Elizabethtown – St. Louis Dispatch

The Charming and Inquisitive Cameron Crowe

Cameron Crowe still calls himself a journalist. Although it’s been a couple of decades since he traveled the arena-rock circuit as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone, the director turns every interview into a two-way discussion.

As Crowe greets a reporter at a Toronto hotel room, you can see how he could have passed for a high schooler at age 22, when he went undercover to write the book “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” At 48, he still has a shaggy haircut and calls the reporter “brother” without a whiff of irony.

“I’m more comfortable talking journalist-to-journalist than to studio executives,” he says. “When it comes to movies, it always ends up being a conversation. I was screening ‘Elizabethtown’ in France recently, and I met Robert Towne in the lobby of a hotel. He wrote the screenplay for ‘Shampoo,’ and I happen to be on this jag where I want to know everything about Hal Ashby, who directed it. So, even though I didn’t have a tape recorder and wasn’t there as a journalist, I just had to ask him to tell me everything he could about Hal Ashby. I’m just more comfortable asking questions.”

The question he asked himself during the Toronto International Film Festival was how to polish the rough cut of “Elizabethtown” in time for its national release. It’s the story of a shoe designer (Orlando Bloom) who suffers a professional humiliation and the death of his father, then meets a lively flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) on his trip to the funeral in a close-knit Southern town.

“I want the movie to bring you into another world,” he says. “It’s influenced by movies like ‘Local Hero’ that have a slightly whimsical tone but are still realistic. That’s a very tricky balance. What I don’t want it to do is overstay its welcome. It’s the most finicky movie I’ve ever made. There are a series of goodbyes at the end that we will probably tighten, but every little change has a huge effect. So we’re fighting to get a shorter version with the right rhythm.”

Although the success of films like “Jerry Maguire” and “Vanilla Sky” have earned him a contractual guarantee of final cut (“which I’ll take in lieu of money,” he jokes), Crowe’s not averse to asking his visitor for recommendations. “What part of the movie did you find the most affecting?”

When the visitor says the love story, Crowe nods like a gambler who’s hedging his bets.

“I’ll tell you what it’s never going to be — a simple romantic comedy. I like movies with a lot of stories. ‘Jerry Maguire’ was 2 hours and 17 minutes long, and there were a bunch of stories in that. And what about ‘Nashville’? I would never presume to be in that company, but when I saw that movie as a kid, I thought, ‘Man, that is a rich stew.’ ”

The stew that Crowe is cooking in “Elizabethtown” is from a family recipe. The widow played by Susan Sarandon is based on Crowe’s own mother, who quickly channeled her grief into a series of self-improvement projects.

“After my father died, nobody in my family grieved like people do in the movies. My mom took comedy classes. It was the saddest, funniest, most revealing thing about her I’d ever seen. My mom’s a brilliant person — but she’s not that funny. She was working on this stand-up routine, but it was obvious to everyone in the class that she’d just lost her husband. After a couple of these classes, the teacher actually took her aside and said, ‘You know what, Alice? You’re not ready for this. You should grieve.’

“After something like that, I would have gone home and curled in a fetal position. But you know what she did? She went to a different comedy club and took a different class until she was ready to move on. And I wanted to convey that in the movie. I wanted it to begin with an ending and end with a beginning, which is how it feels to be truly alive in the world.”

After an assistant flashes the wrap-it-up signal, Crowe continues to ask the interviewer questions: Have you heard the new Oasis album? What did you think of “Capote”? Where did you get that cool sport coat?

As the reporter says goodbye, he privately wonders if there’s an exception to the first rule of celebrity journalism, which Crowe wrote in his semi-autobiographical screenplay “Almost Famous”: Never become friends with the people that you interview.

Courtesy of the St. Louis Dispatch – Joe Williams – October 14, 2005