The Director's Chair Interviews

Writer-director Cameron Crowe discusses Tom Cruise, newcomer Renee Zellweger, and Hollywood greed
by Lea Saslav

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Early success can be a heavy burden for an artist. Look at Cameron Crowe: at fifteen, he was writing for Playboy, Penthouse, and the Los Angeles Times, and he was still a teenager when he joined the staff of Rolling Stone; in his early twenties, he returned to high school--undercover, on a research mission--and ended up writing both the bestseller and the megahit movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He was hot as could be--until he scripted The Wild Life, an unfunny retread of Fast Times that was both a critical and commercial disaster. Over the next decade, Crowe made the jump to director, but only managed to make two movies: Say Anything, a charming high school romance featuring John Cusack and Ione Skye, which was hobbled by a lame subplot involving her father; and Singles, a disappointing look at twentysomething angst that failed to capitalize on a hit grunge-rock soundtrack.

 According to Crowe, his Singles experience had been "educational for me, but not quite nourishing. I wanted to write a movie with a real story, the kind that shows up on TV late at night, usually in black and white." Four years later, with the release of Jerry Maguire, Crowe, as writer and director, has made just the kind of movie he said he wanted to--albeit in color. A delightful romantic comedy about a sports agent's career crisis, the film has garnered rave reviews for Crowe, star Tom Cruise (who won the National Board of Review's Best Actor Award), and newcomer Renee Zellweger, whom many are calling the year's most captivating discovery. During a recent interview at a midtown Manhattan hotel, Crowe's enthusiasm for Jerry Maguire was evident. He talked eagerly about working with his superstar leading man and the parallels between his central character's "mission statement" and his own philosophy toward moviemaking.

Lea Saslav: How would this film have been different if it was an independent film? Would it have been made?

Cameron Crowe: Yeah, definitely. Probably we'd have the same cast, with a different guy playing Jerry Maguire, unless we were able to make an amazing deal with Tom Cruise to do that kind of a movie--which he might have done, I guess. But most of the people, I think, would have been there anyway--it's not a real typical Hollywood cast, hopefully.

Is it true that Robin Williams read for the Maguire part?

Yeah, he came in to do a reading, but the script was already with Tom Cruise, so it was basically him just doing us a favor, trying it out.

How would you describe your working relationship with actors?

I like them to put the stuff in their own words, so it's real and sounds real. I think on the last movie [Singles], I was real strict: "Well, I worked really hard on the script and let's try and do it just exactly as it's written!" And it doesn't always come out sounding like real life . . . if you can change it a little bit so that it's comfortable for them, that's a good lesson to learn.

Almost everyone on this film seems to be saying that the reason they took their part was that you were the director. What's your secret working with actors?

Well, that's the first time I've heard that--that's wonderful! I loved the actors on this one, and I generally love working with actors. But I think they were particularly well cast on this movie. I had a casting director that I really enjoyed working with, Gail Levin, and she was just tireless! And we'd have all kinds of people read, and all kinds of combinations of people. So eventually the right people ended up being in the movie and everybody was so grateful to do their part that they made it easy for me. And we actually had fun! It's the first time that I really had fun on a movie--a lot of the stress disappeared, which was interesting, because I really thought that this would be the movie where stress would eat me alive, because it was bigger than the others. But in fact, it was more fun, because of the joy the actors brought to their parts.

What was Tom Cruise like to work with? Was it difficult to direct a star of his stature?

It's interesting--he surprised me in that he'd be the first to get there, and sometimes the last to leave. He was always there for the actors who had little experience. Sometimes he just kept on going, it's true, to get the scenes down, which was a surprise to me. I had read these legendary accounts of actors who would do one or two takes, and then leave, saying "You have my work. Goodbye!"

Did he ever try to bully you to do things his way?

No, he really believes in the director as the guy who runs the ship. And that was a good thing! [laughs] But, you know, it's a funny thing. There are all of these little political pools that show up on a movie set--they do exist. And people do try to see where the power is going to shift. And I think if anybody went to Tom and said, "You know, I think we should be doing such-and-such," Tom would say, "It's his movie--he's spent three and a half years on this script, he's the man." That spreads through the cast and the crew. I'm very grateful that he behaved in that way.

The film is reminiscent of a good Capra film. Dorothy (Maguire's love interest) seemed like the Jean Arthur role, and Bonnie Hunt (as Dorothy's sister) was like the Eve Arden role. Were you inspired by that at all?

Totally. I love it that you said Jean Arthur! We watched a video of Jean Arthur! The kissing scene on the steps [in The More the Merrier], I wanted Renee to see that. She has that same sort of sly humor that Jean Arthur had in some of those roles. And I had just explored some of that in a documentary about [director] George Stevens, and went back and watched [The More the Merrier]. We even watched scenes from My So-Called Life, just because I really liked Claire Danes--her interior passion in that show.

Renee Zellweger has no idea why you called her to read for the part. What attracted you to her?

She was called in by the casting director, who said, "You should meet this woman, she's going to be a star. She might not be right for your movie, but you should meet her." So she called Renee in, and Renee was different from the other actresses who so far had read. She was unaffected, very un-Hollywood--she really didn't know what other people had done, none of the schmooze thing: "Oh I loved this! I loved that!" She was more like "Hey!" [smiles an innocent, open smile]

The day after we met her, she came in again because we were so enchanted by what she had done. I wanted Jim Brooks, who's the producer on the movie, to see her, so I called him up and said, "Jim, she's going to be a star! She may not be right for this movie, but she's going to be great! You gotta see Renee . . . blah, blah, blah." So, she comes in a totally different girl--her dog was sick, her mind was somewhere else. Months went by, and Tom came from England, and we were reading actors and actresses every day. And Gail Levin says, "I've brought back Renee because you loved her so much when you first met her." And I was like, "That would be so great."

