By the time Cameron Crowe made Singles in 1992, the 35-year-old director was already a decade into his career’s second act. A former journalist for Rolling Stone, he’d pivoted towards the movies after adapting his book about going undercover at a Los Angeles high school – Fast Times at Ridgemont High – for the screen in 1982. And his directorial debut, Say Anything... (1989), proved that he had a knack for capturing teen spirit.
Crowe, however, wanted his audience to grow up with him, so for his follow-up movie, he turned his attention to twentysomethings. Having moved to Seattle in the late Eighties, he began writing a screenplay revolving around several interlocking storylines nestled in the culture he knew intimately: the city’s burgeoning music scene.
Released 25 years ago today, Singles captured a city and a group of artists on the brink of national stardom. Yes, the characters were fictional – but the bands in the film are real, often playing live mini-concerts on set. (Even the made-up band that Matt Dillon leads, Citizen Dick, features three actual local musicians – who’d soon comprise three-fifths of Pearl Jam.) When Crowe sends Steve (Campbell Scott) and Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) to see Soundgarden or Alice in Chains, he was also creating a time capsule of a creatively fertile moment in the Pacific Northwest’s crown jewel, set in the millisecond just before Nirvana’s Nevermind broke big.
Crowe spoke to Rolling Stone about the making of Singles on the movie’s 25th anniversary, how he cast the actors and musicians and why his love letter to Seattle still holds a special place in his heart. (As told to Alexis Sottile.)
I liked the idea of working with actors I loved and having it be an ensemble, and just paying tribute to a city and a feeling. My previous film, Say Anything, was a wonderful chance to learn a little bit of craft from people like Laslow Kovacs Polly Platt, James Brooks – and actors like John and Joan Cusack, John Mahoney. It was wondrous to learn to direct in a collaborative atmosphere with those guys who had come from Chicago theater – they had a real “let’s mix it up, let’s go!” ethic. I’d seen Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing; I liked the size of his movies and how they were rooted in his experience, his community … how he wanted Brooklyn to be showcased. And I’d always loved [Woody Allen’s] Manhattan so much. So that was the beginning of Singles. It was a chance to show what it’s like when you have a city that you love, and a group of friends who have become your family. There’s a sense of family that disparate single people bring to each other, being in a city that they didn’t want to leave.
Plus, my idea at the time was to keep doing stories that aged up as I aged up. So that by the time you’re 40, you’re writing about that age group. Singles was Stage Two. Whereas Fast Times was high school, now it’s going out in the world after you leave home.
Doing an ensemble piece like that starts to feel a little more like how life can feel. It kind of gives you the opportunity to dart off into different worlds and then when the pieces come together it’s so satisfying. You put a bunch of actors around a sofa and because you’ve sort of lived life with them, it feels like you’re on the sofa with them. This is your new crew of friends. The story allows you to know enough about them that you would say, “Hmmm, I think I would spend more time with Colin, but I really love Emma …” And if you’re a lonely person, which I think most writers are, this is a wonderful place to disappear into when you’re writing or making a movie. There’s that feeling of “I’m not alone in the world” that movies about a group of characters can give you. And I loved the idea of this world happening in Seattle.
So to see Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament – tight friends working together at a coffee shop during the day, playing music and going to shows at night – just felt like such a committed, naturally generous lifestyle. It’s that moment when you’re a little bit of a team out in the world together and you’re starting to get your first house, things like that. Chris Cornell was working at Ray’s Boat House, wearing an apron and working in the kitchen – and doing Soundgarden. In LA, there was none of that. It was more like “Oh, the drummer lives with his girlfriend and he’s lived there for three years and she works all day in a legal firm so he can play drums all night.” These guys [in Seattle] would just work all day to finance their lifestyle.
Ament worked in the art department. Eddie we were able to pay to give Matt Dillon guitar lessons. And we were all together doing this thing where we had a vague idea that we were making Seattle into this worldwide event in the film, when in fact it was a small community that was not a worldwide event at the time. Matt Dillon’s character thinks it’s a world event. When he says about his band “we’re big in Belgium,” it was an ironic joke at the time. But then in more deep irony it became a worldwide event.
Bridget Fonda (Janet Livermore) was the only cast member I had had in mind while writing. I had met her; she was represented by a friend of mine. Bridget just had such natural charisma, and she had experience built into her family line, so she was never jaded. She just seemed wise at a young age and felt to me like somebody you would meet in Seattle. As soon as she came up to the city and you saw her walking the streets, trying on different clothes … it was just: Yes.
Similarly to Bridget, Chris Cornell was somebody who I just thought, “This guy belongs in the movie.” I loved Soundgarden – they were the greatest live show I’d seen. I had real strong feelings about Soundgarden and about Chris with this huge heart of his. He was accepting Eddie [Vedder] into Seattle and he was helping me know what it was to live here, at this time and this place – that feeling of, this guy really matters to this city. So we wanted him for [the Citizen Dick singer Cliff Poncier] part for a while, we wroekd with him and he’s good! But it just felt like there was going to be months and months of rehearsals and commitments, and at a certain point I thought, maybe we can have the best of all worlds. Chris can be a character who plays, and we don’t have to make him play a wannabe musician. We can just have him be Chris.
And then with Matt Dillon in the role you can kind of spoof that character without spoofing Chris himself. I never wanted to tamper with the scene in the course of making the movie. Later, when the movie came out, the various efforts to publicize the it were always kind of thorny to me. Because I felt that the city had opened it’s doors to me in good faith and I wanted to put the legacy of Seattle back on the mantle in just as good, if not better, shape than when I appeared. So, I was really happy when Mark Arm [of Mudhoney] got to check out what we were doing and saw that our hearts were pure. [Mudhoney’s “Overblown” appears on the Singles soundtrack.] And the same with all the bands. To the extent that when I was asked, “What percentage do you want of the soundtrack album?” I said, “None. Give the money to the musicians.” And that’s been true to this minute.
