The Source for Youth Ministry

Cool Conversations/Interviews

Cameron Crowe Interview
October 10, 2005

From the movies Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous to the brand new film Elizabethtown (CLICK HERE for Jonathan’s review), Cameron Crowe has always captured the hearts of his audience with his true to life characters and captivating dialogue. I guess we shouldn't expect less from a guy who was writing cover articles for Rolling Stone Magazine at 15 years old.

Maybe you've seen the story of his life in his year 2000 Oscar winning film Almost Famous, Cameron's "love letter to music." It's a tale of a young boy whose love for music and writing led to touring across the country with a band, learning about life, love and the backstage lives of music icons.

I almost fell out of my cheap swivel chair when I saw the invitation to interview Cameron this week. I've enjoyed his work ever since the first time I saw Say Anything. Most of all I've enjoyed the way he makes his audience think about love, values and commitment.

You won't always agree with his point of view or even his methodology. But I think you'll find his opinion intriguing.

As we talked, Cameron shared about the time he posed as a high school student researching for his book (and eventually, his film) Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Cameron has always had his thumb on the pulse of youth culture, reading it accurately, and probably influencing it indirectly. He shares his perspective about youth culture today. He also shares what's behind his value system and how that is transposed into his work.

Cameron's new film Elizabethtown comes out this Friday.

JONATHAN: At 22 years old, you posed as a high school student to get a peek at youth culture and perhaps see how student life had changed since you had been there. That sounds intriguing. Tell us about that experience.

CAMERON: That was an extension of being a writer for Rolling Stone magazine where I had written a lot of profiles about rock stars and musicians that I loved. Then I started to interview their fans as well. I thought, at a certain point, the fans are as interesting as some of these musicians.

A friend of mine came to me with an idea for a book which was about what high school life was like from the inside out. My mom was a school teacher that had skipped me so I never had a senior year. So from there I went to visit with a principle of a school that I was interested in researching and he said, "Well, why don't you come and sit in on classes"... and it began from that.

JONATHAN: Wow. Were you just sitting in on classes or did you enroll and attend everything, like an undercover nark officer ...

CAMERON: He put me on the docket for the classes throughout two semesters. I went to dances, I went on outings and everything ... and by the end of the second semester I had told a few people what I was doing. But a lot of them knew me, still even know me. I went to a semi-reunion event once and there were people that still only knew me as a fellow student. And you know, it was good in learning. It really did prepare... it was a kind of reporting that I think happens a lot more now, sometimes even with cameras, where you just honor teenagers for being people and full blooded humans and not just extensions of their parents. But I remember at the time it was kind of like "Nobody wants to read a whole book about teenagers" and "Nobody wants to see a movie filled with teenagers! They'll never go."

JONATHAN: That's right... I mean Fast Times was on the edge of that.

CAMERON: That's what they were saying. They said, "Well if you have American Graffiti where it's teenagers that adults remember in a nostalgic way then you've got something." But they were looking down their noses at teenagers saying, "They'll never read a book and they'll never go see a movie about themselves."

JONATHAN: It's funny how wrong our predictions are.

CAMERON: (chuckling) Yeah.

JONATHAN: Throughout your career you are a guy who seems to have always had your thumb on the pulse of culture. If you could pose as a teenager today... obviously I guess you'd have to get into a teenager body or something...

CAMERON: Lots of plastic surgery.

JONATHAN: (chuckling) ...There you go; a lot of it...but if you were to research for a movie now, what do you think Fast Times would look like today?

CAMERON: The original Fast Times would be quaint in comparison...

JONATHAN: I agree. So what would today's version of Fast Times look like?

CAMERON: Sadly, I think today's Fast Times experience would be up to date in a sometimes jarring way. I think drug usage has gone up. Gun and weapon abuse has gone way up. It's a much more dangerous time to be alive.

When Fast Times came out there were people that were up in arms saying "We've got to find out where this school is, where this "stoner" roams the isles!" You know, "freely and not under arrest" and all this crazy stuff. And now it looks like old fashion ice cream.

