Cameron Crowe's career was just beginning when his father's life suddenly ended.
It was 1989, and Crowe's directorial debut, "Say Anything," had just received a rave review from influential critical duo Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Crowe's father, James, was announcing his son's cinematic accolades while visiting relatives in Lexington, Ky., when he unexpectedly died of a heart attack at age 67.
His death had a profound impact on Crowe, one that can be seen on screen in "Elizabethtown." (See review on Page 43.) The movie -- another of the writer-director's signature comedy-drama-romance hybrids in the tradition of his biggest hit, "Jerry Maguire" -- focuses on Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), a shoe designer whose career reaches a turning point at the same moment his father dies of, yes, an unexpected heart attack.
"This was certainly not a navel-gazing experience," says Crowe, 48, of "Elizabethtown." "But it did feel like it was worth saying as a tribute [to my father]. I always equate it to music. Every once in a while, songwriters say, 'This one's more personal than the others.' So I figured, embrace it."
And so he did. Much of the movie was filmed in the Louisville and Lexington areas of Kentucky, near Crowe's father's home town of Stanton, and it also features several of James Crowe's friends as extras.
"I felt his presence every day, beginning with the first day," Crowe says of his dad, citing one of the initial scenes he shot, in which a casket falls into a grave in incremental and alarming fashion. The scenario required a special effects engineer to ensure that the coffin dropped as bracingly as possible, a prospect that put some cast members on edge.
"We started the first take of filming, and the casket dropped on its own before the effects guy even got to it," Crowe laughs. "The casket fell three times -- boom, boom, boom -- and everyone reacted naturally, like, 'What's going on?' And that's in the movie.
"If you believe in signs," he adds, "then that's gotta be as close as you can get to a sign that you can believe in."
Fans of the filmmaker who created the Seattle scenesters of "Singles" and sports-agent-turned-sentimentalist Jerry Maguire know this isn't the first time his art has borrowed a few pages from his personal life. His 2000 homage to rock 'n' roll, "Almost Famous," was based on Crowe's own experience as a young music critic writing for Rolling Stone while attempting to dodge his mother's often-judgmental gaze. That movie won Crowe an Academy Award, for Best Original Screenplay, and cemented the perception that pieces of him often bubble to his cinematic surfaces.
Crowe insists that not all his films are "right in that vein," tapping into his private bloodstream. The storyline of "Say Anything," for example, wasn't based on his life. Yet as he speaks with endearing enthusiasm during a phone interview from Dallas, Crowe, perhaps unwittingly, sometimes sounds exactly like Lloyd Dobler, the protagonist played by John Cusack in that now-considered-classic romantic comedy. ("I wanted one more time to visit the theme of what it is to be a warrior for positivity," he explains at one point while discussing "Elizabethtown." Warrior for positivity: That is so something Lloyd Dobler would say.)
It's difficult to determine exactly how often fiction collides with reality in "Elizabethtown," but it is clear that this is definitely a Cameron Crowe film. All of the moviemaker's signature elements are there: an empathetic hero grappling with failure; a charmingly upbeat love interest (played by Kirsten Dunst) who helps the hero discover the transcendent beauty of life; a soundtrack sprinkled with carefully chosen rock and alternative tracks (in this case supplied by the likes of Elton John, Tom Petty and My Morning Jacket); and quirky, sometimes quotable, dialogue that often sounds as if it were stolen wholesale from actual conversations. Example: When Drew arrives in Elizabethtown, his cousin Jessie, played by Paul Schneider ("All the Real Girls"), proclaims, "This loss will be met by a hurricane of love." It's a line -- like the ubiquitous "Show me the money" -- that's pure Cameron Crowe.
So far, "Elizabethtown" hasn't exactly been met by a hurricane of love. After less-than-stellar receptions at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals, Crowe decided to release a more succinct cut of the film; the version screening in cineplexes is 16 minutes shorter than the one that traveled the festival circuit. ("This is really the version I was on to before the festivals," the director says, but adds, "Would I do it that way again? Perhaps not.") Crowe plans to eventually release the longer version of the movie on DVD. In the meantime, he's writing another "character-rich" comedy -- one he hopes will attract the interest of Kate Winslet -- and, ever a warrior for positivity, trying to enjoy the culmination of his "Elizabethtown" journey no matter what critics may say.
"I look at the big picture on 'Elizabethtown,' and I feel it was made for all the right reasons, it's emotionally affecting for all of the reasons I would have hoped, and I can't help but believe the movie was blessed on some level," he says. As he speaks these words, Crowe sounds as sincere as the folks who inhabit his fictional version of that Kentucky town, a sentimental, semi-autobiographical place he's certain his father would have loved.