Vanilla Sky – Minneapolis Star Tribune

Conversation With Crowe

The director talks about Wilder, Cruise & mother

NEW YORK CITY — Los Angeles Times writer at 15, ”Rolling Stone” contributing editor at 16, author of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” at 24, and now Oscar-winning A-list director/screenwriter at 44, Cameron Crowe could be the clip art emblem for “Overachiever.” So swift and sure has been his rise that many envious rivals must feel like “Ridgemont’s” bong-monkey burnout Jeff Spicoli in comparison. And now he’s in the headlines again with “Vanilla Sky,” his second collaboration with Hollywood’s Sun King, Tom Cruise.

The new film is a radical departure for Crowe. It’s his first suspense fantasy, his first remake (of 1997’s Spanish cult hit “Open Your Eyes”), and his first film to rely heavily on CGI special effects. If those new challenges worried him, he hides it well. Crowe was easygoing and affable discussing his new project and longtime passions after “Vanilla Sky’s” New York press screening earlier this month.

There’s always a wealth of quotable dialogue in your films. “Show me the money,” from “Jerry Maguire”; “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything,” from “Say Anything.” What do you think is the breakout line this time?

Tom loves ”Mortality as home entertainment. This cannot be the future.” But the editor said, “My wife says that line doesn’t make any sense. You’ve got to take it out.” That’s just an indication of different points of view, I guess. My favorite line is when Jason Lee says “I am frank, and Frank must go.”

I’m curious about your book on Billy Wilder (“Conversations With Wilder,” a series of dialogues between Crowe and the director of “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment”). Did you seek him out because you were a wunderkind who got established in your career before you had a mentor? Was he fulfilling that role for you?

Frankly, I just wanted my ”Apartment” poster signed. I was going to do anything it took to get that poster signed. Someone said “We’ll set that up for you.” I showed up, Billy wasn’t there, I waited for hours. Finally he showed up and I said, “We have an appointment.” He said [German accent] “You are a messenger, right?” I said, “No, I’m a writer and I have this poster.” He signed my poster and talked about “The Apartment” for a few minutes. That was how it all started.

There’s such a humanism and a kindness in your movies and he’s an arch-cynic. What was the point of connection for you?

I always saw the humanity in his movies, even the corrosive ones. His characters are going to live forever because there’s a humanity about them, even when they’re being nasty. And it turns out, as a man, he is that guy. If he was the guy that the media has characterized him as, he’d be dead by now. But he wakes up every morning at 94 happy to see the world. He sees wonder all around him. That’s my favorite sort of character to write. Or be around. When I realized there wasn’t a book you could buy that would give you a mini-course in his work, I figured I’d better write one.

”Vanilla Sky” is closely based on the Spanish film “Abre los Ojos” (“Open Your Eyes,” by the director of “The Others,” Alejandro Amenabar). Apparently it was important to you to honor the original director’s vision and get his approval of your remake. Did that leave you in a straitjacket?

No. You certainly hope that the guy is going to see your adaptation of your movie later and not scream holy murder, but I figured that was the way to do an adaptation. Either that or change everything. But if there was something about the movie’s feeling that you loved, then you’ve got to do justice to the things the first movie did to create those feelings but put it in your own language. So we did, literally and figuratively. I felt like I knew those characters, like they lived down the street, but I wanted them to say more. Maybe that’s just me. I love writing dialogue.

Was it hard to put a Spanish sci-fi thriller in your own language?

What was a challenge was to get on the wavelength of Alejandro and try and create an ending as he did, in a slightly different way. Where somebody has to embrace the sour to appreciate what’s come easy to him in his life, the sweet. To really appreciate it he has to make a very jarring and unsettling choice. That’s something I never would have written. This guy has to kill himself to live. That’s just a wild concept and nothing I would have thought of. At that point, it’s not an easy choice, and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want the choice to be so black-and-white that you go, “Well, when’s he gonna choose white?”

I wanted to remake it because it seemed open to interpretation as a movie and as a story. I loved “Run, Lola, Run.” but I wouldn’t have anything to say about that except, “I’d like to watch it again.” It would seem redundant. What I loved about this film was that it seemed like a folk song we could play.

It’s about what’s real and what isn’t real in your life. How much do you want to know is real? How much is pop culture dictating what’s going on in the world and in your life? A lot of ideas. I wanted the movie to seem like a conversation you could be having across a dinner table. And be able to talk about it later.

In the film you talk about ”To Kill a Mockingbird” giving David Aames [Cruise’s character] a view of what a father could be like and “Jules and Jim” giving him a view of what love could be like. Is a person whose understanding of love and fatherhood are informed by films enriched by that? Or impoverished by that?

