Cameron Crowe on The Past, Present, and Future

By  · Published on June 1st, 2015

Sony Pictures

Speaking with writer-director Cameron Crowe, it sounds like he just gave birth. The writer-director’s latest film, Aloha, has been in development for years, and it was once set to star Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon. Now, the completed film stars Bradley Cooper, playing a character that’s no stranger to Crowe’s filmography. Like many of the filmmaker’s earlier protagonists, Aloha’s Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) wrestles with his past, seeking a second chance.

We all expect certain things from a Crowe movie thanks in part to a body of work tied together by specific themes, rocking soundtracks and unparalleled optimism. Aloha features those personal trademarks, but, according to the director behind Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, we should brace ourselves for a new chapter in his career.

On Aloha’s opening day, Crowe was kind enough to give us an extended interview. When he called I was writing a piece about the Brian Wilson film, Love & Mercy, hence all the “Pet Sounds” references in the interview. A brief exchange about John Cusack and The Beach Boys led to our first question, regarding, of course, music.

Here’s what Cameron Crowe had to say about Aloha, writing personal stories, and looking forward:

When it came to the music in Aloha, what kind of sounds did you have in mind?

I love that kind of wide-open style of guitar playing. Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell play that way, and the roots of that are in slack key Hawaiian-style guitar, which has its own tunings, there’s lots of spaces in the chords, and it just feels like music made to make you feel free and let your soul kind of float in the world. It was always a unique and great way of playing. I wanted to know more about Hawaiian five key masters, and use them in the movie. It’s a real specific style.

I hadn’t heard their music before, but the soundtrack made me check out Vancouver Sleep Clinic.

They’re really great. They don’t have a lot of music, but their stuff is so good. I wish I could’ve used more. We use some of their stuff in our Roadies show [for Showtime]. It’s a great band. Not too many people know about them.

Do you usually have song choices in mind while writing or does it become more of a focus in post-production?

It’s early, in the middle, during, and after all of it. You start putting stuff in playlists, and then suddenly you’re into 70 or 80 playlists, because… [Laughs] You want to leave the playlist at the right length, so if you want to burn a CD, it’ll be one CD. You end up with all these playlists that are an hour and twenty minutes long, and they become your friends in the process. They’re, like, your sonic friends. If you want to get a feeling for what the scene should be or you’re later trying stuff out for the scene, you got this bank of stuff. Also, you can play it on the set, so you can see what’s working, in terms of the vibe of the scene you’re shooting. Some of it’s cheating, because you know Rachel McAdams is going to get emotional when she hears “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young. You tiptoe around and try this stuff, but, ultimately, you gotta go with “Harvest Moon.” Cut! We got it [Laughs].

[Laughs] I remember reading, either for Elizabethtown or We Bought a Zoo that you gave the actors iPods, as gifts, with music on them to prepare them for the film.

Yeah, it was a bunch of discs. I did give iPods, but they were of the Bob Dylan Radio Show theme time hour, which was so, so great. I’ve given CDs often with the scripts, and that happens a lot now. Naturally, scripts come to you by CDs, where the writer wants you to hear the music as they wrote it. It’s really good for the actors, because it gives them an emotional feeling. I’ll start creeping it into auditions. You can always tell a music lover. It just slips into their veins and their bloodstream, you know? They act with it. For the people who aren’t music fans, you can tell immediately, like, “Wait. Whose iTunes is this playing? Is somebody’s phone on?”

[Laughs] I imagine most actors appreciate that road map.

They do. I really wanted Aloha not to be a dance, musically, like Elizabethtown, but, natively musical, because Hawaii is that way. Music is playing everywhere, often live. People are getting married everywhere. It’s kind of a place of rebirth. It felt like a good way to make the environment a character. I wanted to use the fact that there’s so much going on in Hawaii. There’s stereotype of the tourist with the drink and the umbrella and then there’s the truth, which is: the native Hawaiian community who’s still reeling from the country being stolen. Then there are the later people that have come to live there that are protective of it. Then there’s the military, who are there to protect our asset ‐ the closest body of land we have to China. If there’s an outbreak of war or whatever, it flows through Hawaii. Paradise has many levels, and that’s why Krasinski says, at the beginning of the film, “Casablanca, baby.” I wanted the movie to exist on all those different levels. It’s a rich environment.

