Cameron Crowe has (possibly) finished a draft of his newest project. How do I know this before you? Unfortunately, I'm not a close friend of Crowe's who gets status updates every time the director hits a creative milestone. No, I just happen to know because it's the reason the director behind gems like Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire was late to our interview a week ago.
"I think I just finished a new script, like, five minutes ago," Crowe told me at the start of our call. He sounded upbeat and ready to hang out after all of that writing. I was more than game because I knew that I would get to talk to Crowe about his 2005 movie Elizabethtown, a movie I sincerely love and which just might be my favorite of all his movies to date (sorry to Jerry Maguire). On February 9, Paramount Pictures re-released Elizabethtown for the first time on Blu-ray. This is the occasion for my one-on-one call with Crowe and, over the course of 45 minutes, was the movie we discussed the most. Sure, Crowe and I also discussed his career, be it reflecting on how he's handled negative reception to his movies to whether he'd ever consider directing a big blockbuster movie. Crowe also offered up anecdotes about experiences related to his other movies, including Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire but also Vanilla Sky, We Bought a Zoo, and Say Anything. But everything about Elizabethtown — the music, the filming, the casting of Orlando Bloom, and all of the little moments in the movie I've been dreaming to ask Crowe about since I first saw it more than a decade ago — was the at the heart of our conversation.
If you need a refresher, let's quickly recap the movie that brought Crowe and I together. In Elizabethtown, Bloom plays Drew Baylor, a workaholic shoe designer whose game-changing creation, the Spasmötica, is met with thunderous silence. The disastrous public reaction to the Spasmötica leads to a PR scandal for the shoe company he works for and his own firing. To top it all off, just hours after Drew gets fired, his sister (Judy Greer) calls to let him know their father died suddenly while visiting family back home in Kentucky. Drew is commissioned by his mom (Susan Sarandon) to go to Kentucky to oversee funeral proceedings, which allows Drew to reconnect with a side of his extended family he's never really known. He's a stranger in a strange land, forced to deal with the profound emotions that arise when placed at a number of life-changing crossroads. As Drew processes the death of his father, he also forms a bond with Claire (Kirsten Dunst), an airplane stewardess who serves as a shoulder to lean on and possible love interest during this unprecedented moment in Drew's life.
What you're about to read below is a candid conversation with Crowe about a movie that received mixed reviews when it was released 16 years ago and has continued to drive fans of his deeper into opposing camps. As Crowe repeatedly told me, Elizabethtown is a movie for his dad and a movie that sprang from a desire to reconnect with a location so integral to him and his family. Elizabethtown is also a movie about a deep personal loss, an exploration of grief, and all of the chaotic, absurd, and revelatory lightness that can arise from it. What follows is an equally personal conversation between a fan and a director that I hope feels universally accessible. If you're a fan of Crowe's, you love Elizabethtown (or both), then keep reading.
COLLIDER: What was your motivation for doing this Elizabethtown re-release at this point in time after, I would say, more than a decade since it was initially released?
CROWE: Well, Greg Mariotti, who works with me, the two of us make up the vast staff of Vinyl Films (it's just us). But Greg has been, while I've been working on writing stuff, Greg has kind of been going through the expanded versions and newer versions of some of our older movies. He was really anxious to champion Elizabethtown (we did Vanilla Sky and Almost Famous previously). He was always the one saying, "Well, we gotta do Elizabethtown too."
So he was beating the drum for a newer version of Elizabethtown that would have some of the never-really-seen elements in it. That was just so great to be able to go back and kind of, you know, shine a little bit of a light on the town because it was an amazing experience. There's a lot of stuff in the movie that I'm just so happy to celebrate, you know, things that I really, really love about it.
[Elizabethtown] was for my dad. I really wanted to go back and kind of explore Kentucky and his roots and get out of L.A. and New York and the places you usually see movies set in and just use whatever credit line we had to go and really do it with like one of the world's great cinematographers [Braveheart's John Toll] and to have a little travel log that's the latter part of the movie. I'm really proud. But it was polarizing, you know, it's a little bit of a polarizing movie.
COLLIDER: I do want to touch on that in a bit. But, before that, I want to just touch on some questions I've had for years now about the movie. One of the things that I love the most about Elizabethtown is that there's this current of humor that runs through it and it's sort of born out of the weirdness and the sadness of the circumstances. For me, all of that humor sort of starts with the exercise bike scene, which has never felt fatalistic but more like a play for humor. How did you arrive at “Knife on a bike” and “I’m going to have my protagonist build this thing”?