But I just think it is everything I have always written about: characters. And whether they're teenage or whether they're... you know, we have all kinds of ages in Elizabethtown and it's just, when you put something real up there, particularly if it kind of celebrates life in some way, people respond. And young people respond too.

JONATHAN: In so many of your earlier interviews your love for music comes out. And you commented about how you used to make tapes each year with the songs you listened to during that year—sort of a "music diary." You said it in like past tense as if you don't do it anymore. I was thinking, "He probably still does that with his Windows Media Player, burning CD's?

CAMERON: No I still do, iTunes baby! I do it all the time. Plus now you get 1.2 hours which is nice.

JONATHAN: So what does your CD have on it this year? Give me a couple of tid-bits of what you're listening to right now.

CAMERON: My Morning Jacket, I love their new album "Z." I love this new band The Clutters, I love Ryan Adams, he's put out three albums this year already. I love Patty Griffin, and this guy named Josh Ritter that I really love listening to. There are just so many great singer/songwriters out there right now.

JONATHAN: Do those artists that you're listening to at that time sometimes show up on the soundtrack of your current film?

CAMERON: They do. Not all of them. Josh Ritter did not. I really tried. Kathleen Edwards is another one and she did. Laura Cantrell is an amazing artist too. If you are able to program your movie by the radio station that you wish you could listen to, it's good! Then other people get to hear the stuff that doesn't often get heard. It's fun! You can kind of 'throw a little love' the way of your favorite artists.

JONATHAN: And not to mention that you almost catalyst other people into loving that song because... well, think of what Say Anything did for Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes," and not that it might have not made it anyways... but you never know. And most people can't help but to think of John Cusack standing holding his radio over his head blaring that song.

CAMERON: You never know. And Nancy Wilson, my wife, does these amazing scores that I love so much and she kind of weaves together all these records with her guitar work which I love so much.

JONATHAN: Oh yeah. I have to give your wife a little plug here. See, I graduated from high school a little later than you, but I remember slow dancing to some of her stuff (she's in the band Heart) with my girlfriend back when I was in high school.

CAMERON: (chuckling)

JONATHAN: So yeah, you got to give her some props for me—that was good stuff.

CAMERON: I will do that.

JONATHAN: I'm not half the music fan you are, I'm a movie fan. I read about some of the old films you like. And I read that in preparation for Elizabethtown you were having Orlando watch these Billy Wilder films like The Apartment. But I have to ask you, would there be any movies in the last 10 years or so that could take place among your favorites?

CAMERON: Sure. Pulp Fiction was amazing, I loved Garden State, I loved Primary Colors, ...Crash is good. I love movies about characters where you feel like you are watching real life. Sideways was amazing. I loved Spanglish and all of Jim Brooks' work. Genius.

JONATHAN: I like the way you asked a question in your Francis McDormand interview—you said "OK. Can I get your personal reaction to having made these movies?" then you named a bunch, and she gave quick thoughts on each. I want to do the same with you with the films you directed. Can I get your personal reaction to having made: Say Anything?

CAMERON: Just an incredible experience falling in love with directing. A lot of that courtesy of John Cusack who really connected so well with the Lloyd Dobler character.

JONATHAN: Singles?

CAMERON: Not entirely thrilled with the casting of Singles but I have fond memories of making the movie and want to do a DVD of it where I get to use some of the unreleased stuff and the concert sequences too.

JONATHAN: Jerry Maguire?

CAMERON: You know, start to finish a magical experience.

JONATHAN: Well said. How about Almost Famous?

CAMERON: Labor of love and the movie I get asked about the most. And the thing I'm proudest of about it is it captures why people fall in love with music. (pause) Hopefully. (chuckling)

JONATHAN: It does! Vanilla Sky?

CAMERON: A fever dream in which the entire story takes place rattling around the head of a guy. Filled with pop culture and a desire to be more human. A polarizing experience ... and I'm also really proud of it.

