The Wild Life – Interview Magazine

Cameron Crowe: Stalking the “Wild Life”

The day before production began on “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a film based on Cameron Crowe’s novel of the same name which documented his undercover experiences at an undisclosed Southern California high school, a memo was circulated amongst the Universal executives. Identifying himself as a major Universal stockholder, the author of the note lambasted “Fast Times” as cheap filth and the low point of everything Universal Studios had come to represent. Despite the angry missive, Crowe (who adapted the book into a screenplay), producer Art Linson and director Amy Heckerling got the go-ahead, based on the assumption that the low-budget/low risk project was ultimately disposable. Although the studio pumped their promotional funds into the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton fiasco, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” it was “Fast Times” that became the season’s surprise box-office hit, launching the careers of several young actors, including that of Sean Penn.

Crowe, a Palm Springs-born wunderkind began a seven-year writing stint at Rolling Stone at the age of fifteen, understood something that eluded the Universal brass. Beneath the superficial high jinks of “Fast Times” lay the genuine angst and confusion of late adolescence. And if the dialog and action struck adults as being frothily void of content, they rang absolutely true to the youth of America.

The 27-year-old Crowe’s most recent film “Wild Life” (which he co-produced with Art Linson), is sure to provoke the same disparate responses of adults and teenagers. The movie, which stars Christopher Penn (Sean’s 18-year-old brother), celebrates the post-high school journey of moving away from home, plus a tangential exploration of a young teenager’s fascination with the 1960s.

Currently Crowe is beginning an authorized biography of Neil Young. He is also working on his third Universal film, “Singles,” which is set in Phoenix, Arizona, and will follow an unmarried man in high late twenties as he searches for Ms. Right.

Hearing that it was a thriving singles spot, Crowe arranged for us to meet at the Hamburger Hamlet in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, so that he could be interviewed and do research simultaneously. Ironically enough, Crowe had designated the wrong franchised restaurant. The only action during the entire conversation occurred when a bespectacled man at the adjacent  table suffered a fainting spell and the paramedics arrived to cart him away.

MARGY ROCHLIN: The restaurant manager told me he was a big fan of yours.

CAMERON CROWE: Really? Writers have very few fans. Like, if you’re Tom Wolfe, then you have fans. Bur barring that, all through my time at Rolling Stone I never had fans. Sometimes I would get letters that read, “hey man, you did that article on Peter Frampton.” The next paragraph would say something like, “So what’s Peter’s address? He’s really cute.” Led Zeppelin drew the most letters. You could write a story about Patti Smith and get seven letters. Write about Jack Ford and get fifteen letters, maybe. Write about Led Zeppelin? They come with four huge bags and dump tons of letters on your desk. And believe me, those letters were the weirdest. They would say stuff like, “Robert Plant is speaking to me,” or “I listened to Presence and it is all about my boyfriend Joey. I need to get ahold of Jimmy Page to talk to him about it.” But the letters would never focus on the writer. It was kind of like being the middleman, which is okay. I guess that’s the way it should be.

You started writing for Rolling Stone when you were very young. Now you’re 27 years old. How old were you when you passed the boy genius cutoff date?

I remember writing about Jackson Browne when I was fifteen or 16. Everyone told me that when I interviewed him I should be sure to talk about his being a boy wonder. Jackson Browne was 25 years old at the time. I remember thinking, “Twenty-five? That’s no boy wonder!” So the cutoff date must definitely be before 25. Twenty-three maybe. It’s over once you’ve started hitting the meaningless birthdays. There’s no reason to celebrate 26. But 25? You celebrate that because you’ve been alive a quarter of a century. Twenty-four? A good age that’s close to 25. Twenty-one? Cool, you’re finally legal. Twenty-two? Cool, you’re not 21 anymore. But, 26 and 27 are just birthdays that count down to 30.

How did the concept for Wild Life evolve?

