Cameron Crowe Is Finally Ready to Tell Us Vanilla Sky’s Secrets

The director reflects on his famously divisive sci-fi thriller, its ideal ending, overlooked easter eggs, and the new scripts he’s working on in quarantine. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Cameron Crowe’s famously divisive 2001 sci-fi thriller Vanilla Sky has been called a lot of things over the years: an “incoherent jumble,” “tremendously vivid,” “self-destructive cinematic havoc,” “scrupulously moral.” As an unapologetic appreciator of this big, messy film, I’d like to add another adjective to the list: prescient. A remake of Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky follows David Aames (Tom Cruise), a fabulously wealthy New Yorker who inherited his dad’s publishing empire and essentially does whatever the fuck he wants. He lives in an apartment that could’ve belonged to Patrick Bateman, casually sleeps with and discards beautiful women (including Cameron Diaz’s Julianna Gianni), and throws lavish birthday parties attended by Steven Spielberg.

David’s seemingly charmed life slips through his fingers, though, after he falls hard for Sofia (Penélope Cruz), recklessly abandons Julianna, gets in a disfiguring car accident, and loses everything that once mattered to him: his power, his charm, his friends, his empire, his Tom Cruise face. Without getting too spoilery (though we’ll do that below), the film sharply pivots from a relatively straightforward narrative into a labyrinthine meditation on loneliness, alienation, loss of identity, and the nature of reality itself. These themes certainly have a lot to do with our current moment, where everything that once defined us feels slippery and diffuse, and where we’re all unwilling shut-ins pacing around our apartments in masks. But it’s Vanilla Sky’s opening scene that feels particularly eerie to watch right now.

The camera pans over a bustling New York City as David wakes up to the dulcet tones of Cruz and Diaz intoning, “Open your eyes.” Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” scores his tranquil morning routine: he meticulously plucks a gray hair from his lush mane, showers, pulls on a crisp button-down, and hops into his Ferrari. But as he drives down a series of Central Park–adjacent streets, David realizes he’s the only person on them. His face registers surprise and confusion, but not fear — until he reaches Times Square, where there’s not a single living soul. David gets out of his car, his mouth agape, millions of shimmering lights and gaudy advertisements and massive billboards targeting him exclusively. He begins to run, terrified, down the uncannily barren streets.

The scene is meant to be a glimpse into David’s suppressed psyche, a preview of the fact that his most profound fear — being completely and entirely alone — will soon come to pass. But it’s also an unintentional preview of what New York has looked like for the last two months: a once-vibrant center of the universe, struck down by an unchecked pandemic. The scene marks the only time in New York’s history that the city has allowed a filmmaker to empty Times Square. Curious about the genesis of the scene, and whether Crowe noticed the parallels between his movie and our current predicament, I reached out to him, and we had a long conversation about his ideal ending, overlooked Easter eggs, and the new scripts he’s working on in quarantine.

How are you doing through all of this? Where are you?
I’m at my house in the Palisades with my son Billy, who’s 20. It’s been a soulful time for us. I feel very lucky. Some people are finding this a creative time, and others are feeling lethargic, like, “I’m worried. I’m worried about my parents.” I have that, too, but I’m just trying to write everyday.

You’re one of those.
I am. It might all end tonight, you never know. But I have to tell you: I’m the worst quarantine cleaner; I save everything and I have so many boxes of stuff. I was going through these boxes last night, and what falls out but the picture of us in Times Square, right after we shot the scene: Cruise, [cinematographer] John Toll, me, and the gaffers. It was like, “Why did this fall out of this box, tonight?! Before I talk about this exact scene?”

I’ve always loved Vanilla Sky. I remember seeing it in high school when it came out and just being totally inconsolable at the end.
Not everybody got that, especially back in the day. I think they thought it was gonna be a Fatal Attraction story. The opening weekend, I went to see it and there was a guy roaming the aisles, saying, “This is not the movie you think it is. If anybody needs a refund now, ask for a refund.” I was like, “How do you know what movie they think it is?” It was traumatic.

