Singles – Premiere Magazine

Take Two

In Singles, writer-director Cameron Crowe probes the hearts and minds of twentysomethings by rewriting his precocious past

The first time Cameron Crowe’s eyes turned red, he was seventeen years old and touring with Led Zeppelin. The band was staying at the Plaza in New York City, and Crowe, who was writing a story about them for Rolling Stone, didn’t sleep for days – and not because he was artificially amped. When his eyes finally erupted, his best friend, tour photographer Neal Preston, had to explain to him the meaning of exhaustion.

Crowe went on to chronicle such ’70s megastars as Neil Young and Jackson Browne. At 21, he returned to high school incognito and wrote the book Fast Times at Ridgemont High and, later, the screenplay. Still, his eyes didn’t flare up again until he was back in New York, auditioning actors for Say Anything …”in total stress and fear that they were actually going to make this movie that I was going to direct.” He wore sunglasses for the first day of casting. The ailment reappeared for the beginning of the shoot and then disappeared…until three days ago.

Crowe is deep into postproduction on Singles, which sets out to do for twentysomethings what Fast Times did for teens. It’s a Sunday and Crowe is slouching in a red leather booth in the Hamburger Hamlet at the end of sunset strip. Metallica sits one booth over, while a little ways away, a small girl in her Sunday finest – and an eye patch – eats with her mother. Odd snatches of conversation waft through the air (“He was shot 28 times”), periodically making Crowe perk up. It’s a little dark to confirm Crowe’s self-diagnosis, but he does look like a flagging, vulnerable version of his usual shaggy-dog self; his round, lopsided face has turned sallow, and his Mother Lovebone cap is pulled down over his straggly mane. He’s spent the weekend in music sessions with Replacements front man Paul Westerberg, who is scoring the movie.

The previous Monday, some of the top Warner Bros. brass ordered a surprise command viewing of the movie to take place two weeks hence – the Friday night before the studio goes on Christmas break. The problem is that the film is in pieces; ever the perfectionist, Crowe had taken an early preview print apart to edit back in some more bittersweet moments. Right after Christmas, he’s slated to shoot two days of additional material on location, though he will have to shoot around Kyra Sedgwick’s seven-months-pregnant stomach. Thus the version Crowe can show the studio lacks not only music but also crucial scenes and voiceovers, which Crowe himself will read aloud. It’s hardly an ideal way to screen a movie to the 50-ish folk who will decide on the advertising dollars – especially when there’s some fear about generational miscommunication. It’s said one top studio executive saw a still of Matt Dillon in his long-haired wig and thought he looked like Charles Manson.

“What can I tell you?” says Crowe, invariably laughing with gallows humor. “It’s almost when things get really hard, it gets comforting. Some weird adrenaline thing kicks in where you just have to go whoosh. I’m in the blender now, getting whipped up into a Bass-o-Matic emotional milk shake, and there’s nothing you can do – just try to remember why you put yourself through it. If I fall apart, everyone is going to fall apart.”

“CAN DO…CAN DO…”

Matt Dillon is singing in the spring rain that 1991 has brought Seattle. His long brown wig flops in front of his face, obscuring the trademark cheekbones; the beginnings of a goatee sprout from his chin. His clothes – a ratty orange tie-dyed T-shirt and shorts, with long johns poking out underneath – look like they’ve been worn, rolled up in a ball, and stuffed in the corner of a closet for several months. In fact, they have been borrowed from Jeff Ament of the Seattle-based band Pearl Jam.

Dillon plays wanna-be rock star Cliff Poncier, leader of a band called Citizen Dick, but as he hangs out behind the counter at the Java Stop, a coffee bar where Cliff works and most of Singles congregate, he’s crooning Broadway: “Fugue for Tinhorns,” from Guys and Dolls.

“I got the horse right here/The name is Paul Revere/And here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear/Can do…”

“Can do,” chimes in Campbell Scott, in a clear voice.

