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Interview: Talking With Director Cameron Crowe

Man Behind ‘Jerry Maguire’ and ‘Vanilla Sky’ Discusses Latest Film ‘Elizabethtown’

By Natania Antler

Cameron Crowe is director of the newly-released “Elizabethtown.” He previously directed “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous,” and “Vanilla Sky.” He was interviewed in a phone call with The Tech and other newspapers.

I heard that Billy Wilder influenced the idea for the genesis of the film, and it also came out of you dealing with your father’s passing away. I was wondering how much both of those played into the genesis of the film?

Well, the latter really was the original inspiration. I was traveling through Kentucky, and I had not been back there since my own father’s funeral years earlier, and so the whole kind of elixir of Kentucky and the feeling that is in the air there and remembering my dad in a state that was so much a part of my family’s history. That really was the inspiration. Billy Wilder is a real hero of mine, and I wrote a book about him, so interviewing Billy Wilder over the period of a couple of years was almost like film school for me, so he is a constant inspiration, but I cannot say that the movie is based on any one particular film of his…

There were reports that you had shown “Elizabethtown” to the Toronto International Film Festival, and there was a warning that it was not finished. What have you changed, and why did you show it in the unfinished form?

Well, I finished a cut that was accepted and sought after by three festivals: Deauville Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, and Toronto. I kept working on the movie because that is my process, and so I actually had a cut before we showed the movie in Toronto and those other cities … I was still learning about how the movie was playing with audiences because I think you learn best about how a movie is working, particularly a comedy, by showing it and feeling the rhythms. That is something that I learned a lot from Billy Wilder…

One of the lines that struck me the most was, “You cannot be buddies with your own son.” Is that a line from a personal experience with your own father, and do you believe it is true?

No, that is kind of a line that arrived as a question really. Can you be buddies? Should you be buddies with your own kid? My personal opinion is there is a time for that and there is a time when … you need to be an authority figure, and sometimes there is a time to put it all aside and think about them as person to person, not necessarily parent to child … I do know people that do not want to be buddies with their own kid…

What is your process of integrating music into your films? You seem to really be very keyed-in on making the film work with whatever music you want to show. You are always showing album covers, almost to the point of sometimes not necessarily gelling exactly with the script. I was wondering why that was important to you, and how you feel you accomplished that.

Often music is one of the inspiring first events as the story is coming together, so I try and program the movie sometimes like a radio station I would want to listen to. But there are also things that I put in there as little tips of the hat to artists or all kinds of things really because I like the idea that things appear in later viewings of a movie. So sometimes I will put an album cover in a scene or a little something on a wall, and I do that, and often it is music because I love music so much … It is just that this one felt like more of a musical than some other ideas that I was working on, so I just kind of floored it in the direction of playing more music in this one.

What exactly do you say to people who are comparing “Elizabethtown” to “Garden State”?

I never saw “Garden State” until after I had finished filming and sort of had the movie in its pretty much final form because I had heard about “Garden State.” I was playing some of that Shins music on the set of our movie and people would come up to me and go, ‘You know, that song “New Slang” is in “Garden State.”’ And I would say, ‘Oh really.’ And they would go, ‘No, it is really in “Garden State.”’ And I would say, ‘Well, okay, great.’ I dig Zach Braff. I love that there is a movie that has a sensibility that I am probably going to really dig, but I am not going to watch it until I am pretty much done with the movie, with “Elizabethtown.” So finally towards the end of “Elizabethtown,” I watched “Garden State” and loved “Garden State.” I did not really see the similarities with my own movie beyond us both kind of loving “Harold and Maude,” the great Hal Ashby film…

You mentioned earlier about playing music on the set and I was wondering, is this for fun or is this part of a strategy for getting actors to deliver the performances that you want?

Both, the latter first. I mean you really do get something different when you are playing music in the middle of a scene that an actor is performing … When you are able to play the music that is used in that scene, … it is kind of fun to know that that music is actually influencing the performance just as it influences you watching it…

Why did you pick the bombing memorial as one of the landmarks that Drew visits in the movie?

Well, I visited the memorial because I was passing through Oklahoma City and was really taken aback at how powerful the memorial was and how much of a tribute to humanity it was. I mean I was really knocked flat by the power of that site, and what got me most of all was the survivor tree, and it was so inspiring. And I knew so little about the memorial that existed in Oklahoma City, and I could not stop thinking about it, so when I was writing the road trip sequence of “Elizabethtown,” I thought, ‘You know, this is an important place, particularly for a guy who needs to know what his life means in perspective to the entire world. Here is a real symbol of survival and life, a tree that existed close to the epicenter of this blast that lived and flourished and is a symbol’…

Claire predicts personalities according to their names but never mentions Drew’s mother, Hollie. What do you think Claire would have said about Hollie, and what were you trying to do with Sarandon’s character in general?

In my experience, Hollies have been kind of not as festive sometimes as their name might imply and sometimes serious but sometimes a lot of fun, and it is a kind of compelling name, I have always thought because they are expected to be flamboyant, but they are not always, Hollies. But anyway, that is just my own theory not in the movie of course.

What I wanted to do with the mother was show that she was brave enough to grieve in her own way even when people think that it is not proper or why hasn’t she cried. She is going through an incredible emotional upheaval and in fact comes to find a moment of grace in front of everybody that she once feared and worried about judgment from, and that is where she communicates best of all who their hometown boy fell in love with, and that is sort of the arc of Hollie and why I love that character so much.

At one point Orlando breaks down, and it seemed really universal because that happens a lot where people expect you to cry but you cannot. So I was curious if you shot in sequence to build up to that and also if you could talk about the road trip as a different kind of Act Three.

Having the road trip end the movie was always a real reason for making the movie, and I always wanted the movie to earn that road trip in its full length so that is one of the reasons it took so long to edit. It is funny that the road trip actually had to happen in the second week of filming because of scheduling for the actors and a lot of the actors I think pretty much everybody cut their price to make the movie and made it as a labor of love, so we kind of had to work in between everybody’s schedules … And right about that time, we did the crying scene, too, and I felt like [Orlando’s] character was just in his soul at that point, and he was able to kind of stay in that groove for the rest of the movie and feel raw enough emotionally to tell the rest of the story in the perfect way, so I was very happy that we actually ended up doing that earlier rather than later.