Vanilla Sky – Miami Herald

Sweet Dreams

NEW YORK — The first time Tom Cruise invited his Jerry Maguire director, Cameron Crowe, over to watch a movie Crowe had never heard of, it turned out to be Trainspotting.

“This was before everyone was talking about it, because Tom had gotten a copy of it early,” Crowe says. “So the next time he invited me over to watch something, I didn’t hesitate.”

This time, the invitation was more than just social. The movie Cruise wanted to show Crowe was Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes), director Alejandro (The Others) Amenábar’s Spanish thriller about love, jealousy, disfigurement and redemption. A smash hit in its native Spain, the movie made its U.S. premiere at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner optioned the remake rights — and hoped to entice Crowe to direct.

On the surface, Open Your Eyes — a psychological thriller/fantasy tinged with science fiction and featuring a love-it-or-hate-it whopper of a plot twist — couldn’t seem more removed from Crowe’s character-driven, reality-based movies (Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous). But it wasn’t the film’s bizarre central conceit that caught Crowe’s attention.

“What I saw was a really unique love story,” Crowe says. “and when the movie started morphing into this other thing, I didn’t want the love story to end. It wasn’t the kind of movie I would have ever written myself, but it spoke to me in a way I couldn’t get out of my head. And since I had just finished writing a book about Billy Wilder, and realized how many different kinds of films he had made throughout his career, it became a proposition I basically couldn’t say no to.”

On the surface, Crowe’s remake, Vanilla Sky, which opens Friday, is exceptionally faithful to the original. The basic plot structure remains the same: A swaggering playboy (played by Cruise) discovers true love in the arms of a young woman (Penelope Cruz, reprising her role from the first film), causing his jilted lover (Cameron Diaz) to wreak horrible revenge.


But in Crowe’s hands, Vanilla Sky has become something richer. The love story between David, the inheritor of a publishing industry fortune, and Sofia, the dancer ekeing out a living in New York, is much more profound and affecting this time around, thanks to Crowe’s knack for writing dialogue that is both poetic and natural, and his perceptive eye for how people relate to one other.

Swirling around that central romance is a grab bag of themes and ideas that turn Vanilla Sky into a dizzying, kaleidoscopic look at our social zeitgeist. Among them: the way in which pop culture seeps into every aspect of our lives, whether we’re aware of it or not; the question of how our sense of identity is linked to our face, and what happens to the psyche when that face is suddenly taken away; the ways in which we define friendship and love, particularly in terms of casual-sex relationships; and our eternal quest for true happiness — that nebulous, hard-to-define state of being that can prove formidably elusive, even to those who seem to lead charmed lives.

It was the potential for expansion inherent in Open Your Eyes that led Cruise to spearhead a remake. “I’ve been offered a lot of films to buy and remake, and I never have, because I felt they were too connected with the culture of whatever country they were from,” Cruise says. “The great thing about Open Your Eyes is that it’s a universal story that asks a lot of interesting questions, and it’s a story that is open-ended, so it allows an artist to come in and ask his own questions and come to his own conclusions. Before we bought it, we spent a lot of time making sure Alejandro was OK with that, and he was. Cameron’s approach to it was, `I’m going to get my band together and cover this song,’ which I loved.”


Crowe, a former Rolling Stone writer, doesn’t use that musical metaphor lightly. Like the rest of his films, Vanilla Sky relies greatly on music, from Paul McCartney’s titular song to the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, which is used to exhilarating effect during one of the film’s crucial shifts into surreal territory. (“I wanted to reclaim that song from its status as a Sunkist-ad jingle,” Crowe says.) Much of the music Crowe listened to while writing the screenplay, then played on the set during filming, also made it into the finished film — everything from Radiohead to U2 to The Monkees to Sigur Rós, the group from Iceland that, as Crowe proudly points out, “once declared they would never let movies use their music.”

The film’s copious use of music underlines Vanilla Sky’s subtle examination of pop culture as one of the driving influences in contemporary life — something that the movie both celebrates and cautions against.

“If you look at the music that was chosen, the way we used Times Square, the iconography of the picture is pop culture,” Cruise says. “It doesn’t necessarily criticize; it’s just a look in on it. It’s something that you can’t disassociate yourself from. It’s in the clothes you wear, the choices you make. Sometimes you’ll see a movie and think ‘That’s love for me. I want to have a moment like that with a woman.’ ”

“I wanted to get into the idea of pop culture and all of its hideous wonderfulness,” Crowe says. “It still defines every day of my life in some way or another, either by battling against the effects or going with them. One of the cool things about the movie is that Tom himself represents pop culture too, just in the way people have related to his work so much.”

