Singles – Entertainment Weekly

Saturday Night Fever

Doing the ‘Singles’ scene with Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe can’t stop the music. Trudging out of an editing studio in Seattle after 80 grueling hours of working on a three-minute video for his new grunge-music-scene movie, Singles (opening Sept. 18) he looks as slack and scattered as the footage he’s been wrestling with. “The whole mix is tough-I think it needs another day,” Crowe says wearily. On the other hand, there’s a 10 o’clock show by the Boston band Lemonheads at The Backstage, across town, and right now Crowe needs a pop-music infusion the way Popeye needs spinach.

“It’s the Lemonheads, man,” he says reverently, hopping into a van, punching in a Lemonheads tape, and roaring off. His woes go out the driver’s window, as does his head, as he hollers along with the band’s anthem, “IT’S A SHAME ABOUT RAY!”

Crowe is in his element doing the rock-club crawl in Seattle. The 35-year- old writer-director graduated from high school at 15 and began covering Led Zeppelin and Humble Pie tours for Rolling Stone. At 21, he enrolled as a senior in a Van Nuys, Calif., high school, and turned his undercover experiences into the script for 1982’s landmark teen comedy, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A romance with Nancy Wilson (to whom he has been married since 1986) of the Seattle-based band Heart made him an avid, if part-time, Northwesterner (he also lives in Los Angeles); he set his 1989 directing / debut, Say Anything…, in his adopted city. Now, with Singles, he has made his fondest, loopiest valentine to Seattle. The movie is a seriocomic look at the love lives of grunge scenesters played by Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Jim True, and Sheila Kelley; its soundtrack boasts songs by the fastest-rising stars on the Billboard charts. With those ingredients and an ambling, naturalistic style, Crowe captures the eccentric appeal of a town where espresso carts sprout on every corner and kids in ratty flannel shirts can cut records that make them millionaires.

The Backstage, where Crowe will recharge his faltering batteries, is an underground cavern festooned with posters and periodicals from the white-hot rock scene. Fans eye the local musical dignitaries who stroll by: Mudhoney’s Dan Peters, Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks, and the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey, who’s in Crowe’s video. Some evenings in some clubs, bands get kicked off stage for showing up naked-there are limits-and most nights slit- eyed A&R men shark-cruise the crowd, bent on scenting the next Nirvana. On this July night, Crowe grins beatifically while the Lemonheads bash their guitars, and between tunes he chats with his pal Johnny Depp, who just flew in from shooting Benny & Joon in Spokane. “Cameron Crowe? He’s my brother, my father, my uncle!” Depp exclaims.

“I felt a personal explosion when I came here,” says Crowe. “I loved it that musicians here didn’t want to go to L.A. and get taught their moves at the Guitar Institute. They’d work four jobs, pull espresso till 2 a.m., then play all night.”

“That Northwest thing -it’s a real mood,” says Matt Dillon. “Cameron’s got a knack for painfully true humor. He really gets right to the core.”

Bright-eyed in daylight at the Chez Dominique espresso bar, Crowe relaxes and slurps a double-tall latte. He’s talking about how crucial the music is to Singles, even though the tunes themselves are strictly secondary to the tales of mucked-up love. Dillon, whose rough-hewn rocker character is a hilarious archetype but who gets less screen time than the central couple of Sedgwick and Scott, wasn’t sure at first that he wanted to play second fiddle. “He was saying, ‘I like the script, but have you seen my movies?'” recalls Crowe. “I said, ‘Yeah, you’re great!’ ‘I’m kind of the star of my movies.’ So I told him it’s a role Jack Nicholson might have done, like in Terms of Endearment. He said, ‘Ehhhh I dunno.'”

“Then I met Pearl Jam, and that sold me,” Dillon says. “I thought, okay, I know where I’m goin’. These guys are cool.”

“The kind of stuff I do is hard,” admits Crowe, “’cause it’s in the middle. It’s not obviously bound for (the Sundance Film Festival at) Park City, Utah, nor is it bound for $100 million glory.”

