Singles – New York Times

Chronicling the Post-Baby doom Generation

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 film maker, Mr. Crowe is knee-deep in post-production on “Singles,” which he wrote and directed. The movie, which was shot in Seattle and opens on Sept.. 18, tracks the romantic blood pressure of six post-collegiates. “It’s about the lengths people go to make a connection with another person, the good advice and bad advice they get along the way,” says the director.

To bring that seemingly straightforward premise to the screen, Mr. 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,” Mr. Crowe admits. So much so, In fact, the director has thumbtacked the index cards describing the entire movie to the wall of his office.

Mr. Crowe tucks his long hair behind his 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 film maker (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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple.

“Rock-and-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, Mr. 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 nonfiction 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, Mr. Crowe is wary of being stereotyped as a thinking man’s John Hughes. While filming “Say Anything,” he and Mr. 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-30’s, Mr. 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 20-somethings are this season’s media darlings, and Hollywood is actively targeting them with mainstream movies like “Single White Female,” which stars Ms. 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.”

Mr. 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,”‘ Mr. 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 Mr. Dillon and the ascendant Ms. Fonda, and Mr. 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 de-liver speeches to the camera) and campy cameos (Tim Burton, the director of “Batman,” works at a video-dating service; Mr. Crowe appears as a rock journalist earnestly interviewing Mr. 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, Mr. 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 the Friday after the Los Angeles riots, then to late summer. Finally, to keep the movie from competing head to head with behemoths like Warners’ own “Batman Returns,” the opening was rescheduled to September. Throughout, Mr. Crowe fired off memoranda to Warners executives, “trying to explain that there would be an audience for the movie.”

“I think they doubted it for a long time,” he says. “I don’t want to complain. I begged for the chance to make a Hollywood movie. But it was rough.” Mr. 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. An ad campaign Mr. Crowe describes as “look at these wacky people who can’t keep a relationship together” was briefly floated and rejected. 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. “There were rumors going around Seattle that it was never coming out,” says Mr. Crowe.

What finally gave “Singles” its leg up was a subplot centered on Seattle’s rock scene. Long before the Seattle bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam be-came international stars, Mr. Crowe added a character named Cliff, a prototypical Puget Sound rocker who delivers flowers by day and plays in a grunge band called Citizen Dick. Mr. Crowe snagged members of the then-unknown Pearl Jam to portray Cliff’s band and filmed performances by Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and other Seattle stalwarts for scenes in the movie.

The soundtrack, which was re-leased in June to coincide with one of the film’s presumed opening dates and features songs by Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, made its debut high on Billboard’s album chart and continues to sell well. Three months before’ the first ticket to “Singles” could be sold, radio stations and MTV were playing songs from the soundtrack daily.

In the end, Mr. Crowe used the delays to tinker with the movie. The studio finally came up with an ad’ campaign that Mr. Crowe can live with, and the film is booked into more than 800 theaters for its opening weekend. The diary that Mr. Crowe kept throughout filming will be in the Oct.. I issue of Rolling Stone.

These days, the director is holed up in an office at yet another storied movie lot – the old MGM studios in Culver City – adapting “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” a short story by Ethan Canin about a middle-aged man, and working on an original screenplay with Tom Hanks in mind. Mr. 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, Mr. Crowe promises, “a real break in style for me.”

Courtesy of the New York Times – Michael Walker – September 6, 1992