“Can do,” belts Kyra Sedgwick brassily.

“Can do,” adds Bridget Fonda more tentatively, joining in.

They sing along for a second before drifting off, perhaps self-consciously. It seems to be part of a hesitant bonding process that has settled on the cast. Although they are already five weeks into shooting, it is one of the few days that the entire ensemble – which also includes Jim True and Sheila Kelley – is working, and these four are supposed to be particularly close. Scott and Sedgwick play new lovers; Scott’s and Fonda’s characters were once involved but are now good friends. Fonda’s and Dillon’s characters are bounding up and down in a yo-yo relationship. When she loves him, he takes her for granted, and then it’s vice versa.

The movie takes as its theme the ebb and flow of single life: the veering between solitude and togetherness that, for many, is the defining experience of being 25. At least, that’s the idea, “Jesus, the title Singles…it demands that you know what you’re talking about,” groans Crowe. “The thing is to state up front, ‘This is my personal view on this.’ A view in which happy-go-lucky can mask loneliness; jokes live alongside being lost in an interior wasteland at a certain point and being happy that you have a friend who can come and help you out of it. It’s dealing in specifics rather than generalities, so maybe I’m able to make a statement that is truthful, that doesn’t seem like someone is trying to go, ‘the Lost Generation, the baby boomers’ – all these clever little names.”

Clever little names like Generation X and baby busters, which have been attaching themselves to the generation coming of age in the ’90s. In the past year or two, a variety of pundits, from Time, Fortune, and MTV, have tried to define the generation that was spoon-fed the promises of Reagonomics, only to wake up to recession, AIDS, and downward mobility. Reviled as apathetic, apolitical, subliterate, unwilling to sacrifice or to work hard, unable to make commitments or decisions, even incapable of moving away from home, they are the Not generation: not the traditionalists of the ’50s, not the rebels of the ’60s, not the freewheelers of the ’70s me generation, not the greedheads of the ’80s.

To make Singles a success, the studio is banking on Crowe’s insight into that generation. His boyish looks and all-around precocity have tended to obscure the fact that Crowe is not – indeed, has never been – of the generation being chronicled. Like the return to high school that spawned Fast Times, Singles offers Crowe a chance to look back wistfully at the youth that his wunderkind status – and workaholic habits – deprived him of. Just as Singles marks a turning point in the career of its 35-year-old creator: the boy wonder has become the old kid on the block. He doesn’t get an A simply for making the effort anymore, and he knows it. “The transition has been out of being a guy who’s got a certain amount of entree because of his youth,” he says, “to being someone who has to redefine himself as an adult.”

Crowe hatched Singles in 1983 as the summation of a trilogy that had begun with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and continued with the unsuccessful sequel, The Wild Life. He trashed his initial “two wacky guys face the world” version and started a new round of research. Although he writes fiction, Crowe approaches his subject matter as if he were making a documentary. He moved to Seattle in 1983 to be with the woman he would eventually marry, rocker Nancy Wilson of Heart (during filmmaking, he commutes), and he began exploring what was then the nascent underground Seattle rock scene. (The soundtrack also features Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Mudhoney; Nirvana was originally scheduled to be on it, but then they skyrocketed to success, and now, notes Crowe ruefully, “owning a song from Nirvana is like owning a Vermeer.”)

Yet Crowe, an inveterate romantic, was investigating relationships as much as rock ‘n’ roll. He filled countless notebooks with interviews about other people’s love lives. He called his friends after dates, particularly bad ones, and incorporated their horror stories into endless revisions of the script. “Last night, I was having a burger with a friend of mine and he was telling me about a date he was on that hadn’t gone well. And he was saying, ‘You know, she’s no beauty. But I really love this girl, man.’ At the next table was this guy – it was Burbank – the next table this guy was telling the girl he was with, ‘I wish we could sit closer; this is good dialogue.’ That was me once. But a certain point you should just put the video camera away and live life, rather than try to capture it.” In the end, some of the research was abandoned for a more autobiographical take.