Happily for Singles, Seattle rock was bound for commercial glory. When Crowe started production in March 1991-he’d been working on the script since 1983-only Soundgarden, his favorite band, had a glimmer of national recognition. “The guys in Nirvana used to hang out at Soundgarden shows going, ‘We’re not worthy! We wouldn’t be anything without you guys!'” says Crowe. And at the time Pearl Jam, whose members portray Dillon’s band Citizen Dick in the movie, were as penniless in life as Citizen Dick are on screen.

Then in 1992, these unknowns suddenly conquered the nation’s airwaves. Nirvana sold 7 million records practically overnight; Pearl Jam and Soundgarden are currently on two of the top five albums. And as suddenly, Crowe says, the “65-year-old studio guys,” who had tried to force him to move Singles to the beachside volleyball courts of L.A., were shouting, “We’ve got a film in Seattle! Is Kurt Cobain in it?”

He’s not. The working cut of Singles was screened with Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” on the soundtrack, but the song’s success made it too costly. Bands who are seen or heard in Singles include Soundgarden, members of Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Mudhoney, and the truly grungy lead singer of the band TAD. Says Crowe, “Singles just has that friends and neighbors feel.”

The film in fact has 87 speaking parts, most of them played by nonactors. “It’s slice of life, with long scenes so you’re able to observe the twitch on a guy’s face when he’s talking to a girl,” says Crowe. The characters are also reality-based. Crowe patterned Scott’s hesitantly horny urban planner on himself, among others, and other characters are composites drawn from his relentless interrogations.

“He’s a really easy guy to talk to,” says Jeff Ament, Pearl Jam’s bassist. “He got me philosophizing about relationships. Give me more than two or three beers, and I ramble.”

To help plug Seattlistic reality into his fiction, Crowe took his six stars to the funky Off Ramp Music Cafe for an encounter session on Feb. 1, 1991. “It was very uncomfortable at first,” he recalls, “everyone standing around. But together there was this new dynamic. Matt and Campbell threw themselves onto the floor, slam-dancing.” Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, who sports Jesus-like locks himself, razzed Dillon about the long-hair wig he wears in the film. And, says Crowe, “The cast was thinking, ‘Whew, there really is something you can sink your teeth into here.'” Sedgwick left when kids started chucking beer bottles-“She said, ‘I am a mother,'” Crowe recalls-but Singles had passed a crucial test.

“We spent a lot of time going to dives, and everybody really got close,” says Dillon. “It sounds like I’m just strokin’, but it’s true, man.”

Crowe acknowledges that his direction is like his dialogue -insistently uninsistent. “I go for the small moments,” he says, and he sweats the details. Pearl Jam donated grungewear to the cast. “Matt was most comfortable wearing Jeff Ament’s clothes,” says Crowe, and the rocker character’s icon-crammed room is also based on Ament’s own. “My character is not a cliched heavy-metal guy,” says Dillon. “We wanted to make it funny without making fun of him.”

Back at the editing console, Crowe is now crowing over his video for Paul Westerberg’s “Dyslexic Heart,” the song that plays over the closing credits. Just days before, it was a sad drag; now it’s snappy vignettes about the failure to communicate: A couple entwines in (and on) ecstasy; on a dance floor, a fan holding runway flashlights clears himself for landing on a pair of blonds; prissy promgoers confront spike-headed punks.

The video, the first Crowe has directed, may well have fewer images from its movie than any ever made. “Whenever I see film footage in a video, I think, okay, now I’m bein’ sold,” says Crowe. Astoundingly, he refused at first to do a soundtrack album. “But they said, ‘Look, you’re over budget, and this will give you enough to make the movie you want,'” and that was music too sweet to resist. Most of the album, which is already a top 30 hit, was performed specifically for the movie. “It’s not a hits compilation,” says Crowe proudly. “It’s an album.”

He meant for the movie to have the same noncommercial integrity. “It’s just stolen moments from life,” Crowe says. “A pop experience, something that has a kind of nonlinear fizz to it. The good thing about Singles is it comes from the right place. It’s from the heart.” But the monitor displays one of Crowe’s rare concessions to the demands of marketing. As the camera pans across a graffiti-splattered club wall, it lingers on a line Crowe cannily placed there himself: “SEE A MOVIE ABOUT LOVE.”

Courtesy of Entertainment Weekly – Tim Appelo – August 1992