Singles – Boston Globe

Film-maker Cameron Crowe connects the disconnected: Crowe: ‘Tough to communicate’

IN A SUMMER season filled with caped crime-fighters, rapacious aliens, vengeful terrorists, homicidal cops and all-girl ball teams, Singles, (opens Friday) stands out for having such a, well, normal subject.

Set in Seattle and starring such youthful stars as Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick, the film is built around the romantic foibles of a group of young men and women dipping their toes into the flood tide of adulthood.

Why would writer-director Cameron Crowe (writer of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and writer-director of Say Anything) pursue such a peculiarly realistic story?

“Mostly I just love to write about relationships,” the friendly, thirtysomething film-maker says. “It comes from journalism, I think, spending a lot of time talking with people. To me, it’s just so much fun to write dialogue. The most fun is writing the stuff between people, where they’re communicating or miscommunicating. And relationships seem to be what most of us end up talking about eventually.

“The difficult thing is it’s hard to find actors to do this kind of material. And I’ve really had a hard time getting the right actors to do my stuff.”

Beneath Crowe’s good-natured complaining, he knows things in the movie business aren’t so bad for him. After all, one of his creations, Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times, has virtually become an archetype of the times and, in the process, helped make a star out of Sean Penn, who played him.

“I’m proud of the way it’s been accepted into culture. I always think the definitive ‘dude’ was Sean Penn’s invention. It wasn’t in the script or anything; he started adding it to scenes. And I always think there’s a little bit of Fast Times in Bill and Ted and those other movies.”

Hollywood loves pigeonholing, however, and Crowe had to stay on his guard to avoid being stamped as a “high school teens” specialist. Yet, it didn’t stop him from taking on Say Anything, the story of a budding romance between a lower-middle-class kid with only vague vocational ambitions, played by John Cusack, and the lovely, intellectual star of her class, played by Ione Skye.

Crowe remembers thinking: “We got to make this great, because we’re not going to do this again!’ It was fun. I think now enough time has passed . . . I’m a little long in the tooth to do high school stuff. I want to catch up to my own age. . . .

“I’m a little older than the characters in Singles, but the next movie will be about characters my age. I’ve got to get writing about 40-year-olds, and by the time it comes out, it’ll be even.”

For most of the 1970s, Crowe was a journalist, writing primarily for Rolling Stone magazine; in fact, both the book and movie of Fast Times grew out of a magazine assignment for which Crowe went “undercover” at a California high school. But Crowe still finds himself using his old reporting skills.

“For Say Anything I went to nursing homes that showed movies and stuff, which is what Cusack’s character did. That was helpful, to see how they related.

“For Singles, I did a lot of research around Seattle and apartment houses where people in their 20s moved to after college. I liked the idea of an apartment house as halfway house where you live in these one-bedroom places and if you meet someone you have to move out, because if you’re going to move in together, it’s too small for two people to live there. I really liked that idea of disconnected singles forming their own loose family.

“Of course, you’d write the movie and you make the movie, and it’s never as fantastic and complex and wonderful as it is in your head when you start. But you hope that the tip of the iceberg is there.”

Since Matt Dillon plays a musician in the film, these same skills helped Crowe use the healthy Seattle rock scene as a backdrop.

“A good friend of mine, Kelly Curtis, manages bands up there.” Curtis helped him get close to one band in particular. “The guys were so much different than L.A. rockers. They had jobs in coffeehouses, and they were bicycle messengers and stuff; they weren’t you stereotypical ‘Hey, man’ kind of rockers. So through them, these two guys, Jeff and Stone, who were actors in the movie they play Dillon’s band took me around, and I met a bunch of their friends.

“And a tragic thing happened. Their singer overdosed. He had a heroin problem and then he kicked it and was secretly using. He died on the eve of their big tour.

“So, a really interesting thing happened. A lot of these guys that I’d been interviewing, spending time around, had to pull together and redefine their whole thing, and guys in all these other bands were trying to help them out. And through basically a miracle they found another singer who was different but no less spectacular than the guy they had, and they became this band, Pearl Jam.

“Now they’re all over┬áMTV, they’re happening. So following these guys and their group of friends through this whole upheaval, I saw so much. I don’t know if that story really exists in the movie, but the humanity and the way they dealt with each other really exists.”

While journalism helped prepare Crowe for film writing, he just leaped into the deep end of the pool when it came to directing. Nothing in the solitary craft of writing prepares you for that – particularly on a movie like Singles, which, Crowe says, has 87 speaking parts.

“It’s tough. And I don’t always have the language, as they’ll tell you, to do it,” Crowe concedes.

“It was tougher to communicate with the actors on this movie. Some people really want you to deal with them in an established traditional way, which I am not that fluent in. The truth is, you get a much better performance if you make it fun for them.”

Crowe is even willing to surrender one of the most dearly held of writer’s prerogatives, that of ownership of the characters.

“The one thing they actors can’t say is, ‘I know better than you what this character would say.’ Well, sometimes they do say that. And a lot of times they’re right. If they’re really passionate about it and say, ‘I know you wrote it, but I believe this,’ you’ve got to say ‘Go for it.’ ”

Courtesy of the┬áBoston Globe – Henry Sheehan – September 14, 1992