2016-06-30
In movies such as "Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous," and "Say Anything," Cameron Crowe explored the decisions and events that define a person's character-often mining his own life for material, and always doing so with an unbeatable soundtrack. His newest film, "Elizabethtown," is no exception. It is based partly on his own reaction to the death of his father, and includes music from Tom Petty, Elton John, and Nancy Wilson (Crowe's wife). In the film, industrial designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), already despondent over a professional failure, copes with the sudden death of his father. En route to his father's memorial in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a flight attendant who helps him put his life back on track.

Crowe spoke with Beliefnet about his undying optimism, the role of Catholicism in his life, and the spirituality of music.

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, you described yourself as a "warrior for optimism."

On my better days.

That's a wonderful phrase. Can you expand on it and tell me what you meant by it?

I think it's an often cynical world and there's a fascination with darkness in a lot of media. And "Elizabethtown"-and in varying degrees other stuff that I've done-is about the hero that finds a way in modern life to fight for hope and belief in the best that's in all of us. And I think that's a real hero. Elizabethtown certainly is a movie with positivity at its core. Some people go, "How realistic is that?" Well, there are a million movies that aren't about that, and this one is.

These days, it seems like we're in need of a good shot of optimism.

Or at least a sense of community. We all have a pretty deep family root system that we rarely take advantage of or feel the presence of except in times of strife. The one thing that I found from screening the movie is that people afterwards, and this is a little bit true of "Jerry Maguire" too, people afterwards say, "You know what? I feel a little bit inspired about being alive right now. And you know what? I'm going to cancel this trip I had going this weekend and I'm going to go visit my mom, or I'm going to go call my dad." It's cool when a movie affects people in that way. It runs a little deeper than, "Yeah, it was cute. Where are we having dinner?" [laughs]

"Elizabethtown" also deals with a difficult topic. To what extent was it emotionally difficult to make a film that draws on your experience losing your father?

What's funny was my dad was a real charming guy, and a real upbeat guy. And I did lose him a number of years ago.

Cameron Crowe on his father's death
What he would have really loved is that I finally wrote about the experience of losing this person that was so close to us all, but it's a comedy. And it makes you feel happy to be alive, and it actually begins with that loss and ends with a beginning-the beginning being a real sense of, "Boy, here's what it's like to claim all the opportunity that's available to you as a human being in the world, alive right now." And he would have loved that you laughed a little bit and cried a little bit and it felt like real life.

Did you learn anything about your father through exploring those themes?

I learned a lot. He was a letter writer. In the movie, one of the things said about the character based on him is, "Mitch wrote letters. Never once sent an email." And I loved the idea that this guy, who was also my dad, left behind so many written documents, in the guise of helping friends and family, that were revealing about who he was. And all of his friends would later show up and give me these letters to read, and I learned so much about who he was as a guy. And that happened while we were making the movie.

Seems like that's something the next generation won't have nearly as much, given that email and phone are the way to go these days.

Yeah. But write a letter from time to time. Put something down that might last. That would be what I would tell my kids.

Do you do that for your kids?

I do. They've grown up appreciating the written word, which is great. The written word, in a book.

Your movies often focus on key transitional moments and major life decisions. Would you call that a spiritual sensibility?

Well, in a natural, non-soapbox way, yeah. I like celebrating the humanity of people, and the foibles and positivity and the ups and downs of life, because the whole package is what makes life worth living. And I like showing characters that are basically decent, though they may not always act that way. Because for better or worse sometimes, I tend to believe in the best in people.

"You're really just on a journey to do the best you can."
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    In the end, I think it's good to tell stories that celebrate the best in people. So if that's a spirituality or a humanistic approach, I wouldn't even know which label to put on it. It's just the first thing people respond to after they've seen a movie of mine. They say thanks for making it an experience that had a little extra value to it, and I just sort of quietly feel really proud that I was able to do something like that.

    And so that's what the goal is when making a movie: If you could smuggle in a certain amount of humanity and put some meat on the bones of your story-that tends to be the thing that people remember later. How it made them feel. And if it made them laugh. That's good, too.

    You talk about celebrating people's foibles, but we as a society don't have much patience in real life for the foibles of leaders or celebrities.

    I was watching a political program the other night, and they were talking about our administration and past administrations where a president has gotten in trouble with an approval rating or something like that, and somebody said, "You know what? People are people, and they always respond to a president or a friend or whoever who just comes and says, 'You know what? I messed up-and I'm moving on.'" And I guess historically not every major political figure has been able to do that, but when they do it, people recognize that there's a human being there and it helps reset the feelings. And I think that's such a basic truth about people.

    It's really hard to do, particularly in the hot, white light of media scrutiny. But whether it's that or whether it's your own living room, it's great when someone says, "Look, I'm human. Can we move on? Let's try and start over again." And I love that. And I guess I have written a lot of characters who have done that-or characters who have said, "Let's talk about what's really going on." And they just put everything on the table.

    Let's switch gears a bit. I read an interview in which you mentioned being on the same spiritual path that your parents had set you on. What role do religion and faith play in your life?