Crowe wound up with six major characters: Steve (Campbell Scott), a somewhat ambitious, somewhat idealistic, often confused transportation planner; Linda (Kyra Sedgwick), his practical, afraid-to-commit love interest; Janet (Bridget Fonda), a vulnerable cappuccino waitress who dreams of becoming an architect; her self-absorbed boyfriend, Cliff (Dillon); the bon vivant dreamer Bailey (Jim True); and Debbie, who in the eyes of actress Sheila Kelley, is a man-hungry “media victim. She reads Cosmo and believes it.”

If high school was the locus of Fast Times, then the singles complex is the locus of Singles. “It was a great situation that I didn’t really have, where you move out of your home or your dorm and there is a way station,” he says. “In these apartments, you can look out the windows and see that every little apartment is a different world: you know you’re alone, but you’re together. You can come home from a long night and sit in the courtyard, and maybe someone has his or her door open. What a great thing! So you don’t have to wind up a in a relationship motivated mostly be a fear of loneliness. You can hold out a little for someone who really electrifies you. That kind of cracked the story open, as opposed to looking for Ms. or Mr. Right.”

“WHAT IT IS, IT’S THE WAY PEOPLE SORT OF are,” Matt Dillon is saying while sprawled on a stool in his trailer. Loose on the set, he is notoriously edgy during interviews. He stares upward as if waiting for the dentist to begin. “Singles is very deceptively different. There is no real melodramatic moment. Most people go through their life covering their emotions.”

Yes, but does it ever apply to him, a dreamboat movie star who’s been famous almost half his life? “Like what? Like what?” he says with disbelief. “You think I don’t have relationships? It’s not like your life completely changes because you’re famous. It’s not true that any women I can get close to, I can have. It’s a hit-and-miss, like anything else.”

He reels off a few things Singles addresses that he can relate to: “Cat and mouse. Games in a relationship. Being more in love with someone that they are with you. Yearning for somebody. Being brokenhearted, breaking somebody’s heart. That’s all pretty universal. There are a lot of things in here that nobody has ever put in a movie before, little things. Like there’s a scene where Bridget’s sitting there, waiting for the phone to ring. She’s throwing pieces of paper into the garbage basket: ‘If I can get this one, he’s going to call.┬áIf I miss this one…’ She throws over it again, and lies to herself.

That stuff’s really in people’s minds. You never see that, those idiosyncrasies that they thought were unique to them. Like that – I do that. I didn’t think anybody else did. But everybody does that.”

“I THINK MATT’S REALLY FUNNY,” SAYS Bridget Fonda. “He doesn’t even know how funny he is; as a matter of fact, he’s funnier when he doesn’t try. It’s interesting, because I’m thinking, ‘Am I finding that out because I see him as Cliff and through Janet’s eyes? Or is he really like that?’ I met him before, and he was funny then when he tried, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the whole Cliff thing that started making him funny when he doesn’t try.”

Crowe wrote the part of Janet for Fonda, whom he had first heard about through her father Peter, when he had auditioned for Say Anything…Tomboyish and waiflike, she’s sitting in the back of the cafe, dressed in Janet’s garb – worn black T-shirt, vest, leggings, and cheap beaded jewelry – and “dosing out on Afrin” to try to keep her cold in check; as Crowe is fond of saying. “Bridget could disappear into a vat of reality.”

When I first read it, I thought, ‘Oh God, she’s in one of those relationships,'” she groans. “She’s in love with a cool, really good-looking musician. They’re great as pals, but he’s got this idea about what women he wants in his life – that whole Playboy thing.” Fonda goes into a rap of what’s going on in Cliff’s head: “I’ve got this girl who’s next door, and she’s really great, but you know, these are babes.’

