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Director Series-Cameron Crowe

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If Almost Famous was an ode to Cameron Crowe’s mother, Elizabethtown is a testament to his late father, who introduced the director to The Apartment and the joys of Billy Wilder. Shot in Elizabethtown, Kentucky and the nearby region, along with several other states during a magical, climactic road trip, the romantic fable stars Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst as two lonely, cock-eyed lovers. It’s a very personal story about grief and growing up, told with the director’s penchant for rock ’n’ roll reverie.Crowe discusses the contributions of some of his veteran crew: production designer Clay Griffith, cinematographer John Toll, ASC, composer Nancy Wilson and editor David Moritz.Below the Line: What kind of look and feel you were going for in Elizabethtown?Cameron Crowe: It’s a ’70s feel. Like Hal Ashby movies in the level of realism and a little bit of magic. Harold and Maude [was an influence] obviously. I also looked at Two Lane Blacktop for the road-trip aspect, and that influenced how we shot Orlando in the car. But I have such a good musical frame of reference with Clay [Griffith] that part of it was that we just wanted to make it feel like a Tom Petty record.BTL: You’re famous for giving your actors music cues. What about the crew?CC: With some. Not everybody. With Clay, yes, because he’s such a musical guy. He started out as my assistant on Say Anything. He would be the guy who drove me to the set each morning and his artistic vision widened over the years, and our conversation continued. We have so much shared, unspoken stuff.BTL: What were some of your other references?CC: A lot of photos of fly-on-the-wall compositions of family life. Some Robert Frank stuff for the road, [some Norman] Rockwell, some [William] Eggleston, and photos that would pack the frame with life being lived. I wanted free-flowing camera in the visitation scenes after the funeral parlor scene. And I wanted the camera being in that world and giving the feeling of just being overcome with love from strangers who are your family. And Clay is like a journalist too in many ways in the detail that he provides. Every little detail on the walls is very much Clay’s touch. And for anyone watching the movie a second time, they are going to make lots of little discoveries. It’s all unspoken.BTL: The road trip is obviously filled with those kinds of iconic details too. You covered five states in six days: Tennessee, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Nevada, with 100 crew members in tow. How was that?CC: Yeah, those were places that were meant to lift Orlando’s character’s head up and show him the world a little bit. The road trip is part self-discovery and part gift from a traveler [Dunst] to somebody who doesn’t travel. By the end of the trip he can’t live without her words and her view of the treasures of America. There’s a guy named Chris Baugh, who’s a location manager, and he was going to go on that road trip to take pictures to actually start the process of filming it. And this is when I realized that that particular trip could have an affect on people. He was a shy kind of guy and nine days later he came back and said, ‘I fell in love! And there’s a guy in Oklahoma City who wants to open a boot store with me!’ It peeled away layers. Later, as we filmed on that journey, it did the same for all of us.Even the quiet John Toll sidled up to me at our mini-wrap party after finishing the road trip. He said, ‘There’s some kind of magic going on here.’ I thought: Whoa! Listen to this!BTL: Tell us more about John, a cinematographer you’ve worked with before and who’s also shot in Kentucky before.CC: He is all about film. The film image, the technique of film, the sanctity of film. This is the last guy in the world that’s going to shoot digitally and look at the dailies on a DVD. He is going to look at that stuff on film, he’s going to get up earlier than you have gone to bed to work at the lab and he’s going to cringe when you look at your rough cut on video. Because he knows the real magic that’s going to happen later in those compositions and in the camera. There’s always an amazing leap that happens when you get to film something that Toll shot. And this one is the best that we’ve shot together because I think he felt it, and felt that area of the country, and appreciated that we made sacrifices with the budget—cutting our salaries so we could actually shoot in Kentucky and these [other states]. And he loved shooting the actors. He’ll let you know if the landscape of the faces, which is as important as the grand landscapes, isn’t doing well. And on one of the closeups of Orlando, where they almost kiss, he said that’s the best closeup I’ve ever shot.BTL: The shot after the long phone conversation when the two get together to watch the sun rise is particularly effective…CC: Yeah, John was obsessed about the drive to the sunrise and getting the light. He saw the building of that sequence, and the grading of the light was huge to him. But the big thing about Toll on this movie was that he saw that it was a folk tale, a story that had to have a lot of soul and he was obsessed about light in every shot.It’s really interesting working with John because my influence on him has been to put him back in touch with his rock ’n’ roll roots. He strapped on that camera and did a lot of hand-held shots in that kitchen and it was incredible. He worked on [The Last Waltz] and he knows his music. And he’s been an inspiration on how to be a visual storyteller. If it’s a little more vivid in Elizabethtown, it’s because of Vanilla Sky.BTL: What were your wife Nancy Wilson’s contributions as composer?CC: She’s the architect of the score and the texture and the stuff that’s going to bind all the songs together. We had the Tom Petty song, “It’ll All Work Out,” which was always a part of the movie. Kirsten kind of auditioned and won the part working with that song, and that was a mandolin and a koto, so there’s a little bit of an Asian feel that slightly appears through some of the movie; that’s a cool spice that [Nancy] adds to it. She’d go in and do big chunks of music without watching the film but having watched dailies while she was on tour with her band, Heart. So she knew everything but specified to nothing. I think it’s her best score in the spirit of the Local Hero [Mark] Knopfler score, where it has a charm that completes the story.BTL: You shortened the film by 18 minutes after a negative reaction from the press at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year. How did you arrive at the theatrical cut?CC: [The long version] had a couple of big unorthodox chunks. You have to establish a rhythm where all of that gets to live, and what I found was cutting a little didn’t work. Cutting a lot worked, so when we went through and gave the whole thing a slightly more comic rhythm, [we were able to keep the integrity].BTL: And your editor David Moritz was instrumental in helping you find this other rhythm?CC: Yes. He’s great with character and understands the soul of the characters and he’s a tireless guy. With the ending we had an assist from Mark Livolsi, who worked on Vanilla Sky and Wedding Crashers. His domain was the road trip. And it was a labor of love throughout. This one’s gonna be the from the heart and it’s funny how natural selection has shed us of the people who were clocking in and clocking out. The people that remained were pretty much the ones that felt the fire to tell the story.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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