The ‘Graduation’ of Cameron Crowe
BOSTON – Cameron Crowe figures that, at 31, it’s about time he left high school.
That may seem a strange conclusion to reach for someone who barely went to high school in the first place. But Crowe, the prodigal rock journalist who was writing profiles for Rolling Stone magazine at 15, has spent the better part of the last decade observing and analyzing what goes on during the mixed-up adolescent years.
Crowe went “underground” in 1979, returning for a year to a high school in Southern California to research his book “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Three years later, Crowe’s screenplay was turned into a movie that gave birth to an explosion of teen flicks in the 1980s and launched the careers of Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Forrest Whitaker, Nicolas Cage, Eric Stoltz and Sean Penn.
Seven years after the release of “Fast Times,” Crowe has made his debut as a Hollywood director with “Say Anything,” a well-written and thoughtfully observed account of teen-age passage to adulthood. The film stars John Cusack and Ione Skye (singer Donovan Leitch’s daughter) as a pair of lovers mature beyond their years.
Crowe said he agreed to write and direct “Say Anything” mainly because the idea was brought to him by James L. Brooks, the writer and director of “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” and the creative force behind the “Taxi” and “Tracy Ullman Show” television series.
But Crowe, who acknowledged that he has spent a lot of adult time living those missed high school years vicariously, said “Say Anything” also allowed him “to graduate with dignity.”
“It’s weird because I always had friends who were older than me,” Crowe said in a recent interview in his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. Dressed in baggy black slacks, turtleneck and a tweed jacket, Crowe shared a couch with his wife, Nancy Wilson, guitarist and vocalist for the rock band Heart. “So, going back and doing the “Fast Times’ book was a chance to have a senior year.”
While “Fast Times” was about sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and “being an adult at a little kid’s age,” Crowe said, “Say Anything” allowed him to draw characters with more depth.
“I never got a chance to write a love relationship before,” he said. “It was a feeling I had tried for in the past and had missed.”
Brooks first met Crowe while he was doing research for “Broadcast News.”
“I was amazed that this guy who has all these directing awards in a case on the wall was always referring to himself as a writer,” Crowe said, recalling his first meeting with Brooks. “He just wanted to talk about the “Stone’ years.”
But Brooks was also developing the idea for “Say Anything,” the central theme of which was the close relationship between a young woman and her father, who also happens to be a crook.
Brooks hired Crowe to write the screenplay, and it was up to him to develop the third point of the triangle, the love interest Lloyd Dobler, played by Cusack.
Lloyd, an eternally optimistic Zen kickboxer, was ostensibly based on a neighbor of Crowe’s. But Lawrence Kasdan, who at one time considered directing “Say Anything,” “begged off,” in Crowe’s words, because there was too much Crowe in Lloyd.
“(Kasdan) said: “You are that main character. You should direct it,’ ” Crowe said. “It’s an autobiography, to a certain extent, except that John Cusack isn’t me. He isn’t anything like me.”
Cusack, whose performance carries “Say Anything,” was leery of playing another teen role. Now 23, and fresh off an impressive turn as Buck Weaver in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out,” Cusack wanted to leave teen roles behind.
“He said he never wanted to be the charm-monster again,” Crowe recalled.
Cusack made his film debut six years ago in “Class” and went on to appear in some of the best coming-of-age films of the 1980s, including “Sixteen Candles” and “The Sure Thing.”
“He told me he never wanted to graduate again in a film,” Crowe said. “He said he had graduated, like, six times already . . . . We used to pull out the graduation gown, and he’d go “Aaaaaaarrrrgghh.’ ”
Cusack agreed to read the script at the urging of John Mahoney, Cusack’s “Eight Men Out” co-star and a fellow Chicago stage actor. Once Cusack read the script to “Say Anything,” he signed on.
“The two of us had covered the territory before,” Crowe said. “We knew what we didn’t want to do.”
Crowe continued to write for Rolling Stone through the mid-’80s and produced and co-directed a profile of Tom Petty for MTV but is now devoting his time to writing books and screenplays.
His long-awaited biography of Neil Young was to be published in 1980. It is “about 85 percent done,” Crowe said with a sheepish grin.
“He went into his country phase and . . . I kind of parted with him a little bit,” Crowe said. “I really want to do the book as a way of kind of telling the story of the late ’70s.
“I just have this strong feeling that something happened towards the end of the ’70s, where with the Phil Collins-ization of rock, it just became this friendly, cute industry,” Crowe said. “It ceased to become this personal, vivid thing. To be able to tell that story with Neil at the center and kind of tell his story with another thread running through, that’s better.”
Crowe said he is waiting to catch Young at the right time for the final chapter.
“You know how you get the sense that some artists have that window of time where, if you talk to them, you’re gonna get the pure stuff,” he said. “But I don’t know with Neil, when I read this last round of interviews. It doesn’t feel like he’s quite there yet.”
Crowe is also researching his next project, “Singles,” a look at the dating rituals of men and women in their mid- and late-20s.
“I still think of myself as a writer, and directing feels like another language,” he said. “I’m pretty much interested in doing my own stuff. We’ll see what happens.”
Courtesy of Worcester Telegram & Gazette – Dave Mawson – April 23, 1989