Fast Times, Indeed

Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Cameron Crowe isn't exactly the Central Casting vision of a Hollywood mentor. He is still quite boyish-looking at 39, and though he's been making movies for nearly 15 years, his few credits--writer of 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (adapted from his own fact-based book) and writer-director of 1989's "Say Anything . . . " and 1993's "Singles," all relatively "small" productions--are not those of the kind of veteran insider who usually fits that role.

Nonetheless, that's one of his current ambitions:

"What I'd like to do is produce some smaller stuff with other directors, young people getting started," he says, sitting in his office at Gracie Films (co-founded by his mentor, James L. Brooks) on Sony's Culver City lot. "That kind of relationship would be fun to have--make a small movie someplace and help a guy the way I got help when I was starting."

Maybe he should be allowed that indulgence. With his new film, "Jerry Maguire," Crowe has graduated to the big time--if for no other reason then than for the presence of box-office top gun Tom Cruise in the starring role, as a sports agent who grows a conscience and has to deal with the consequences. But Crowe, who has been a professional writer since becoming a regular Rolling Stone contributor as a precocious 15-year-old San Diego high schooler, shows with his heartful script and nimble direction that maybe he does have some wisdom to share.

Basking in the glowing reviews and healthy opening week of the film, the always affable Crowe discussed the heightened expectations (and pressures) of trying to make a big-time movie with soul, the surprising joys of working with Cruise and the pleasure of having his wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, compose and perform the film's score.

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Question: You've never directed a star as big as Tom Cruise before. Did you have to adapt to his style of work?

Answer: Oddly enough, his desire was to not do a "Tom Cruise" movie, so that gave us a middle ground that was really fun to work with. But yeah, I used to go home at night and say, "Am I directing a . . . Tom Cruise movie? How did I get here? What happened?" And to his credit, he never made me feel like I was carrying the golden egg or like, "This is the dynasty of Cruise and what are you going to do with my streak of success?"

He was a blast, just a blast. I never had an actor who trusted me as much, to tell you the truth. If someone was improvising on a scene, he'd actually say, "Look, let's do the scene as written, because, hey, the script is great." And I never even had to say anything. I'm generally free-flowing about that stuff--"Yeah, sure, let's improv." But Cruise is like, "Hey man, this is a great script. Let's stick to the script!" [He shifts to an unctuous, show-biz voice.] Whoa! You know I really like working with Tom.

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Q: At the same time, having Tom Cruise on the marquee means that expectations for this have to be a lot higher than for "Say Anything" or "Singles," which were seen as "small" movies. Does that weigh on you?

A: No, because this is a more mainstream story but with the soul of those other two, I think. It just tells a more universal story about failure and success, and it's about one character. I've generally done ensemble-type stuff.

The irony is this turned into an ensemble movie in some ways, and that is a wonderful thing, because I really love those movies like "The Best Years of Our Lives." Every little character gets to shine here and there. Myrna Loy snakes through two scenes, and by the end of the movie she gives you a little smirk and you're like, "Ah . . . ha ha ha!" And we do that kind of thing in this movie. I love that stuff.

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Q: Given that you came from magazine writing and have not been a steady presence in Hollywood, do you think people here view you as a dilettante?

A: Hmmm. I have no idea how I'm perceived. I work infrequently, though I'm starting to change that. I think people perceive me mostly as a writer. I perceive myself mostly that way. . . .

But I took a break after "Singles" and just wanted to study to be a better director, and I'm going to do that again now after this movie.

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Q: What does that entail?

A: A zillion videotapes. My wife is an expert in movies and she guided me in a couple of great directions. I just got fully into Truffaut. I got way into Billy Wilder, every little nuance, and Howard Hawks to a lesser degree, but the fact that [Wilder's] direction was invisible, but it was powerful.

There are scenes where I think that happened in this movie, particularly one with Renee Zellweger [who plays Cruise's love interest] where the camera is just on her face, and it's a slight move in--she's watching Cruise hug her kid for the first time, and I was wondering how you would communicate that you are using the kid a little bit in a situation like that, because the kid might get supremely upset when this guy moves on, but she's in love with him and she's feeling defiant toward her sister, so there's rebellion mixed in.

And it's all this stuff that as a writer I used to sweat when I was working on a script. How do I get all this across? And in one shot, with the right actress, her face just crumbles and you feel it all. I feel it all. It's my favorite moment in the movie and I just go, "That is a glimpse of being able to direct."

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Q: Your movies are all about people who are basically good guys but flawed. Is that a reflection of you?