Speaking of rebirth, that’s a major part of your filmography. You generally follow a guy trying to get back to who he used to be, but ultimately realizes he has to become a new person. Is there something personal about that journey for you?

It is, it is. They all become personal, whether you like it or not. We Bought a Zoo wasn’t my story, and it wasn’t even my script, but as I got into it and shaped it, it became personal. It’s not, like, I felt the need to be reborn or all that stuff, but what I did start thinking a lot about… I guess it was kind of a redemption story at the very beginning when it was named Deep Tiki, and it was much more of a Ghostbusters-y idea ‐ a much wackier, tripper idea. As it settled down to being more of a personal story, it became this thing I started thinking about while doing this Elton John documentary. Elton John kept saying, “To truly move forward, sometimes you have to make peace with the past.” You have to figure out what is the best of the past you bring with you, whether about a relationship, a house, a book, or anything that’s meant something to you at some point of your life. If you’re moving, what do you leave behind? What do you take with you? What do you need to have close? I’ll take The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Some other stuff? No [Laughs].

I like that Bradley Cooper’s character got thrust into this place. There’s Tracy (McAdams), who almost was. Then there’s Allison (Emma Stone), who’s not particularly his type of person, but becomes that. If you’re going to move forward and make a commitment to somebody new, what do you learn from what happened or didn’t happen with the Tracy of your life? That became a really personal theme for me, and that survived in the movie.

That also goes back to Jerry Maguire. Even if Gilcrest gets what he wants, it won’t mean as much unless he has somebody to share it with.

Yeah, it’s true. It’s really true. I believe in that. I also like the idea of telling the story of two lone wolfs who find each other. They don’t have to particularly sacrifice the benefits of being a lone wolf, but find the special magic that overlaps between your loner sensibilities [Laughs], and, to me, that was Emma and Bradley. These are the kind of things that take time to sink in. There’s a lot of detail in the movie. There’s things throughout that’ll resonate and you can catch it later, maybe see some things you might have missed the first time. Sometimes, even with Elizabethtown, it takes a while for the real meaning to settle in.

I don’t know if we’ve ever had an easy birth to one of our movies [Laughs]. It’s always been traumatic, on some level. With Say Anything, nobody could figure out if it was a teen movie or a non-teen movie. How do you sell it? What are all these genres you’re trying to combine? You don’t really hear that anymore. What we always used to hear from the marketing department was, “Oh man, if you had some stars, we’d know how to sell it. It’s really hard with a movie like this, because it’s not a big story and the world doesn’t blowup.” Now we have Aloha, with a bunch of stars in it, and we hear, “Well, it’s a tough movie to sell, because it’s about people and relationships. We do have stars, yes? Yes, we do have stars, but it’s not about an earthquake.” You’re always hearing some version of, like, “Where does this movie fit in?”

When they come out, it’s the same thing. Is it like the other movie that used to not fit in but now fits in? That used to be Jerry Maguire. I remember sitting in rooms, hearing, “You know, it’s a sports movie and a romance, and those two elements don’t mix. This is an in-between movie.” One day they figured out guys and girls might like it together! What a wild idea. It became what it is: a romantic comedy for guys and girls. I think Aloha is still finding itself out in the world. Like I said, it’s a labor of love. All the actors spent time in Hawaii trying to represent and reflect the joy they felt being there in the story.

Photo by Cameron Crowe on the set of Aloha

Since you brought up Jerry Maguire, after reading Conversations with Billy Wilder, I still crack up at him telling Tom Cruise, “It was especially nice meeting you,” during your meeting with him.

I know! I actually put that exchange in Aloha. When Bumpy, the Native King, says to Brian, “Good to see you,” and then, to Allison, “Especially good to see you.” That’s cool. I love that.

Few filmmakers these days are as candid as Wilder was with you.

