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Cameron Crowe on Why He Loved Leaving David Crosby Doc on a CSNY Question Mark

"He’s the summer blockbuster king right now!" Crowe jokes of Crosby, whose turn in "Echo in the Canyon" was a veritable trailer for this film.

David Crosby may or may not have stuck a joint in Cameron Crowe’s mouth the first time he ever met the future filmmaker, when Crosby was peaking with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and his interviewer was a precocious 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. As Crowe said to Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “I remember it different.” But if nothing else, Croz certainly implanted a part of himself into Crowe’s brain that he hasn’t been able to shake for 45 years, culminating in the just-released documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name.”

The “Almost Famous” director is a producer and interviewer on the project, not director; that duty belonged to A.J. Eaton, who worked on the film for quite a while before Crowe officially came on deck. But after he initially agreed just to do an interview or two to get more candor out of Crosby on Eaton’s behalf, his participation grew and grew until he officially signed on.

In Variety’s chat with Crowe, we found out about how he was coaxed aboard; his first fight with Crosby after four and a half decades; whether he hoped the film would end with the singer kissing and making up with his ex-bandmates; and just how elegiac we should be feeling about Crosby right now.

A lot of people have said that this is one of the peaks of the documentary one-person rock memoir type of film — whatever genre that is called — and it’s hard to disagree.

Thanks.  Who would you also want to see do something along these lines?

Funny you should ask, because that was our question for you. It’s no slight to the skills of any of you as a filmmaker or interviewer to say that a big part of why this works is because he seems like the biggest open book in the history of music. It’s hard to think of anybody else in his class who seems to have no filters whatsoever.

I tried for Bowie, like about five years ago, maybe four. With the documentaries that we’ve done, the ethic has been to cut out the middleman and to let the artist talk to you and not have a cavalcade of talking heads. And if you get the artist at the right time, when they’re ready to talk — which, as you know well, is everything … Sometimes when they’re putting out a really uncommercial project, they’re ready to talk, to explain it to you. And I thought, ”This is a great time for Bowie. He hasn’t come out with anything new yet. Maybe for the release of this next album, he’s ready to do that thing.” Because similarly to Crosby, when I was ever around him, he was that honest. But he said no. Elton John would have been able to sustain that, for sure, and he kind of did in our documentary [“The Union,” a 2011 film about the album of the same name], but it wasn’t as… I mean, in the second question of the first interview we did with Crosby, he came right out with “Time is the final currency. What do you do with the time you have left?” Okay, that’s a theme to follow, because he’s looking forward while looking back, and that was the key. But how many other people would go there all the way? Fogerty, maybe. I don’t know. I’m not sure. Joni would have been amazing, and maybe still would be.

It is funny when David at some point says something like, “What was my biggest f–k-up? You didn’t ask me…”

“But I’ll tell you!” That’s the interview you want.

The two of you were just on “The Tonight Show” together. It’s funny, in a way, seeing the two of you doing these high-energy, fun talk shows, because the movie has a lot of melancholy in it, from him considering the end of his life to just how many people are pissed off at him. But for a show like that there are jolly things that can get emphasized — like how he likes to tell the story about sticking joints in your mouth. 

He loves that line. I think back on when I was 15, if he’d said something like that, I’d be like, “Oh shit. My mom’s gonna see this. This is terrible.” So I talked last night to my mom, who’s 97. She goes, “Yeah, I saw you on the Jimmy Fallon show.” And I go, “Uh, what’d you think?” She goes, “I liked your joke about the joints in your mouth.” We’ve definitely come a long way.

But, yeah, it’s funny. What’s great is, he’s got more energy than all of us. People talk to him and say, “It’s so great that you have all your faculties, still.” And he’s like, “Thank you.” And I’m thinking to myself: He’s younger than you. He’s younger than me. He’s gonna outlive us all. He’s batting his eyes like he’s on his deathbed. He ain’t on his deathbed at all! Maybe it all is a con job, like he says at the end. You don’t know. The great thing is you can debate it. You can even debate it with him. It’s wild.