Wait, this person worked at the theater?
He was a guy that worked for the theater! Not an usher, but an upper-management guy. I was like, “You could turn this into a plus, you know. You could make it a wonderful assignment for a wonderful audience to wrap their heads around.” But … no.

What do you think the issue was there? Was the movie marketed wrong?
Yeah. I think it was a tough movie to market anyway, but it was so attractive to look at it as a love-triangle movie with Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, and Tom Cruise — it was like catnip for marketing. The excitement of the premise didn’t really exist in anything else, which was why that guy was roaming the aisles. People were excited for a romantic-triangle thriller, and what they got was, of course, that, but a little more.

What specifically do you think they weren’t prepared for?
To some people, everything that takes place after Tom gets into the car with Julianna was like nails on a chalkboard. We don’t even have a lot of footage of Tom in that specific scene. He was like, “Don’t worry with me, stay on Diaz. I’ll do mine in one take.” And we did. She got into that freaky place where she’s waving her hands around in the car, and that’s her, finding the corners of that scene. It’s really riveting — like we were catching lightning in a bottle. But that kind of human behavior that’s happening in that scene is a point where the movie starts to acquire that thing that would later freak people out, or disappoint them — or rivet them.

Over time I think the movie has found its audience. That’s happened to me a couple of times. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is another example where nobody came to see it in the theaters, but they just picked up on it over time. I’m really proud of Vanilla Sky. Sometimes the record or the person that pissed you off the most becomes your best friend. I still get that from people about Vanilla Sky: “I really didn’t like that movie. And I watch it every year.”

Who’s the audience that’s found it?
You and me. Moviegoers. People that want to get lost in another world, something that’s challenging with a ton of really powerful music. The music for Vanilla Sky, I’m really proud of. [Crowe’s ex-wife] Nancy Wilson’s score is super evocative. Particularly when Penélope comes back to David Aames’s apartment, and she’s feeling the weight of everything that happened in that apartment. Jason Lee waves to her, and she can’t handle it and leaves. That section is the one that destroys me. Penélope was channeling — her grandma was sick, and she brought all of this deep power to that moment. That’s the best of Vanilla Sky: where it’s a tiny bit psychedelic, and emotional more than anything else.

The music is really inextricable from the movie. Even after I’d only seen it once, I couldn’t hear “Good Vibrations” without feeling really uneasy.
“Good Vibrations” was in an orange juice ad around that time. I remember thinking how unsettling it would be for someone to take the sunniness out of “Good Vibrations.” And … that happened. I’m sorry, I’m sure over time it will return to its orange-juice roots.

There’s a really good song called “Doot Doot” by a band called Fleur, and that works really well [in the elevator scene] too. It’s really powerful. It just has an elixir. [When we were filming], everybody was into Radiohead, and they let us have “Everything in Its Right Place,” which we’d been listening to a lot making it, and at that point, it was kind of jolly. But when you watch the movie with that song in it, it just gets under your skin. A big part of people who discover the movie — it stays with them, in large part I think, because of the music. And the performances. And the opening, which I hear about more and more over time.

I thought of it instantly when we started seeing all of those videos of Times Square totally empty because of the pandemic. Did those strike you right away as familiar?
They did. Particularly because we were told so often when it happened, “Take a good look. This will never happen again.” We heard that a lot. “This is only gonna happen once, so you better do it right.” Which was kind of the theme of getting that shot together. It’s extremely eerie. And what’s super eerie is that all of the video [advertising] that’s part of Times Square now — it wasn’t to that extent at all when we shot the movie. Our original thought was, “How can we project his psyche onto these buildings?” And we did some early CGI stuff to [project] things onto the buildings, so he’s lost in this kind of Cuisinart of his thoughts and feelings.

