Singles – L.A. Times (#2)

Reeling Through the Years

With ‘Singles,’ filmmaker Cameron Crowe continues his slow, steady progression from tales of teen Angst toward adult subjects

So, Cameron Crowe, what is it with you and the immediately younger set? In your early 20s, you penned “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a knowing treatise on teen-agers whose high school you literally spied upon; now, in your early 30s, you write and direct “Singles,” aiming to dissect just what ails the twenty­something set.

Why not give up the cinematic cradle-robbing and pick on some generation your own size?

“That’s a good question,” Crowe allows, sitting cross-legged in shorts and high-top sneakers on a chair in his studio office. “And the glib answer, which is also true, is that I’m slow.

“I start out writing about my basic age group,” he insists, “but schedules change, and you get sidetracked” – and a few years older than when the idea to write about one’s contemporaries first strikes.

If Crowe has lagged a bit as chronicler of his contemporaries, he’s always been a few steps ahead of the pack professionally. As a barely post-pubescent boy wonder, he got a gig writing rock journalism for Rolling Stone, even appearing on its cover at the ripe old age of 16. A decade ago, the trend-setting “Fast Times” was his ticket out of the magazine racket and into books and screen­plays. After his one flop script, “The Wild Life,” he nonetheless was allowed to make the leap to writer-director with his third screenplay, the well-reviewed teen flick “Say Anything,” having just turned 30. He was that rarity: a youth­culture king while still genuinely in his youth.

Now 34 and well past the point of Wunderkind, Crowe isn’t exactly craggy yet. His shaggy hair and the excitable demeanor of a lifelong pop fan mark him more as a misplaced interoffice messenger, perhaps, than as the budding rock-era auteur who’s landed a prominent office on the Sony Pictures lot.

But just as he was conscious of his age when he was a teen rock reporter hanging out on the road with such elder gents as the Who, he’s finally reached the point where he was aware of being “the oldest person within a five-mile radius” while tagging along for a few dates of the recent “Lollapalooza” tour.

“My biggest fear with this movie ­ because it took so long to get it made ­ was that no matter how hard I tried, the fact that I was 34 was gonna show. And that would have been hard to live with.” But he’s confident that he was able to capture the sexual politics of the post­collegiate crowd in the ’90s: “I can close the book on it in a lot of ways, because it made its point and told its own story. It’s not ‘Grapevine.’ It’s not ‘Melrose Place.’ It’s ‘Singles.’ ”

Crowe’s reference to those TV series points to his concerns that the Zeitgeist would catch up with or even supersede-his film during its lengthy post-production.

In the year since “Singles” completed shooting in Seattle, Crowe was mortified to get phone calls from friends telling him to turn on “Melrose Place,” which is also about a cadre of hip young people who share intimacies in a U­shaped apartment building, and “Grapevine,” which also has its lead players directly and pithily addressing the camera with their romantic woes.

But “the toughest thing to ride out” during the year of post-production, he says, “was the breast implant controversy.” In one of several plot thoroughfares in “Singles,” Bridget Fonda’s character considers a bust enlargement in order to entice her easily distracted boyfriend, Matt Dillon. “It started out as a joke on the Motley Crue club-babe type . . . a statement that you don’t have to change yourself. But when the controversy hap­pened, all of a sudden it was like Bridget was a small child going out onto the freeway and was gonna get run over. Thank God she didn’t get the implants. The movie would still be in the can, probably.“

But delays can be fortuitous too. The wait for “Singles” to be completed and released turned out to be a serendipitous blessing in disguise: The Seattle rock scene, the stuff of cults when Crowe began the movie, blossomed into the hotbed of the music industry in the meantime. Musicians whose cameo appearances Crowe included in the film as a private joke-like members of the band Pearl Jam, which at the time was so new it hadn’t even been named yet-suddenly became major stars.

The soundtrack album, consisting almost entirely of Seattle groups, was an immediate hit upon its release three months ago and has sold more than 700,000 units in advance of the movie’s release – a promising teaser trailer if ever there was one.

And Crowe, who’d been lobbied heavily for a locale change by Warner Bros. before filming, suddenly looked like the prince of prescience.

“When they first showed dailies down here in L.A., and there’s Matt Dillon with a long wig and leggings and shorts, the word came back to us: ‘You’ve got the best-looking guy in town! What are you doing? You’re covering him up! You’re putting him in a clown outfit!’ Now you see that look everywhere. It’s scary. You go to ‘Lollapalooza’ in St. Paul and they all look like grunge people.”

Crowe remains unconvinced that the top executives at Warner Bros. understand his movie, relating stories of straight-faced studio screenings and of how they kept insisting on a name change-preferably the inappropriate “Addicted to Love,” he says, or “anything that was a song title.” Crowe’s preferred title, a pun on the movie’s album-like structure as well as its subject, finally stuck when Epic Records balked at delays in the movie’s release and went ahead and issued the timely soundtrack.

