Elizabethtown – eFilm Critic

Interview: A tour of ‘Elizabethtown’ with Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe, the award-winning creator of such modern classics as “Say Anything” and “Almost Famous” talks about the long and strange trip of bringing his latest work, the comedy-drama “Elizabethtown” to the big screen.

Over the course of only a handful of films, writer-director Cameron Crowe has proven himself to be one of the more distinct American filmmakers at work today. In a period of film history where paper-thin characters mumble the minimum amount of expository dialogue in the downtime between elaborate effects sequences, he has dared to provide fully fleshed-out characters, storylines that are both thoughtful and rooted in the kind of common experiences of ordinary audiences (yes, even his twisty mind-bender “Vanilla Sky”) and the kind of snappy and instantly memorable dialogue that succinctly sums up any number of complicated feelings and emotions in only a few short words.

His latest film, “Elizabethtown”–in which Orlando Bloom stars as a shoe designer trying to face crises both professional (he has just lost his job after a shoe he designed became a billion-dollar flop) and personal (the sudden death of his father) while visiting his father’s rural Kentucky hometown for a memorial service–has all of the elements that one has come to expect from his work as well as a killer soundtrack and wonderful performances from Bloom, Kirsten Dunst (as the flight attendant who helps guide Bloom through his troubles) and Susan Sarandon (who plays Bloom’s mother and whose climactic monologue is one of the best scenes she has ever performed). Of course, as many of you probably know, the film has had an interesting and highly public gestation that started with the widely publicized casting process (Ashton Kutcher and Jane Fonda were famously discussed for the roles that went to Bloom and Sarandon) and ended with the less-than-enthusiastic reception that an unfinished cut of the film received from the press when it played at the Toronto Film Festival last month.

In town recently for the premiere of the new cut as the opening selection of the Chicago International Film Festival (where Sarandon was honored with a lifetime achievement award), Crowe talked about the process of making a film in the public eye, the difficulties of trying to keep things personal and the agony of hearing your dream soundtrack song in another movie.

You were able to make all of your five previous films as a director relatively under the publicity radar. With “Elizabethtown,” however, it seems as if every aspect of its production–from the casting to the editing to the controversial reception to the unfinished cut that you screened at the Toronto Film Festival–has been endlessly discussed and analyzed in the media. As a filmmaker, what is it like to try to make a film–especially one as personal as this–under such intense public scrutiny?

I’m flattered by the attention. It’s the high-end scenario that people care and I have been on both sides of it–no one cared about “Say Anything” or even wanted to put the movie out. The same thing happened with “Fast Times.” You have to be flattered that people are interested and you take the good with the bad. I’ve had good reviews and strange reviews and I’ve learned from all of them. The interesting thing about this journey of having a very public ride with “Elizabethtown” is that there is a little bit of myth with the Toronto reception. People have said to me [hushed tone]”Oh man, how do you feel about Toronto?” I felt great about Toronto. We got a standing ovation at the public screening–people cheered and went crazy. I still felt that the film was a touch long and I had another cut in advance of the festival that I was still working on. This is why I called it a “work-in-progress”–it was, oddly, the truth and code for nothing. I had a great experience in Toronto and it was only later that I saw that there was some critical sniping.

You know, I’ll take it because the movie is going to have the life that it is going to have in the outside world and that is when we will really have the perspective to see whether it was good or bad for it to have such a public journey. It is sort of the character of this movie and if you stifle yourself from doing something personal that you want to do because of what people might say, it goes against the sort of personal philosophy that I have about just following your instincts. I was surprised that it went public early on but the story of “Elizabethtown” is not finished yet, so we shall see.

Not counting “Vanilla Sky,” there has usually been a 3-4 year gap between your films. Is that time dedicated solely to developing the new project or are you working on other things at the same time in order to see which one jells first?