(Warning: The following paragraph contains plot spoilers you may want to skip if you have not seen Open Your Eyes.)

But although the posters for Vanilla Sky feature nothing but Cruise’s handsome mug, it’s important to note that the actor spends a good portion of the film hiding behind a mask, a la The Phantom of the Opera, after a car accident leaves his character monstrously disfigured. Once a cocksure master of his universe, David sees his world crumble when he loses his good looks, making him realize how superficial his life’s pursuits had been. The irony, of course, is that David’s self-awakening comes too late for him to do anything about it, which gives Vanilla Sky the undertones of a gently cautionary tale about, as Crowe puts it, “how we determine what’s real — what really matters — in a world increasingly dominated by pop culture.”

One of the ways we do that, of course, is through love. Vanilla Sky stresses the romance between David and Sofia much more strongly than Open Your Eyes, so it was crucial that the actress who played Sofia could hold her own in the shadow of Cruise’s star wattage.

“Hollywood is littered with the bodies of people who have been in scenes with Tom and don’t even get seen, because he commands your attention,” Crowe says. “But I always knew I was going to cast Penelope, because I’ve always liked her, beginning with Belle Epoque. So many times in American love stories or romantic comedies, the leading lady plays a girl — an aging girl, a girlish woman, but never a woman. Penelope felt like a woman. When I met her, there was never anything post-Annie Hall about her. She was just Penelope. And she had been very vocal about wanting to be considered for any adaptation. I liked the idea of having her as a link to the original movie.”

For Cruz, reprising the character of Sofia didn’t carry as much déj vu as you might think.

“It never felt like I was playing the same character,” Cruz says. “It felt fresh, like a different version of the same woman. They both have a lot of things in common, and at the same time are in two different worlds. They are different ages, they speak different languages, they have different professions. It was a new step for me, because this is the first contemporary character I’ve played in English — a modern girl who talks like people talk today. Not that everybody speaks like Cameron’s characters. I wish!”

Months after Vanilla Sky completed filming and Cruise filed for divorce from Nicole Kidman, the actor and Cruz officially became an item, leading gossip pages to speculate just how close their bond on the set had become. Both have insisted they only began dating recently, something Crowe confirms.

“They’re both really strong actors, and when they met for rehearsal, they made each other laugh a lot, which I loved, because it’s a great beginning for a love story — that the characters are attracted by the fun they bring out in each other,” Crowe says. “They definitely did that as actors. But I don’t think anything else happened until later. Looking back, you could almost say the same thing about Jerry Maguire. Renée Zellweger was such a good mix with Tom, you could look at some of the scenes in that movie and think ‘Well, they must be a couple.’ But they weren’t, and Tom and Penelope weren’t, either.”


The chemistry between the two, however, is undeniable, heightening the bittersweet nature of Vanilla Sky’s love story. After seeing the finished film, Open Your Eyes director Amenábar said he was knocked out by what Crowe had done. “Cameron has all my respect and admiration,” he said in a statement. “Respect, for having plumbed the deepest meaning both of the story and its characters and . . . the underlying philosophy of the work. Admiration, for having sought new viewpoints . . . giving the film his own unmistakable touch.”

Now it remains to be seen whether audiences will agree. Cruise admits that the film is a real departure for him, and will surprise audiences expecting Jerry Maguire II. “The film is out of bounds, but we knew you had to go hard to the basket with it,” he says. “You couldn’t pull any punches on it. And I’ve always wanted to make different kinds of films. Life is that way: It’s a constant evolution. You have to push yourself to learn about life, and you want it to reflect in the work that you do, when you’re producing or acting.”

To ensure they hadn’t gone too far, Crowe tweaked the film twice after test screening audiences were left a bit confused by its mind-bending ending. But he drew the line at studio suggestions to digitally remove the Twin Towers from the film’s finale, which takes place on the roof of a New York skyscraper, with the buildings clearly visible on the horizon.

“I didn’t understand why it was a given that they had to come out,” Crowe says. “I never wavered. I just said `No way.’ Maybe it’s unsettling when you see it, but one of the things I’m proudest of is that we shot that panorama of New York at around 10 in the morning. We filmed that building where those people were working. So in a way, they’re actors in our movie, and I didn’t want to cut them out.”

Courtesy of Miami Herald – Rene Rodriguez – December 9, 2001