“You recognize it so instantly. The girl who is in love with somebody who is just, like, out of her reach. She lets him get away with everything because she loves him so much. It’s like indulging a puppy” ‘Oh, they’re so cute, we’ll let them chew the slippers.’ I mean, it’s happened to me.”

A lot of the feelings in Singles have happened to her. “Janet goes from being in love with someone who doesn’t appreciate her to someone who really appreciates her. She just kind of swings the other way – and then realizes it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks, it’s ‘What do I think?’ That’s a major thing in my life: I always have to remind myself, ‘Wait a second, I’m an adult now. I don’t have to please everybody else. Who do I want to be with? Who do I choose to be with? I don’t have to have everyone like me.'” She pauses. “But can you just imagine if you’re an actress?”

FONDA HAS SPENT MUCH OF HER TIME IN Seattle with her boyfriend, Eric Stoltz – who as it happens, used to go out with Jennifer Jason Leigh. Leigh, who got her break in Fast Times, was originally slated to star opposite Fonda but dropped out to take the lead in Rush. (Ironically, Fonda and Leigh costar in Single White Female.) To replace her as Linda, Kyra Sedgwick had to plow through three different casting sessions. In the last one, Crowe asked her to read with Campbell Scott. “I said, ‘What does this guy want from me? Why is he putting me through this?’ But it was the most magical night. Campbell and I made it like two people were really talking, instead of two actors doing a scene. It was like this caldron of creativity. Afterwards, I called Kevin [Bacon, her husband], and I said, ‘I feel like I’m on drugs.'”

Such can be Crowe’s effect on his performers, though it doesn’t always go so smoothly. Campbell Scott is scrunched in a booth at the Java Stop as his character is trying to decide whether or not to call his new girlfriend. Crowe fairly jumps back and forth, and his nervous energy seems to seep out from his gee-whiz seams; you can almost see him juggling his instinct to be everybody’s best friend with the production’s need for an authority figure. He often cuddles up to the actors and whispers in their ear.

Right now Crowe wants Scott, an experienced stage actor who doesn’t seem quite comfortable with the mechanisms of movie-making, to play a scene less theatrically. “You have to go against the lines, against the seriousness,” says Crowe. “I want it to be real. Make it look like casual conversation.” Scott sometimes mugs between takes, for no one in particular, perhaps to exorcise a bit of nervousness. “Man, it’s hard. It’s hard,” he says with a twinge of dismay later in his trailer about Crowe’s “elliptical” dialogue. He’s not the only one: throughout the shoot, every one of the principals confessed to the director that the script was much more difficult than it seemed. Crowe has been insistent on stripping away what he calls “the movie acting,” routinely pushing the actors to 11, 12, as many as 27 takes. Scott explains that they’ve been working a lot on “not playing into whatever the scene feels like in the first place.”

How truthful does Scott find the script? “Half of it strikes me as really realistic and half of it kind of a heightened ironic thing based on that realism,” he says. “It’s hard for me to identify: I have a wife, I’ve been with her for eight years, so I can hardly remember all those dynamics.” Recently, the 29-year-old Scott has been laboring under intense pressure: on weekends, he’s been flying to California to do reshoots on Dying Young, because the studio has decided to redo the initial unhappy ending. (In part because of Scott’s cancer-victim ‘do, Crowe has had to reshoot Scott’s scenes on Singles.) Then, shortly after the movie wrapped, his mother, Colleen Dewhurst, died of cancer.

“I almost went insane when I was 28,” he says. “But I didn’t die, and I think that’s the point. You go through this intense thing – becoming an adult, whatever that is, mortality – you wake up one morning, and you really feel like shit, and you’re not dead, so you go, ‘Okay, that’s the lesson, I guess.'”

CROWE WAS BORN IN Palm Springs, California, and grew up in Indio, a place where, as he says, “people owned tortoises, not dogs. The world never stretched beyond the desert.” His father was a laconic West Point graduate who owned a real estate and phone-service business; his mom was a teacher, activist, and all around live wire who did skits around the house and would wear a clown suit to school on special occasions. Crowe had two older sisters – one of whom died when he was young.