All of the above. I don’t stack projects because I always get pulled completely into whatever single thing I’m doing. It’s been this way since journalism days. Usually there’s something I’ve been working on, and then the script takes about nine months to write and finish and then getting the backing and casting and scheduling done takes another chunk of time. The price of being a detail person, and needing to pretty much do things myself. With this movie, I was also the music supervisor so that tacked another six months on. I’m determined to pick up the pace and get the next movie out within two years. Really.

This was really inspired by my dad and the roots of my family and wanting to write a story set in Kentucky. Some of the stuff is very true to what happened–my mom’s grief process and stuff like that–when my dad died of a heart attack. Not everything is achingly personal in this movie. What I wanted to do is honor that state and deal with a stranger in a strange land and that strange land is actually the core of your family root system. That was really the beginning. That scene where Orlando comes into the family kitchen for the visitation dinner–that was a scene that I wanted to get right and that was one of those scenes where I wanted to make the entire movie just for that scene.

It wasn’t hard to get this film made–we all had to cut our salaries and do it as a labor of love and I was happy to do it. I do relate to a character like Kirsten Dunst who says, “Let’s just say what we aren’t saying!” because so often, trying to get a movie made in the Hollywood system is like trying to read Russian politics through what was in-between the lines of “Tass.” You’ll be sitting there with somebody and they’ll say [robotic tone] “I-was-just-moved-incredibly-by-your-script” and you are hearing the words but you leave the room and realize that you have just been turned down. People like Wilder and William Wyler–they made movies that were sometimes personal but always idiosyncratic , so I still consider it a goal to get your movies through the system if you can and see if you can reach people while remaining true to a personal voice at the same time.

I was curious about how you developed the structure for the film. The first section is more stylized, for lack of a better word, in the tradition of a movie-movie while it takes on more of a documentary-like feel (again, for lack of a better term) once it hits Kentucky. Was this always the intention or did it emerge during the writing process?

That was the intention. Life and a different rhythm takes over the story and Drew’s life as soon as he gets out of the car–the last of a series of hermetically sealed boxes where he’s lived his life until that point.

Obviously, America has become more and more polarized during the last few years into a red state-blue state standoff. One of the things that I liked about the film was the way that it depicts a funny and colorful red state existence without turning it into either a cartoon fantasy world where everyone talks funny and sits in La-Z-Boys and churn out homespun wisdom that puts those city folk in their place–the sort of redneck blackface of “Sweet Home Alabama” and its ilk. How hard was it to find that balance and how do you anticipate that such an even-handed approach will play with both audiences?

My dad was from Kentucky, and whenever we visited I remember hearing us characterized as the “California Crowes.” Even as a little kid, I wondered why we had that distinction. But I did know, even then, that we were both fascinated with each other and neither of us were the stereotypes the other had grown up with, watching t.v. shows and other movies. I didn’t go to the beach every day and live at Disneyland, and they didn’t wear overalls and I never heard a banjo once while visiting Kentucky. For “Elizabethtown,” I just wanted both sides to be individuals first. I was determined to hire a bunch of regional actors and never lean on an accent or the “Southern thing.” I mean, after all, Kentucky isn’t even technically “the South.” They’re sort of in the middle–the southernmost northern state or the northernmost southern state. Whatever was real and accurate was what I wanted Kentucky to be in the movie. And when we showed the movie in Louisville and Elizabethtown two weeks ago, they thanked us for it. I was very happy about that

Although your films have tended to be driven more by character than plot, “Elizabethtown” seems to be the most character-driven of them all. Was this in any way a response to the experience of “Vanilla Sky,” which was by far the most plot-oriented of your films?

No. In retrospect, it feels like that might be the case but it really wasn’t. The other thing I was working on had a lot of story–maybe more than “Vanilla Sky”–and this just kind of came. I had Hal Ashby on my mind a little bit–some of the free-flowing feel of a Hal Ashby film. was watching “The Last Detail” the other night and man, I don’t know if that movie could be made today because that has a really leisurely pace and an explosive Jack Nicholson performance at the center. They took their time in that movie and I loved it. That didn’t have much of a story–they were just driving around with Randy Quaid.

