MovieWeb goes one-on-one with the writer/director about making a film based on his own life and relationship with his father
There are only a few movies that make you think about your life and where it's going long after walking out of the theater. Elizabethtown is one of those films for me. Written and directed by Cameron Crowe, the film circles around Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) who after getting fired, the same day finds out his father has died. So, he flies to Kentucky to get his father's body and bring it back to Oregon.
But unlike Cameron's other films - Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Say Anything...etc, this film was much more personal to him; it was the story of his life and how he was affected after his father passed away.
I had talked to Cameron at the junket for Elizabethtown a couple weeks ago, but there was something about him that made me want to talk to him more. And you'll be able to read what we talked about; I've included that after our phone call ended.
Thanks to the wonderful people at Paramount Pictures and Cameron himself, I was able to talk to him over the phone. On this one on one phoner, I wanted to go more in depth with him about working on the film, about his career and his life with his wife, Nancy Wilson (lead singer of Heart).
So after our exchanges of ‘hello,' here's how the interview went:
Cameron Crowe: How are you doing today?
I'm doing fantastic! You?
Cameron Crowe: Great! Where are you?
Cameron Crowe: Oh wow!
I spoke with you at the junket, but I loved the movie so much and after talking to you, I had to talk to you more.
Cameron Crowe: Thank you, I'm honored.
This movie touched me in so many ways; it almost was me. In February, I drove cross country. I quit my job and decided to move out here and try something new.
Cameron Crowe: Oh man! Wow, good for you!
The road trip was one thing, but my grandmother passed away a few years ago and I felt the same way that I didn't cry. It was so surreal; it was so amazing.
Cameron Crowe: Thank you, thank you so much. You just never know if people out there will relate to things when you write them; it matters to you, and to some people it doesn't. Some people are ‘I'm not in the mood for that; thanks.'
What were you feeling as you wrote it? Was it emotional for you?
Cameron Crowe: It really flowed and I really appreciate you taking it to heart. Everything I had been working on felt like a struggle and this just flowed. Kind of – you always read people say something chose them as an idea or it almost wrote itself; it wasn't quite like that, but similar. All the feelings that I felt in Kentucky when a lot of this stuff happened were so close to the surface than I even knew. I'm sure you feel the same way; sometimes you say ‘I lost this person' and people say ‘how long ago' and it's been six months and they say ‘oh, that's a long time ago.' (laughter) But in a way, time stops and feelings matter so much and, I don't know, personal song writing. I always loved song writers who wrote songs in the first person, so it's kind of like that.
Speaking of that, you and Nancy, you writing for Rolling Stone, you have a music career; have you ever decided to write music?
Cameron Crowe: Yeah, we write joke songs for some of the movies; we wrote a couple joke songs for Almost Famous that became the songs of Stillwater. Then, as a fun diversion, we wrote the main song for Ruckus (in Elizabethtown) so when we cast the movie, we'd know what their music was like, so we thought to write a song like an acoustic anthem like Arc the Angels. And then we wrote Same in any Language, first as a joke. My Morning Jacket did a version of Where to Begin in the movie so we left it in.
In some of the radio commercials, I've been hearing you talk over the trailers and you say this movie is a ‘celebration of life' so I want to know what's been the biggest celebration of your life?
Cameron Crowe: Wow, what a nice question! One of the ways I've learned how you can celebrate life is having kids; it's sort of an answer probably predictable, but the right one, even if you're not ready when you have kids. Something about the experience is a huge relief. And I think if it were a professional question it would always be having learned to write – everyone can write, but not everyone believes they can - so I was lucky to come from a family that encouraged me to write. So many people don't have an outlet for their feelings or how they can express life and not everybody in a relationship is the kind of person who wants to. But if you can write, you can find a good way to do it, so I'm really grateful for that.
When did you know that you had the gift to write good movies, good scripts; when did it finally hit you?
Cameron Crowe: Well, thanks; it's a day to day thing. What you believe one day isn't what you believe the next day and I think every writer secretly believes that they may never be able to do it again, but they can. I guess I felt pretty lucky when James L. Brooks saw things in Fast Times at Ridgemont High that told him I had a writing voice. And so he asked me if I wanted to write something with him to develop a script with him and that became Say Anything, so that was a real relief of someone like that could believe in your writing, that was huge. I'm a big fan of his.
Where would you rank this film in your high standards?
Cameron Crowe: I don't know, I don't know, when I talk to you about it, I feel real proud about it. It's pretty personal, so I don't know. (laughing) I'm just beginning to figure out Vanilla Sky, so it's taken a while for me. (lots of laughing) Or figure out how much I can.