That’s one of the themes, and certainly something I’d love for people to talk about afterward. I don’t really have the answer. I know that part of the movie is very personal to me. This is the second movie in a row where I’ve gotten into the whole Atticus Finch “To Kill a Mockingbird” theme. Clearly I either need to stop or get therapy. That is a joke. The thing is that I did see “To Kill a Mockingbird” as a kid and it did shape my view of what nobility was. And I can’t say that it was bad. My father also did that and that certainly wasn’t bad. It’s not an indictment of pop culture, just putting the magnifying glass over in that area.

Did the project begin with Tom Cruise approaching you to direct?

We sort of approached each other. He showed me the movie and then we just kept talking about it and then doing it. It felt like a very natural progression.

Psychoanalyze your star for a minute. In ”The Firm” and “Jerry Maguire” and “Eyes Wide Shut” and this he all plays variations on the same character, the golden boy who finds it all collapsing at his feet. And in two of the movies he spends a lot of time behind a mask. What draws him to this particular story? He can do anything he wants to. How come he keeps making the same movie over and over again?

He could do anything he wanted to. Not just because he has the power to do it in the business, he has the talent to do it. I saw “Eyes Wide Shut” and was aware of the mask, but I think the desire to do this movie was so great that we thought we could do it despite those similarities. Billy [Wilder] talked about it in the book in a way. When an actor like Cary Grant has a persona and enjoys turning the persona on its head in interesting ways. That’s what Tom does. What he doesn’t do is go out and do a part that is in-your-face different just for the sake of being different. He does this guy who, you’re right, starts out as this privileged guy who has lessons to learn. But the subtleties of what he did are really remarkable. To me he’s like Coltrane. He plays “My Favorite Things” but each time he plays it it’s different. And brilliant.

What was it like to direct him to act behind the mask? You get the eyes but what he’s capable of doing is reduced. He has to do bigger things. Grab his prison bars and bang the glass in the interrogation room window.

I directed him to grab the bars just as an improv at the end of the take. But sometimes people work a little too hard; they crave your love so you say. please, stay away. He brought that to the character in the mask. I thought putting Tom Cruise in a Tom Cruise mask was enough. But he brought that thing of a guy who no longer has the good looks to depend on, then creating this guy who’s a little bit needy. It’s great to see Tom play needy. Tom in the mask is more unsettling than Tom disfigured, because you really see the erosion of the guy’s confidence. It’s sort of riveting and painful.

There are so many moments in the film where reality cuts straight to fantasy. How did you keep everybody on the same page about what’s really happening?

I said everything’s real. Play it real. It still is otherworldly at times. I’m doing another comedy-drama next, but it was stretching muscles that I’ll use later. It was great to know the power of learning a little bit of suspense technique. It’s valuable.

This seems like a film that’s guaranteed to divide audiences.

The thing I love about the movie, no matter what someone thinks about it, I know they have to talk about it. Again, I go back to Billy. All he wanted was for people to talk about his movies for 15 minutes after they’d seen it. (German accent) “Fifteen minutes at the minimum!” I know the movie inspires thought, which I love. I know it’s not the kind of movie where somebody goes, “Yeah, it was cute. Where are we going?” Two hours is a lot to ask of anybody, but I hope people will see it a couple of times. We made it packing each frame with clues and little hints that come back to you later. We did almost everything but subliminal frames. Hopefully, it’s never gimmicky. It’s just stuff that is said or shown throughout. It’s kind of interactive in a way. If you see it again you’ll see there are signposts that lead you over here and over here.

Did you place Carl Jung’s autobiography ”Memories, Dreams and Reflections” on the psychologist’s desk for that reason?

Wow, nobody’s ever spotted that. It’s a hint and it’s also a book that was one of my mother’s favorite books so I wanted to use it and tip the hat to one of the books of my youth. My mother plays bit parts in all my movies and she always warns me about background details like that. She says, “Don’t spend time adjusting the cocktail napkins, honey, you’ve got actors waiting.” But the cocktail napkins is one of the most fun parts of the whole process, you know?

How did you film the Times Square sequence?

We had it shut down for six blocks on a Sunday morning for three hours. We shot seven takes of that first shot [a panoramic crane shot that takes in the deserted crossroads]. The mayor’s office and police department were so insistent that we should know what we were going to do that we were over-rehearsed. We got that first shot quickly and then there was this big anticlimactic moment. We’re sitting there. Times Square is empty. So it was like, “Do we pose for pictures for our Christmas cards?” So we had Tom run for a couple of hours, and we got all these cool running shots.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Star Tribune – Colin Covert – December 14, 2001