Elizabethtown, opening nationwide Friday, is what writer-director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Say Anything) wants to call a "folk tale."
Loosely inspired by his own father's death, it tells the story of Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), who has just become a colossal professional flop and is on the brink of suicide the day he learns his father has died. Since his father was visiting family in Kentucky at the time of his death, his grieving mother and sister dispatch Drew to bring back the body. And then things get interesting, as Drew travels to the hometown he never really knew, grapples with success and failure, and manages to revive his will to live.
In this interview with Christianity Today Movies—conducted in two parts, at a roundtable in LA and, later, over the phone—the affable and gracious Crowe talked about this love letter to Kentucky, avoiding cynicism, and what it means to create a well-lived life. A recent New York Times story explores how movies can be interpreted from different places on the political spectrum—left or right. But Elizabethtown feels like a concerted effort to present a story that people from all over—red state or blue state—can connect with. Was that kind of universal appeal your intent when writing the script?Cameron Crowe: A little bit. It's a love letter to my dad. And to Kentucky for sure. I thought, Let's really go to that part of the country and celebrate it. I don't think we would have made the movie if the studio had said you cannot go to Kentucky. They did try and say that. But we cut the budget, and some of us cut our salaries, and we went to Kentucky because that was the way to make the movie. And it does feel different. There is no place in Pasadena that looks like Kentucky.Several years ago I attended my grandfather's funeral in his Kentucky hometown, and I thought you did a good job of capturing the way people there really gather round to celebrate a person's life, even after his death.Crowe: Thanks. Yeah, people did that for me when my dad died there. I wasn't used to that kind of love and celebration and elaborate and beautiful way they wanted to say goodbye to my dad. That was a real surprise and I just wanted to tip my hat. Over the years your work has taken a fair amount of flack for its lack of cynicism. What feeds the optimism in your movies?Crowe: I think in the case of Elizabethtown, it's the story itself. When I tried to put in a "bad guy," it just didn't want to be part of this story. In Jerry Maguire, it was really fun and natural to put a black hat in there. And it will probably be natural for the next one. But this story is a folk tale about embracing life. And yeah, the dad was a good guy, the mother did have her own way of grieving, Kirsten Dunst was a little bit of an angel sent at a terrible time to this guy. And Drew may find success at the end. And sometimes the story kind of writes itself in that way.I think it's good to provide people with a certain bit of optimism, to tell stories that say "greatness is attainable," as opposed to, "the world is messed up, what's the use?" And I do sometimes get slammed in the face with a pie because of that perspective—someone I believed in or trusted just turns out to be laughing at me for being a "Pollyanna." But I take that and move on.I try to take every interview as an opportunity to have a conversation, even though I'm probably talking more than the other person (laughs). But I try to relate to everyone. I did an interview in Toronto that I felt really good about—then I went online to see what this guy wrote. And I read just a complete cynical, ridicule-filled account of the conversation. And I thought, man… I had no sense that that guy was just cackling inside at all the things we were talking about. At that point you kinda look at yourself and say, "Okay, you can close up and get a thicker skin and be less open to the world. Or you can go on the way you are. And take your lumps and recognize that not everybody is gonna understand your way of doing things and you know, viva la diferance!"So, I've chosen that later! (laughs) But it hurt. Man, it hurt.One character that keeps surfacing in your movies is the redemptive heroine—Diane Court in Say Anything, Dorothy Boyd in Jerry Maguire, Penny Lane in Almost Famous, and now Claire Colburne in Elizabethtown. You seem to have a high opinion of how a woman can be a redemptive force in a man's life. I'm wondering if you think that's a fair observation and where that comes from.Crowe: Yeah, I think that's a fair assessment. But you know, it might be fun to do it the other way sometime, because there are redemptive male forces in the world too! (laughs)My stories are basically just about people. And people exhibit qualities you never expect sometimes. Good and bad. And the good ones are often stunning surprises. And particularly in movies where the heroine is just the girl on the guy's arm or meant to be like a scintillating love subplot, it's fun to make those characters substantial.You also have a knack for creating scenes that become part of the pop culture consciousness. Lloyd Dobbler holding the boom box over his head as it plays Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" in Say Anything. "Show me the money!" or "You had me at hello" from Jerry Maguire. My favorite scene from Almost Famous is Stillwater singing Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" on their tour bus. Now, I know you can't choose what the audience will pick up on, but if you could, if there was one or two moments in Elizabethtown that you could have people attach to, what would those be?Crowe: It's the moment when Orlando comes into this kitchen and this family envelops him. They're strangers—but they know him and they look a little bit like him, and they're part of a family root system that he didn't even know he had. These people that he knew briefly when he was seven, all of a sudden coming together in celebration of his dad—that scene gets me every time. The other one would probably be the road trip sequence that ends the movie. I'm really proud that we were able to shoot in five different states and show a little bit of America as part of this guy's journey to knowing himself and his world a little bit better. It's kind of an audio-visual mix tape. Speaking of mix tapes, music plays a pretty integral role in this movie. How does that work for you and your process? Do you start with the music and move to the story? Or does the music come underneath, after the story?Crowe: Both, really. A lot of times the music and story arrive at the same time. And sometimes the music that you thought would work doesn't work, and you find something later like "In Your Eyes," which was the only song that really worked on the boom box. But "Tiny Dancer," for example, was always the only song that was gonna be in Almost Famous. It just had to be that way. This movie always felt like it was going to be a musical. It always seemed like music was gonna be a strong voice throughout, kind of telling the story and creating the spell a little bit. I'm not so sure about the next one. But then I heard a song the other day that I really like and I thought, Ahh, it would be good to use that (laughs). So, that's how it begins.What was the song you heard the other day?Crowe: It was an acoustic version of "Yellow" by Coldplay. It was from a radio show a long time ago, and it was the way Chris (Martin) was singing the bridge of a song that I knew really well—and here he was, in the early days of having written the song, and there was just a feeling about the way he was singing it, as much as anything else, that started me thinking about a character I was writing. And that's where it kicks off and becomes fun. "Yellow" may or may not be a part of this story ever, but that's just the gift that things that inspire give. Seeing people on street. Snatches of conversation. Things like that are inspiring to me. How do you hope this movie inspires the audience?Crowe: I hope it encourages people to be truly alive, to inhabit the world in a complete way. That's kind of a lofty goal and if you ever set out to do that in a story, you'll probably never get all the way there. But every once in a while you get it from a piece of music, or you get it from a speech. Garrison Keillor does it to me with his stories. He finishes these stories and he ends on one word. And he says, "And that's the news from Lake Wobegon," and it kills you because, in that pause between him saying "and that's the news from Lake Wobegon" and the applause, are all those people going, "Wow, I feel more alive." I wanted to have that feeling in this movie. So often we have blinders on our eyes because of our job or family or the need to work, work, work. We keep our heads down all the time. But I hope this movie can slide the blinders back and encourage people to lift their heads a bit—to look around a little bit and think, Damn, this feels good. That feels like a worthy goal for a movie. I feel like, in this movie, you're also trying to create a vision for what it means to live a well-lived life. How do you define a well-lived life personally?Crowe: Great question. I think a well-lived life is made up of compassion for others and a sense of community where people can work together—where you're there for them today and they're there for you another day. It's living with the reality that no one is alone, and hallelujah for that really.© Lisa Ann Cockrel 2005, subject to licensing agreement with Christianity Today International. All rights reserved. Click for reprint information.