Elizabethtown – Miami Herald

Comedic Script Gave Way to Family Theme

Writer-director Cameron Crowe compares his new movie, Elizabethtown, to “a Rorschach test. There are people who will never like it. There are people who are profoundly affected by it. And then there are people who need to think about it a little bit.”

That was definitely the reaction among critics at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Crowe screened a “work in progress” version of Elizabethtown. Although the paying audience gave the film a standing ovation at a gala screening, the buzz from the press corps was predominantly negative. And even those who liked the film admitted that, at 135 minutes, Elizabethtown was simply too long.

Why unveil a movie you’ve been working on for two years before it’s finished? In a suite at Toronto’s Four Seasons hotel the afternoon before its public showing, Crowe said that although his final cut of the movie wasn’t due until Sept. 20, he had assembled a version of the film that he liked and wanted to road-test it. “Film editing is just like writing: I’m always going to be working right up until the deadline. And this movie had built-in challenges and rhythms that were very interesting to work with. So I decided to take this cut on the festival circuit, see the movie outside of our little editing room and learn from what happens out there, and I’ll still have eight days to work on it when I get back.”

Although the version of Elizabethtown opening in theaters today is 18 minutes shorter, it is essentially the same movie, minus minor trims to existing scenes. The biggest – and best – change was the deletion of an entire sequence, originally set late in the movie, that contradicted the film’s message that it is perfectly OK to fail, and fail big, as long as you can move on and learn from your experiences.

Like Almost Famous, which was based in part on his days as a teenage journalist covering rock ‘n’ roll for Rolling Stone magazine, Elizabethtown is a semi-autobiographical work. The film’s central premise – a sneaker designer (Orlando Bloom) travels to a small town in Kentucky to attend his father’s funeral and meet his side of the family – closely mirrors Crowe’s own trip to that state upon his father’s death in 1989.

And much like Bloom’s character in the film, Crowe says he and his father got along very well.

“He would love that we were sitting here talking about him,” Crowe says. “He was a really good guy and wanted to be a part of my life. He was always addicted to movies, and he was very excited that I was maybe going to be able to do this directing thing. But most of all, we were close. That’s why I wanted to write a story about fathers and sons that wasn’t all like ‘I hate you! You’ve screwed me up for the rest of my life!’ In a way, it was really hard to write about, because I didn’t have issues with my father beyond that I wish I knew him better. So that became the issue.”

Although Crowe says the script of Elizabethtown was more of an “out-and-out comedy,” the theme of family gradually took over the movie, giving it its melancholy air. “Everybody works hard, and even when you live near your parents, you don’t get to see them as often as they’d like,” he says. “I’ve worked a couple of Christmases now, and sometimes it starts to feel pretty comfortable to miss Christmas, until you do go home for the next Christmas, and a lot of your old friends – and maybe even a few family members – are like `It’s good to see you again. How’s it going?’ but you can feel they’re a little distant, and you don’t have that love that you might have been able to tend a little better.”

Like all of Crowe’s movies, Elizabethtown makes extensive use of music. Elton John’s My Father’s Gun is a mantra in the film, and a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird is performed during a crucial scene. Much of the movie unfolds against a tapestry of pop songs – Tom Petty, Ryan Adams, U2 – and an elaborate road trip, complete with a carefully compiled musical mix tape, forms the film’s climax.

Crowe, who writes specific songs into his screenplay and plays music on the set to help his actors understand the tone he’s aiming for, goes as far as to describe Elizabethtown as “a musical – even more of a musical than Almost Famous. But this new thing I’m working on, I have no music in mind for whatsoever. So maybe we’ve peaked with the music stuff for now with Elizabethtown.”

Courtesy of the Miami Herald – Rene Rodriguez – October 14, 2005