Drew and Jessie talk about how much they knew their father; how well did you know your father?
Cameron Crowe: Well, better now. I knew he was a great guy, but making this movie and reading all the letters he wrote, that really made me feel like I knew him adult to adult which is something I feel anyone who has the opportunity to do it should do it and wait for that moment down the line when it's going to happen. You sort of have to create the moment and call him up and sit down with him, sit next to him at the next family gathering and talk without an agenda. It's a really interesting thing, with my dad being gone now; I really miss that time I never spent, just talking. It would have blown him away for me to sit down next to him and say ‘how're you doing,' (laughing) as opposed to ‘dad, I need something,' or ‘I can't go on the road trip this year.' It's kind of like ‘an agenda free conversation with a parent' – I recommend it.
Did you ever get to take the road trip with him?
Cameron Crowe: I didn't, I did not get to take the road trip with him. I should have. I realize now, whenever he would drive some place and I'd be with him, I always felt like he would go so slow and the car would be going so slow and there would be a line of cars behind us just waiting to pass. And he had to have seen that, and I always had to say ‘dad, speed up, common man, can we go any faster.' And he would say ‘Oh, ok.' And now, having kids, I can realize what he was doing – he was trying to make the moment last, he was trying to turn that into a mini road trip, and he didn't want it to end. And that was such a powerful realization, I think, and probably that memory did influence a little bit of Elizabethtown.
It's funny you say that, because just listening to you talk, you really so realize that when you're an adult – now I'm only 27, but when I look back –
Cameron Crowe: 27 is such a great age! It is, enjoy it.
But like you were saying, when I look back at when I was 10 to 15 or 12 to 16, when I was yelling at my parents, telling them to do stuff, I ask myself ‘why did I do that, why didn't I spend more time with them?' It's so amazing.
Cameron Crowe: It's so amazing, and it doesn't take that long to do, really.
Did the Ben character ever exist?
Cameron Crowe: In various versions of the script he did or at least a person – I always wanted it to be ambiguous whether the Ben she discusses exists at that time or not. I have an idea of it and so does Kirsten, but I never wanted it to be obvious.
So in real life, there's no Ben?
Cameron Crowe: I don't know, what do you think?
I don't know, it was weird, even from the first time she said she had a boyfriend, even from the first instincts, you were like ‘does she?' Because she fell in love with the Drew character so much.
Cameron Crowe: Yeah, yeah.
So is Claire, Nancy? What ever happened to the Drew and Claire characters?
Cameron Crowe: Claire is a combination of people, for sure. But I do know this, at the end of the movie, it's about her now, because he's sort of taken from her. So his last close up in the movie, I wanted to express it was going to be his turn to rescue her. So I like to think in every relationship there's one person helping the other, their roles are going to have to shift a little because always behind her eyes, Claire was always saying ‘when is someone going to crack the code into who I really am when I'm not always helping other people.' She's like a people person who wants to be saved.
Not to go deep, but is Claire, Nancy?
Cameron Crowe: Yeah, in my life, that character is represented by Nancy.
In the casting process, is it true that Ashton Kutcher was cast as Drew?
Cameron Crowe: Briefly, he was considered. I think he's underrated and we really haven't seen what he's done in his auditions in a movie or a tv show. He did a really good job, and he's good with music, too. But ultimately, over the course of some work sessions, it didn't feel like the right time to do something together. I think he's got more stuff ahead of him.
So what made Orlando the ‘yes' and Ashton the ‘no?'
Cameron Crowe: Well, Orlando is more of the Hal Ashby character that I wanted for the movie, like Howard and Maude had a sort of whimsy to it that I sort of admired, and Local Hero with Peter Riegert. I liked the still quality, the quiet quality that they could be very communicative and I thought Ashton was underrated with that quality. But Orlando, for me, was right with all the music and I believed him coming back from Kentucky, being in that kitchen, getting enveloped with these strangers, who were his family. I just thought that scene want Orlando. Destiny had it going to Orlando for sure.
Everyone we talked to said your set was like a family atmosphere; what do you do to make it that way?
Cameron Crowe: I play music and try and let the people live their characters live together and be part of a community atmosphere. Also, invite ideas from everyone to make them part of their process. --
And that was it; he had to go make another call. I literally could have talked with him for hours about this movie or about life in general. Anyone who ever has the chance to meet him or talk to him should be honored. I certainly was!
But I did want to include some of my questions from the roundtable interview:
This movie is very close to your heart; what made you start writing it and put it to the big screen?