If anything, the album might be almost too successful if it raises public expectations of a “music movie” instead of a comic ensemble piece. In a way “Singles” emerges as a great rock ‘n’ roll movie not in spite of its lack of centeredness in the music milieu but because of the same, focusing instead on pop as the interstitial material of modern relationships, where nowadays even yuppie couples’ eyes might meet across a crowded grunge club if it weren’t for those pesky stage divers interrupting the sight lines.

“The truth is, the movie isn’t about the Seattle scene,” Crowe maintains. “At best it’s a backdrop like New York was in ‘Manhattan.’ When people see it I think they’ll appreciate that. It’s very odd to run into people on the ‘Lollapalooza’ tour who say, ‘Oh, yeah, you did that movie that’s the Mudhoney story, right?’ No, although I’d go see that movie.”

Crowe didn’t shy entirely away from music anecdotes in his script. The one character in the ensemble directly involved in the “scene” – Dillon, playing the hapless leader of a group called Citizen Dick – is one of the funniest members of the clueless class on celluloid since Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times.” Crowe even momentarily returned to his journalistic roots to write into the script a nasty review of Dillon’s fictional band-something he admits he rarely did in his rock writer days, when he wrote almost exclusively about acts he admired.

But mainly “Singles” focuses on only the lonely. Despite having been married for six years to Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, with whom he lives in Seattle, Crowe says getting back in touch with those feelings wasn’t such a reach.

“I love writing about people who actually reach out and put themselves on the line, because there’s so much working against that,” Crowe says. “There’s just so much fear, now more than ever; you have to battle against that to even say hello to a stranger. I see two people walking down the street and usually they’re never the two people you would ever expect to be together, but they’re happy. It just makes me want to go to a Denny’s and sit down and write.

“Most of my friends are still single. And Ann and Nance are best friends, as close as close can be, and Ann has been single forever,” he says, referring to sister-in-law Ann Wilson, Heart’s lead singer. “And because I like to listen and because I’ve been writing this thing, I’ve never been able to shut off the fascination for people’s stories, how they make it through.

“Now Nance is off the road. But it used to be like, ‘Where’s your wife? Does she exist?’ So I definitely wanted to write something that incorporated that feeling of coming home late and eating your food over the sink, going through your mail, listening to your phone messages. I mean, that’s been my life, married or unmarried….

“And the whole thing that cracked ‘Singles’ for me was: What do you do with your little apartment or your little cubicle where you work, what do you put on the wall, what do you do to make that your world? How are you gonna live in your little box? There’s an apartment building on Motor I pass by to get to the studio, and you see these people and their doors are open, they have their little hibachi by the door – I mean, they live in a closet. But if you walk into that closet, they’ve done stuff to make it their world.

“I liked being able to write about all the different little worlds, like Campbell Scott’s train world and Matt’s collage on his wall and Bridget’s little ordered chaos. It’s fun to write about how people build their world up around themselves.”

Crowe promises that his next script will feature an older, more hard-boiled protagonist. But don’t expect a rueful, cynical denouement – it’s not in his filmic vocabulary. And he doesn’t apologize for thus far writing scripts exclusively about the young and the restless.

“So many people kiss off the high highs and the low lows of their lives when they get older, and an author like Ethan Canin really rejoices in writing about those people who just struck a middle ground and are living their lives that way. To me, that still feels like surrender.

“I feel like I don’t want to cut off those wide-ranging experiences in my life, and I have a hard time writing about characters who do. And that makes it easier to write about younger characters. Maybe as I get older I’ll be more like that, but right now I’m still pretty much the way I was when I was 20-really excited or really depressed….

“In the early-middle years of your life, it is a struggle to still take chances and still get excited and fall in love. All that stuff is a lot more vivid when you’re younger, but it doesn’t have to be. So getting into that whole area of writing realistically about the choices that we make (in older years) is exciting for me right now.

“My sister was the queen of anarchy growing up. One day she became a white wine-sipping, K-LITE-listening, ‘Turn off CNN, I don’t want to hear bad news’ kind of person. And in her home she is a heroine. She’s raised children beautifully. And I can’t help it, I’m sad when I see her-and she knows it too ­ because I see that she’s cutting off things in her life. Or is she raising a family in a great way and serving herself but mostly her family by doing that? It’s fascinating to me, because I still remember her sneaking guys in through the window and I miss that about her.

“I guess it all comes down to people, and I felt this as a journalist too. If you spend enough time listening, everyone has a story, not just Rod Stewart. Trying to write ‘Fast Times’ was an effort to see if that really was the case, and it was, and it still is.”

Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Chris Willman – September 7, 1992