A: I don't have an agenda about that stuff. I just think there is a basic thing that my mom talked about growing up, which is to have compassion. I have too much compassion probably to be a director [laughs], because I feel a lot for the people on the crew and all that stuff. You're probably supposed to be more of an [expletive]. I've probably learned to be much more of an [expletive]; I'm not sure how good that is.

But the truth is, I have compassion for the characters. When I'm reading the script in the kitchen sometimes, just reading things out loud, I'll go, "Uh, you know, this guy deserves better. Let's not judge him. I shouldn't judge him."

A lot of that is believing that we're all screwed up, but we're all basically decent. But life is hard, and to survive in simple ways is a heroic thing.

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Q: "Jerry Maguire" is set in the sports world, but how much is it really about life in Hollywood?

A: Not that much, actually. I just like the thing about the sports world where the agent has to be more than just the agent. He has to be the father, mother, publicist, manager--because they don't have cottage industries there like for movie stars. It's just the guy.

And the agent has a wider field in which to screw the client and hurt them. You see real pain in these guys. "Oh, your uncle and I, we're bringing you up properly. . . . " And this is the agent talking! Then the guy gets injured and its pfffft--on to another guy.

Yeah, it is similar to the entertainment business and some of the tricks are the same. But it's deeper and more evil to me in the sports world.

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Q: You hooked up with sports agent Leigh Steinberg and observed agents and athletes a lot in researching this. Have you had feedback from them now?

A: Yeah, some agents have started to see it and I think they're surprised that it ended up being a sort of soulful story. Some of them say they have to see it twice.

Their reactions are split down the middle. Some say, "Oh my God, I can't really believe there's a movie about what I go through and the tricks that we have." The other side says, "I feel really, really bad. I have to go home and think about all this for a while." Or "That was painful," was one of the reactions I got from one of these guys.

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Q: How was it working with your wife?

A: Just really amazing. She's my favorite acoustic guitarist, and she always was. When I first met her [in 1982], I was looking for a song [for "Fast Times"] like "Silver Wheels," which was truthfully my favorite thing her band had done, and it was an instrumental--all due respect to my wonderful sister-in-law [Heart singer] Ann Wilson.

My first idea was to have Quincy Jones do the ["Jerry Maguire"] score, a muscle street-jazz score like he used to do. Right up to the time I started filming, I tried calling him. I tell you, he has the longest line of assistants and secretaries in the world. I pled my case to so many people, but I never got close to him. Later, I ran into him and told him about it, and it actually sounded like something he might have done.

But in fact, the movie turned out differently than I'd originally thought, more emotional, and that was great. And when I looked at that, I thought, "Man, an acoustic guitar score would be killer." I just wanted a theme, and so I asked Nancy to write one, and she said, "Oh, well, OK. I'll work on it." And I said, "No, c'mon. Pull your guitar out. I can ask you this!" And she sat down and played and the first thing she played is the theme of the movie. So I just asked her to adapt it. And it ended up representing the soul of Jerry Maguire.

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Q: Now that you've entered the "big movie" arena, what's next?

A: [During "Jerry Maguire"] I shelved two things. And hopefully I'll do them both. The one I ended up finishing is this semiautobiographical thing about growing up in the early '70s. I'm thinking a lot about it right now. . . . But my heart is still really in trying to capture the early '70s, 'cause nothing I've seen has the whiff of what I remember. . . .

One of the gifts of ["Jerry Maguire"] was to find a situation where you can work in the mainstream and still be somewhat subversive. . . . There doesn't have to be this big gulf between the jewel of a small movie and the big-time vehicle movie.

I'm really interested in combining the two, because I think you have to give people credit. Nobody ever comes out [of the theater] and says, "God, that was everything I want in a movie." They say it was pretty good and they like so-and-so. But how great if so-and-so is in a movie they felt was for them? And I think you can do that.

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Q: But wasn't, say, "Independence Day" everything that a lot of people want in a movie?

A: Yeah, but do they cherish it? Maybe they do. I loved "Independence Day." I had a fun time. It's disposable. Wonderfully disposable. But if I could make a big movie that made people feel the way they still tell me they felt after seeing "Say Anything . . . ," how cool would that be?

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Q: Could you do that in an action picture, with all the explosions and overturning trucks and everything?

A: Hmmm. . . . Maybe fewer explosions. It's just how you mix it up. "Pulp Fiction" was a lesson in that. There are cheap thrills that you can mix with deep observation, and it all comes out beautiful sometimes. It's fun to try with that, so I want to do small stuff and bigger stuff, because I'm just sort of waking up to what the possibilities are now.

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