I know, because he was old enough to not care, but still classy enough to not disparage when he didn’t have to. He very rarely, if you look at it, rips on anybody. I think he does just a little on Humphrey Bogart and Arthur Miller.

And he says Bogart got nicer towards the end of his life.

Yeah, he redeems him.

You have another nod to Billy Wilder in Aloha. When Brian says he didn’t move for the missile coming towards him, it’s reminiscent of when Baxter (Jack Lemmon) in The Apartment discusses his failed suicide attempt. Was that a direct reference?

I think it was subliminal. Loving the fact there’s an artifact of some past traumatic episode, maybe that was a subliminal callback. Now that you say it, it’s totally a Billy move. It’s one of those small things that says so much about somebody.

We don’t see movies from you every two or three years. Is that because your projects are difficult to get made or do you spend a lot of time fine-tuning the scripts?

It’s less, less now, frankly, than it used to be. I’m a much faster writer. I like to hone them at a faster rate now. What was really fun about this pilot, Roadies, is that we worked at such a fast pace. It’s really fun to write stuff under the gun. It felt really good and the storytelling was pretty strong. What’s also difficult is doing something in the studio system that costs a certain amount of money. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of money on Aloha, everyone worked for a really cut down price, and we were able to cut good deals to shoot in Hawaii and benefit the film community and local culture there, by giving people a lot of jobs. We didn’t spend that much money, but enough that it had to be a studio movie. It takes the time to sit in those rooms, hear people with notes, and filter through what makes sense to you and what you can put in your own prism but still stay personal.

As a writer and director, can you make compromises?

No, I can’t really make the compromises, and that’s what takes the time. What takes the time is to go in and fight for your point-of-view. Sometimes you have to fight continuously, and I understand it, because they are the people putting up the money. But the lesson I learn from the people I admire ‐ Alexander Payne, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze and even Pedro Almodódovar ‐ is they essentially work with the same people and work more often on smaller stories with a trusted financial team. They’re able to flow through the creative process, like, a painter with a sponsor. It’s less like trying to sell a new invention every time, going up to the penthouse floor of the company to pitch the Big Boss. I like the smaller version of that.

You mentioned how you’re a much faster writer these days. Do you have a drawer full of scripts you haven’t made yet?

I absolutely do. I probably have about six or seven scripts right now, and I want to make them. One of them is Marvin Gaye, for sure, and there are two versions of that. One of them is a comedy that I was talking about making while we were doing interviews for We Bought a Zoo, which is a small story set in Philadelphia. Then there’s the project with a musical song score by Rufus Wainwright. There’s a couple of more after that. Aloha was kind of this bottleneck for a long time. It feels really good to get it out there, which is kind of what I mean by new chapter.

Have you ever worked as a script doctor? As someone who’s made a career out of writing personal stories, it’s difficult to imagine you doing that.

Only once. I did that only once. I believe it was Lawrence Kasdan who said, “When you do a rewrite of somebody else’s stuff, a little part of your own creative soul might die, so be careful.” I don’t know if I’ve ever not wanted to go punch up my own stuff [Laughs], sticking to the Lawrence Kasdan principle. You’re in a room and become a bit of a tailor. You lose a little bit of the widescreen freedom that you have when you’re alone writing your own stuff, where it’s nothing but blue sky and you can go anywhere. You can become that guy-for-hire, and some people get so good at it, that they became reactive in a really talented way. I don’t know if it was for me, really.

The love triangle in Aloha is a bit subversive; almost to the point maybe you couldn’t even call it a love triangle. In any other movie, Woody (John Krasinski) would’ve been obnoxious or a cheater.

Yeah, exactly, Woody is the pure soul of the story. I’m really happy with what Krasinski did. What’s funny is, Bradley is such a technical guy as he is an instinctive actor. Bradley really wanted to shrink when Krasinski came into the kitchen, so Krasinski could tower over him. If you look closely, Bradley is scooching himself down, so he looks smaller and more pathetic next to Krasinski. It’s really cool. I’m lucky that you see all of that stuff [Laughs].

