Elizabethtown – UGO

Interview: Cameron Crowe, Writer-Director of Elizabethtown

Over his 20-odd-year career, Cameron Crowe has created several indelible films. Movies like Say Anything and Almost Famous will be remembered for many generations to come. Now he’s mined his own life again for Elizabethtown, in which Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) goes back to his hometown in Kentucky for his father’s funeral and falls in love with a flight attendant, Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst).

UGO: Elizabethtown, much like your last couple of films, really seems to be dividing people. That didn’t happen with many of your earlier works, why is that happening now?

CAMERON: I think trying a few different ways of telling a story and creating a bar to try and jump over structurally with the stories. It may not happen next time. Interestingly enough, they’re not meant to be more complex than the other ones, it’s just there are always meant to be about characters with varying degrees of things going on that you can relate to. David Aames in Vanilla Sky is on a psychological mind trip, that’s probably a little more challenging than Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything… in some ways. But I love them all.

UGO: When you’re tackling something that isn’t a slice of yourself, how are you able to feel close to the characters?

CAMERON: I end up feeling like I know them all and they all become real characters, even though Drew in Elizabethtown certainly has some things going on that I definitely went through going to Kentucky to deal with funerals and stuff. They all become people to me. Did you ever read that interview with Quentin Tarantino where he said when he gets lonely and he’s away from home, he rents Dazed and Confused? I love that. That, to me, is the greatest compliment you can pay a movie. When the characters became real enough for you to want to hang out with them. They all kind of become real in that way for me, too. Elizabethtown has a few challenges built into it that after a couple of years people will come to see. I definitely don’t make so many movies that I think you can breeze through with one. I try and pack them with a lot of stuff that you can see on multiple viewings.

UGO: What made you pick Orlando Bloom for the lead role?

CAMERON: Orlando worked best for me with the story but he was kind of the whimsical choice. He reminded me a little bit of what the Hal Ashby movie Harold and Maude might’ve had. A guy who you can read a lot into his face and his expressions and he’s sort of a stranger in a strange land with the strange land being his family roots in Kentucky.

UGO: I’d love to talk about the character actors you cast like Bruce McGill and Judy Greer. As someone like you who knows film, these are people that you love.

CAMERON: I do, I love them. I’m a big fan of Judy Greer and I loved her in Adaptation. Bruce McGill is just kind of this wonderful little surprise in every movie you see him in like Collateral or going back to Animal House, the guy’s just classic. He’s really good. There’s more to that part than I was able to use and hopefully I’ll be able to get more into the DVD. He had a scene, man, you would’ve freaked out. He did a scene by the grave where he finally breaks down with the guilt and the love of Mitch. Man, everybody on the set that day was just flabbergasted because here’s this guy you know as like a comedic character actor and the depth and soul and the comedy was all just pouring out of him. It’s an amazing sequence.

UGO: What made you think he could do this more dramatic role which he doesn’t do as much?

CAMERON: He came in and auditioned for it and he was fantastic. I think there was some thought that it might not be a big enough part for him. Bruce just wanted to do it anyway because it was fun working together in the room. Man, I can’t wait to work with him again. I love that you’re asking about him.

UGO: You always work with these great cinematographers. What makes you take someone like a Janusz Kaminski and have do him a story about a sports agent [Jerry Maguire] or take John Toll and have him do a character piece like Elizabethtown?

CAMERON: Janusz did such a good job on Jerry Maguire and the goal was only this, “a romantic comedy with depth and soul.” Because almost every romantic comedy, particularly when we did Jerry Maguire, had that candy apple, you’d never really see it in life kind of feel. I just knew Janusz had depth and soul. He shot Tom Cruise in a way I’d never seen and gave depth to the story that could’ve easily been done in that same candy-apple romantic comedy tone. John Toll similarly works from the inside out. I think his stuff on Elizabethtown is probably the best of John Toll because he’ll go out on the road, he’ll shoot the landscapes of what that road trip would be. But he’ll also just get way into developing Kirsten Dunst in a way that she might not have been photographed before as a young woman rather than a teenager with soul and heart. This is like, “Well, let’s give her her first real leading lady look and work in that frame.” John Toll loves the landscape of the face almost as much as the landscape of the country, which is a lot.