As for the score of the film, Paul Westerberg flew out here and he had the beginnings of “Dyslexic Heart,” along with a few other songs. He might have written “Waiting for Somebody” later. But “Dyslexic Heart” really felt like the movie. The way he writes about relationships was very much how I wanted the movie to feel. So it was kind of a natural marriage. And we had already used [the Replacements’] “Within Your Reach” in Say Anything so it felt like we were already on our third or fourth date. Still, Replacements fans were like: “What would Paul Westerberg be like solo?” So the fact that he took a test run at a solo career with us was great. I’m really proud of his score stuff, and Chris Cornell’s too. They’re both really sensitive guys, in terms of being able to capture emotions on film, and they both really took to it.
As for Chris … for any of us lucky enough to know him or experience his gift, there’s no past tense. He’s that vivid of a guy. I can’t talk about him in the past. I talk about him in the present and I always will.
I never wanted to bring too many klieg lights to the Seattle experience. So casting-wise, I liked that we would get people that weren’t necessarily big stars. Matt Dillon was sort of a huge star to be putting in the movie at the time, but everyone else was just sort of bubbling under. Kyra had done a lot of work on stage and Campbell too, but they were all artists you could discover, just like the bands, I thought. Steven Soderbergh had a lot to do with this with Sex, Lies and Videotape, where that kind of [ensemble] movie was able to break new people. I just liked that a movie made by a major studio was able to live in that world.
We had some really cool cameos in the movie. Jeremy Piven was in Say Anything and he is one of John Cusack’s best friends; he came in for a day and a half and was just an explosion [playing a hyped up supermarket cashier]. Eric Stoltz came in and did his thing as the angry mime. That’s Gus Van Sant moving furniture out of the apartment complex with Mark Arm. Tim Burton was working near us on one of the other movies, so I put him in the movie [as a director who makes tapes for singles at a video dating service]. Man, there was never a more clear reminder of where I was on the food chain as when Burton flew up for a day, because my whole crew kicked it up eight notches. When he walked on set, they were like: “Dude, this is our chance to work on Batman.”
For the “Expect the Best” video dating sequence that the Tim Burton character was supposed to have directed, I loved the idea that technology and culture was racing forward, and being single and dating was trying to find a place in it. In the late Eighties and early Nineties, the idea was that people would make these artistic statements to represent who they were as a dating force. You would be able to make a little film about yourself, and [the video dating service] would provide you with props, and there would be the option to have a funny backdrop. In our case we chose one where the character [Debbie Hunt] is flying over the city … I think we created that ourselves. And Sheila Kelley was completely ferocious about playing that part. I’d like to give a shout out right now to somebody who was the runner up for that part: Paula Abdul. It was a photo finish between Paula Abdul and the great Sheila Kelley. She was excellent. Somewhere lurking in our archives is a smoking Paula Abdul in that part.
I had a secret dream that in Seattle, people might one day put a little plaque up in one of the restaurants or clubs that said – “Here’s where Singles was filmed, and that’s the stage where Soundgarden played …” Because I come from San Diego, I always had a special place in my heart for the Hotel Del Coronado, where Some Like It Hot was filmed. There are some plaques around the hotel – “Marilyn Monroe sat here in the sand” – stuff like that. Right after us, Nora Ephron came in with Sleepless in Seattle and within 18 months, there were plaques in town that said, “Sleepless in Seattle was filmed here!” I was like, damn, what do you have to do get a plaque around here?!? But sure enough, over time, the Singles apartment house became kind of its own little tour stop for anybody who remembered the movie.
A few years back, filming the documentary Pearl Jam 20, and we came back to the apartment house and were filming on the steps. The landlord came flying out of the corner apartment, telling us “This is private property! You must leave now!” I asked him, “Do many people come here because of the movie?” And he said “All the time, now get out!” I was so happy I almost hugged him. “Why are you so happy about that,” he asked. I told him I was the writer-director. He squinted his eyes and said, “You ruined my life.” Then he showed me that they had a poster of the movie in the hallway.
The Seattle explosion happened after we finished the movie. Warner Brothers hadn’t wanted to put the movie out. They didn’t get it; we had to pretty much beg them to release it. And then Nirvana hit, and they said, “Oh, OK, we can call the movie Come As You Are.” And we said, “No, it’s not called Come As You Are.” And then they said, “We tested a title that we really love: “One Hot Summer.” And I said “No, it’s not called One Hot Summer, it’s called Singles.” And then finally I think their kids were telling them, “You have Pearl Jam in a movie, and you’re not putting the movie out?!?”
Later I get a call from the Warner Brothers television department and they say, “You know, we want to make a TV show out of Singles. We really like this idea of these young kids who live together and work in a coffee shop,” And I said, “No. I don’t want to make a TV show out of it.” “Well, we may do it anyway.” “No, you can’t do it anyway.” Months and months go by and this item comes out in The Hollywood Reporter that says Singles is set to become a TV show, from David Crane and Marta Kaufman – the people who ended up doing Friends. I called my lawyer and I said ‘You have to stop [this], they’re doing a TV show of Singles and I said, ‘No.'”
So the pilot of Friends comes out and it’s all these people around a courtyard [with a fountain], and they’re working in a coffee shop; apparently they changed the pilot so that it had fewer similarities. But to this day, my Mom says, “You really screwed up on Friends! All you had to do was say yes! You would be living in a castle right now!” And I say, “Ha! I don’t need to live in a castle! I’m happy I made the choices I made.” But in my mind at least, you can partially draw a line from the genesis of Friends to our little Seattle film.