Cameron Crowe Explains the Pop Culture Netherworld of 'Vanilla Sky'

Vanilla Sky
Paramount Pictures

There is a God, and, thankfully, he looks like Tom Cruise. That’s what Cruise plays in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky: a flawed, hurt, and regretful God searching for something real in his own world. Of course, that also means he didn’t play anyone’s ideal romantic lead in this picture, and that partly speaks to why Vanilla Sky polarized audiences and critics alike back in 2001. The film has gained more and more fans in the years since, and we can only hope that Julianna Gianni’s (Cameron Diaz) deeply heartfelt line, ““I swallowed your cum, that means something!” will one day become as culturally important as “You complete me.”

That truly wonderful line in a horrifying and raw moment from the film underlines how much Crowe stepped outside of his wheelhouse on this movie. There are still the inspired music choices and a sincere sense of optimism, but much of Vanilla Sky explores a disturbed man’s subconscious. As beautifully as cinematographer John Toll captured the Monet-inspired skies, it only helps magnify David Aames’ 150-year-long nightmare.

Toll’s exceptional work can now be experienced on Blu-Ray, with a disc full of never-before-seen special features curated and assembled by Andy Fischer. Everything Crowe dreamed of putting on the Blu-Ray is present.

Mr. Crowe was kind enough to reflect back on his most divisive film with us. Here’s what he had to say:

As a follow-up to your collaboration with Tom Cruise on Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky isn’t the kind of movie most people were expecting. Was that a part of the appeal?

I remember Tom had said, “Let’s keep working together. Whatever we want to do, let’s just keep the partnership alive. Let’s not worry about genre, direction, or anything.” We threw it open to all kinds of stuff. For a while we pursued the Phil Spector story, because Tom had the rights for a while. We were in a conversation with Spector and his manager, Allen Klein, so we were circling around that. I did a lot of research with Spector and a series of interviews. It didn’t pan out, because I felt there was an ending that hadn’t yet arrived ‐ and, strangely, there was much more to come in the life of Spector. I went to do Almost Famous instead, which felt like a more personal thing to do, but it didn’t have Tom in it.

Tom and I were still keeping in a really strong touch. He’s still like this, but he’d say, “I want to read your stuff out loud, because I have an affinity for your writing. You get so excited when you see me do your stuff, and that’s a great thing. Anytime you have anything, whether it’s right for me or not, bring it over and let’s just jam on it.” I remember bringing Almost Famous over to him, and he read Lester Bangs. It was unbelievable to hear him do that character, in particular the speech about good-looking people having no spine. I just remember watching him disappear into Lester, and I was on two different plains, thinking, “What would’ve Lester Bangs thought of Tom Cruise playing him?” As Lester, like Sancho Panza, Tom was rallying against good-looking people, and I believed it! Here he was, the best-looking guy in the world! It just made me want to work with him more and more.

He even said to me, “Do you want to do a Mission: Impossible? Should we do something like that?” We kicked around a lot of ideas, but then he fell in love with Abre los ojos at a film festival. I went over to his house and watched the movie with him. I had a head full of ideas, but there was something about that story. There was a song I was listening to a lot, by Julie Miller, called “By Way of Sorrow,” which, to me, felt like the mood and character of the movie. I listened to the song in my car after I saw the movie, and by the time I got home, I wanted to do it. I wanted to do it quickly as a companion piece to the original, because I felt the original was a song that could be played in a couple of different ways. I got into it with [director] Alejandro Amenábar about how open he was to a remake. He agreed the original was a classical piece of music, while our version could be the rock companion piece.

It always felt completely different from Jerry Maguire. I mean, physically, Tom wanted to absolutely change and work on the makeup, which we worked on for a long time. We wanted the disfigured David Aames to be so real and human, that it would be an explosive reinvention of Tom. We worked very hard to keep him hidden from paparazzi. Tubes were built in the street he could walk through without getting his picture taken. We felt we were on a journey to do something very different, possibly subversive, but absolutely a continuation of the collaboration. Tom is so much about character, and I love characters so much. David was a brand new guy, but we were still telling Amenábar’s story. Vanilla Sky is kind of a horror story about being caught in the netherworld of tech and pop culture. What is humanity when so much of pop culture shapes our images, our hopes, and dreams?

Tom Cruise’s performance is so ego-less. There probably aren’t many A-list actors who’d play a character with a facial disfigurement and have that mask on for a lot of the movie, while also playing a fairly unlikable guy. It’s a very committed performance.