But when I saw Times Square emptied out [in 2020], it was like — his psyche stuff is part of the culture now. There are ads on all of the buildings, and they have a visual conversation with other stuff on other buildings. And now, nobody is there. It’s extremely eerie. It looked very strangely, oddly familiar.

At what point in writing the film did you come up with that shot?
Well, it’s kind of of a cool story. We decided Abre Los Ojos would be a good movie to do an American version of. That director, Alejandro Amenábar, he’s a really creative guy. He said, “Mine is the classical music version and yours is modern rock.” And I said, “As you emptied out the streets in Spain, let’s do ours in New York, and let’s have an empty Times Square. What could be more chilling than that?” And Tom Cruise had this look like, “Okay, that’s a challenge.”

But that was always set in stone, from the very beginning. However we could make that come true, we were gonna do it. We started preparing the movie, and very early on, our producers Don Lee and Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise went to see Rudy Giuliani and his people to see if we could do this. They came back and they were tentatively really happy. I said, “Well, what’s going on?” And they said, “I think we’re kind of good to go? But it’s conditional.” And I said, “Great news! What’s the condition?” And they said, “You! Somebody there has done some research on you, and heard that you do a lot of takes.” I was like, “What?! I’m a thorough director, but this intel is in the mayor’s office?” They were like, “Yeah, somebody there is worried. They don’t want you in Times Square running around with Tom Cruise, with you shooting stuff, with no clear plan.” I was like, “Of course we’ll have a clear plan.” And they said, “Okay, let’s go for it.”

What was the plan?
I’m telling you, for weeks after full days of filming in Dumbo, Cruise — who loves a challenge like this — when we’d wrap, he’d say, “Alright man, let’s work on that shot.” So we’d set up a crane shot and John Toll would hone it, and we’d rehearse it every night, for weeks. We knew the shot would put Tom Cruise in this empty Times Square universe; we had this beautiful, fluid shot. We spent weeks working on it, and the day came. We had [Times Square] for three hours on a Sunday morning. We got there, it was still dark. Everyone was adrenalized to an insane degree. And I was like, “Okay, are you ready, because we only have this time, and we gotta get it! We’re gonna get it!”

It was so eerie, Rachel, because way in the background, as the sun came up, you could see some barricades that had been put up, but it was such an amazing job by the City of New York. It was empty almost as far as you could see. Unbelievable. So we get the shot together and Cruise is ready to go, and we do it, and it’s really good. And we do it again, and it’s great. So we do seven takes, and then we start looking at each other, like, “What do we do now? Let’s do one or two more, make sure we got it.” And when we knew we had it, barring any force majeure, we were like, “What do we do now?” And Tom Cruise says, “I’ll just run. I’ll just run back and forth and you can do running shots.” Which was what the mayor’s office was afraid we’d be doing!

We had an hour and 15 minutes or so left, so Tom just ran. And it was beautiful. It was just — we were in gravy land. We got even that done early, and I’m telling you, it was a count of 15 before all of the traffic and the people just returned to Times Square. It was stunning. It was like, what we’d done never happened. We all scattered, and I remember getting a cab, and the driver says to me, “You know, they emptied out Times Square for Tom Cruise.” I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Only one other person they’d do that for. Billy Joel!” So I always thought, if I ever meet Billy Joel, I’d say, “I think you got Times Square if you want it.”

Were you the first and last production that ever cleared it out like that?
Yes. I’d heard other people put in requests, that same year, and the filming office was like, “I think maybe no.” The thing they told us from the beginning to the end is that this will never happen again. And I wish that it hadn’t.

Do you know who put in a request?
Danny DeVito. I’m not sure for what movie, it was a couple of months after us. Sorry, Danny.

Why do you think they said yes to you?
I think because Tom is the most responsible dude. I think he looked them in the eye and said, “Guys, we’re gonna get this done for you, and it’s gonna be great.” We’d been shooting a lot in New York and brought a lot of business there, but I put it to Tom Cruise. He’s very charismatic and responsible. He’s a convincing dude.