You’ve said that when you first met the director, A.J. Eaton, a few years ago, and he told you he was working on a Crosby documentary, you pulled out a copy of “If I Could Only Remember My Name” you had in your bag. Is that something you just always carry with you at all times?

Always! No, we had just started doing “Roadies,” and there was a writing room, and I’d never had a writing room. I just wanted to share some obscure treasures with them, so I brought “If I Could Only Remember My Name” from home that day that he came into in the office to meet with J.J. Abrams. He said, “Do you want to get involved?” I was like, “No, no, we’re going to be with ‘Roadies’ for years. It’s gonna go on for yeaaaaars here.” [He laughs — “Roadies” lasted for 10 episodes.] But then began the dialogue that was a lot of Crosby saying, “You gotta do this, man. We’re not gonna get financing unless you put your name on it. Come on!” I said, “If I put my name on it, you are going to be stuck with me, because I will really be a part of it, and I have a real specific thing here that I really think your documentary should be.”

So one day we had done maybe the fourth interview for it that I was doing, just so A.J. would have a great interview from him for his first film. And (producer) Greg (Mariotti) and I would have many conversations: “Years from now,” he’d say, “aren’t you going to be really happy that you did this while Crosby was alive and wanted to do this project and was ready to talk?” So we went all in, and it became a thing you always try and get into a feature, which is that it transcended your original purpose and became an emotional thing. It’s like (Billy) Wilder said in our interview book. He said, [Crowe takes on a German accent] “The most you hope for is the 15 minutes that they talk about your picture after they see it.” And I said to him, “Just 15 minutes?” He goes, “Fifteen minutes is the minimum! Of course I take more!” But we would show this movie, and people would not leave this little room where we were screening our cuts. Some of the women were like, “He never said enough about what he did to love these women in his life.” “Yes, he did — he’s telling it.” They would literally be arguing the points of Crosby’s life for a half-hour. And so we knew something was going on here, and shaping that and getting it reduced to a place where it really did catch him was a beautiful experience.

There was one point where we had started to feel like the movie was slightly veering towards the slightly conventional, because we were keeping kind of tight to his interview quotes. Going through all the interviews, Greg and I were talking about like isn’t it great when don’t have a time constraint, you can see the person’s face wondering about your question, or pausing while answering it. And if you know them well enough, you look in their eyes and you’re thinking, “Oh, he’s going to bullshit now.” And Greg went through all of it and found like 30 points that were dialogue-free that were just kind of fascinating, and once we started putting those in, the thing got richer. Actually we found that ending, which is when he has that look on his face considering his whole life, I think, in a millisecond. Those are all the kind of things that you get when someone’s really present when you’re interviewing them. They’re not thinking about the next thing they have to do that day. He’s thinking about “what’s best for me, telling the truth in my last huge interview that I’ll probably ever do?”

He’s so open about the difficulty he’s had with other musicians, and the fact that he’s estranged from most of the key collaborators in his life, whether that took just a couple of years to get to, like it did with Roger McGuinn, or close to 50 years to finally get there, as with CSNY. And even Kimmel was wanting to know, can you ever make up with Nash and Young? You think about personalities like him who you might have known in your own life, whom other people just can’t stand to be around, but you’re still drawn to them because they’re so charismatic and they admit that they f—ed up — and even if they’re going to do it to you again, they’ll at least be willing to talk about that. So from my point of view, I think, if I were Neil or Graham, could I stay mad forever? Because he’s lovable, even though maybe he treated them horribly. But are you able to see it from their point of view, too, where you can see why people might finally have enough?

Definitely. He actually really upset me on the day that we went to Laurel Canyon, because he was fighting it. We put a piece of it in where he goes, “There’s no cinematic value in here whatsoever!” He’s smiling, but he’s serious, and he kind of hurt my feelings that day, to tell you the truth. And I understood at that time how you get on the outs with this guy, because he can be corrosive.