I wanted to write a move about the Doors. So I got Ray Manazrek’s [the Doors’ keyboard player] home phone number and called him up and said, “Ray, I did ‘Fast Times.’ Man, I have this really great concept on how to write about Jim Morrison.” And Ray said, “Great, man.” And then after writing it on spec for two or three months I came to this realization that I was probably one of 75 guys who called Ray Manzarek and told him that I had this great idea for the Doors movie and that he told, “Go for it.” I mean, what does he have to lose? Maybe the person will write a great script. So at that point I got very disillusioned and realized that what I really wanted to write about was the fascination a kid might have for the 1960s and someone like Jim Morrison.

Did you come up with a theory as to why today’s teenagers are so attracted to that time?

My theory is that rock and roll was a more private thing back then. These days I believe that rock has been ritualized: “Okay, now it’s time to light your Bic lighter and hold it up. Okay, now they are going to come out and do an encore.” There is no longer an element of surprise. The kids are very cynical about that ritual of rock. Jim Morrison represents the kind of musician who was around before that ritual began. The three other guys in the Doors were totally ready to become the Beach Boys. They were ready to have hits and play at supermarket openings. But they couldn’t because they had this lead singer that would do stuff like stop in the middle of a song and tell the audience they were all lemmings. And I love that idea of Jim Morrison being this person who was bucking the impending onslaught of ritualized rock. After I finished writing “Fast Times,” I went around to all of the kids that I had talked to, and admitted that I was 22. And a lot of them would say stuff like, “Now that I’ve told you everything, you tell me something. What were the Who really like?” They seemed so interested in the mythology of that time. It’s sad in a way. Music is no longer directed towards the listener.

Did you meet Chris Penn, the star of “Wild Life,” through his brother Sean, who starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

During the shooting of “Fast Times,” Chris used to come and hang around Sean. The amazing thing, though, is that although Sean has incredible onscreen charisma, it is very easy for him to melt into a crowd. But Chris is always very charismatic. You can walk down the street with him on the Universal Studios lot and Dennis Hopper will come running out of a building yelling, “Chris! Chris! I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.” Then you take another ten steps and Tom Selleck comes running out, “Chris! Chris! How are you doing, man? Let’s get together sometime.” And Chris just has this ultimate cool about it.

I’ve been told that you based the character of Tom Drake (Wild Life’s party-hearty leading man) on Chris Penn.

I wish Tom Drake, the character, were as classic as Chris Penn, the individual. Chris is a complete expert on Vietnam. By the time he was 16 he had researched it completely, read every book on it, and explored everything about that time. He made a complete movie filmed on Super-8 about Vietnam. It had an all-star cast – Sean Penn, Craig T. Nelson, Martin Sheen and Elizabeth McGovern. Francis Coppola heard about it and contacted him. That’s how Chris got the part in Rumble Fish. Anyway, I interviewed Chris a lot and ultimately based one of the characters on him. But he was way too old to play the part, so he ended up playing Tom Drake instead. Tom Drake, in fact, is based on this real guy named Tommy that used to go out with my sister. He drove this yellow Volkswagen and always had the radio blaring. He would never come inside our house or even honk. He would just sit outside and wait for my sister to hear the music. He was so confident and my sister was totally enamored with him. Right around this time my parents decided to sent her to Chapman College’s World Campus Afloat so she could see the world. And then Tommy proposed to her. The engagement announcement was in the paper and everything. So she went around the world for four months and, of course, she fell in love with another guy who was from Chicago and a couple of years older. It was great to see how Tommy acted when she came back. He had to realize that she had gone on with her life and that there was nothing he could do or say about it. He finally understood that he had given it his best shot and it wasn’t good enough. My sister had discovered the world beyond him. And, in a way, that was what I was trying to explain with the relationship of Tom Drake and his girlfriend Eileen in Wild Life.

In your films the central characters are usually male, yet the females are generally the more grounded individuals. It’s as if late adolescence reflects a time when boys are man-babies and girls are mini-grown-ups.