One of the plot strands involves the fact that the Drew’s mother met his father and whisked him away from both his hometown and hometown sweetheart to the strange land of “California” and the resentments that may have instilled. Before casting Susan Sarandon, there was some discussion about Jane Fonda playing that part. Considering the off-screen personas of both actresses, were you deliberately looking for someone to play that role who would bring that sort of psychological baggage to the party or is this one of those things that film critics read way too much into.

One of those things film critics read way too much into. I thought about it for a moment with Jane Fonda, and figured the pluses and minuses of her past history probably cancelled each other out. I was interested in her because of her acting–I’m a fan. With Sarandon, I also found that people’s love of her characterizations really do transcend her politics. Time after time in Kentucky, people would talk with her and politics never even came up. What was obvious is they felt like they knew her and they did. What you see is what you get with Sarandon. Very down to earth. Until it comes time for a Film Festival, of course, and then she’ll break out one of her “Dolce Vita” dresses and all I can say is, in the words of Roger Ebert last night, “wow.”

Speaking of casting, how did the idea of Orlando Bloom come about after the flirtation with Ashton Kutcher, especially since I think this is the first major contemporary role that he has played?

Orlando felt like the lyrical choice. He’d never done a part like this. Plus, he soaks up music. Also, it’s a fresh choice and I love his acting. You may know him, but you never knew him like this. I liked that the leading lady was familiar, but the leading man was the discovery part.

In the film, you use several singers–Loudon Wainwright and Patty Griffin come to mind–in straightforward acting roles. What is it like to direct such people on the set? Obviously, they are seasoned performers but in a discipline that requires the kind of spontaneity that usually isn’t seen in a large-scale movie production.

Most of the time, actors should not be musicians and musicians should not be actors. It’s a different set of skills, and sensibilities. But every once in a while, there’s a cross over. Loudon Wainwright has been acting for years–he’s a natural. And Patty Griffin was a surprise. A fine unassuming, real presence. I wish her part was bigger in “Elizabethtown.” When it works, it’s great when a movie has musicians in the cast because it’s a good counter-rhythm and gives you an extra dimension. Different kinds of people make a movie feel more like life.

I wanted to ask you about the scene in the film that seems to be causing the most discussion among audiences–the extended monologue that Susan Sarandon delivers during the memorial service. Personally, I think it is the best scene in the film because it is such a high-wire act in the way that it goes from comedy to pathos to tap-dancing to a performance of “Free Bird.” There are so many ways in which a scene like that could go horribly wrong and become either mawkish or silly. Can you talk a little about how you constructed that particular sequence?

That was the thing about the script–it had these big chunks. It had a road trip at the end, an all-night phone call, an eight-minute monologue and “Free Bird.” Billy Wilder would never have a screenplay like that because the math involved is not that kind of screenwriting math but one of the goals of this movie was to earn it. That is why it took so long to edit, frankly. I didn’t want to lose the road trip at the end. We have Susan Sarandon and you don’t want to just have her come up and tap-dance. You wanted to earn the monologue and have “Free Bird” play. As far as the emotion of it, she never got sentimental with it and that helped a lot.

I also liked that “Free Bird” was good–for that one night, they got to own “Free Bird” before all hell breaks loose. That was something I was worried about. I used to write about Lynryd Skynyrd, I knew Ronnie Van Zant and he was the first guy that I sort of knew who died–I had so much emotion when I was younger and I could barely listen to them after that crash. We showed the movie in Franklin, Tennessee and the guy who ran the screening came up to me and said “Lynyrd Skynyrd are here.” My uncle and my cousin were there and that was already enough. I asked who was there and he said that the three factions of the band, who don’t really talk to each other, were all there. I said, “Did you tell them that there was a burning bird in this movie?” and he said “No, I told them to expect something out of the ordinary with ‘Free Bird’.” Afterwards, I was really nervous and then I talked to the guys one by one and they loved it. I think they dug that it was the original version and that it dared to be what it was, which was a well-intentioned tribute that went horribly wrong.