Renee came in the room--I had a video camera going, because I just had this feeling it would be really fun to just tape her coming into the room. Sure enough, she just blasts into the room, and I have this film of Cruise going, "Who is this woman? This woman is great!" And we have this film of him just regarding her, in that great way, you know, in some of those movies you love, like when Spencer Tracy regards Katharine Hepburn, he's doing that naturally. Renee was amazing that day, and she had the part not too long after. She made Tom more real, I think. She kind of melted his "icon" thing. I guess it was a gamble, in a way, but it didn't feel like that really--the woman with the best chemistry, the best way with Tom and Jerry Maguire, got the part.

Who from your earlier films did you realize was going to be famous?

Hmm. Sean Penn [in Fast Times at Ridgemont High], definitely. Sean Penn was giving the kind of performance where people were starting to show up on off days, just to see what the "Surfer Guy" was going to do. It was one of those kinds of things. You just felt it early on. Cuba Gooding, Jr., was like that on this movie, where people saw that he was having so much fun in the part, they would start to gather around to watch Cuba work. And I've found, sometimes, that doesn't translate--it doesn't end up being the most powerful thing in the movie. Sometimes the camera doesn't see it.

I don't know how many people saw what Renee was doing when we were filming the movie. There was a scene in the kitchen, my favorite thing in the movie--when the camera was just on Renee's face as she watches Jerry hug her son. And she's just watching them, and it's this slow shot of her face. At that time I was watching and saying, "That was so great! That was so amazing!" And people were just looking at me, saying, "Yeah, okay, moving on?" And the truth was, the chill I felt then was justified. It really worked. But she went about that performance in a very quiet way. And not everybody saw what she was doing. It was really amazing.

What was your inspiration for the "mission statement" that Jerry Maguire writes at the beginning of the movie, and which leads to his downfall?

That this guy would do something embarrassing, and that he would think he was a writer, the same way sometimes people think, "Oh, anybody can write!" And they write, but it ends up being more of like a diary piece than a statement--and that's what he's sent out for everybody to read! And I just thought it would be a great thing to be embarrassed by.

But the sentiments are easy to agree with--it's idealism at its best. Do you consider this film a metaphor for the excesses of greed in Hollywood, as well as in sports?

It's actually not so much of a metaphor as my own comment on the greed situation, because everybody's salaries are in the news. It's even with records now--you know the first week how many copies of a record are sold. Everybody's in competition, and everybody is justified to talk about how much they're getting, how much they want to be getting, and so forth.

Is that a bad thing?

That's an interesting question. I'm not sure. I used to think it was just this terrible thing. But when I did the research, I met a guy named Tim McDonald who was a wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, and I interviewed him when he was in his hotel room. He had CNN/Moneyline going in the background; he was actually at an owners' meeting to be paraded through the lobby, to get his price up because he was a free agent. And he said, "I've got a wife, and I got kids, and I've been beaten up for five years here in Phoenix. Show. Me. The. Money." And it was one of those things where you just go, whoaaa.

So he gave you that line that Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s character uses?

Yeah, he gave me that line--that was the key line. Was that the nobility within greed? You need and deserve and have a short window of time to get it in? Is it greed for wanting that? Or is there a certain nobility in knowing what you need to have to support your family? It was such a gray area, that I just wanted to write about someone who was trying to grapple with his spot in the world, and he was stuck in that gray area.

Why was it sports rather than rock and roll? Or Hollywood, or any of those other subjects, for that matter?

Sports--first of all I didn't know that much about the world of sports, and I just wanted to learn and do some research on it. But second of all, in the entertainment business, it seems they learned how to close the loopholes a long time ago. It seems very set in its cynical ways. Whereas in sports, it's wild! The prices are still going crazy, the role of the agent is not like the role of the agent in Hollywood--the role of the agent is like father, uncle, brother, publicist, agent, manager. They all don't have individual publicists, for example. So these guys become father figures in a lot of ways to these young athletes, who believe that money will be around forever. But the truth is, if they get injured the money just disappears.

Taking it a bit further, and the Hollywood parallel here is very strong, probably because we publicize it all the time. At what point does greed, greed, greed become so obscene that you can't deal with it?

When it obscures what's pure about the work that you do, I think.

Hasn't that already happened in Hollywood?

Yes, it has.

How does that affect you, as a filmmaker, trying to tell stories?

It's an odd thing, because my stuff is never that easily marketable. So I'm always fighting to get a script made. And even now, with Tom Cruise playing Jerry Maguire, I still sit in that room and hear guys say, "We don't really know how to market your film." And I start to think, Well, now I've accomplished something--I've made a Tom Cruise movie that they don't know how to market!

Quite an accomplishment!

Well, truthfully, I still think creatively I can fly below the radar a little bit and not be part of that machine. I can't let that obscure the work. But I get irritated when I see guys on some talk show saying, "I'm going to be making such-and-such a paycheck on such-and-such a movie"--because they're asking you to see that movie a year or so from now, and think about that paycheck they were talking about, rather than the character they're playing. So, I think it's a rather gray area that I think Jerry Maguire gets into and hopefully leaves some question marks so that you can talk about it later.

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