CROWE: There was a whole other movie I was working on. I was on the Heart tour bus [with] Nancy Wilson, my favorite guitarist, as well as my former wife and still close friend. So, I'm on the tour bus and I'm stuck on this other thing. I'm just watching the Heartland go by outside of this bus. I just started thinking about a whole different thing and it was kind of like poetry of fiasco and I had this thought of, “What would Billy Wilder do? Well, Billy Wilder would probably have a very dark, comedic introduction that would bring you into the emotions of the story, you know?” From there, it was just loving Billy Wilder and also loving when there's a good contraption in a movie. We put a couple of contraptions into Vanilla Sky and it's always so fun. (I still have the bike in a little storage unit. Like I'll never give that bike up. I love that contraption!)
So it was like, let's start this contraption idea that'll kick the whole movie off and kind of laugh at the fact that you never know what's good luck or bad, but this is really bad. And then [Drew’s] father dies and it's a worse kind of bad and so now he's got to follow that path. And, like life often does, whatever path you’re on, there are off-ramps into areas that you might not have ever expected. Sometimes they're even greater than the path you're on. That was kind of the idea.
It was really tough to cast the movie because there aren't a lot of Jack Lemmons or the kind of people that Billy Wilder had as his kind of happy/sad leading guys.
COLLIDER: Absolutely. Well, that's what made Orlando such a great choice. It was unexpected for what he was doing at the time. The role was really able to draw some interesting new shades out of him.
CROWE: Thanks. He definitely soaks up music and that was an important part of it. In the audition for guys for the movie, I would just have them look over what they thought would be a coffin containing their father and I would play music and just mess around with the whimsical, happy/sad of a moment like that. So many of the actors that came in for the part were just really amazing. In those moments it was a fascinating process.
It was really fun to take Orlando to Kentucky. He was at one of his early career peaks at the time. It's like bringing Legolas to Frankford, Kentucky. It was just a blast. There would be screaming fans and then Kentucky residents that hadn't even heard of him. So that stew was amazing to drop him into.
COLLIDER: This brings me to another question I have. So, the scene where Drew finally makes it into Elizabethtown and he's driving and he's greeted by everyone. Everyone has this mythical all-knowing energy about Drew without him knowing it. Did Bloom know ahead of time things about this sequence, like that someone would be on the corner with the Spasmötica sign cheering for him? Because some of those reactions seem genuine. I was curious if that was like a planned sequence or if you added some surprises for him to react to.
CROWE: Such a good question. In fact, it is half and half. So he knew there'd be a few things here and there, but you know, there are all kinds of people, you know, that just popped in and had different things to yell and shout and hold up signs and things. But he, he wasn't aware of all the stuff that was going to be there.
It's kind of in tribute to the way I felt when I went back to Kentucky for my dad's funeral, you know, because like everybody knew me, but I didn't know them. They knew me through my dad's letters and photos. He had kept up this amazing relationship with his home town and they all knew us, they all knew me and they all knew what I'd been doing and they all just were so welcoming. So that was all kind of a part of the thing that I wanted to come across in that sequence where Orlando's driving into town. We're in the back of a car, I think following him and I'm playing music. I think it's what you hear in the movie.
I love Nancy [Wilson]'s score in the movie and I also love the Ryan Adams effect that's kind of hanging over part of it. He was supposed to write an end-credit song that's like the song that they say is the song written for Elizabethtown. So Ryan Adams went into the studio to do a song for the end of Elizabethtown and he came back like a couple of weeks later and he said, "Well, I couldn't write a title song. I just got blocked. I couldn't write the title song. I made a whole album for you."
So there’s a whole Ryan Adams album and that song — I think it's "Words" — was on it. It's amazing. He's put some of this stuff out, some of it has never come out. I always thought Ryan Adams was part of the strong texture of that movie along with [My Morning Jacket frontman] Jim James, who's still one of my favorite artists. It's just incredible. It's incredible. I love that band.
