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Fast Times, Indeed

Now that his Tom Cruise vehicle 'Jerry Maguire' is a certified hit, Cameron Crowe has reason to think big--but that doesn't stop the writer-director from thinking small.

December 22, 1996|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

Cameron Crowe isn't exactly the Central Casting vision of a Hollywood mentor. He is still quite boyish-looking at 39, and though he's been making movies for nearly 15 years, his few credits--writer of 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (adapted from his own fact-based book) and writer-director of 1989's "Say Anything . . . " and 1993's "Singles," all relatively "small" productions--are not those of the kind of veteran insider who usually fits that role.

Nonetheless, that's one of his current ambitions:

"What I'd like to do is produce some smaller stuff with other directors, young people getting started," he says, sitting in his office at Gracie Films (co-founded by his mentor, James L. Brooks) on Sony's Culver City lot. "That kind of relationship would be fun to have--make a small movie someplace and help a guy the way I got help when I was starting."

Maybe he should be allowed that indulgence. With his new film, "Jerry Maguire," Crowe has graduated to the big time--if for no other reason then than for the presence of box-office top gun Tom Cruise in the starring role, as a sports agent who grows a conscience and has to deal with the consequences. But Crowe, who has been a professional writer since becoming a regular Rolling Stone contributor as a precocious 15-year-old San Diego high schooler, shows with his heartful script and nimble direction that maybe he does have some wisdom to share.

Basking in the glowing reviews and healthy opening week of the film, the always affable Crowe discussed the heightened expectations (and pressures) of trying to make a big-time movie with soul, the surprising joys of working with Cruise and the pleasure of having his wife, Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, compose and perform the film's score.

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Question: You've never directed a star as big as Tom Cruise before. Did you have to adapt to his style of work?

Answer: Oddly enough, his desire was to not do a "Tom Cruise" movie, so that gave us a middle ground that was really fun to work with. But yeah, I used to go home at night and say, "Am I directing a . . . Tom Cruise movie? How did I get here? What happened?" And to his credit, he never made me feel like I was carrying the golden egg or like, "This is the dynasty of Cruise and what are you going to do with my streak of success?"

He was a blast, just a blast. I never had an actor who trusted me as much, to tell you the truth. If someone was improvising on a scene, he'd actually say, "Look, let's do the scene as written, because, hey, the script is great." And I never even had to say anything. I'm generally free-flowing about that stuff--"Yeah, sure, let's improv." But Cruise is like, "Hey man, this is a great script. Let's stick to the script!" [He shifts to an unctuous, show-biz voice.] Whoa! You know I really like working with Tom.

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Q: At the same time, having Tom Cruise on the marquee means that expectations for this have to be a lot higher than for "Say Anything" or "Singles," which were seen as "small" movies. Does that weigh on you?

A: No, because this is a more mainstream story but with the soul of those other two, I think. It just tells a more universal story about failure and success, and it's about one character. I've generally done ensemble-type stuff.

The irony is this turned into an ensemble movie in some ways, and that is a wonderful thing, because I really love those movies like "The Best Years of Our Lives." Every little character gets to shine here and there. Myrna Loy snakes through two scenes, and by the end of the movie she gives you a little smirk and you're like, "Ah . . . ha ha ha!" And we do that kind of thing in this movie. I love that stuff.

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Q: Given that you came from magazine writing and have not been a steady presence in Hollywood, do you think people here view you as a dilettante?

A: Hmmm. I have no idea how I'm perceived. I work infrequently, though I'm starting to change that. I think people perceive me mostly as a writer. I perceive myself mostly that way. . . .

But I took a break after "Singles" and just wanted to study to be a better director, and I'm going to do that again now after this movie.

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Q: What does that entail?

A: A zillion videotapes. My wife is an expert in movies and she guided me in a couple of great directions. I just got fully into Truffaut. I got way into Billy Wilder, every little nuance, and Howard Hawks to a lesser degree, but the fact that [Wilder's] direction was invisible, but it was powerful.

There are scenes where I think that happened in this movie, particularly one with Renee Zellweger [who plays Cruise's love interest] where the camera is just on her face, and it's a slight move in--she's watching Cruise hug her kid for the first time, and I was wondering how you would communicate that you are using the kid a little bit in a situation like that, because the kid might get supremely upset when this guy moves on, but she's in love with him and she's feeling defiant toward her sister, so there's rebellion mixed in.

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