To me, “Fast Times” is about the fact that at that time in a guy’s life the girls have the power. Girls mature more quickly than guys. But at the end of high school guys star to come on a little bit, and although they don’t know what they’re doing they still have a little more power to wield in the relationship. That power is what Wild Life is about. Also that women can’t let men take advantage of them. In my next project, Singles, the theme is about men and women being on equal ground. But actually, it amazes me how strong women are expected to be. I mean, the guy mentality is not understood by guys, much less girls.

Do you consider yourself a “single”?

Yeah, but I have a girlfriend, Nancy Wilson, the guitar player from Heart. We’ve been together for three years.

Then why do you consider yourself a single?

I consider myself a single because I can’t picture marriage yet. I just can’t. I still haven’t crossed the line. Singles is about making that transition. It’s about being 21 and saying, “Ugh, she wants to get married,” to being 28 or 29 and saying, “So, where is she?” The reason why I’m interested is because no one writes about the experience of being single in their twenties. Carnal Knowledge is about Jack Nicholson in his forties acting down and dark. The Lonely Guy is not what’s it’s about. Charles Grodin giving you tips on bachelorhood? C’mon.

You’ve been doing a lot of research for Singles. Do you enjoy going to singles bars?

In a way. I never had the confidence before. My mom skipped me three grades. When I was in high school not only were the girls more mature, I was totally out of the running. The girl I asked to the prom patted me on the head and said, “Good try, little nipper! Here’s a bone!”

Isn’t Nancy concerned about you making repeated expeditions through the singles scene?

One of the themes of Singles is that you will never really meet someone you like a singles bar – they are designed to split people apart. The whole singles bar ritual revolves around how good your act is. Ultimately, two acts might come together and you might get laid, right? But the real moment of truth comes the next morning when the show is over.

In the Book of Rock Lists by Rolling Stone Press you named David Bowie as one of your interviews subjects with “the least promising opening lines you ever encountered.” Bowie said, “Did you see a body fall? I think I just saw a body fall.”

David Bowie was great. He is one of those guys who stages himself as an interview. I mean, some guys saw, “You want to do an interview? Okay. Come to my hotel room at six p.m. We’ll order room service and talk.” David Bowie was more like, “Meet me at a half-hour after midnight. I’ll be at the studio doing a demo with Iggy. Just walk in the door.” So you show up at 12:30 a.m. Walk in the door. And there’s all this blue light. You ask, “Where’s David?” They say, “He’s over in the corner.” And there he is by an orange guitar wearing a perfectly coordinated blue suit with a hat cocked down over one eye. And all you can say is, “Oh, yeah!” He was in his “Thin White Duke” period when I interviewed him during what he’s come to describe as his lost weekend in Los Angeles. He was really into studying weird kinds of Buddhism and stuff. And one night he was way on the edge and he said to me, “I just saw a body fall.” So he pulls down the shades and there were these strange symbols on the backs. It was interesting. I mean, he never scared me or made me feel like he was Manson or something.

Did you ever interview anyone that made you feel physically threatened?

The first cover story I ever did for Rolling Stone was on the Allman Brothers Band. They hadn’t done any interviews since Duane had died. So I was 16 and on the road with the Allman Brothers. I did all these interviews with the roadies, everyone. All they talked about was Duane. I was really jazzed because they were such a popular band at the time and no one had interviewed them. The night before I was supposed to leave I got a call in the middle of the night. It was Gregg Allman. He said, “I want you to come down here right now and I want you bring all your tapes and I want you to bring your I.D. ’cause I don’t know who you are, man.” Here is this guy who had been like an older brother to me for two weeks and something strange has happened. So I was shaking and scared, but I went down to his room with all the tapes. Gregg was really sweating a lot and his hair, which was really long, was pulled all the way back and he was sitting in this chair. There was only one light on. He said to me, “Who are you, man? I want to see your I.D. Man, you could be a cop.” So I showed him my I.D. and he said, “You’re only 16, man. That’s pretty young.” So I said, “Well, yeah. It’s about as young as you were when you used to sneak into clubs to play with your brother Duane.” And Gregg said, “My brother? My brother, man? My brother’s right over there.” And he pointed to this empty chair. So I left him with all my tapes and split town. Two days later I’m sitting in my house all bummed out and I get this call from Phil Walden, president of Capricorn Records, the Allman Brothers’ label. Phil says, “Hey Cameron. How are ya, buddy? Say, you know what? Ol’ Gregg woke up in his hotel room and he had all your interview tapes. He doesn’t know how he got ’em, but we’re going to send them right back to you.” I got all the tapes back and I wrote the story. I’ve seen Gregg a couple times since then and he claims he doesn’t remember anything.

