Elizabethtown – IGN

A Conversation with Cameron Crowe

Forget about drugs, says the Elizabethtown director; sex and rock & roll are enough to save us all.

After working as an entertainment reporter for a few years, a time comes when you start to feel that you’ve seen it all, said it all, and asked it all. It’s not a matter of becoming jaded, as much as it is just plain getting tired – tired of asking the same questions about actors’ motivations, screenwriters’ inspirations, and directors’ complications. And after a while, it all seems to boil down to the writer’s frustrations: how do I muster enough energy to ask Paris Hilton about her acting challenges in House of Wax, and then turn around and write a feature that’s interesting to readers, much less myself?

Thankfully, there are those few occasions whereupon writers get to embrace their inner googolplex-goer, their closet fanboy, and interview someone whom they respect and enjoy on a personal level as much as a professional one. Such is the case for me, somewhat appropriately, with Cameron Crowe, who was himself at one time a reporter, and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most respected filmmakers with works like Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. Being that the last of these films is my favorite of all time – a fact I unfortunately felt compelled to mention several times during our interview – I was perhaps understandably excited to sit down with him to discuss his latest project, the coming-of-age ‘dramedy’ Elizabethtown.

From our first moments together, Crowe proved to be a charming, articulate fellow; not only did he appreciate my enthusiasm, as unfocused as it may have been, but he responded in kind, offering sage wisdom about moviemaking as much as life itself. But what emerged from our time together wasn’t merely an interview, or a dreaded question-and-answer session devoid of fluidity or palpable interaction. Rather, it became the unlikeliest of exchanges, particularly in a business where everyone’s selling but no one’s buying: a real, true-blue conversation.

So departing a bit from IGN FilmForce’s typical approach to movie coverage, here are the minutes of our time together, captured in their shamelessly personal, unedited glory; and while I’d apologize for doing Cameron Crowe the disservice of attaching my own comments to his much more insightful ones, I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court, and openly confess the source of my inspiration – that is, Elizabethtown, his own shamelessly personal, far more dexterously edited moviemaking vision.

IGN FILMFORCE: I recently read the article you wrote about music and movies for the Los Angeles Times and thought it was great, especially in terms of your sort of encyclopedic approach to looking at the way music and images work together. What kind of pressure do you feel internally to go, ‘I have to pay tribute to the fans of my films?’

CAMERON CROWE: Zero. I mean, I’m a fan of that kind of movie, so it’s really ‘am I overdoing it,’ you know what I mean? Should I shake it up and put no music in a movie, which I’m sort of thinking about for the next one. [But] once I start I can’t stop (laughs).

IGN: When you’re selecting music, how difficult is it to pick a song – for instance, there’s certainly an impulse to find that obscure song that means a million things to you but you put it in the movie and maybe it’s too new, or too old, or too obscure or something that nails a feeling for you but just doesn’t work on screen. How often do you find that happens to you?

CROWE: Most of the time. I mean, there was a version of the road trip where a friend of mine saw it and said, “dude, it sounds like a new music sampler; c’mon – nobody would make a mix tape like that!” And it was true and it wasn’t authentic enough, because a real mix CD made by [Kirsten Dunst’s] character would have something like “Pride in the Name of Love,” like a chestnut, and then a joke song and then a new song and then a semi-old song. So that was more truthful, I think, but I had all of this new music I wanted to play: definitely Josh Ritter, and “Mercury” by Kathleen Edwards, and some of that had to drop away.

IGN: Speaking of Kirsten Dunst’s character, some of the other journalists and myself were having this discussion about how this character, a lot like [Say Anything’s] Diane Cort and Reenee Zellweger’s character in Jerry Maguire and Kate Hudson’s character [in Almost Famous], that seem to be almost too good to be true, in the sense that I’m not entirely convinced that people exist in reality. You’ve mentioned in interviews before that there are elements of the characters drawn from your own life and your own relationships, but at what point is creating characters like this a kind of wish fulfillment for people my age who have yet to meet girls who are as cool, grounded, down to earth, insightful, and know everything about music that we want them to know?