[Laughs] I think other people do, too.

Well, that’s good. It felt like something that had to get out. The story had been hanging around for a long time. Obviously there are things about it that made me think its time will come. It bubbled back up to the surface and we did it. Now I can be more prolific and get more stories out. It feels very refreshing to have finally put it out there, and it also feels like a chapter-ender.

What chapter is ending?

For a long time the intention was to tell the story of a character who grew up along with me as the writer, but of course it’s important to work quickly to accomplish that. Suddenly, the guys are not old enough and you’re growing faster than the scripts! [Laughs] But I like showing that type of character at various stage of life. One of the films I want to do is the third in a trilogy with Tom Cruise, about life post-parenthood. The modern male growing up. Francois Truffaut did that with several different characters, mostly with the actors John Pierre Leaud, or himself. John Cusack is another actor who I love to write for.

But there are other stories to tell now too; I have a big stack sitting here. And not all of them concern the plight of the Anglo American male! People are yearning for all kinds of personal stories, including me. It’s exciting to work on them now. They’re smaller stories, more the size of the first few movies I made, and I’m really excited to be getting back there. The Hawaiian adventure left us with a lot of wonderful friends back on the Islands, and all those memories will live forever. The cool breeze I feel now is all about the future. A lot of new stuff can start coming out now, and it feels like the beginning of a new chapter.

Is writing a way to explore a crisis or whatever is going on in your life at any given moment? Do you find writing therapeutic?

It is, it is. What’s been great, in particular on Roadies and the stuff I’ve written in the past few years, is your personality always shows through. It’s a lot about the music you’re listening to. If you’re listening to “Pet Sounds,” you’re in melancholia, wide-open to the world, happy-sad place. If you’re listening to personal but joyful music, making you feel happy to be alive and wonder about all the possibilities that are out there, there’s a different frame of mind ‐ and that’s been my frame of mind for the past two years. That joy oxygenates what you’re doing. It’s been really fun to get back in the stuff that’s funnier. I love all the jokes in Aloha. It makes me happy there’s a more joyful spirit in the stuff coming up.

Aloha was a movie with a lot of different elements, and characters. For sure, it takes a while to put together a movie like that. There were a number of full cuts [editor] Joe Hutshing and I put together, different mixes of story and emotion. I kept thinking about something I’d read, that Woody Allen had 25 cuts of Hanna and Her Sisters ‐ and each one was different. It takes a while to put together a movie like Aloha, it needs to be emotionally specific. When some of the hacked emails were written, the movie clearly unfinished, so yeah, it was difficult to read some of them. Some of the comments were definitely on the hysterical side, and often pretty ridiculous and sometimes very hurtful.

In one of the hacks was a lame joke I made about Bruce Jenner. I wrote him a note and he called me the next day. We had a great conversation about compassion on the Internet, and Monica Lewinsky’s Ted talk. “When I got your note, I didn’t really know what you were talking about,” he told me, “but I went back and read it and it’s no big deal. If it takes that for us to have this conversation, we turned it into a positive. Life is good.” I took a break from editing Aloha, and went and had the greatest time making the pilot for Roadies, came back refreshed and finished the film.

One note in the Sony hack was that people don’t like seeing married people flirt in movies. I found it refreshing seeing that, especially since it’s played as more uncomfortable than endearing.

If you paid attention to that note, you’d have to redact half of Shakespeare’s plays, The Apartment and Rules of the Game go out the window… Terms of Endearment doesn’t get made, Bridges of Madison CountyAn Affair to Remember… the list goes on and on. Whole shelves of the library would empty right out. There are only so many stories to tell, and most of them are about life and love and regret and rebirth between people. This is what I mean about how directors and writers must really protect their projects from “death by a thousand notes.” People had a lot of bizarre stuff to say (in the hacked e-mails), but if you go back in the chain, to quote Emma Stone, ‘you mostly see a lot of passionate people trying to make a good movie.’ That and a lot of executives stressing over travel plans and the size of their hotel rooms [Laughs].

Aloha is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.