His parents doted on the son they had been longing to have. His mom also pushed him, skipping him over two of primary school grades. “When I was ten or eleven, I knew something was off,” says Crowe. “I remember my mom picked me up at school, and my [fourteen-year-old] sister was in the car.

“‘How old am I? Am I ten?’ There was a silence in the car.

“‘Tell him, Mom’ “‘No, you’re nine. You didn’t go to kindergarten.’

“My sister, I remember, then said, ‘If it messes you up and causes you not to be able to relate to people, you should stay in your same grade for two years.’

“My sister was like Natalie Wood: guys were always coming to the house to go out with her. It was fascinating what guys would do to get close to her. In a lot of ways, I’ve written later about the guys that I met just by sitting in the living room. She and I were not that close. She was moody in the way that I probably am now. I was the happiest kid in the world, and she wouldn’t know why I could be so happy. My sister was more the Salinger character Franny, and I was like Opie. I wrote the Joan Cusack character in Say Anything…based on my sister: ‘Why can’t you just decide to be in a good mood and be in a good mood?'” he says, quoting a line John Cusack says to her. “That was my relationship with my sister.”

The Crowes moved around the desert quite a bit before settling in San Diego, where “everyone split into two groups: those who had a tan and those who did not have a tan,” he says, measuring each word. “I could not have a tan. I could even go to the beach and still I would not have a tan.” He suffered from nephritis, a kidney disease that sometimes made him sickly. “I was never accepted by the surfers. Surfers were very exciting to me. How I ended up writing a movie that surfers really loved is a mystery to me.”

Bu the time he reached Catholic high school, Crowe was significantly younger than his peers – not an easy state of affairs. “The girl I asked to the prom laughed hysterically,” he says. Crowe compensated for his social unease by writing for the school paper, and by thirteen, he was penning music reviews for an underground San Diego paper. He graduated from high school at fifteen, and while on a trip to L.A., he met Rolling Stone music editor Ben Fong-Torres and began writing for the magazine. One of the first assignments was a teenage boy’s dream: two weeks on the road with the Allman Brothers. “I was a big fan,” he says. “It was a big deal for them to be able to talk to someone who knew the music. It would kind of blow their minds.”

“He charmed a lot of people,” recalls Fong-Torres. “He was the aw-shucks guy. ‘I’m glad to be backstage. I love this band.'” In fact, Crowe loved many of the big mid-’70s bands – the Eagles, Led Zeppelin – that frankly bored many of the other writers. When the magazine and, he feels, “the mage” moved to New York in 1977, the nineteen-year-old was still to young to go and was beginning to burn out anyway. Simon & Schuster’s David Obst offered him a contract to write a book about high school life, which Crowe accepted. The decision seems to have opened up a fissure in Crowe’s relationship with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, and soon Crowe was no longer writing for the magazine. He also got dumped by his first serious girlfriend. “I had take my girlfriend for granted and realized what I had lost too late, and she had already found a bitching new boyfriend.” So he moved back into his room at home and convinced the vice principal at a Southern California high school to let him enroll by plying him with Kris Kristofferson anecdotes.

“My whole thing is that I wish I was able to fit in more,” says Crowe about his original high school days. “So when I went back, I made friends more easily. It was not as gimmicky as you might think. I basically had a senior year.” High school was different than he remembered – “they were having sex a lot more freely than four years earlier, and they all had jobs.” His book (in which he does not appear) and the resulting movie (written by Crowe, directed by Amy Heckerling) was for many a seminal dissection of ’80s high school life. It explored the minutiae of who sat where in the lunchroom, Saturday at the mall, masturbation, bad sexual encounters, abortions, joyriding, even school. Its stoned-out surfer, Jeff Spicoli – played by Sean Penn – has spawned a cottage industry of imitators, from Bill & Ted to Wayne & Garth.

