Cameron Crowe is a man who likes to play with music in his movies. The former Rolling Stone writer, whose story was chronicled last year in his Almost Famous, has been mixing top pop tunes into his films' soundtracks from the start. Say Anything had Cheap Trick, Peter Gabriel and Steely Dan. Singles featured Pearl Jam, Jimi Hendrix and R.E.M. The sounds of Bruce Springsteen, the Who and Tom Petty turned up in Jerry Maguire. And Almost Famous had everyone from Neil Young to Led Zeppelin to Joni Mitchell.
In the mysterious, feverish and deliciously confusing Vanilla Sky, the story of a successful but irresponsible man (Tom Cruise) whose life is turned upside-down when he meets the right woman (Penelope Cruz) just after meeting the wrong woman (Cameron Diaz), music not only sets the mood of the film, it propels it forward, often shooting it up to dizzying heights. Not surprisingly, the soundtrack ranges from Bob Dylan to Todd Rundgren to Crowe's wife Nancy Wilson to Radiohead. And it all ends with an original tune -- a light and lilting number called "Vanilla Sky" -- by Paul McCartney.
"The 'Paul is dead' idea of playing a game of clues was always a beginning point on the movie," says Crowe of the oddly twisting plot. "I wanted it to be a 'Paul is dead' kind of experience. So we ended up playing a lot of Beatles songs on the set. And at one point Danny Bramson -- who I work with on the music -- and I looked at each other and said, 'Do you think Paul McCartney would come and look at part of our movie and maybe write a song?' And soon after, Danny said, 'I made some calls and Paul's gonna be in L.A. doing his album, and maybe we can get him to come to your editing room.'"
Crowe shrugged it off with a "Yeah, right," then forgot about it. Until one day Bramson pulled him aside and said, "I think June 9, he's gonna show up."
"I didn't believe it," says Crowe. "Nor did I tell anyone in the editing room what might happen. But sure enough, that day comes, and Paul shows up. And I actually got a sense of what it was like to see the world as Paul sees it. I was walking a little bit ahead of him down this hallway and I saw everybody kind of turn and look and see Paul McF***ing Cartney! And there is a unique look that happens on people's faces that he sees every day, but I'd never seen it on any of these people before and I'd been working with them for a couple years. It was the weirdest 'you're at the circus and there appears a freak kind of a look."
Crowe recalls that he showed McCartney about 40 minutes of Vanilla Sky, after which the former Beatle said, "Hey, that's great, that's great. You showed us yours, let us show you ours. Come over across town to the studio and I'll play you some of my new album."
Briefly dumbfounded, Crowe and Bramson looked at each other and mumbled, "Ummm, OK," then followed McCartney, who "got in his car, windows down, in full-on L.A. traffic.
"So we go to the studio and he played us these songs, and he said, 'Let me know if any of these interest you.' They all sounded really spirited and cool for the movie. But I kind of nervously said, 'If you are ever moved to write a new song that's in the mode of a folk song... 'And my friend Danny is looking at me and thinking, 'What are you doing?' and I'm saying, 'That would be cool. And the movie is sort of about sweet and sour and the little things in life that you've gotta treasure and never take for granted.' And Paul's looking at me and listening, and then he's like, 'Cool man, cool, great to meet ya, see ya.'
"That was on a Tuesday, and on a Saturday, Danny's cell phone rings and it's Paul. And he says, 'Hey, listen. Get to know me a little bit, get to know me. Because I'm the kind of guy that if you ask me something I might just come through for you. I've just written a new song called 'Vanilla Sky,' and if you don't like it I'll just call it Manila Envelope. Do you want to come over and hear it?' "
Crowe's eyes go wide recalling the incident, and he puts up his hands as if holding a steering wheel and makes a sound of screeching tires.
"So we went over to the studio and he played it for us," he says. "And it was a folk song, it was exactly what I'd asked for. He'd added a metaphor about the banquet of life. And it was the perfect thing to put at the end of the movie, over the credits, to let people calm down and think about what's just happened."