It is a committed performance; it’s also a very funny performance. Tom did not shy away from self-deprecation, wanting to make comments about his own self-image in culture. In many different ways, he’s laughing at himself and spoofing himself, even spoofing some of his own movements in Jerry Maguire. You know, Jerry Maguire would get very physical and theatrical ‐ “Help me help you!” ‐ and was very theatrical with his hand movements. David Aames is kind of the same, when he busts out, “Oh, the mask will work really well on Halloween, but what about the other days of the year?”

We definitely didn’t know how people were going to react. I don’t think we were quite prepared for the kind of tumultuous reaction that it caused [Laughs], and a part of that was it was so close to 9/11 and the other part is it was kind of sold as a Fatal Attraction-type of movie, a triangle with a crazy girl. In fact, it was so different from that, challenging, and not what people expected, which was more of Jerry Maguire from us.

I think of all the movies we’ve made this is the punk-rock set, because we were moving really fast. We didn’t have time to overthink anything, we went into it pretty quickly after Almost Famous, and got it done very quickly. There was no overthinking or second-guessing, but some of that happened later when we started showing the movie in test screenings, which explains why there’s two different endings.

What’s the different ending? Did it get cut because of the test screenings?

It’s a different version of the same ending, but it’s a little more challenging and less is explained. You want people to understand what you’re going for, so the question is, looking at both endings: Did the pendulum swing too much in the direction of us explaining stuff? I think it did. The original ending was more open-ended, a little less explained, and had a little more Kurt Russell. We had this one take of Kurt dissembling as a person we just fell in love with, and that’s on the Blu-Ray. We always dreamed of putting those little nuggets out that meant so much to us while making the movie. Kurt Russell’s performance now exists in a more complete form, which I’m really happy about.

It wasn’t like the ending was compromised; it was just spelled-out a bit more. Over time I think people are more open to the questions lingering. Post-Sopranos world, where it can end with Tony Soprano cutting to black, people are more attuned to bringing impressions to a shocking ending. The ending we ended up doing was a little more making sure we put a spotlight on what we wanted to say. Michael Shannon had a more violent conclusion, and more of Michael Shannon is always a good thing. [Laughs] You just get to see more pieces of the puzzles.

I’m glad you refer to Vanilla Sky as punk rock, because when it came out, my dad was not a fan of the movie, but in a punk-rock way, I enjoyed thinking, “Well, you don’t get it, but I get it.”

[Laughs] I love that! The fans of Vanilla Sky are so adamant and really passionate about it. The mail we’ve always gotten for it is from strippers, doctors, and rappers. [Laughs] I think Kanye rapped about it really early on, too. It was kind of the first time I experienced the divisive reception. I remember we were on this worldwide press tour, because he is so good at taking a movie around the world, and there was a writer in Australia… I hadn’t read many of the reviews, but there was a writer in Australia who came in, sat down, and said, “Boy, I bet you weren’t ready to be called some of these names.” I was like, “What names?” He said, “Oh boy, get ready!” [Laughs] Later I read what he was referring to. Some people were really up in arms, while other people, like Roger Ebert, were really with us. Over time, it’s found its place. The days right after 9/11 when we were showing the movie, when Tom jumps off that building, you could feel the wave go over the audience. People were electrified, whether positive or negative. That was kind of amazing.

When we spoke for Aloha you mentioned that Vanilla Sky was the film you packed with the most details. Why is that?

Well, this is one of the things that was one of the big draws to making it ‐ to work with John Toll again and pack the frame, like we did with Almost Famous. We wanted to pack the frame with clues, shades, and textures, so you could say, “Nothing in the frame is an accident.” The stuff on David Aames’ walls were assembled by him, as he was creating his new virtual life, and they’re all comments. Is it a Jules and Jim or Breathless poster in his apartment?

Jules and Jim.

Yeah, that comes back to being one of the things that was one of statements about what love could be. I liked the opportunity to be a complete filmmaker in that way, to be a little more cinematic. We wanted to have some visual tricks up our sleeve, in the set dressing, style, and everything. I love that we have the Freewheeling Bob Dylan album cover reference in there. I had done some interviews with Bob Dylan early on, but his main guy and manager, Jeff Rosen, on the set of Masked and Anonymous, reintroduced me to him. Dylan went to see Vanilla Sky in the theater, and he said, “I was sitting there watching it, thinking, ‘I’ve been here before.’ Then, I realized, I was there before!” [Laughs] Getting him with some of the subliminal messages was cool. That was the dream ‐ to make it a pop culture art experience where it just whipped your head around in a slightly different way, depending on what you were looking at whenever you caught it again.