CROWE: It’s not wish fulfillment. If anything, she’s sort of – she is sort of an angel. She is sent to him, and it is the first stages of a relationship and there are warts in everybody; relationships are a warts-and-all experience. But in the time of the story, I guess, I think she was sent to him with a purpose – to help save him – and the challenge is, and I think she sort of issues it him, is like ‘are you really going to be in the world and appreciate me?’ and that’s what the journey of the road trip is; like, figure yourself out and maybe I’ll be there. I think as the movie ends, he’s ready for the ride, and maybe if the story continued, we’d see more of her maniacal control-freak side that made her create the map and the questionable relationship with Ben. The problems are just below the surface, but for the flow of the story I think she’s an angel, a real live angel. But I do like a character in a movie that’s sort of a knockaround truth-teller, and that’s her in this movie.

IGN: I think in a larger sense, your movie sort of serve that purpose too. Almost Famous is one of my favorite movies – actually, my favorite movie – for the reason that unlike so many other sort of adolescent-oriented films, it really nails the sort of heartbreaking sadness of realizing the way that love and sex are often mutually exclusive from one another; personally, I think that Almost Famous and Rushmore are the only two movies that I’ve ever seen that accurately depicted that, where you sort of realize sex is not love and love is not sex…

CROWE: Can I suggest another one for you?

IGN: Sure.

CROWE: Have you ever seen Quadrophenia?

IGN: I haven’t, no.

CROWE: Brotha, you’ve got to see Quadrophenia for the love affair that happens between Jimmy and a character named Steph; it will kill you. I mean, just when you were talking about Rushmore, I was like “I’m there – I know that ache.” It’s very familiar to me. I’m honored that you put Almost Famous in the category and I went right to Quadrophenia. When Steph says, “it was just a giggle,” whew, harsh – and you’ll never forget her. You know what I mean? You, the character, Jimmy, that’s the girl you never forget: she sleeps with you and it just didn’t mean what it meant to you. That’s a beautiful melancholy (laughs).

IGN: That’s what works about the scene [in Almost Famous] where William loses his virginity. That’s a moment that under any other circumstances would be the end of American Pie – that would be his sort of moment of triumph, and I could totally appreciate the idea of wanting to share that with a certain person and not being able to. How difficult is it to come up with those sort of twists and turns that sort of take a conventional moment like that – losing one’s virginity – and give it a different sort of slant? Do you write a scene from the outside and then go in and flip it around, or is it just a matter of putting things together exclusively based on your personal experiences?

CROWE: Uh, it changes. That’s a really good question. That scene came from real life, and the feeling that the girl you want it to be with is the one leaving the room. The other thing is everybody’s virginity-losing episode is different; none of them are movie-like in many ways, so I wanted to do it realistically, even with a little bit of poetry with the camera slowing down and everything…

IGN: And the feathers, and the girls jumping around…

CROWE: …thanks, brotha, thanks for your memory. I think it’s just real life has got its own kind of veracity that you can’t make up in so many ways, and so always go back to real life to figure out how it would really happen. I read an interview with Mike Nichols once where he said everything he does, the question he asks about every scene is how would it really happen? I don’t know if I’ve been able to be that strict about it, but it’s a good place to go back to – how does it feel? And how does it feel is pretty much what I go back to [when I’m] writing. It kind of powers the whole movie: how does it feel to go back to Kentucky? How does it feel to leave? And how does it feel to give up? What was that palpable sadness? And that’s what you chase – is the scene going to take you there. And then of course you have music.

IGN: You’ve been working in Hollywood longer than a lot of people who are in this movie, and have seen plenty of movies – being that you are a cineaste yourself – movies that go through different iterations. The first time I saw the movie was Friday night, but I’d heard that there were changes made since Toronto. How difficult is it to sort of stay on target when you’re trying to put a movie together, making some of those hard decisions, when we now function in an era where everything is so relentlessly documented that there’s no way to sort of retain the mystique, like it just emerges in its final form? I always think of Annie Hall about how there’s the famous story about how it was a murder mystery and they got rid of it and it’s now the greatest romantic comedy of all time.