It was kind of a wonderful jamboree making the movie because we had all that stuff that we did on a studio stage with the bike and some of the family stuff. Then the filming turned into a road trip. We went to all those places and, and, you know, shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I love that shot on a bridge where [Drew has] one hand waving free. It was, you know, everybody says "love letter" probably too much, but this was a love letter to Kentucky and my dad. It had that tone that you mentioned, which is right on the edge of inappropriate but that's how you feel in that situation. I hope you haven't had the experience of a close sibling or family member dying, but it's so almost psychedelic in how you're in the arms of the greatest sadness of your life, but you just instinctively know this is the time when people need to laugh. So, when you're in that situation, like in a hospital, it's like you crave the person that can say, "Hey, can’t get any worse, can it?" You know what I mean? It's like, you love that person. I wanted to be a little bit of that person in a way. [Elizabethtown] had a rocky reception, so it's always so meaningful to me when somebody says, "That movie helped me kind of accept a tough time in my life when a parent dies," because I'm always like, “Thank you. That's why I did it."
COLLIDER: Returning to the imagery of the different paths life takes you on, there’s something I’d love for you to confirm or deny. So, when Drew is on the road trip and Claire directs him to the World’s Second Largest Farmer’s Market, he gets the instructions to go home or find her there. There's a shot of him where he hits a crossroads at the market and there are signs that point toward cities like Boston and Hong Kong. But there are also signs that point toward "Failure" and "Greatness," and Drew takes the "Failure" path, which leads him to Claire. And it comes after her monologue about failing big. Is that shot purely coincidental? Or was it intentional to see Drew take the path of "Failure" to Claire?
CROWE: Allie, you get the prize. Most careful viewer of Elizabethtown ever. They're very much at the epicenter of what the movie means to me and why I wrote it and no one has ever mentioned that. It has a purpose. It's a big deal and thank you for seeing it.
COLLIDER: Yeah, because that always struck me as a beautiful thing. Like even when you run towards failure, there's something beautiful waiting for you at the end of it.
CROWE: This is, this is true. And you know, you just, you can't give up. That was our family motto and still is. I try and give that to my current family, which is just "Never give up."
That's really was the lesson of my mom. So, Elizabethtown is kind of like a sister/brother of Almost Famous. I get way too inside with this stuff, but like Almost was… My dad was still around at the time of Almost Famous, when all that stuff happened. So, I just felt, you know, that I wanted to do a movie for my dad.
COLLIDER: Earlier you had touched on the reactions out of TIFF when Elizabethtown first showed. From what I've been able to understand, there were changes made to the ending and I'm wondering, with all of that time that's passed now, do you still like the ending that you changed it to? Or is there any desire to bring the original ending back?
CROWE: What happened? Well, it’s a key question. What happened was we worked on the edit and then took it to Toronto and Venice, if I'm not mistaken. Those were the only two festivals where we showed the longer cut, I think. It strained people's patience; it was too long. So, in the kind of rush to learn from… Well, there are two things you can do. You can either learn from an early screening where there's rhythms in the movie that you feel with an audience that you hadn't felt before. Or, you can say, "Forget it, that's what it is."
I felt like there was stuff that could be cut [while] watching it with an audience. So, with David Moritz (the editor and a really, really good guy, talented guy who worked with Wes Anderson), we just kind of lashed together a cut kind of quickly. That became the finished cut of Elizabethtown. I do believe — and not to be one of these directors that just, like, keeps re-cutting a movie so it’s the new version of Atlantis or whatnot — at a certain point, you have to say, "I made decisions that I made in the day and that's what it is."
Hopefully, with the extended version, you can kind of see with some of those scenes. Now you can kind of see what the Spasmötica was and you see how it got out into the world. I actually prefer the longer version of the movie for that. What I'd love is, if you cared about the movie, that you'd enjoy some of the stuff that was cut from the theatrical version. It's like when you get an album with some of the outtakes and you can kind of reassemble it yourself in a way. I always love doing that. But I liked that some of the elements that got cut (maybe too close to the bone) are available for you to check out now. I think Elizabethtown was just too long for the people in those early audiences.
COLLIDER: Just speaking about how personal Elizabethtown is and thinking about Drew coming to a professional crisis or a creative crisis with his work and it not being received the way he expected, is there anything there that was drawn from your own life?
CROWE: It became prescient, I guess, because, in a way, life imitated the movie which imitates life. In a way, Elizabethtown was the Spasmötica, which wasn’t my intention, but it was a version of that. I learned a lot from that movie. I'm really glad that I made it. The people that love it are meaningful in such a deep way. Talking to you today, it really feels fulfilling, you know, but I don't ever kid myself that a movie needs to entertain people, you know? So if you're getting the feeling that you're not entertaining people or they're turning away from you [...] I think these things all have a life of their own. It's interesting.