Photo Credit: Neal Preston

There was an accident made with the tags on David’s car, which contain a date that doesn’t exist. Are there more accidents like that in the movie?

Well, that’s a part where if you create, flavors start to appear that belong there. That was one happy accident. A scary accident was the Twin Towers were in a shot so obviously at the end. There was a big discussion about taking them out, but my feeling was we shouldn’t destroy them again, they should be there, and live on. In David Aames’ purchase of this life, the Twin Towers are there. I would’ve been really, really disappointed to look back and find we missed the chance to have a tribute there.

It feels like a post-9/11 movie. So much of the film is about moving forward or attempting to explain what went wrong.

That’s so true. It was made with a lot of love, humor, and fun. We had a blast making it, but it’s eerie. The movie is much more eerie than it felt making it. I think movies always get a personality on their own, no matter what you do, and you just have to set the table and see what textures arrive as your dinner guests. Even the stuff that was funny to us at the time was, as you say, a post-9/11 idea of something happened.

It’s also eerie how much Vanilla Sky is about God.

That’s why the Joan Osborne song “What If God Was One Us?” was there. It was just a theme I wanted to have present. What role does God and religion have when you’re able to create life on your own? That sort of makes you your own personal God. How do you maintain your own kingdom? Whose God do you serve when you’re taking on that responsibility? I went to Catholic school, so all these ideas are circling around in my head. I don’t think we talked about it a lot making the film, but it felt like there was an opportunity to explore that.

There’s also the whole pop culture slant, which I think becomes more and more an issue. What do you acquire from pop culture as you’re building your own life? What is based on reality and what is based on your vision of what you saw once, that became your dream of what you want reality to be? How do you reconcile them? It’s tough, particularly if you’re living in a world where you’re watching a lot of movies. [Laughs] You kind of want to get lost in the world of movies, with images, impulses, and feelings. Sometimes it’s tough to leave the movie theater or close your computer.

You almost rewrote the line, “You complete me,” from Jerry Maguire. Was there any lines or scenes you thought about rewriting on Vanilla Sky?

No. There is a line I was sorry to see go, but I’m happy to see it’s back [on the Blu-Ray]. In the original ending, Noah Taylor said, “You requested and purchased all of this, David. You even asked for a theme song from Paul McCartney, which is very hard to acquire!” [Laughs] I’m not sure why we lost it, but when I saw it back in the original ending, I was so happy. It’s more Noah Taylor ‐ and like Michael Shannon ‐ you can’t get enough of him.

The other day I read an old interview you did with Tom Cruise. Was that the first time you two met?

No, the first time we met was at a party thrown by the cast at the very end of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They had always talked about this friend of theirs, who was making his own movie in Chicago. There weren’t a bunch of teen movies for them all to fall into, so everyone auditioned for our movie. Jennifer Jason Leigh was a friend of Tom’s, Eric Stoltz and Sean Penn knew him, and everyone was talking about this friend of theirs on this huge trajectory. He wasn’t in a teen movie; he was the star of a movie movie. Cruise showed up at this party, and it was like baby David Aames. The guy owned the party; he walked in, had something to say to everybody, and he was electric and charismatic. You couldn’t take your eyes off this guy. This was Tom, the guy they were all talking about.

Tom Cruise mentioned in your interview he’d want to direct one day. Knowing he’s a big movie fan and has worked with some of the best directors, it’s surprising and disappointing he hasn’t directed a film yet.

He says he has a hard time viewing himself ‐ that he can’t view himself dispassionately, like some actors can. Tom depends on the director for that. He knows every bit of the script, every bit of the character, everything about the movie, and everything about lenses and angles. The one thing he says is he depends on the director to shape his performance, and he’s the world’s greatest collaborator in that way. He says, “I am the instrument. I will play whatever you want me to play. Let’s get in there and do it. Let’s have fun.” That’s the experience you get working with Tom.