I think the My Morning Jacket guys were not that comfortable with playing “Free Bird” because they already get that yelled at them at their concerts and they are so not that band, particularly with the new album. Every other song we tried–such as “I Shall Be Released”–just felt mawkish so we dove in head-first. I think they love that it is flying into the face of their own joke that they aren’t really a Southern band.

Once again, you have compiled a pretty incredible and eclectic soundtrack for your film. In recent years, a lot of filmmakers have begun taking a similar approach when compiling their soundtracks. Has there ever been a circumstance when you have figured out the perfect song to have in a scene only to discover that someone else has used it for their own film?

Yes! Fuck yes! Brutally yes! Particularly “The O.C.” because I wasn’t watching the show. “Come and Find Me” by Josh Ritter was one. I loved that song and thought that this would be our discovery. I played the film in one form with that song–we built a shrine to that song because it was the whole ending to the movie–and someone at the screening asked me if I watched “Six Feet Under.” I said yeah, the first season was amazing. He asks, “Did you see it last week?” No. “They used “Come and Find Me” and they really used it great.” Also Tarantino with “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind” in “Jackie Brown”–that one hurt because I love those kind of soul classics and not only did he use it, he turned it into an opera and used it great. It feels like somebody is throwing down cards and you have to go back to your cards.

Eddie Hinton, in this movie, was a guy that I really wanted to use. He was this session player at Muscle Shoals and did a few solo things and died of a heroin overdose pretty much unknown. With him, I think we barely got there because people have come up to me and gone “Hey, Eddie Hinton, man–I was going to use Eddie Hinton.” Some movies have become like radio stations in their own way.

If it is going to be a very musical movie–and I felt that this one was going to be one–then I play music a lot between takes and even during takes sometimes. I hired the actors because they worked with the music that I wanted to use. I used that Elton John song in the auditions for the actors up for the role of Drew and Orlando kind of matched and the same thing happened with Kirsten and the Tom Petty. It just felt like a musical in that way. Mitch, Drew’s father, is really represented in a lot of the songs–that is sort of the voice of Mitch winding through the movie. I also know that you don’t want to overuse that–it is kind of an elixir that is best used and not overused. After Toronto, I took out two songs because I thought that the scenes should be quiet.

Do you have a preference between the current version of the film and the longer Toronto cut? Do you anticipate ever releasing a “bootleg” edition of that version on DVD?

I like the shorter, final cut of the movie. The “Toronto cut” was a work in progress. It’s what I had when the festival deadline arrived. But I was still working on it, just as it was announced before the press screenings. Not sure yet if I’ll do a longer “collector’s cut” for a DVD release. If I do, I’ll let people know so they can avoid the double-dip syndrome and wait for a two-disc set later. But I can tell you right now –the final cut is the one going into theatres. Any other cut would be a bonus version of the entire movie with deleted scenes cut into it.

Speaking of DVD-most of your films to date have received nifty special editions aside from “Singles.” Therefore, it must be asked-when will we be getting the lavish Collector’s Edition of “The Wild Life”?

It’s coming out in a special double edition, along with a new short slasher film I’m working on, called “Very Funny, Peter.” Look for it soon. With “Singles,” we’re in talks with Warner Brothers to make sure they hung onto all the outs from the movie. I have the eight track masters on all the concert stuff — there’s great unreleased stuff. I want to do the DVD commentary with editor Richard Chew and whoever else from the Seattle crowd I can drum up.

What is the status of the Phil Spector project that had previously been mentioned? Obviously it wouldn’t be as obscure of a subject as it might have once been but I would assume that there would have to be some serious third-act revisions.

I bowed out of the Phil Spector story to do “Almost Famous.” His daughter Nicole appears in small parts in “Almost Famous” and “Elizabethtown.” She’s a great girl, some say the rose in Phil’s Spanish Harlem. Whoever makes the movie, I hope it’s in black-and-white.

Courtesy of eFilmCritic – Peter Sobczynski – October, 2005