If he hadn’t done it personally, do you think they’d have said no?
Yes. Obviously, I was not the draw. [Laughs.]

What about the other scenes you filmed of the empty New York? Were those easier to pull off?
It was really brief, when he drives from The Dakota to Times Square. That was just a matter of stopping traffic for brief pops. It was also kind of a stealth mission because we didn’t want to show Tom’s disfigured face, and there were a lot of paparazzi around. So that was a big thing during the shooting of Vanilla Sky: We had to hide him.

The face is so good.
But also, the disfigured face was kind of funny! You know in the scene where they’re like, “Your face-replacement shield,” and he’s like, “You mean a fucking mask?!” There was dark humor when we were making it.

The idea of a mask becoming an everyday thing, and wearing a mask to a club, like Tom does in the film, was kind of prescient, too.
Yeah. It’s strange. Really strange. Also, the magazine is called Rise in the movie, and one of the cover subjects of Rise is Katie Holmes. None of us even knew Katie Holmes. It’s strangely prophetic, in a way. There are lots of little things built into Vanilla Sky, particularly in the montage pieces — I kind of wanted it to be a Sergeant Pepper’s-y thing, with different textures and rabbit holes to chase down. There’s lots of subliminal frames it was fun to teach Penélope Cruz to say, “This is a revolution of the mind” backwards, with her walking around the set speaking backwards so we could film it and run it the other way.

When does she say that in the movie?
I think it’s one of the things that happens when David is suffocating Cameron Diaz. “Can We Still Be Friends” by Todd Rundgren is playing.

The internet is still all over the Vanilla Sky Easter eggs. Is there anything that people haven’t picked up on?
There are a few things people haven’t picked up on. But there’s a lot that they have picked up on. It’s a little bit of a shell game, figuring out when the events of David Aames’s life change, and when the purchased reality, or the “dream,” begins.

Anything you can reveal?
This is a good thing. I don’t think this has ever come out before: I did a lot of subliminal music cues, and in the scene where Cruise has his freakout and he’s come from [Sofia/Julianna’s] murder, and he’s coming down those winding stairs to Todd Rundgren, there are bits of studio chatter of Brian Wilson freaking out while he’s trying to make “Heroes and Villains,” mixed in with what was then the only unreleased Nirvana song, “You Know You’re Right.” We couldn’t credit it in the movie and it was actually illegal, but Courtney Love gave it to me. She said, “This is the only Nirvana song that’s never been released. Hide it in your movie somewhere.”

Why did she trust you with that? Are you friends?
Yeah, we’re still friends. She’s name-checked early on. When David comes to work, his assistant is like, “Graydon Carter called, Courtney Love called.” So it’s a lot of stuff like that, stuffed in at the edges and almost visible, almost heard.

I was writing something with Penélope Cruz in mind after we’d made Vanilla Sky, and I went to go see her on the set of her movie, Masked and Anonymous, with Bob Dylan. Somebody introduced me to him, though I’d interviewed him once. I was nervous, but he had this big grin. He said, “You did that movie Vanilla Sky, didn’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I did,” knowing that I had his music and the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan meticulously recreated in the film with Tom and Penélope. And he said, “I saw your movie in Times Square, and I was watching it, and I was thinking, ‘I’ve been here before.’ And then I realized, I was! I was there before.” I was like, “Okay, I can check the box of Vanilla Sky right now. Bob Dylan took the Vanilla Sky ride and recognized himself. In a way, that was the dream. That everybody would take a little ride with that movie.

What also feels prescient about the film is this idea of creating a fake, virtual world to live in.
It feels like we’re right on the cusp of being able to do some of that stuff now, for better or worse. Everybody living in their own virtual reality — in some ways, it’s just a half-step away from what’s in the movie. It’s odd. The ripple effect of that movie is really interesting.