    My parents really did let me know that compassion and kindness-not necessarily given with an agenda-is a great way to live your life. So I've always tried to do that, and it's communicated in the work that I've done. Sometimes people can be pretty nasty in the way they respond to something I've done in a movie. And it's good to take it for what it is and move on and just know that you have a certain compassion for people in general-that includes naysayers. Because you're really just on a journey to do the best you can and maybe leave things a little better off than when you got here. And that's the basic way my parents raised me and the way I'll be raising our kids.

    Do you still affiliate with a Catholic church?

    I do. Our boys are Catholic. That's who I am. And I had a great experience going to Catholic school.

    It seems like most of the stereotypes out there of Catholic schools are not all that flattering.

    No, but all I know is my own experience. I had great teachers, inspiring teachers, and they entered my life courtesy of Catholic school and that faith. So that's what I know, and that's what I still honor.

    Individual spirituality and the personal quest are all the rage these days. So it's interesting to hear you unabashedly say that you're on the same path as your parents, and passing it along to your kids.

    Well, it worked for me. If I felt like it didn't work for me, I certainly wouldn't be slavish about following them just because it was my parents. But I do believe in tradition when tradition serves, and it has. I like that when times have been tough my belief system and my faith have been there for me, and it's led me in the right direction, so far [laughs].

    These are tough times to be a Catholic, with everything that's going on in the Church. Has that affected you, and how you deal with all that?

    I have nothing but powerful thoughts about the teachers that I met and learned from growing up.

    Cameron Crowe on Catholicism
    They were amazing brothers and priests and nuns, and I think my sister felt the same way. I have a lot of empathy for their path of positivity in a cynical world. So I have a lot more empathy than some people who from a distance say, "Well, there's stuff to be worked out in the Catholic Church." I keep it personal, and I don't forget about the grandness of the beliefs. I care about the experience that's happening now, and I just want to make sure that our little boys have the same sort of spiritually generous experience that we had. So I think that comes from keeping a close relationship with the teachers and letting them know that you support them.

    "Music scratches at your soul..."
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  • And how do your boys react to being in Catholic school?

    They enjoy the worship and religion that we bring into their teaching. They're fans of goodness and they respond to the shows that they see or the stories that we read.
    Cameron Crowe on his kids' education
    You can see already that the myths of good versus evil are so inspiring, even to a young person. They just want to root for good. They want to see that the path might be rocky, but it's worth sticking it out. And it's the same story that I've sort of told in my own movies. And I just love to see that it burns in the heart of most people, that those are the stories that transcend. I just like seeing that honored in their school.

    Do you think that sense is innate?

    Yes. I do.

    What role does faith play in drawing that out in people?

    It lets you know that you're not alone, and that there's a common thread-belief in humanity, celebrating humanity. That's what I try and do in "Elizabethtown." The last word of the movie is "life." I never like to shout through a megaphone that there's a meaning or a message, I just like it to quietly be in there. It's much easier and more inspiring to celebrate the goodness in people. And let them know that that inspires you. And that's just the way I try to live and write.

    Who are some of the people who have most inspired you?

    Cesar Chavez was a great inspiration, and he was a guy my mom brought to her school as a teacher-so I met him as a little boy, and got to spend some time with him. He was just an incredibly peaceful man with an insatiable desire to learn and communicate decently. And I even knew that as a little kid. And [I was inspired by] my parents, who were real humanists and did their job and do their job really honoring people.

    I read that your parents didn't allow you to listen to rock music.

    Yeah, but then I won tickets to see Elvis Presley. And my mom went to see Elvis with me, and Eric Clapton was playing the next day, and we saw both the concerts, and my mom went with me to both of them. And she said, "You know what, the blue-haired ladies and the Elvis Presley show was not as powerful to me as Eric Clapton." Even though someone offered her cocaine at the Eric Clapton show, she kind of dismissed it and thought that that guy has a real passion and she respected it.

    As for you, that clearly was the beginning of quite a journey. What role does music play in your life? It plays such a big role in your movies.

    It inspires most every idea that I have. There are great liner notes written on Shawn Colvin's album, "Cover Girl." She says that great music makes you feel like you can transcend all your problems, and you're delivered to this feeling of compassion where anything is possible. And I just remember reading that and going, "Boy, that's the greatest description of the spiritual place that music can take you."

    Cameron Crowe on music
    And I believe that great music just takes you to that other place where it is about compassion and it is about belief that you're part of this inspiring sense of what it is to be alive in the world. I think it's a great way to glimpse the divine in the world, and that's always been one of the great gifts of music.

    It's also great as a unifier. So not unlike telling a story, I think it goes back to the caveman days. It's just the drumbeat of life, the feeling of life, and when it really takes you to that other place, you do glimpse the divine. And music is much more than wallpaper. Music scratches at your soul and lets you know the bigger picture.

    People, including the pope, still criticize rock music. What do you think of these condemnations?

    If you love music, you know the power that music brings. I like that our last pope sat with Bono. Bono is a great example of how music is a unifier, an inspiration, a cure even. Through his own celebrity and the music that he's done, it can change the world. I'm looking out at Strawberry Fields right now, and John Lennon knew that, too. And I think if you have an open mind and you aren't too strict about where the greatest messages in life can come from, and honor the message itself, you've got to say rock and roll is a powerful, powerful messenger for goodness-as well as subversive elements that are there in all elements of the world. But I love great music and the transcendent place that it takes you to.

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