Not that the studio recognized a phenomenon in the making. “They hated it,” remembers producer Art Linson. “They pulled the entire East Coast theaters away from us because Bob Reme [the head of production] thought the movie was terrible.” (By contrast, the sequel, The Wild Life – written by Crowe, directed by Linson – exemplified some of the worst traits of a high school movie and flopped wildly.)

His directorial debut, the romantic Say Anything…,grew out of an idea suggested to him by his mentor, James L. Brooks. “It’s a picture about a young man who made a decision that the greatest thing he could do in life was to serve a woman with a better intellect than his,” explains Brooks. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael championed it as a high school movie that “you don’t feel like a ninny for watching” and praised Crowe for his gift for eliciting naturalistic performances.

Some of those performances were not easy to get; John Cusack wanted to play his Lloyd Dobler character angrier. “Cameron gets his way through being an inherently decent human being,” says producer Polly Platt. “You have to be the devil yourself not to finally say, ‘Okay, I’ll try it your way.’ He uses his boyishness as a tool, but not a scalpel. He uses it as a sponge – something to assist, to make the journey easier.”

After the release of Say Anything…, Crowe’s father died. “If I ever doubted that people in the business live and think differently, the truth came crashing down when my dad died. I literally had conversations, ‘Gee, that’s too bad. Bet it makes your writing better. So what else are you doing?’

“Or someone else called and asked for me a favor. ‘Man, I just came back from my dad’s funeral.’

“‘Oh that’s awful. Listen, can I just get this out of the way? Can you do blah-blah-blah?’ This person was on a mobile phone. It was a story question. ‘A guy comes in, and he’s slept with three women in the room. Would he be happy or would he be scared?’

“I said, ‘He’d probably have a private thrill.’

“‘Ooooh. Private thrill. That’s good. That’s good. So I guess I should ask you how you are feeling?'”

Crowe does car-phone noise. ‘We got cut off, and he never called back. Jesus Christ!”

Crowe says that his father’s death “changed me more than I thought it would. The cliche is true: you never really are a full blown adult until one of your parents dies. My nickname used to be ‘the kid.’ Everyone used to call me the kid – the people I worked with, my best friends. I still had that nickname at 26 or 27 – probably until I got married. I used to hate it. Then I went through this period where I missed it. And now I’m like [obsessively] ‘How old is he? Interesting. Pretty talented for a young guy.’ So I went from not caring about age to being supersensitive about it.

“I was talking to Bruce Berman when he got named president of production. I said, ‘Warner Bros. was always a stodgy star studio. Now you can really change the setup and make movies by young filmmakers.’ He goes, ‘We’re making your movie,’ and I go, ‘No man, I mean young!'”

WHAT WILL RED EYES eventually buy you? The studio honchos saw the movie and never said much about how they felt – though they did give Crowe the money to go back up to Seattle. Crowe was happy with the reshoots and tinkered with the film relentlessly as its release date shuffled from February to April to late August, editing in undercurrents of poignancy. “The movie is a lot more thoughtful and painful than I would have written five or six years ago,” Crowe says. “At that point, the script was so light and bouncy that it wasn’t realistic. Being alone, and dealing with someone else’s life and how you could hurt them or make them really happy…that stuff is not always so bouncy.”

But while his eyes have suffered, Crowe struggled to retain his equanimity throughout. “The temper tantrum that reminds everyone that you’re the boss might work in some circumstances, but it’s not the way I work,” he says. “I try to soldier on. A lot of people want directors to be fiery, vulgar type of guys – but until I become a different person, that’s just the way I’m going to be.”

In that respect, Crowe – who holds the mirror to young Americans by rewriting his own personal history – is very much like his characters Lloyd Dobler and Steve Dunne: “Two guys trying to follow their instinct and remain positive in a world where you get tested on that. Because the true test is to stay positive when things get tough.”

Courtesy of Premiere Magazine – Rachel Abramowitz – August, 1992