Since Tom was the producer on Vanilla Sky, he was really having fun building this story and movie, but he was very generous in how he was going to let me create the performance in whatever way that was thrilling to me. He’s a very demonstrative guy, so when you’re happy, he’s happy. There’s not a furrowed brow on the set when things are going real well, which they normally are, because he inspires people. He’s a guy that likes joy and invites joy in the process. He looks to you and says, “Was that all right? Is there more you want? Do you want to do it another way? Let’s not leave this if you don’t have everything. Are you sure? Think about it.” There’s always a movie where you go, “Well, if you got another one in you…” He’ll say, “I got a million more in me. I’ll go all night long.” [Laughs] He can and does! The day generally doesn’t end until every scrap is examined, used, and done for the movie. Everything that could possibly be used to make the movie better he’s there to make sure you use it.

He’s strangely underrated for a huge movie star. Maybe because he doesn’t physically transform the way Daniel Day-Lewis does, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but disappearing without that kind of transformation— that must be just as difficult, if not more so.

It’s true. He builds this body of work, movie after movie, and character after character. He gives you this body of work that’s rich and personal. He puts himself into every one of these movies. For a guy who’s so universally known, he’s not afraid of getting personal, even in a movie like Oblivion. The scene on the Empire Sate Building is so romantic and emotional. He puts his heart out there, and it becomes so memorable over time. You see these performances where the guy is just vulnerable, and sometimes it’s hard to see because the Tom Cruise of it all is so commanding at the center of the movie. You see more of it the second time.

I met Clint Eastwood once. I asked him about Chris Penn, because he had worked with Chris Penn on Pale Rider. We were talking about what an amazing guy Chris Penn was, and for some reason, we got on the subject of Tom. Clint Eastwood said, “100 years from now and more, people will look back on this generation of films, and the guy who will standout more than anyone else will be Tom Cruise.” Coming from Clint Eastwood, like, a foot-and-a-half away from you telling you that, I couldn’t wait to tell Tom that! [Laughs] I think it’s true. You could create an argument for a number of other actors, but I don’t know anyone who’s built this kind of body of work in movies that will stand the test of time, and I would be honored if one of our movies was a part of that. He’s done so many different, time-defining projects.

Elizabethtown is turning 10 years old this year. Is there any chance that film or the extended cut will get a Blu-Ray release in the near-future?

I’d love it. I never did a commentary on it. We never put out the original cut. Once again, over time, I think that movie has found its place. I think the people who love that movie, I think they’d really love the longer version. It’s a more generous telling of the story. There’s more to every aspect of it. It stretches out to tell the tale more. In the world of enhanced bonus editions of albums you may like… I mean, I loved getting all the versions of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk,” which was a fan’s dream. If you like Elizabethtown, we have a ton of more stuff for that movie. I’m just really grateful for the people that appreciate that movie now more than ever, because it’s a story about my dad and all those feelings attached to my dad. When people say or write they followed the road trip to Elizabethtown or they lost a loved one and the movie was there for them when they needed something to help them out, I think, “Wow, that’s the reason the movie got made.”

Both Elizabethtown and Vanilla Sky show that amazing feeling when you connect with someone over one night, but I’ve always wondered: if Will (Orlando Bloom) got into a car accident, like David Aames, would Claire (Kirsten Dunst) still like him? Would it become too real too fast?

[Laughs] Let’s do a mash-up! What’s funny about both of the movies is there’s a thread to the romantic comedies of the ’50s and ’60s and maybe even the ’40s, where there’s banter, and that’s even true in Aloha. I like being able to reference a pace from back then. It’s definitely doing a larger-than-life version of life, but sometimes that’s just how those moments feel when you’re meeting somebody. The words are charged. Everything feels like it’s hitting its mark. The heroine has an extra sparkle and glow about her, and you’re in the movie with her. That’s kind of the same thing Vanilla Sky is about: you can crave that feeling so much you purchase it! [Laughs] It’s actually for sale in Vanilla Sky.

[Laughs] This actually transitions nicely into my last question for you. You’ve answered this question in your body of work, but, since Julianna asks David this, I want to know: What is happiness to you?

Happiness, to me, is earned joy ‐ and that can come in life, family, and writing something and seeing it fall into the hands of perfect actors who bring it to life. Happiness is when you work hard to follow your heart and life rewards you with glimpses of heaven. That’s happiness to me. That’s kind of what all my movies are about. [Laughs] I can’t help but write about that, because it means so much to me. There’s a lot of darkness out there. There’s a lot of darkness in the movies that feels positive on the surface, but there’s a lot of darkness, in Vanilla Sky, for sure. I don’t think they’re cynical. They haven’t turned out that way. It’s the sweet and the sour, and it’s a combination that makes each one beautifully savored. [Laughs]

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.