Cameron Crowe: Something About to Crowe
Expectations were high for Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-based romantic-dramedy, Singles. After the success of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Crowe made his directorial debut with Say Anything... Singles seemed like it was timed perfectly to coincide with the grunge movement, but it didn’t connect with audiences the way the studio hoped it would. Before the movie hit theaters, Crowe was interviewed for the September 1992 issue of Movieline magazine by his friend and fellow rock fan, Pamela Des Barres. Fans of Crowe’s movies will likely recognize Des Barres as one of the inspirations for the character of Penny Lane in Almost Famous.
Cameron Crowe, former Rolling Stone journalist turned writer/director, has made a movie about people falling for each other in the Singles scene. Here, he chats about everything from what it’s like watching people fall for the star of his film to what it’s like seeing people fall for his rock-star wife.
We just keep grinning at each other, like a couple of kids who’ve gotten away with something, when really it’s just our own good fortune that amuses us both. When you’ve known someone as long as Cameron Crowe and I have known each other, you can’t help being surprised at every unexpected twist that lives take over the course of a couple of decades. When we first met, back in the ’70s, he was Rolling Stone‘s hotshot teen reporter, and I was in the full glory of my rock slay-days. We’ve both changed occupations more than once since then. Cameron wrote a book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, became that movie’s screenwriter, turned to directing with Say Anything… and the new movie Singles, and I’ve written a book and become a journalist. We’ve both been married, too-though Cameron still is, to the goddess-diva from Heart, Nancy Wilson. Right now, we’re both in Seattle because Cameron’s about to make his first music video, for the song “Would?” by Alice In Chains, to promote Singles, and I’ve come to catch it all for posterity.
But when I arrive at the vast, empty building, a former glass factory where the video’s to be shot, I find no band to hang with. Cameron explains that it’s just not coming together as planned-no surprise to anyone who’s been around rockers, or movie sets, for that matter-so, after I’ve been introduced to the only band member in sight, the swell guitarist for Pearl Jam, Cameron and I decide to head for the nearest chic java bar and just talk.
Cameron hasn’t changed much since I last saw him. He’s still boyish and tousled-and he still holds a door open for a woman in fine, faded gentlemanlike fashion. When I mention this, he shrugs it off. That’s his style-a decided air of “it’s no big thing.”
PAMELA DES BARRES: How did you go from being a cool journalist to being a hot, big-time movie director?
CAMERON CROWE: I’m not a “big-time” director. I don’t think I’ve ever made a “big-time” movie. For the first time, on Singles, I did work with a big-time actor, Matt Dillon. Certain people are stars to me, but then I finish a movie and some guy in the marketing office tells me, “Your movie’s got no stars.” Not that I’m complaining-if you’ve made a studio movie and you come down on the studio system, you’re being a cliché after you’ve begged for a ticket inside the carnival.
Q: Singles is the first film to capture “the Seattle sound.” Was Nirvana’s music the jumping-off point for the film?
A: No, not at all. I wrote the first draft of Singles years ago-so many years ago that I was still single. Since I live in Seattle, as well as L.A., I really wanted to shoot the movie here. And since I’d been wanting, for some time, to make a movie that allowed me to write about music, I put the two together and used the Seattle music scene as a backdrop. Matt Dillon’s character, for example, is in a band called Citizen Dick, but the movie’s really about relationships. To get Warner Bros. to allow me to make Singles in Seattle, I made up these care packages for the studio executives who make such decisions. “Here’s the CD of Mudhoney, here’s the CD of Mother Love Bone. You-will-really-like-this-music.” I have to say it worked, because in the end they let me do the movie up here. Then, when the Seattle music scene exploded, they’d ask me, “So where’s Nirvana in the movie?”
Q: Wow. They must really think you’re on the pulse.
A: They don’t. I’ll tell you what they consider to be on the pulse-Lethal Weapon 3 is on their pulse-Batman Returns.
Q: So, if it wasn’t the music, then what was the inspiration for this new movie?