CROWE: But they didn’t screen the murder mystery, and it wasn’t reviewed on Ain’t It Cool News, and it wasn’t dissected and he didn’t take the murder mystery to Toronto (laughs). But, you know, I’ll take modern life in all of its glory and freaky pain, sometimes. It’s really like the coolest job to have; I mean, just in the time we’ve been talking, about three different times I’ve thought, how cool to have a movie that you would put in the realm of Rushmore? So believe me, these are small prices to pay, and this was the process on this one. I mean, you know, having everybody ask about Ashton Kutcher; I mean, that’s what this one is shaping up to be. It had a little bit of an odd, interesting public history, and now it gets to be what it is. The process of editing the movie after Toronto was what I would have done anyway. I didn’t want to miss the festivals; I took out the version that was ready, the most ready, and said I was doing that. Would I do it that way again? (Whispering) I don’t think so. But that’s the way it happened, and I’m going to roll with it. I think you’ve got to examine what your intent is always, and then that kind of keeps you true. But it’s a great question, because there’s so much relentless documentation now that a story can get set in stone early on or an attitude can get set in stone early on and that becomes it for a while until it changes.

IGN: I know that this has sort of become an issue, whether it’s a virtue or a vice, of home video and DVD, where there is the availability of commentary tracks and things like that. I showed my girlfriend Almost Famous like a month ago and I was like, we’re just going to watch the theatrical version first, and then we’ll go watch the other one, and then we were like, “okay, let’s listen to the commentary.” And you learn things every time and at the same time, I’m always curious to find out how reluctant you are – your films aren’t as fantastical in the sense as a Lord of the Rings, but do you have any trepidations about demystifying the moviemaking process? Before DVD, it was sort of like, “I don’t know how they did that, but it was pretty cool.” Now it’s like, “alright, I know that they went on a blue screen and they talked to a tennis ball and then they came back” and everything.

CROWE: That can be destructive, the over-explanation of everything – it’s true. There’s a part of me that loves Spielberg for saying “nope, don’t do it. It’s one version, one version only – one stop shopping. But I also like knowing there’s a track I can listen to to find out about Terms of Endearment or Broadcast News or Local Hero, and I think that’s good particularly for history. I think that generations later, it’s kind of cool; there’s a special edition of To Kill a Mockingbird with an interview with Gregory Peck – fantastic! So I think it’s the way you characterize the movie, and sometimes these DVD commentaries are so humorlessly technically full of themselves, maybe the world could do with a fewer group of those. But I don’t know; there’s a journalist part of me that likes to put things out there and document the movies the way they were being made, and I’m still kind of thinking about how we might deal with the two-disc set on this movie.

IGN: When a friend of mine first saw the trailer for this movie, he said “apparently Cameron Crowe makes two kinds of movies: movies that we are completely obsessed with” – which are not mutually exclusive – “and then the Tom Cruise movies.” I think he was thinking more specifically in terms of like less personal stories and then the intensely personal ones. You’ve talked a little bit about the catharsis of doing this; do you see this as sort of a point when you can step away from the autobiographical stuff and move on to something [more conventional]?

CROWE: I think so, I think so. It was just the time to do this one, and I heard the sound of it, and it sounded like this and it felt like this, and I liked what it was about. But I become obsessed with this stuff too, you know, so my obsession begins a little earlier hopefully than some of the other people, and I also kind of want to honor the ongoing story hopefully that can be told. Because I always wanted to write about my basic generation as I got older and as that group of people got older; there’s stories that I want to tell now that are a little more about family and marriage and all of that stuff – with other generations mixed into it. But I just kind of like taking snapshots. I just wish the snapshots could be made and developed more quickly – but I’m working on it.

Courtesy of IGN – Todd Gilchrist – October 13, 2005