At the end, we don’t get an actual sense of what the world looks like that David emerges into, 150 years later. What was your vision for it?
Oh, wow. I have to think about that, and write you an email. Because I did have something in mind when I cast the woman you hear at the very end. People have wondered whether that was Penélope or Cameron at the end, the one who says, “Open your eyes.” But — I’ll write you an email.

[Email sent a day later:]

The future is unknowable.  It might be people flying around in personal spaceships with brains that are twice as large … it might be dystopia … it doesn’t matter. The key info, I think, is that his money has run out. He has to stand on his own two feet, reinvent himself for a new time, and face the unknowable … which is, of course, what growing up is. Finally, he’s living a real life. The voice at the end? I’ll never tell.

Does the version of the world you imagined track at all with what’s going on now?
We live with this super advancement of internet culture. Everything has become more slice-and-diced, pop culturally. The Cuisinart has only gone up to a higher speed. Society is kind of like David Aames falling off of that building at the end.

You’ve talked a little about the various interpretations of the endings. Do you have one that rings particularly true to you now versus then?
Yes. But I’ve learned to not talk about it too much anymore. I love the game of what you unravel. The clues are all there, and some of the stuff that’s “explained” toward the end is not fully — Noah Tayor is not fully a responsible “host” at that point. Not everything he says can be trusted. It’s a fun game to play with the movie and I’m glad that people have come back to it. We were really happy when Kanye West mentioned it in [“Through The Wire”].

When I saw it recently, I loved Tilda Swinton. She’s so good in that scene. We were trying to do it so that she kind of bypasses Kurt Russell and seduces David Aames with this vision of what he can do. The way she plays the seduction — I just remember being there in the scene, and the full weight of Tilda Swinton zoning right in on Tom, and you’re standing right there like, “Wow. This is some acting power going on right now.” She got way into that little part, and it still means a lot to me.

You’ve said before that you didn’t have enough time to really marinate on the ending, because you guys were crunched for time during filming. What would you change now, if you had all of the time in the world?
I think I’d probably do one more pass on the final scene on the roof. I love what Kurt Russell does: He has to sadly realize he’s an invention, that he’s not real. I’d play more with Kurt, who’s such a good actor and so fun. I’ll tell you, in fact, exactly what I would want: I love so much that Kurt Russell is clinging to this idea that he has these two daughters, and they go out and have this meal at Black Angus, and that really matters to him. We actually shot a scene, in one of the extended editions, where you do see him with these two daughters, at a Black Angus. And it’s just so eerie, because they’re kind of speaking stilted dialogue, and he’s just happily with these two girls, and he loves them, and I love that moment on the roof when Kurt says, “I’m real. I’m real!” And the life drains out of him as he realizes there are no daughters, there’s not even him. I think I’d spend more time with that idea. That character breaks my heart.

Is it ultimately a dark film, or does it feel hopeful to you?
Sometimes it’s dark, and sometimes it’s hopeful. Usually when I meet someone new, early on, if we’re going to become friends, they say, “What’s up with Vanilla Sky?” It is kind of a glimpse into my psyche. Everything is, in a way, but that’s pretty raw, right down to the pictures that [flash across the screen] at the end. It’s a really honest movie. It’s heartfelt. And to me, that usually means it’s hopeful. The ending has probably my favorite cue ever, that unreleased Sigur Rós song, “The Nothing Song,” at the very end, is both hopeful and questioning. The voice at the end, to me, is hopeful.

Sometimes I watch it and I have a completely different take on what the story is, where the splice comes, and what it’s all about. Over time, to me the keyhole character, where you can just find a different perspective on the whole thing, is Jason Lee’s Brian Shelby. If I stay with Jason Lee in the Rubik’s Cube of Vanilla Sky, I always go to the best places.