JONATHAN: (chuckling)

CAMERON: (chuckling) A polarizing cinematic experience that I am also very proud of.

JONATHAN: That was the answer that I was going to be the most curious about is what you were gong to say about Vanilla Sky. Because you hear so many people say so much about it, I wondered what you thought of that one.

CAMERON: No reaction in the middle from the very beginning, Jonathan, it was like, nobody ever said, "Yeah, cute movie."

JONATHAN: Yea, it was either, "That was the worst..." or "Oh, magnificent! Brilliant!"

CAMERON: Yeah, yeah.

JONATHAN: Okay, Elizabethtown?

CAMERON: Another movie from the heart. A tribute to my dad and it actually achieves what the goal was, which was to end the story with an adrenaline burst of feeling like, 'this is what it's like to be alive right now.'

JONATHAN: Good. And I'm gonna go back to that film. But first, when you interviewed Tom Cruise, he talked about working with different directors. He said his defining moment was working with Paul Newman and Scorsese. But as a director, do you have defining learning experiences with certain actors, because he can obviously say, "Oh, I've worked for Coppola, I've worked for Kubrick..." and named these great directors. Can you get the same with actors?

CAMERON: Yea, I think a defining experience was working with Renee, Tom, and little Jonathan Lipnicki in the kitchen in the scene in Jerry McGuire when Jonathan's character, Ray, hugs Jerry for the first time and gives him a kiss. And just doing that small intimate scene in a kitchen was a real life-altering experience for me because it made me know the joys of when directing is working and how it's a job that you just want to work your entire life learning more about and learning how you can improve it. And that was a glimpse of when it all comes together. It was like an elixir.

JONATHAN: That's a good descriptive word for that. In another interview you talked about that scene and you said, "That scene made me feel like a director."

CAMERON: Yeah, it did.

JONATHAN: And then you also referred to the scene in Almost Famous, when Penny asked William if he wanted to go to Morocco. Patrick (the actor playing William) said "Yes." Then he said, "Ask me again." And you decided to leave that line in there when really that was Patrick, the actor, asking Kate to say the line again. You said in another interview that scene also made you feel like a director. Was there a scene in Elizabethtown that made you "feel like a director?"

CAMERON: Yeah, it's a great question. Boy, you really prepared too, and I thank you sir.

It's when Drew comes back into the kitchen after he's left the funeral parlor seeing his dad in the casket, and the cut (music) is "From Death to Life" and that is when he is just enveloped by the love of his family in that kitchen. And he realized that when his cousin says, "This is your blood man." That to me was really powerful because I was able to shoot that party in a way that I hadn't been able to shoot the party in Vanilla Sky, with a hand held camera and kind of a free feeling, almost documentary feel, and that got across just exactly what I was anxious to say.

JONATHAN: 'Anxious' meaning 'eager?'

CAMERON: Yes. Eager.

JONATHAN: Well good. Then segueing to Elizabethtown... any fan of yours knows that Almost Famous is about you, but more so, you said that Almost Famous was your love letter to music. Now I've heard that Elizabethtown was about honoring your family as well- honoring your father. If Almost Famous is a love letter to music, what is this film to you?

CAMERON: A tip of the hat, really, to a life and a family, and a family root system that exists outside of the coast. And we, almost all of us, have it. And if not for times of strife or tragedy, we rarely are connected with that deep family root system that lets us all know that we are not all alone. So it's really just a kind of a "Garrison Keillor-esque." A folk tale about the surprising love and existence of community that we've all got. Because none of us did arrive out of nowhere. We are the product of generations. And sometimes when you're caught up in the success/failure syndrome you forget that you're part of a whole family tree.

JONATHAN: Wow, good. You know, as a minister... (pause) Did I tell you I'm a minister?