UGO: Are films like Elizabethtown and Almost Famous applying your journalistic abilities to yourself?

CAMERON: A little bit. Elizabethtown is more like a Garrison Keillor story where I wanted to tell a story that’s almost a folktale where you bring in different strands of stories and different lives. Here’s Bruce McGill and here’s Susan Sarandon and here are their lives and you might even be wondering like, “Where is this all going?” But there’s something about those Garrison Keillor monologues that is almost elemental where it gets to the end and he’ll say something like, “And she twirled like the world twirled on its axis and twirled and twirled. And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon.” You go, “Ohhh! Man!” He drew all the threads together. That’s what I wanted the ending of Elizabethtown to be and frankly it wasn’t until after a long editing process that I was able to get the mix right where I think now the movie peaks on the last line, so I’m really happy.

UGO: Do you have any expectations for Elizabethtown?

CAMERON: Yeah, the expectations that it reaches people enough so that I can do it again.

UGO: If Elizabethtown does what Almost Famous did where it didn’t do well in the theater but then became a big hit on DVD, would you have trouble making your next film?

CAMERON: I don’t know. It depends on what the subject matter was, but I’ve never really tried to work a marketplace. That’s going back to music. The artists I’ve always loved always seemed to be the people that wrote out of their own pure instincts and wrote something that they thought they would like to go see or hear and if they felt that way, then others might. I’ve read too many stories about people that tried to do something for a trend or what they feel would be successful and it just always seems like the kiss of death. What really works is reading something out loud for friends and if you feel that little thrill, that it’s something that you would want to go see or hear, that’s always the thing that I listen to. So far I’ve been lucky and fortunate with doing personal or semi-personal movies inside the studio system. That might not be true the next time and I might work on a much smaller scale. It doesn’t matter. I just want to be able to tell stories and reach people with characters.

UGO: As a big director that you probably have a lot of things going on in development.

CAMERON: I don’t. It’s one at a time for me.

UGO: Do you ever read other people’s scripts?

CAMERON: Sometimes. I think most people just assume I’m going to write my own stuff. I was just talking with Nancy [Wilson] about what’s next, so it’s time to glimpse the other side.

UGO: Do book galleys come to your office and you read them?

CAMERON: Not really. There are some ideas I’ve got and I have a big box that I put scraps of ideas in and I keep notebooks and stuff, but really I wait for stuff to percolate then it’s time to write something new. First it begins as a short story that I’ll write myself and it’ll grow from there.

UGO: Indulge me for a second when I ask about The Wild Life. My favorite scene in that film is when Chris Penn and his friends smash their heads through the wall.

CAMERON: That was James L. Brooks’ favorite scene of anything that I’d written and he got a hold of me and we began working on Say Anything together. Brooks said, “The Wild Life had problems, but I love that scene when the two guys…” You are the only other person to bring that up to me.

UGO: Was it kind of an unofficial sequel to Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

CAMERON: No, I think they tried to sell it that way because they couldn’t resist. But the only sequel to Fast Times would be the real story of what happened to those people and I sort of vowed to let them have their lives after the book.

UGO: I bet that they’re probably all working for you as your grips and electrics.

CAMERON: [laughs] They’re a good group.

UGO: What’s the best music concert you’ve seen in the past ten years?

CAMERON: Best one in the past ten years is probably My Morning Jacket at the Troubadour. They’re an amazing band and I went backstage afterwards and I said I was doing this movie set in Kentucky and they ended up doing songs for us.

Courtesy of UGO –┬áDaniel Robert Epstein – October, 2005