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The Harvard Crimson recently had the opportunity to speak about the new movie Vanilla Sky with writer/director Cameron Crowe and film star Tom Cruise in a roundtable.
Q: Was this film a departure from past films for both of you?
Tom Cruise: I’ve always wanted to make different kinds of films. First of all, I never thought that I’d be able to do what I’m doing. I did Taps, Losing It, and I realized, “You know what? Here I am in this place. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to do the things that interest me and learn,”—and I learn from every film that I’ve made. I’ve always tried to do something that I felt was a challenge to me. And I feel very fortunate where I am. I’ve never taken for granted the opportunities I’ve had, and the gifts that I’ve been given by many people. So this kind of picture, it is out of bounds. It’s subject matter that I’m interested in, that I love talking about with Cameron—the effects of pop culture on society, what is casual sex, what is love. And to have Cameron Crowe direct you and write you in this kind of story—we knew you had to go hard to the basket with it. It’s a film that gives you a pop culture thrill ride, yet there’s all those other elements involved. Cameron has these jewels placed for the audience, all the clues are in there, and when you see the picture again, it’s a film that can mean more, or something different, the next time you see it. Films like that interest me. I’ve definitely made all kinds of movies, but this film—our second film together, and hopefully not our last—is a departure. Life is that way. It’s an evolution. You have to push yourself to learn about life, to learn about yourself, and you want it to reflect in the work that you do.
Cameron Crowe: To me, it’s just stories around a campfire. One guy says, “A kid is a young journalist, and his mother won’t let him listen to rock and roll,” and that’s one story. And then the next guy goes, “A guy has a nightmare that he’s alone in Times Square.” It’s all different ways of telling a story. This is a slightly different one than the last one, and to work with Tom, you get everything. You get all the benefits of a character, and all the benefits of a person that can represent love, and it’s just a joy.
Q: What about Tom Cruise as an actor made you want him for this role?
CC: We were definitely looking for something that we could do together, and we both loved Abre Los Ojos (Open Your Eyes). It’s just a great movie and a great jumping-off point for asking questions in a different way. I’m not a fan of movies where something happens physically and the whole movie is about the affliction. Sometimes they’re good, but it’s hard to get past the affliction into the story. This one, it just felt like part of the character, and Tom plays it that way. It’s a guy whose journey includes the effects of an accident. But as you know, people in real life have been through that, and they work very hard to show you who they are inside, and sometimes it only happens when they’re forced to show you what’s inside. And that’s how we played it. If you see the movie again, you start to go right past whatever physical affliction is present, and you see what’s going on in the person, and that’s a great thing. That’s why I made the movie.
Q: What brought you both to remake Abre Los Ojos, and what do you think you added?
TC: Well, we’re both big fans of Abre Los Ojos, and we spent a lot of time to make sure that [its director] Alejandro Amenábar was okay with it. But Abre Los Ojos is a story that asks a lot of interesting questions, and it’s a story that was open-ended. I loved Cameron’s approach to it. It’s a story that allows an artist such as Cameron, a writer and director, to come in and ask his own questions, and come to his own conclusions. And that’s where it opened up. The way that Cameron designed the picture was to have a dialogue between the two films. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve been offered a lot of foreign films to buy and remake, and I never have. But this was a universal story that was still open-ended, that still felt like it needed another chapter to be told. And when Alejandro saw it, he was amazed. The first thing he said to Cameron was, “I feel like we are two brothers, asking the same questions, but we have different answers.” I think that Open Your Eyes is very much an Alejandro Amenábar picture, and Vanilla Sky is very much a Cameron Crowe picture. His voice is in it, and you see the dialogue between pictures. When you look historically at films that have done this, they’re never approached in this way. It’s a remake, as opposed to a cover. And for me, someone who loves movies, I was fascinated to see what it was going to be like, and I felt that the characters that Cameron was going to bring to the table were very special.
Q: Cameron, was there a film that you watched for inspiration for this movie?
CC: When we were making the movie, Rain Man was on TV, and I came home and watched it. Rain Man really kicked my ass, because Barry Levinson is so good at creating a world of characters where every little twitch matters. And those are my favorite—movies that remind you that everything counts, that people watch everything, and that they see so much more than you’d ever dream they would. And in the same way, every little frame in this movie is packed with stuff, and everything the characters say matters. Any movie that you watch for inspiration would hopefully remind you that the audience is always listening and always watching, and that you shouldn’t squander the opportunity.
Q: How did you both approach the scenes with the mask?
TC: We did a lot of research on reconstructive surgery. Cameron and I thought, “We’re not going to make the picture unless the makeup works, that it’s real and accurate,” so we put a lot of research into finding the physicality and emotionally what happens.
CC: I liked how you always played it from the inside out, as a guy that had nothing to depend on. That was amazing, what you brought to the mask, because it was like the guy was moving his hands more, was a little more needy, and it was riveting. Amazing.
TC: I was just hanging on, he was directing me the whole time [laughs all around].
Q: Was it hard to emote in the mask?
TC: I really just take it off of Cameron. I just started playing the scenes, finding behaviors with that character. Different head turns, and the way that the camera will kind of just watch me. I find when I’m working on a character, I’m always thinking about it, and always trying to find things. But it was tricky. You never think of these things, but how do you mike the mask? We tried inside the mask, we tried booming the mask, and then I got very good at looping the mask [laughs all around]. So it was tricky, but it was fun.