We Bought A Zoo as a movie, for example, that had a curious reception because of the title. But over time I hear about that movie a lot and Elizabethtown similarly. I think that some of it depends on the time it's released. I mean, Vanilla Sky came out just after 9/11. So there are all these things you can never plan for. But with Elizabethtown, I mean, it's a little bit of an acquired taste, but what it is is it's a passionate thing, it's something that was made for completely from the heart with very little sense of needing to be "product." It really was like, if you have the opportunity to put something good in the world or something that attempts to, to celebrate goodness, take the shot, you know, do it because time is a friend to the stuff that you do that's from the heart.
I know cause I've been a rock journalist and a journalist for long enough to know that like, you know, you get 10 journalists or 10 critics in a room and they can stand around with drinks in their hand and decide anything is a masterpiece. I've heard the craziest stuff put up as Godhead just because it was the cool thing to say in a media-heavy situation and that stuff gets out in the world. Overnight you can be either tarred and feathered or celebrated. Then over time, it switches, and then it switches back. So, it's like the greatest gift you can get is to be able to do what you love for long enough to watch some of the old chickens come home to roost in a way.
With Fast Times at Ridgemont High, when we put it out people were just aghast at that movie. Roger Ebert even said, like, "What are they doing to that wonderful young actress, Jennifer Jason Leigh. I feel protective of her." Well, Jennifer Jason Leigh was the biggest advocate for the stuff that was controversial. She had an artistic vision even then that was really, you know, a breakthrough. Ebert came back later and said, "You know what? I like what you're doing and I get Fast Times now," and he became like a real supporter of mine. So, I dig the rhythms that go in and out like the waves hitting the beach.
COLLIDER: You've been bringing up some titles from your filmography. Now I'm wondering: As far as I can tell, you've stayed away from sequels or spinoffs or prequels or anything like that with your work. Is that ever something you'd entertain? Returning to one of your movies to continue the story?
CROWE: I originally thought I might return to Lloyd Dobler, that character and I love [John Cusack]. But I think I kinda lost my way, where I lost the window where we could have done something maybe a few years ago. But [Say Anything], that's the only one where I've thought there might be more of a story to tell. I'm still interested in what happened to Lloyd Dobler and Jerry McGuire. I just feel like Jerry Maguire, if there was ever going to be a continuing story about Jerry Maguire, I always thought it should be about the Tidwells. I always thought it should be Marcy and Rod. From time to time, people have called up and said "We want to do a TV show of Jerry Maguire," and I'll say, "You know, I think that story continues with the Tidwells," and they never call back. You don’t want to see Regina King do Marcy Tidwell? I’d do that in a second.
There may be more to Almost Famous just because that story goes on into the '80s and '90s, but I'm not sure how I would do it. I do like going onto the new stuff. It's interesting that Say Anything is the one that I would revisit if I ever could find a way there.
COLLIDER: Have you ever been approached or considered for a project with a bigger IP, like something in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or one of these big franchises?
CROWE: I haven't, but thank you. I mean, I love that you would even ask that question. I really just love characters and you know, those characters can be wonderful. I grew up loving The Dark Knight, for example. People don't really think of me for that stuff, but that's okay. I love Edgar Wright's stuff. I think Edgar Wright has a beautiful kind of combination of vitality and action and character stuff. I like it when the characters linger and the fact that we can still be talking about Drew Baylor is just the coolest.
I also have to say: Alec Baldwin in Elizabethtown, he's a machine of joy when you're directing. This guy will do 50 different versions of anything you want him to do and will give each version the absolute, you know, rocket ship energy. He was fantastic to direct in Elizabethtown. I remember in between breaks one of those scenes where he's just kind of destroying Orlando, he sat down and he said, “Orlando, I know you're very hot now. I just want you to know, you just have to really think about all the things you're being offered and you maybe don't turn all of them down because one day you'll be like me. You'll look in the mirror and you'll say, ‘I see dead people,’” and Orlando would be like, “Thank you for the career advice, Alec.”
These things happen and you go, "I am the guy who's lucky enough to be able to stand here and watch this happen. Life is good."
Elizabethtown is now available on Blu-ray, with new bonus features including never-before-seen deleted scenes and an alternate ending.
Season 8 won't premiere until the 2021-22 TV season.