It began with a knock on the door. Cameron Crowe turned the knob, and there was Lowell Marchant, a beaming 19-year-old freshly relocated from Arkansas to Los Angeles. "It's a pleasure to be here in California," he told Crowe. "I'm a kickboxer. Do you know about kickboxing? It's the sport of the future."
To anyone who's passed through adolescence in the last 20 years, that brief recollection is enough to pinpoint the source for Lloyd Dobler, the gallant, determined and, yes, kickboxing hero of Crowe's directorial debut, "Say Anything . . . ," which Fox will release next week in a deluxe Blu-ray edition to commemorate its landmark anniversary. Played by John Cusack, whose performance cemented his status as the thinking teenager's heartthrob, Lloyd is a rebel without an attitude, an individualist because he can conceive of being nothing else.
Lots of guys have crushes on comely valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye), but Lloyd is the only one to successfully ask her out. When one awe-struck classmate inquires what kind of man can accomplish such a feat, he says simply, "I'm Lloyd Dobler."
On its initial release, "Say Anything . . ." was put forth as a teen movie, part of a clutch of post-John Hughes high school pictures. But contemporary critics saw deeper truths beneath its surface. Pauline Kael, nearing the end of her tenure at the New Yorker, said it conveyed the sense that Lloyd "stands for something, like Jacques Tati's Mr. Hulot."
Crowe still recalls reading her review in a Seattle mall. "I couldn't believe how much she understood about our intentions, and she picked out my favorite scene in the movie, when Lloyd tape-records a 'heartbreak tour' of his doomed love affair with Diane," he said. "It was a body rush to read that review and to have made it under the wire as one of the last few rounds of films she reviewed."
With 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Crowe had established himself as a screenwriter capable of capturing the reality of young people's lives, and Cusack had earned his romantic-lead stripes in 1985's "The Sure Thing." But on 1989's "Say Anything . . ." their voices came through with unprecedented clarity.
Cusack had sworn off teen movies before Crowe sent him the script, but his "Eight Men Out" costar John Mahoney advised him to look it over. "I remember telling him, 'John, you have to read this script,' " said Mahoney, who ended up playing Skye's morally flawed father. "He said, 'No, I'm all done playing teenagers. I've gotta move on.' And then when I went to my audition, there he was."
Cusack could not be reached for comment at press time.
Crowe courted Cusack assiduously, giving him substantial input into the character, who as a result was like nothing Cusack had done before. Lloyd has a nervous, jittery energy that invades his body and his speech, which pours forth in great unedited torrents. If not playing himself, Cusack seemed to be tapping into something deeper than in his previous movies. As Mahoney puts it, "he found his Cusackness."
"The parts we'd seen him in before, it was like John was bringing everything to the character, but it's like John and Lloyd met each other halfway," said Lili Taylor, who played the small but unforgettable role of Lloyd's friend Corey, a brokenhearted woman who has written dozens of songs about the same unfaithful ex-boyfriend. "The thing with John is that his impulses are really alive, and Lloyd was a perfect vehicle to bring out all of John's strength as an actor."
Taylor and Cusack had studied acting together in Chicago, along with Jeremy Piven and several other members of the cast, which added a dose of collegiality to the set. "I was young, they were all my friends, we met this cool guy Cameron Crowe who had just written 'Fast Times,' " Taylor said. "I still have a real fondness for the whole thing, and I'm not surprised that it's stayed around this long."
Unlike Cusack, Skye was playing a character who was her virtual opposite. Diane is, in Crowe's words, a "golden girl," whose close-knit relationship with her single father is upended when he is revealed to have spent years skimming money from the residents of his nursing home. Skye's father is the psychedelic folk singer Donovan.
"I did feel very different," she said. "I wasn't a good student. I grew up with my mother, not my father. I kind of had a wild childhood. Even the father stealing money from old people, I was saying to Cameron, 'I can't access why this would upset me.' That didn't seem bad to me at the time."
Skye has played characters closer to her heart, notably in the 1986 cult classic "River's Edge" and 1992's "Gas, Food Lodging," but when she needs to explain to people what she does for a living, she sends them to "Say Anything. . . ."
The film's staying power might have something to do with some of its most memorable moments being drawn from real life: The scene where Diane unexpectedly dumps Lloyd in his own car, for example, was inspired by Crowe's own history of heartbreak.
"I learned something important about what it is to write personally, about things that matter to you, and over time it's been obvious that people respond the most to exactly that, the stuff that's on the edge of being too personal to even write," Crowe said.
Crowe didn't intend to make "Say Anything . . ." his directorial debut and stepped into the role only after one potential director kept breaking off their phone meeting to yell at a Lakers game. But 20 years later, it's his favorite of the movies he's made.
"It's a very personal movie, and it reminds me of falling in love, falling out of love, and falling back in love with life and all the unexpected glories and pain that happen along the way," he said.