Besides abject terror, what reaction does that behavior provoke in you?

I’ve always wanted to write about it. I want to write about what it’s like at the top. Not the rise to the top. Or trying to get your first hit. Or the downhill slide. But to write about how you spend your time at the very top. I’ve had many experiences while I was at Rolling Stone, and since, when I’ve realized that the person I’m talking to is at their peak. It’s different for everybody. And for Gregg Allman being at the top was having “Ramblin’ Man” being number one and his brother Duane sitting in the empty chair.

Have you found that hanging around actors is as interesting as spending time with rock stars?

Let me tell you a Sean story. I didn’t really get to meet Sean Penn until way after “Fast Times.” The first time I met him I was walking across the lot at Universal and this black Camaro came screeching around the corner and almost runs me over. A half-hour later I get this phone call from Don Phillips, who cast “Fast Times.” He said, “Come over and meet Spicoli.” And there was Sean, who didn’t look anything like Spicoli to me. I just thought we’d get some guy right off the beach who didn’t get the joke and would just say the lines. But I got the feeling that Sean had the right vibe. Well, the next time I saw him he was Spicoli. He would answer to “Spicoli,” “Jeff” or “dude.” And he wore this long wig, which was very painful for him because his hair was still really short from Taps. Every night after shooting we would go have pizza or something. One time I took him to a Halloween party thrown by Stevie Nicks. And Sean was so into being the outcast that when I introduced him to Jimmy Iovine and Steve Nicks he just looked at her and said, “Stevie Who?” And she just sort of smiled at him. And he said, “No, really. Stevie who?” And she just sort of smiled at him and he said, “HEY! STEVIE WHO?” For months he was this semi-stoned guy – although he never smoked dope. Everyone would always ask me, “Who’s that obnoxious guy you were with?” He was so into the role that he wouldn’t make friends with the rest of the actors. At the time he really liked Pam Springsteen [Bruce Springsteen’s sister and an actress featured in “Fasts Times,” Ed.] and even though he saw other guys hanging around her he wouldn’t make his move, because Spicoli wouldn’t make a move. The morning after we wrapped, Sean shows up in this brown velvet jacket, slacks, a dress shirt, leather boots and goes around shaking the other actors’ hands and telling them how much he enjoyed working them. It was like, “Who is this guy?” And he gave Art, Amy and me, a checkerboard tennis shoe that he had personally engraved for each of us. And we said, “What happened to Jeff, man?” And Sean said, “He’s up on the screen.” He never did Spicoli after that and it took me a couple of months to get to know this other Sean.

Do you think you’ve gotten other film projects okayed because you’ve developed a reputation for understanding teenagers, because you’re considered to be a good screenwriter, or because you’re the easiest person to approach for a teenage-oriented film project?

Many don’t know that I worked at Rolling Stone and had a career as a journalist. John Cougar Mellencamp had this idea for a movie and called me up and asked me if I was interested. I explained to him that I couldn’t do it because I was committed to Singles. He told me, “Well, I mentioned your name to the guys at Warner Brothers and they said, ‘Oh no. He only writes high school movies,’ and I told them, ‘Hey man, that guy used to write for Rolling Stone. I used to read his stuff when I was still painting houses.'” That really got to me. I wrote something about high school and my options are starting to seal themselves off. That’s why I’ve been enjoying Singles so much. It’s not about high school and it is not an ensemble piece. It’s about one guy and it spans ten years.

Courtesy of Interview Magazine – Margy Rochlin – November, 1984