A: I wanted to write about the whole community feel that can spring up around an apartment house, you know? Where you come home and someone’s door is always open. The film is inspired, too, in a way, by what’s going on in my friends’ lives. Many of them are single, some of them live in Seattle, so in the script, Matt’s character is a single guy who’s in a band that’s big in Italy and Belgium, but they have to take out the trash in Seattle.
Q: [Laughing] I know, I know my boyfriend’s band is big in Japan. Who does Bridget Fonda play?
A: Bridget Fonda plays Matt’s love interest. When she loves him, he’s preoccupied; when he loves her, she’s past him, so the story’s about their push-and-pull thing. Matt plays a guy who’s got the bravado of a band, but he actually becomes devastated that this girl he cares about could actually say no to him.
Q: Considering the cast, were there any hot romances on the set?
A: Well, yeah … a couple of guys fell in love with Bridget. Though she was very much in love with Eric Stoltz, she can be a real guy’s girl-you know, she’ll hang out with the guys and that can be hilarious to watch. Some guys would try to get her into Fonda family raps, which makes you wince for the guys because she’s not about that. Yeah, the guys were pretty sweet on her. It’s kind of cool that we’re sitting here … this coffeehouse is the exact kind of place where Bridget’s character worked.
When she came here from Arizona, she wanted a guy who was good looking and who cared about her, you know, a guy who said “God bless you” when she sneezed. There comes a moment when Matt is so preoccupied that she doesn’t know what to do to get his attention-when she sneezes, he doesn’t even realize it, and when she sneezes again, he hands her a box of Kleenex and says, “Don’t get me sick, we’re playing this weekend.” And it’s at that exact moment that a little light goes on-she is freed from the relationship by his one remark and he never even knew what happened.
Q: You sound very familiar with the singles scene for a guy who’s been married six years. How au courant are you, really, with the singles life in the ’90s?
A: This is a key question, isn’t it? I worried about that a lot when I went back to rewrite this thing, but my memories of being single are still very vivid. I’m still such a reporter at heart that I’ve been torturing my single friends forever, and I still track all their various relationships.
Q: Yeah, but the last time you were single, awareness of AIDS wasn’t what it’s since become. Do you tackle this touchy subject in Singles?
A: It is mentioned, though there’s not an “obligatory rubber scene.” I worried that would earmark it, make it seem like a totally late-’80s movie. I didn’t want to put a date on this thing. But if you create an environment where people in a movie can say something about casual sex being lethal, then that’s good. I tend to write about the same thing, that life is a minefield and if you can get a decent attitude and go through it, there’s a payoff down the line. I know that’s really simplistic, but I think it’s worth writing about. In a way I’m really happy I didn’t have to go through the minefields, but so many of my friends are single-or single again-and I hear a lot about it because, of course, I ask.
I probably found it easy to write about the loneliness of being single, personally, because I have a working kind of marriage, in that my wife and I have a mileage-plus kind of relationship. For a long time, the responsibility was always on me to go out on a Heart tour to see Nancy, my wife. There’s a lot of time spent apart, it takes a really unique situation where you can really trust each other, but still, you’re fuckin’ alone a lot.
Q: Was Nancy the big-star bombshell of Heart when you first met?
A: No. It was interesting to see her explode into a sex symbol. When I first met her, her band was a little bit on the ropes and she was wondering if she should maybe be giving guitar lessons. I went through a jealous phase, definitely, but then I kind of found the humor in it. We got together when we were both in a down cycle, so it really makes it easy to laugh.
Q: Tell me a story about life out on the road with a wife who’s a sex symbol.
A: I used to play games with the opening acts on tour. Generally there would be one guy in the opening band who was in love with Nancy and I’d hear about it. He would always be hangin’ around, trying to say “Hi” to her, and I’d show up and she’d come out of the dressing room in her stage clothes and give me a kiss, and after she walked away I’d say, “Get her off my back, man!” I’d see the look on this poor guy’s face and say, “Kidding! Just kidding. Joke.”
Q: You had to have known, more or less, what you’d be in for when you married a performer. You’d already seen so much of the rock life out on the road, right?
A: Yeah, I had. I remember one time, when I was sharing a bachelor pad with this rock photographer, this lady called Penny Lane came over. She had a blowjob school and her group of trainees traveled around with her.