JONATHAN: ...I can't help but notice that you care about characters and values, even if it's not a popular opinion. Jerry McGuire was filled with values like integrity, commitment...and WOW...marriage! Not necessarily mainstream beliefs in Hollywood. I even see it in your own commitment to your family. My audience is predominantly Christian youth workers- or, you know, followers of Christ. They care a lot about Biblical values, that kind of stuff. Some of your content is right there. This is funny. Today, one of my "curriculum" writers, not even knowing I'd be talking with you today, sent me a youth group "discussion idea" from a scene in Jerry Maguire. He paralleled the scene when Jerry leaves and he's got the fish and he says "who will follow me?" you know and Dorothy follows... he parallels that to when Jesus is saying who will follow me? The cost of commitment.

CAMERON: Wow! Wow!

JONATHAN: I'm just kind of curious. Here you are with these moral themes and you care about character. Your value system... where does it come from?

CAMERON: It comes from my family really and the belief in my family that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish and also do it in a positive way that helps people. If you can, through whatever you do, in any given way, honor humanity then you are doing a service. And you just find so often in any business, not just the movie business, that people are just so ready to throw another person's whole life away in the pursuit of their own success.

I think we should just listen to our co-workers or just hear what people want to communicate. When I'm directing, people will often say, "You know, you are the first director that I've worked with that actually listened to the idea that that electrician had." And you might not use the idea but if you approach it like, "We are all a team." Usually we all just want to support our own personal agenda one way or another. But you know what? You listen to that electrician and he is gonna work harder because he feels like he is part of a team. And you might just get the greatest idea and tell people it came from him. Why not?

So people have said to me that their experience making a movie that I have written was a little more satisfying to them because they felt like they were part of something, and all of us together were going to tell a story that might reach people. And I think it's in that subtle way that you can make a difference.

And that comes from my family. My mom was a counselor- IS a counselor- and our living room was always filled with people that she was still helping long after work hours. And same with my dad and his real estate business. He was thought to be a guy almost too nice to succeed in a cut throat world. And I think that's a badge of honor.

JONATHAN: So 'people caring about people.'

CAMERON: Why not?

JONATHAN: Even the electrician.

CAMERON: We're all in it together. And then when you sit down to write something, if you honor humanity, it naturally comes out. I've gotten the criticism that I don't have enough bad guys but really there are bad guys in what I have written, it's just that I have a lot of people who are characters worth recognizing their nobility in. And I do like doing that.

JONATHAN: I don't know, Jay Mohr seems kind of like the bad guy in Jerry Maguire.

CAMERON: He is a bad guy, he's a really bad guy but you see he's not crushed by an anvil that falls out of a building. He's crushed by love because he sees Cuba Gooding loving his life and Jerry feeling that connection. And you know, and his client says, "Why don't we get that?"

JONATHAN: I loved the hug, right there in that scene. The hug was classic.

CAMERON: Yeah, so there's a way you can tell those stories.

JONATHAN: It is funny, because it's like he (Jay Mohr's character) just saw something that was missing...

CAMERON: That's right. And so there is the bad guy learning a lesson as opposed to just getting zapped by a laser ray.

JONATHAN: Your care for family, your care for individual characters, regardless of how significant comes out. And you know, it's amazing. We see that and respect it. So I'm wondering if there is any faith attached to all that ... in something more than just humanity.

CAMERON: Yeah, you know, I went to Catholic school and we are raising our boys, you know, to honor faith and stuff, but you know, it's "give everybody a wide berth in their own belief system," that's my feeling. That's where I come from.

JONATHAN: So you don't hold up Simon and Garfunkle albums and point to their eyes and say, "Drugs, they're on drugs." (referring to a scene in Almost Famous where his mother did that to him)

CAMERON: Oh, I do that. (chuckling)

JONATHAN: (also chuckling) Oh, O.K. good. That way they'll know!

CAMERON: Hey, you've got to have family tradition, come on.

JONATHAN: Yeah, that sounds like a legacy that was left to you.

Another question: As I read some of your original articles and interviews, it suddenly dawned on me, and I said to my wife, "Oh no! I am interviewing THE interviewer--the guy that knows how to do it better than most. So all of the sudden I felt really under equipped and I thought, "I wonder what he would ask "him?" So let me ask you, what would you- since you're an incredible interviewer- what would you ask "you?"