Q: Many people would say that you’re taking a commercial risk, masking and scarring one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.”
CC: I’m working my way up the list [laughs all around]. I started at the top, what can I say?
Q: Cameron, how important was the music to the making of the film?
CC: We played a lot of that music while we were making it. That’s when the movie starts to get a feel. We listened to Radiohead and “Kid A” constantly, especially here in New York. And then the band Sigur Ros, from Iceland. Sigur Ros had never given their music to a movie, except I think a small movie in Iceland, and they let us use their music. That really influenced the movie. We couldn’t find the right piece of music to end the movie with, and I went to see Sigur Ros in LA. They played a song called the Nothing Song, and it was like, “We gotta get it!”
Q: What are your thoughts on music and rock and roll as a universal language in the film?
CC: It’s funny, music is usually so much more eloquent. Music is often better than most movies, because it plays in your head. It can be anything. You just go to that place, and that’s what great music does. So the challenge is always to come up with the right images that can go with music that I love, and you can’t always do it. But music and film make such a great marriage when it works. We usually have a lot of fun in the editing room. Tom would come and visit, and we’d just try different music. And when it works, you just have to step away and go, “Whoa! Now, can we just get the music?” And then it begins the process of asking for it.
TC: Luckily, they throw music at Cameron. People saw the picture and bent over backwards to make sure that we could get the music that we wanted. And also, hanging out with Cameron is great, because you get all the bootleg copies of all the music you could ever want [laughs all around]. Anything you can imagine, it’s incredible.
Q: In many ways, the film is a critical look at the effects of pop culture. What do you feel it says about the subject?
TC: For me, this is a pop culture ride. You look at the music that was chosen, the characters, Times Square—the iconography of the picture is pop culture. I don’t think that it criticizes it. It’s just a look in on it. It’s just a comment on something that’s in our own lives. You can’t disassociate yourself from it. It just is. And Cameron knows pop culture, he really understands that, and has looked at it from the inside out for his whole life.
CC: One of the cool things is that, probably more than Tom even knows, he represents pop culture, too. Just in terms of the way people have related to his work so much. But pop culture is definitely commented on in the movie, as we made it and after we made it, too. It’s a wild beast, trying to make a timely movie about pop culture [laughs].
Q: Cameron, how do you get your female leads to play such unique and realistic characters?
CC: Well, I remember after Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I felt strongest writing guy characters. But I was just getting together with my wife, and she has a big family of women—I have a lot of women in my family, but I hadn’t studied them as much as I did after I met Nancy. So I started to study how great women characters had been written, and what I found that it came down to was letting every character—not just the women characters—have their private moments, where you could just be with them and see how they react to the world, and see their private joy and pain. Kate and Penélope both have this great ability to make you feel like you were watching them live a whole life, or say a whole huge speech, but really they were saying nothing, and you’re just watching their face. And that’s the coolest thing of all, and a lot of actors don’t get characters that allow them to say that silently. So it’s so much fun to just play music and let actors have a chance like that, because they give you gifts like you wouldn’t believe.
Q: A lot of Cameron Crowe films have a defining moment. Was there a defining moment in Vanilla Sky?
CC: There was one moment that we sort of found as we were shooting. I went to visit a friend of mine and saw that he had papers spread out all over his house, and he was trying to read while standing up, and I thought, “How great if David Aames, when he’s an indoor-bound guy, would have all these memos spread out, and he would just be walking, gaining strength as he’s looking at these words.” You had that bathrobe, and you were just kind of shuffling through all these memos, and then later you did that voiceover and you said, “People will read again.” It gets me. I love his voiceover stuff, it’s one of my favorite things. It began in Jerry Maguire, and we were able to use it again. It’s somebody talking right to one person, not to everybody.
TC: And when Cameron gets excited about something, we do it over, and over, and over again [laughs]. There’s moments on the set where we can’t help it, you get lost in it. You’re on the Crowe ride, so you’re just like, “Yeah, I can do it, I can do it.” And you do, because his writing is so extraordinary. For an actor to be able to have those words to say, and these characters to play, you just want to play it over and over again.
Q: A lot of filmmakers evolve—was this the type of film you had in you from the beginning, or was it something that you realized you wanted to make later in your career?
CC: Well, we loved making a romantic comedy for sure, and it’s not like I was looking for a more serious thing. This just came along. It was a movie that we couldn’t stop talking about, and it became the genre that it is, which is no genre, or many genres. And we talked about this when we were doing it. I connected to some stuff that happened when I was a little guy reading Ray Bradbury. I loved those interior kind of quasi-science fiction stories, and we just found ourselves there, and loved where we were.
Q: Tom, could you compare the film’s theme of reinventing yourself to the choices you’ve made in your career?
TC: Well, I’ve always tried to do different kinds of characters, and challenge myself, and see where it takes me. If I fall on my face, I fall on my face. But every day that I’ve worked, I’ve never taken it for granted, I’ve never slacked off. So it kind of feeds my life. It’s a dream to be able to produce, with Cameron and Paula Wagner, a picture like this. I’ve always pushed myself. And now I’ve got kids. I’m a problem solver, and I enjoy that. You learn how to solve problems by making a lot of mistakes and going through it. But I think it feeds my life. There’s nothing like working hard at the end of the day, and you’re lying in bed, and you think, “You know what? I couldn’t have given more to any area of my life.” And that’s kind of how I live my life, the best way that I can, with dignity and respect for other people. And I feel happy.
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