We did one more interview session, and I grabbed a ride with him back to L.A. I didn’t even really want to ride with him, because I still had some stuff that was bugging me. We’re on our way back and he goes, “So why do youthink that I’ve upset so many people? Because I don’t think I’m that bad of a guy. I mean, I’ve never upset you like that, have I?” And I said, “Yeah, you did.” He goes, “Really?” I go, “Yeah! You were kind of a dick when you did this and that.” And he goes, “I didn’t realize I was doing that. I’m really sorry, man.” And I’m like, “It’s okay. Thank you for talking about this with me.” And you know, that’s the only dip in our relationship in 40 years. But he gave me every opportunity to both let him have it and answer for it, which made me love him.

And he clearly wants to reconcile with people.

Yeah. I don’t think he wants to beg, though.

Yes, he still seems a little bit defensive, like, well, everybody was an asshole at points along the way. I wasn’t the only one.

Yeah. “I don’t know where his doorstep is.” [That’s Crosby’s response when Crowe asks if he couldn’t show up at Young’s door, asking to make amends.] I asked him the other day: “You know, you could have found his doorstep pretty easily.” And he goes, “I’m not going to beg. I’ll put myself out there. But at a certain point he wouldn’t respect me for begging anyway.”

Do you have any personal feelings about the odds of whether this is it and everybody sort of stays estranged for all time?

I don’t know. I’m just glad that we didn’t make a movie about trying to get them back together, because it would have been a different movie. I’m so much happier with the movie about a guy that wonders why they’re not getting back together and what he could have done wrong and how he might make it right, at least for himself. And to leave him at the crossroads to me was everything. Because I don’t want it wrapped up. I want the same question mark in the air that he’s living with right now.

The Laurel Canyon movie that recently came out, “Echo in the Canyon,” in some ways is like a teaser for this movie. People have had mixed reactions or mixed feelings about it, but one thing probably everyone agrees on is that the Crosby interview segments are great and you have to see it for that, if nothing else. So now we get a whole movie of that.

He’s the summer blockbuster king right now! I mean, what does he play in “Lion King”? Because he’s in everything this summer. No, he’s just so entertaining. He tends to be the highlight in what people interview him for, if it’s like “The ‘60s” for CNN or “Echo in the Canyon” or whatever. He comes in loaded for bear. He’ll tell you stories, and the camera loves him, and he’s totally lively.

What I like about this movie is we go to Laurel Canyon but he explodes the myths instantly. He’s bored with the myths. He’s in Laurel Canyon Country Store and I’m trying to get him to go to that metaphorical place, like, “What did this place represent to you?” And he goes, “It represented where we went to get the groceries! What are you talking about? We never spent any time here.” The question he finds just like ridiculous. Even the guy that works for the store is behind him looking at me, like, “What?” It’s just this funny moment.

But then he takes a few steps and starts looking at the pictures on the wall and it starts coming back, and he starts talking about Cass, and how she was really the center of it all. Then he goes and he sits outside at the table with the traffic of the day on Laurel Canyon, and starts talking about how he was never a good lover and he disappointed all the women he was with. And now you’re talking in Laurel Canyon to the guy that knows what he’s talking about, and he’s going way past the myth, and he’s telling you his deepest stuff. And that was amazing — on the same day we had that corrosive moment. So this is what you get when you’re spending all this time with him and everything’s kind of beautifully vivid and honest.

And we get the origin story for why he hates Jim Morrison so much, which has become sort of its own legendary thing, with him always knocking the Doors on Twitter and in interviews: Morrison took Crosby’s sunglasses off his face in a nightclub.

Yeah, I hear that story and I think, “He’s just trying to talk to you in the Whiskey, man!” Little did he know his legacy is he’s the punchline 50 years later in the David Crosby documentary.

(To read Crowe giving Variety his list of his five favorite underrated Crosby songs, click here.)

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