Singles – Daily Breeze

Cameron Crowe: Eyeing post-baby boomers

Sequestered in an office on the old Samuel Goldwyn lot in West Hollywood, Cameron Crowe gazes at 80 index cards bearing legends like “Laundry Room/Elevator — Janet and Cliff kiss.”

A Rolling Stone reporter turned filmmaker, Crowe is knee-deep in post-production on “Singles,” which he wrote and directed. The movie, which was shot in Seattle and has now reached area theaters, tracks the romantic blood pressure of six post-collegiates. “It’s about the lengths people go to to make a connection with another person, the good advice and bad advice they get along the way,” says the director.

Odd structure

To bring that seemingly straightforward premise to the screen, Crowe concocted a narrative that darts around the couplings and uncouplings of the principals, played by Matt Dillon, Bridget Fonda, Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Sheila Kelley and Jim True.

“It’s kind of oddly structured,” Crowe admits. So much so, in fact, the director has thumbtacked the index cards describing the entire movie to the wall of his office.

Crowe tucks his long hair behind lis ears and all but wills the cards to assemble themselves into a finished movie. “The next one,” he sighs, “is a one-character drama.”

The 35-year-old filmmaker (who lives in Seattle with his wife, Nancy Wilson, of the rock group Heart) has an office in Los Angeles but is something of an anomaly there. His specialty is idiosyncratic, hand-sewn comedies about what he describes as “people who aren’t tremendously glamorous, just living their lives.”

“I really am happy writing about the people who don’t get written about,” he adds.

That the people in question are usually between the ages of 18 and 30 has made Crowe something of a cinematic spokesman for the post-baby boom generation, whose metamorphosis from mall brats to young adults he captured in his screenplays for the 1982 film “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and the 1984 film “The Wild Life.”

Crowe originally conceived “Singles,” which he began writing in 1983, as the coda to his coming-of-age films. But with the encouragement of his Hollywood mentor, the writer-director James L. Brooks, Crowe shelved “Singles” to write and direct “Say Anything,” an elegiac portrait of post-high school life starring John Cusack that appeared in 1989.

“There are only a handful of people who have a distinctive voice,” says Brooks. “Cameron has that voice. He really does see the world in a certain way. If he doesn’t do a movie, no one else will.”

Crowe has always been a generation removed from his young subjects. Born in Palm Springs and raised in San Diego, he skipped two grades and graduated from high school at 15. He covered music for the same San Diego alternative newspaper that launched the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs. Introduced to Ben Fong-Torres, an editor at Rolling Stone (“It was dark,” Crowe says. “I don’t think he saw how old I was”), he started writing for the magazine in 1973 and was soon doing pieces about the Eagles, Peter Frampton, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

Trustworthy reporter

“Rock ‘n’ roll, then and now, was a closed world,” says Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone. “A lot of these people felt they could trust Cameron. He was such a charming kid — he could draw people out. He really disarms you, and you want to talk to him.”

Scarcely old enough to drive, Crowe traveled the country with the Allman Brothers and Fleetwood Mac. “I was basically out of the house from 16 on,” he says.

He enrolled incognito at a Southern California high school when he was 21 to research a non-fiction book that eventually spawned the “Fast Times” screenplay. Ever since, his movies have explored, in loving detail, the experiences he skimmed or missed altogether during his overachieving youth.

Nevertheless, Crowe is wary of being stereotyped as a thinking man’s John Hughes. While filming “Say Anything,” he and Cusack, he says, “had a cold beer to the fact that that graduation scene would be the last for us both.”

But though he now fills his journals with notes about characters in their mid-30s, Crowe clearly is drawn to the young protagonists of “Singles” and their voyage through adult relationships. “I just couldn’t move on without trying to nail that experience,” he says. “I looked at this as my last chance to do it.”

His timing could be auspicious. The twentysomethings are this season’s media darlings, and Hollywood is actively targeting them with mainstream movies like “Single White Female,” which stars Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who launched her film career in “Fast Times.”

Television is also targeting the audience with “Melrose Place,” the much-hyped series whose premise is eerily similar to that of “Singles.”

Studio heads baffled

Crowe’s penchant for making deliberately eccentric movies about real people in low-key situations baffles studio marketing departments accustomed to high-concept, plot-driven films. Universal Pictures so badly underestimated “Fast Times” that it pulled the movie from many theaters just before its release, then watched as adoring teen-agers turned it into a surprise hit.

“One of the people working on the marketing for `Singles’ ran into a guy who worked on the TV spots for `Say Anything,’ ” Crowe remembers. “They bonded over the fact that it’s impossible to put together campaigns for my stuff. I took it as a compliment.”

There are no bankable stars in “Singles,” save perhaps Dillon and the ascendant Fonda, and Dillon is virtually unrecognizable playing an oafish rock guitarist with a Ted Nugent coif. Nor does “Singles” have much of a plot, at least in the conventional sense. It is organized around aphorisms — “Have Fun, Stay Single,” for example — that briefly fill the screen like vaudeville scenario cards.

The movie’s cartwheeling style is due to elaborately staged flashbacks (in one, a wayward swain confesses his duplicity to his girlfriend on a plunging roller coaster), self-referential exposition (the characters deliver speeches to the camera) and campy cameos (Tim Burton, the director of “Batman,” works at a video-dating service; Crowe appears as a rock journalist earnestly interviewing Dillon).

“It’s not a concept that rolls off the lips in two sentences,” acknowledges Rob Friedman, the executive in charge of worldwide publicity and advertising for Warner Brothers, the studio releasing “Singles.”

Almost inevitably, Crowe skirmished with Warners executives over how and when “Singles” should be released and promoted. Its premiere, originally slated for February, was shuffled first to April, then to September. Throughout, Crowe fired off memoranda to Warners executives, “trying to explain that there would be an audience for the movie.”

Friedman defends the studio’s decision to hold back the movie. “In today’s marketplace you’ve got one shot — three days — to make your movie happen. If it doesn’t, you’ve lost millions of dollars.” Test screenings of an early cut of the film were discouraging — viewers’ reactions were neither overly positive nor negative.

There was talk of changing the title to “Addicted to Love” and opening in only a handful of cities. The delays fueled impressions of a movie in trouble. What finally gave “Singles” its leg up was a subplot centered on Seattle’s rock scene.

In the end, Crowe used the delays to tinker with the movie, and the studio finally came up with an ad campaign that Crowe can live with.

Crowe says his next project will be “darker, a drama, in a three-act structure.” In other words, a grown-up movie, written by a grown-up about a grown-up. It will be, Crowe promises, “a real break in style for me.”

Courtesy of Daily Breeze – Michael Walker – October 4, 1992