CAMERON: You're doing a great job. You read other stuff and you just kind of turned questions back on me that I've asked other people. It's fantastic. I can't top you brotha'!

JONATHAN: I don't know about that. Don't...

CAMERON: No, it's pretty impressive.

JONATHAN: Well, thanks. I'm just a fan.

So what film is next for you?

CAMERON: I'm gonna do, I think, an out and out comedy. Probably a little less personal but... (pause) hopefully no less honoring of the characters. I just am putting it together right now. I want to work with Kate Winslet, so hopefully there will be a part for her in there.

JONATHAN: Oh, wow. So by comedy are you going to do what you call the "bread and chocolate," the combo of tears and laughter?

CAMERON: Maybe a little more chocolate than bread in this.

JONATHAN: O.K., all out comedy. Because you always have so much heart in there, and humor and heart are both important. I've always seen both with you.

CAMERON: Well, even Fast Times, I think, sort of honored its characters so it might be a little more like that.

JONATHAN: Sure. No that's absolutely it.

You asked somebody once, and I want to ask you: Do you have a 5 year plan?

CAMERON: Yea, I want to make another movie and not take so much time getting it made. And also be there for our little boys more. So that will take a good 5 years.

JONATHAN: How old are your kids?

CAMERON: They are almost 6.

JONATHAN: Oh, that's awesome. That is a fun age. They are both—twins?

CAMERON: Twins, yeah.

JONATHAN: Oh man, that's great. Let me finish then with one last question. You are the music master and you always pick the right songs. You even say that ... "If you get out of music's way, music can help you catch those moments on film."

CAMERON: Yeah, true.

JONATHAN: Tiny Dancer was one of those moments (referring to the bus scene in Almost Famous). Any dialogue there couldn't have said as much as that song. But is there an art to that? Because when we turn on Almost Famous it starts with Alvin and the Chipmunks. And ... it worked! And I looked at it and went, how'd he find Alvin and the Chipmunks here. And later in the movie during Penny's O.D... you played "My Cherie Amour," I would have thought more of a soft orchestra piece. But your choice worked. It always works. Where do you get it?

CAMERON: Just loving music and just driving around and hearing music and just thinking of how it makes me feel... and then transferring that into the way a scene gets shot. You know, imagining what Patrick Fugit's (the young boy playing William in Almost Famous) face would feel like, you know, in that scene when he is watching Penny O.D.-ing and then thinking, "That's that happy/sad "My Cherie Amour" feeling. And then they kind of come together.

JONATHAN: Well, I know your love for music and ... this is funny. I read one of your earlier interviews of Tom Cruise, and when you were interviewing him, Tom mentions a quick aside about how Brickman (the director of Risky Business) played him some music before the movie was even shot. He played him some Phil Collins and Tangerine Dream and told him that this is what he was thinking for the soundtrack during these scenes. Anyway, it was just a small, quick comment by Cruise. Then he goes on to talk about working with Scorsese, Kubrick and Coppola... the look on Coppola's face during a scene... and as soon as Cruise finishes talking about all this, your next line was, "So before the shooting, Brickman had the music?"

CAMERON: (laughing) That's funny.

JONATHAN: When I read that... I just started laughing because- I felt like I knew you. And for once in your interview... you were NOT listening. I mean, usually you are so in tuned to what people are saying, but this time you were...

CAMERON: ...way back there....

JONATHAN: Yeah, you were so distracted by Cruise's comments about Brickman's music methods. It's like Cruise could have been sharing his heart. "Then my dog died and I started doing crack and ..." And you were like, "So Brickman had the music chosen beforehand!!!"

CAMERON: (laughing) you know me too well.

JONATHAN: It was pretty funny. Final Comments?

CAMERON: I really enjoyed this interview, it was great. Best of luck to you my brotha'!

JONATHAN: Thanks for your time Cameron.