Vanilla Sky – St. Louis Dispatch

He’s Shooting for the ‘Sky’

Cameron Crowe is a difficult guy to interview. Not because he’s a Hollywood dilettante — he’s quite the opposite — but because he himself was a journalist long before he was an A-list writer and director. So just like a rookie pitching to Mark McGwire, a reporter instinctively wants to rise up to Crowe’s level.

Fortunately, Crowe is a gracious host, welcoming a guest into his New York hotel room with a collegial handshake. Then, perhaps, out of habit, Crowe is the one who starts asking the questions: How’s the music scene in St. Louis? What do you think about George Harrison? Did you like the new movie?

The new movie is “Vanilla Sky,” a surreal romantic thriller starring Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz. Although it is a remake of a 1997 Spanish film called “Open Your Eyes,” Crowe has added some elements that are peculiar to his own vision, namely sly allusions to the movies, books and especially music that shaped the consciousness of the hero.

Crowe, 44, was born in Palm Springs, Calif., and raised in San Diego. As chronicled in last year’s semiautobiographical film “Almost Famous,” the music-mad lad started writing for Rolling Stone magazine at 15. At an age when most kids were pinning posters to their bedroom walls, the wide-eyed teen was crashing in hotel rooms with legends such as David Bowie, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, whose exploits provided much of the basis for the fictional band Stillwater in that film.

In 1979, Crowe, then 22, enrolled in a Southern California high school to research a book on teen-age life. “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” was optioned as a movie and launched Crowe’s screenwriting career. Ten years later, he moved into the director’s chair for “Say Anything,” an unusally perceptive teen romance starring John Cusack and Ione Skye. By then, Crowe was married to guitarist Nancy Wilson of Heart, and although the couple settled in Seattle, Crowe was well on his way to Hollywood success.

His commercial breakthrough was “Jerry Maguire,” which earned Crowe an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay and established Cruise as an actor willing to experiment with his heartthrob image. The pair have been friends since Crowe wrote a cover story about Cruise for Interview magazine in 1985.

“Vanilla Sky” continues to toy with Cruise’s persona. He plays a hot-shot publisher whose callousness precipitates tragedy.

Crowe says he wanted Cruise’s character to be a complicated mix of charm and ugliness, which necessitated the commercially risky move of using prosthetics to disfigure the actor’s face during a large portion of the film. Deriving irony from the juxtaposition of opposites is a trick that Crowe learned from legendary director Billy Wilder, with whom he spent the past two years collaborating on a book. Crowe says he wishes he had understood the principle earlier in his career.

“I made a big mistake in the movie ‘Singles,'” he confides. “I directed an earnest character, played by Campbell Scott, to be played earnestly. When I watched the completed movie, I realized, shoot, there’s no depth beyond the earnest. If you cast an earnest guy in a scene that calls for indifference or outright evil, then you have a more interesting scene.

“It’s the same with soundtrack music. If you play ominous music over a murder, all you have is double-strength ominousness. But in this film, if you play something light like the Monkees’ ‘The Porpoise Song’ or Todd Rundgren’s ‘Can We Still Be Friends?’ during a violent scene, then you can better understand that Tom Cruise is thinking – ‘What the hell is happening here?'”

Disorientation is the mood that dominates the second half of the film, when the Cruise character is not sure whether he is dead or alive, asleep or dreaming.

“The movie is about what’s real in your life and how much is pop culture dictating what you think is real and how much do you want to know the difference,” Crowe says.

There are inevitable pop-culture resonances that come with making a Tom Cruise movie, Crowe says, and, as a film fan himself, he wanted to explore them.

“The original Spanish movie was more about beauty in society than this one, but I admit I thought I could generate a little ironic bang out of the idea that the guy who can’t deal with his face is Tom Cruise. Then,” he says with a smile, “at one point during the shooting, I had a dream that the film is really about a guy who purchases the fantasy that he’s the movie star Tom Cruise and it all goes horribly wrong.”

Courtesy of St. Louis Dispatch – Joe Williams – December 14, 2001