Hi.
ADAM: First off, I want to say that I really enjoy your work. It’s great stuff.
Mr. CROWE: Thank you.
ADAM: And I wanted to ask you, I heard a rumor that, it came out of Hollywood…
Mr. CROWE: Mm-hmm.
ADAM: …that you’re going to be working on a Tarantino script pretty soon. I was wondering if there’s any truth to that rumor.
Mr. CROWE: You might be thinking of Russell Crowe, the actor who…
ADAM: No, I actually heard that you were going to be directing one of Tarantino’s newest scripts.
Mr. CROWE: Well, you know…
ADAM: I guess it’s not true.
Mr. CROWE: …Quentin, if you’re out there, brother, let me read it. I’m ready to go.
ADAM: You’re ready to go. I also wanted to ask you about the “Single” soundtrack. I know that someone else already commented on it. But I wanted to ask you about getting…about getting Pearl Jam on that soundtrack because…
Mr. CROWE: Uh-huh.
ADAM: …I know it’s really hard to get them.
LANPHER: There we go, Adam. If you can answer that quickly, Cameron Crowe, we’re running out of time.
Mr. CROWE: Yes. Pearl Jam was my favorite local band at the time. They–that band and Soundgarden I wanted to work with. They were nobodies and I figured let’s put them on this soundtrack and people might find out about them. But, of course, they were huge by the time the soundtrack came out so, again, we got lucky.
LANPHER: Cameron Crowe, that’s all the time we have for today. I want to thank you for joining us.
Mr. CROWE: Thanks, Katherine. Really fun.
LANPHER: And, of course, we want to thank everyone who called and wrote this hour to talk with Cameron Crowe, who’s returned to print with his new book “Conversations with Wilder.” You might know him as the director of “Jerry Maguire,” the author of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” He joined us from NPR’s LA bureau. In Washington, I’m Katherine Lanpher, NPR News.
Courtesy of National Public Radio – December 20, 1999