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Vanilla Skies Ahead

Vanilla Sky Makers Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe

By Devdoot Majumdar

Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and actor Tom Cruise took time out to talk to The Tech about their latest venture, Vanilla Sky. Throughout the interview, Cruise found it in his heart to flip the cassettes in those recorders that clicked off.

What was the single defining moment that you think captures the essence of Vanilla Sky?

Cameron Crowe: There was one moment that we sort of found as we were shooting. I went to visit a friend of mine and saw that he had papers spread out all over his house, and he was trying to read while standing up, and I thought, “How great if David Aames, when he’s an indoor-bound guy, would have all these memos spread out, and he would just be walking, gaining strength as he’s looking at these words.” You [to Cruise] had that bathrobe, and you were just kind of shuffling through all these memos, and then later you did that voiceover and you said, “People will read again.” It gets me. I love his voiceover stuff, it’s one of my favorite things. It began in Jerry Maguire, and we were able to use it again. It’s somebody talking right to ... one person, not to everybody.

Tom Cruise: And when Cameron gets excited about something, we do it over, and over, and over again [laughs]. There’s moments on the set where we can’t help it, you get lost in it. You’re on the Crowe ride, so you’re just like, “Yeah, I can do it, I can do it.”

Was this film a departure from past films for both of you?

TC: First of all, I never thought that I’d be able to do what I’m doing. I did Taps, Losing It, and I realized, “You know what? Here I am in this place. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to do the things that interest me and learn,”--and I learn from every film that I’ve made.

I’ve always tried to do something that I felt was a challenge to me. I’ve never taken for granted the opportunities I’ve had, and the gifts that I’ve been given by many people. So this kind of picture, it is out of bounds. Its the subject matter that I’m interested in, that I love talking about with Cameron: the effects of pop culture on society, what is casual sex, what is love. It’s a film that gives you a pop culture thrill ride, yet there’s all those other elements involved. Cameron has these jewels placed for the audience, all the clues are in there, and when you see the picture again, it’s a film that can mean more, or something different, the next time you see it. Those moments of “what is casual sex?” is there that promise? Yes, you can walk away from having a sexual experience with someone, but you're physically walking away, but yet emotionally... it’s there. What happened? Was there a promise made?

CC: To me, it’s just stories around a campfire. I sort of think of it as a bunch of people late at night sitting around a campfire. One guy says, “A kid is a young journalist, and his mother won’t let him listen to rock and roll,” and that’s one story. And then the next guy goes, “A guy has a nightmare that he’s alone in Times Square.” And you know, it’s all different ways of telling a story. This is a slightly different one than the last one, and I think I learned a lot about new musical instruments creatively that I’ll never forget. To work with Tom, you get everything. You get all the benefits of a character, and all the benefits of a person that can represent love, and it’s just a joy.

Cameron, you have a reputation to uphold with regard to the soundtracks of your films. Tell us about the importance of music to this film.

CC: We played a lot of that music while we were making it. And that’s when the movie starts to get a feel and that starts in the writing. And those bands, particularly Radiohead - we listened to Kid A constantly -- especially here in New York. And I still think of it constantly, walking the streets. And then there was Sigur Ros from Iceland. I couldn’t find the right piece of music to end the movie with. I went to see Sigur Ross in LA and they played the song, it’s called the “Nothing Song.” Music and film make such a great marriage when it works. We usually have a lot of fun in the editing room. Tom would come and visit, and we’d just try different music. And when it works, you just have to step away and go, “Whoa! Now, can we just get the music?” And then it begins the process of asking for it.

Why do you think a remake of Abre Los Ojos was merited?

TC: I’ve been offered a lot of films to buy and remake, and I never have because I felt it was too connected with the culture of that place, whatever country it was front. But this was a universal story that was still open-ended, that still felt like it needed another chapter to be told. And I think that we see it and when Alejandro saw it, he was amazed. The first thing he said to Cameron was, “I feel like we are two brothers, asking the same questions, but we have different answers.”

I think that it Open Your Eyes is very much an Alejandro AmenÁbar picture, and this is very much a Cameron Crowe picture. His voice is in it, and you see the dialogue between pictures. When you look historically at films that have done this, they’re never approached in this way. It’s a remake, as opposed to a cover and an artist will be viewing it with his own characters and his own questions. And for me, someone who loves movies, I was fascinated to see what it was going to be like, and I felt that obviously the characters that Cameron was going to bring to the table were very special.

What about Tom Cruise as an actor made you want him for this role?

CC: We were definitely looking for something that we could do together, and we both loved Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). It’s just a great movie and a great jumping-off point for asking questions in a different way. I’m not a fan of movies where something happens physically and the whole movie is about the affliction. Sometimes they’re good, but it’s hard to get past the affliction into the story. This one, it just felt like part of the character, and he plays it that way. It’s a guy whose journey includes the effects of an accident. But as you know, people in real life have been through that -- they work very hard to show you who they are inside, and sometimes it only happens when they’re forced to show you what’s inside. And that’s how we played it. If you see the movie again, you start to go right past whatever physical affliction is present, and you see what’s going on in the person, and that’s a great thing. That’s why I made the movie.

Cameron, how do you get your female leads to play such unique and realistic characters?

CC: Kate [Hudson of Almost Famous] and PenÉlope both have this great ability to make you feel like you were watching them live a whole life, or say a whole huge speech, but really they were saying nothing, and you’re just watching their face. And that’s the coolest thing of all, and a lot of actors don’t get characters that allow them to say that silently. So it’s so much fun to just play music and let actors have a chance like that, because they give you gifts like you wouldn’t believe.

Do you think you could have made this film in your first days as a director or do you think it required some evolution?

CC: Well, we loved making a romantic comedy for sure, and it’s not like I was looking for a more serious thing. This just came along. It was a movie that we couldn’t stop talking about, and it became the genre that it is, which is no genre, or many genres. I connected to some stuff that happened when I was a little guy reading Ray Bradbury. I loved those interior kind of quasi-science fiction stories, and we just found ourselves there, and loved where we were.

In many ways, the film is a critical look at the effects of pop culture. What do you feel it says about the subject?

TC: For me, this is a pop culture ride. You look at the music that was chosen, the characters, Times Square. The iconography of the picture is pop culture. I don’t think that it criticizes it. It’s just a look in on it. It’s just a comment on something that’s in our own lives. You can’t disassociate yourself from it. It just is. And Cameron knows pop culture, he really understands that, and has looked at it from the inside out for his whole life.

CC: One of the cool things is that, probably more than Tom even knows, he represents pop culture, too. Just in terms of the way people have related to his work so much. It’s a wild beast, trying to make a timely movie about pop culture [laughter].

Spielberg says before he makes a movie, he looks at 4 films - he looks at Seventh Samurai, The Searches, It’s a Wonderful Life, and It’s A Wonderful Life?

CC: Sooner or later, I watch the Apartment again. Sometimes it’s Local Hero for just the beauty of characters that speak in a certain way. When we were making the movie, Rainman was on TV. I came home and watched the it. And Rainman kind of kicked my ass because Barry Levinson is so good at creating a world of characters where every little twitch matters. Everything counts - people watch everything. In the same way, in this movie, every little frame is packed with stuff and everything the characters say does matter. So any movie that you watch for inspiration would hopefully remind you that the audience is always listening, and always watching. So don’t squander the opportunity. Two hours is like a great opportunity to program your own radio station, to play music that people are really going to hear, and to get into the riches of character.