Cameron Crowe, the phenomenally successful author of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and writer-director of Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, has been doing double duty this month -- promoting both Vanilla Sky, his big-star remake of the Spanish movie Open Your Eyes, and the director's-edition DVD of his most personal film to date, Almost Famous. And though Crowe is the only major movie writer-director who started out as a teen reporter for Rolling Stone, he's not an MTV addict but a loopy traditionalist.
His acclaimed 1999 book, Conversations With Wilder, a series of interviews with the legendary Billy Wilder, spins out one of the threads that links Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky. Wilder taught Crowe how important it is to sew the history of a character into the action. In Hollywood studio conferences from the MTV Eighties on, a character's off-screen past is relegated derisively to "back story." Of course, back story is what makes the stuff up front resonate and sizzle -- whether it's Barbara Stanwyck's history of sexual manipulation in Wilder's Double Indemnity or the whole lost pageant of silent-era Hollywood in Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.
Crowe ran into New Hollywood's bias against back story when he made his final edit of Almost Famous. Out went the scene of his alter ego's embarrassment at being found out as a pre-pubescent in a high school shower room; snipped away were moments that placed the hero's eccentric mother in the world everyone lives in. They return in the Almost Famous DVD, on a second disc that contains a version of the movie called Untitled -- not merely the theatrical version with outtakes, but another complete edit of the movie.
Vanilla Sky could be seen as a cinematic essay on the concept of back story, both in movies and in life. Whatever you think of Vanilla Sky, its funky, all-run-together ad line does it justice: "LoveHateDreamsLifeWorkPlayFriendshipsSex." It's a gothic romance with satiric and sci-fi elements mixed in, centering on how snap decisions -- including love at first sight -- affect a character's present, future and what used to be called destiny.
Trimming for theaters
In a New York City hotel room, Crowe exudes a steady hum of enthusiasm over all his recent efforts. He is the least defensive writer-director I've interviewed. He may be especially protective of Almost Famous -- he says he loves the way the extended version on the new DVD fills out "the back story alluded to in the theatrical version, in the Wilder sense of sugarcoating that pill so the audience feels they know that character without realizing they've swallowed the concept of the character."
But he also recognizes that when he test-screened Untitled in theaters, "By the end, people were exhausted: The whole point of the movie was veering off the rails." To Crowe, perfecting the film became a matter of including different strokes in different formats.
As a one-time star byline in rock journalism, Crowe is aware of former colleagues' criticisms that Almost Famous was "a little too fairy-tale and rose-colored." The actual script, as well as the Untitled cut on the DVD, offer, as Crowe puts it, "more of everybody's point of view -- or more of a God's-eye view. You see all the lives, but when we cut it down you basically see the kid."
Crowe has only one regret about the theatrical edition: "It's a personal thing, but the reason I wanted to make the movie is the image of Kate Hudson's character dancing in the trash of the arena. It should have gone on longer, and that's my mistake -- I cut it short. The whole battle when you're editing a movie is like when you're writing a piece: An editor says something isn't moving your piece along, and you go: 'Wait, that's the most important thing about it.' Someone will say: 'You're running behind: Do we really need Kate Hudson dancing in the trash?' These are the things I go to war over."
Crowe realizes that a movie needs to sustain a higher level of intensity in a theater.
"When I watch DVDs it's a different experience. It's in a friendlier environment -- you're home. You're willing or you have the ability to take a longer ride. As far as Almost Famous goes, that's cool because it's a little bit of a shaggy-dog story in script form. It may be that [the most relaxed fit] is the version you see at home. But the few movies that aspire to be slightly novelistic, when they make it, it's great.
"I saw The World According to Garp on TV the other day, for the first time since it was in theaters, and there were stretches in that movie that really did work. The spell gets broken, but you think -- wow, to
stretch that out across a whole movie would be something."
Vanilla Sky, he says, "was fueled by Almost Famous in lots of ways," although it's almost a matched opposite. With Almost Famous, Crowe had "a walking textbook of research which was stuck in my head. Not with this one. This one I came at as a fan.