Cameron Crowe: The first eight pages came and then followed by a whole bunch of other stuff. I had been working on this other project; I had been on tour with my wife and had dropped off in Kentucky and I was driving around with these first eight pages. When I hooked back up with the tour, I was like ‘You know that story I've been torturing you about' (laughter) – ‘well, I'm not thinking about that anymore; I've got this other thing!' Nancy was like ‘Oh G-d' (lots of laughter) ‘now it begins, this goes on for years.' (lots of laughter) So I read her the first eight pages, while in Albuquerque, and she said ‘Eh, that's pretty good, that's pretty good, I get why you would want to do that.' She knew my dad, and she also knew that song by The Hollies ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker' and that sort of arrived, too, from the beginning. And it all sort of took off from there, but the thing was, as all stories have a problem, was it too personal? And so that was something I wondered about for a long time.
How much of Drew is you?
Cameron Crowe: Going back to Kentucky – that definitely happened; my mom definitely did deal in her own way with grief, nobody understood it, she did take comedy lessons (laughter), she was embraced by a neighbor, who's name – I guess we can reveal cause we've lost him now, time rolls on – it was Bill, Boner Bill (lots of laughter). So you can see we ‘reeeeeaaallllyyy' changed things around a lot. (burst of laughter) We leave no clues at all; yeah, but all that stuff really happened. But some things in Fast Times actually happened that felt embarrassing to write, not all of them happened to me, but some people I was researching and I talked to them at the time, but oddly enough, it's the personal stuff that I put in that people come up to me and say ‘I can't believe you put that in the movie; that happened to me. And I thank you for it.' I feel that way about things I see in movies. And the things that you make up happened to no one, so I don't know if the next thing will be taken so directly from our experience, but this one was.
Something I found nice was the stop at the Lorraine Hotel; did you go there yourself?
Cameron Crowe: Many times; it's an eerie place. I first went there in the '80's and they chased me away. There were people still living at the motel; now it's a museum, it's a civil rights museum. And there's a woman who lives on the corner, who's lived there for 22 years in protest of the neighborhood becoming gentrified and the place not being torn down, because she says it should a true monument to Dr. King would have been to build a children's hospital there, not to put a shrine up to where he was murdered. So this woman lives there on the corner in protest, and I wanted to put her in the film too to get both sides of it. And I went up there one day, her name is Jackie, and I said ‘Can we film you?' She had watched us filming all our stuff, and she said ‘No, cause you're a Hollywood sell out.' And so I said ‘I'm trying to tell all sides to the story.' And she said ‘You're a Hollywood sell out, and further more what does Johnny Cash have to do with Dr. King!' ‘Nothing; I don't think anything.' And then I realized she thought we were Walk the Line which was filming at the time. And so I said ‘No, this is about a guy and his father, a road trip, and an urn. And so she said ‘I still think you're a Hollywood sell out!' (lots of laughter) And so you can see her in the background of one of the shots; I wish we would have been able to shoot her, she's a passionate woman, obviously. But that's what's happening on that corner in Memphis; it's amazing.
Where do you gather the music for a movie like this?
Cameron Crowe: Pretty much the music in this is what survived all the different stages and worked the best. And then I took some out cause I didn't want it to be too music heavy; if you can believe it, there was even more music that was in there. It was always meant to be a tribute to the American singer/songwriters working out, cause there are so many great ones and they don't get played; there's no place to hear them, there's no place except Internet Radio, which is a guy with his iTunes is the only way you're going to hear it. So I just wanted to use the movie to play some of these great singer/songwriters like Patty Griffin and Ryan Adams. But Nancy's score, I'm really proud of, I think it's the best kind of score – it's guitar based thing. Mark Knopfler did a score like that for Local Hero that knocked me out, so I love a good score.
What do you want people to see when they go see a Cameron Crowe movie and what do you want them to take away from it?
Cameron Crowe: I want them to – interesting question – I think I want them to feel like the characters are real, cause the movies I've loved are ones where the characters are so real to me that I feel like I know them and I miss them. And I feel like I know Fran Kubelik from The Apartment – I do, I know her, to the point that when I see Shirley Maclaine in another movie, I go ‘that's Fran!' And I love it, and I have been oddly satisfied a few times in some of the movies I've made that the actor has matched the character to the point where they live. And John Cusack was that guy (Lloyd Dobler) – and he is. It's the thing that when he acted it, it came to life and that's my favorite thing; like if Kate Hudson is able to twirl and for a moment be a character that you believe is real, Penny Lane, it's like ‘walk away' – it's the coolest, so that's what I would hope.
You can definitely see why I was so intrigued by him. Everything he says is so poetic and meaningful. Cameron Crowe is a master craftsman and his style should be looked upon as genius.
Elizabethtown opens in theaters October 14th; it's rated PG-13.