What do you mean?
He mentions in the story that he’s working on this novel, so one of my favorite interpretations is that the whole thing is the sloppy but personal novel of the mediocre writer Brian Shelby. I’m probably saying too much, but sometimes I watch it and I think, This is all his novel. That’s one road you can take.

Is it fair to say that most of your films are, in a sense, autobiographical?

What makes this one particularly personal to you? Because it’s also very much about loneliness, which feels really apt right now. I’m wondering if it’s about your attempt to grapple with loneliness.
Absolutely. And also the idea that pop culture can be so ingrained in what your vision of the perfect relationship, or the perfect life, or the perfect Bob Dylan song playing at the perfect time can change your life choices, change who you are.

We’re all sort of relying on pop culture right now to assuage our loneliness and isolation. What sort of pop culture are you taking solace in right now?
I’ve been loving ?uestlove’s DJ set every night. I’ve been reading a lot and I’ve been writing a whole bunch. We’re doing a collection book of my journalism, and I started writing interstitial things for that, and that’s grown into a real personal bunch of writing. I’m at a point where I have a lot that I want to say.

Are you working on scripts?
Yeah, two. And when we get to the other side I want to direct them both, back-to-back. I’ve missed directing.

I’m glad to hear that. I read an essay on Bright Wall Dark Room recently that suggested that Vanilla Sky’s mixed reception gave you a case of the “yips.” Is that fair?
[Laughs loudly.] I don’t know. Maybe. It was challenging in a good way, for sure. But what it doesn’t do is make me think I shouldn’t go to those places again. Even the romantic comedy stuff I’ve been lucky enough to do has always had those currents in it. Jerry Maguire, sometimes people think it’s a sunny ending. To me, it’s not. He walks into a very uncertain future and possibly isn’t in love with Dorothy yet. I like playing with the undercurrents of comedy and love and music; Vanilla Sky had those deeper undercurrents turned up. It was a surprise that the movie became controversial. The yips! That’s funny.

Your last two films, Aloha and We Bought a Zoo, didn’t do as well critically or commercially as some of your earlier work. Does that affect you at all, whether emotionally or in terms of your ability to create?
I always equate it to artists that I love. If Joni Mitchell puts out a challenging album, for example, I’m down for it. My fandom says, “I’m with you. I wanna go where you’re going. I like the early stuff, I like the later stuff, I just like your stuff.” I just like putting a voice out there — for better or for worse, how I look at the world. And yeah, there are risks you take sometimes in making a movie. Like, the movie that became Aloha, was a very noble attempt in combining genres to talk about the conquest of the sky: Can you militarize the sky? I was spending a lot of time in the Air Force and they’d be saying, “The sky is sacred. You cannot weaponize the sky. To weaponize the sky is to taunt the gods.”

And then Trump gets in and the first thing he does is, “I’m gonna weaponize the sky.” [Laughs.] I watch Aloha and I think, That was a good theme there. Perhaps there was a wrong turn along the way, but there’s stuff in there that was hopefully prescient, but also a noble attempt.

Do you think you’ll tackle sci-fi again?
Yeah. We messed around with it a little bit in Roadies. I’d like to return to it, but you have to do it right. I admire the people who know how to really do it, but I also like it when it’s really messy. And there’s a lot to talk about later.

Are your next films similar in tone to anything you’ve done?
I’ll put it to you in an email, too.

[Email sent a day later.]

The last few years, I’ve been stockpiling new scripts to direct. My newest stuff comes from a personal place, but somehow it feels more deeply funny than usual. Which I think is a good sign. Especially now, when I’ve heard this a lot: “We were stuck at home the other night and started watching Almost Famous, and my kids want to know when your next movie is coming out.”

If someone offered you a Life Extension, would you take it?
No. [Laughs.] Would you?

Even at this point, you’re not in?
Let’s talk in a week.

Cameron Crowe Is Ready to Spill Vanilla Sky’s Secrets