Q: Did you benefit from her expertise?
A: No, I actually didn’t. A couple of the girls crashed in my room, and I kind of wish I had been a little older and more attractive to them, but I think I made up for it a little bit later, which was cool.
Q: Tell our readers how you became a famed teen rock writer.
A: When I first started working for Rolling Stone, that whole generation that had started out writing about Van Morrison and Dan Hicks, they had gotten older and reached the point where they didn’t want to write about Deep Purple. Someone said, “Oh God, there’s a kid in San Diego who wants to write about Ritchie Blackmore? Let him!!” That’s how I got my foot in the door. I had written for my high-school newspaper, and my sister got me a meeting with an underground paper in San Diego, then I started getting assignments and coming to L.A.–I’d cruise around with my tape recorder looking for David Bowie. The amazing thing is, so many of them opened up to me because I was a fan. You can understand that.
Q: I certainly can. We were the last of a dying breed of rock fans.
A: It was about the last minute when rock and roll was a little more personal, before it was, “Okay, they’re off the stage, where’s you Bic?” you know? When it was still a little bit of a secret.
Q: When do you think it all changed?
A: In ’77, maybe.
Q: I think it was ’76.
A: I think you’re right. That was the year Frampton, The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac became corporations. How could it be someone’s little secret when it’s a corporation?
Q: Those earlier icons-like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix-sure didn’t wait around for their paycheck after a gig.
Q: So, how did you make the jump from writing about music to writing and directing movies?
A: My mom, who was a teacher, used to always say, “You missed your teen years because you were out on the road with The Allman Brothers,” and that gave me an idea-to actually go back to high school, undercover, and write up the experiences as a screenplay. Studio people at the time discouraged me that there was a movie script in that idea. I was told, “You can’t write about high-school kids, the only reason something like American Graffiti worked was because it had nostalgia running through it.” So I went ahead and went back to school, but I wrote it up as a book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. And then [laughing], Universal asked me to adapt the book into a movie.
Q: Fast Times was the movie that put Sean Penn on the map and started an entire genre of youth-inspired movies. You wrote one of those, the sequel to Fast Times, The Wild Life. How did you handle it when it wasn’t a success?
A: Oh, let’s just say that I decided to try and direct my scripts from then on.
Q: And you did, with Say Anything… Did you think you’d be an easy director for actors to work with?
A: Yeah, except I can be pretty exacting in getting it to be real. John Cusack taught me something early on. It was my first week on Say Anything…, and there were people whispering, guys watching anxiously over my shoulder. Cusack took me aside and said, “The thing is you and me. After I finish the take, I should be able to look over and see you, and it’s all about-did we do it for each other?” And I always stuck to that: we’re on a team, we’re driving for a basket.
Q: Sounds pretty scary to me.
A: I didn’t go to film school or anything, so it’s pretty fucking scary sometimes. Say Anything… had, what, three main characters, and Singles has 87 speaking parts. So this time, I had to be a camp counselor, and that’s not really my personality.
Q: Did you stick to the script, since you wrote it?
A: [Shaking his head] Not everything in the script worked, because Singles was the movie on which I wanted to try out all sorts of wacky stuff-there are voice-overs and I break reality-so I’d say I used about 50 percent. It can be heartbreaking when something doesn’t work. Frankly, you adore your own little ideas. They’re your little soldiers, the ones that made it through all the battles, all the drafts and all the days when you drove in your car and thought, “That doesn’t work at all, that’s terrible, I’m going to throw it all out.” You keep this little group of soldiers that have made it to the end, then some of them just explode in the daylight, and you wave good-bye.
Q: I’ve just recently completed my second book and I’m feeling a little sad about it. Do you ever get the post-partum blues after finishing a project?
A: Sure. I get to deal with it by doing a video like this. It’s like the phantom limb is satisfied.
Q: One last question. What part of making a movie is the most exciting?
A: The most exciting thing is when you can take the pages you’ve just written and heft them-the weight of the work. That’s the first excitement, maybe the most exciting. The whole process is not letting down that first feeling, knowing how great it could be from that first heft.
Pamela Des Barres is the author of the forthcoming book Take Another Piece of My Heart.