A panel of top principals from classic 1989 coming-of-age romantic comedy Say Anything… celebrated the film’s 30th anniversary and its refreshingly timeless sensibility during a Tribeca Talks event Tuesday night in New York.
Beyond the nostalgic embrace of the familiar from the sellout crowd (a loud ovation during the famed boom-box scene was no surprise), writer-director Cameron Crowe was genuinely touched to revisit this early-career touchstone, and the way beloved 19-year-old would-be pro kickboxer Lloyd Dobler, played by John Cusack, was portrayed as “a warrior for optimism.”
That spirit, which became the heart of Lloyd’s rebelliousness during this time of the Reagan era, became a central point for Cusack as well. “We landed on that and John electrified into that idea,” Crowe said.
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Cusack, seen via satellite after a day of filming Gillian Flynn’s new Amazon series Utopia in Chicago, took the message a step further and appeared to apply it to today’s divisiveness.
“It’s not the absence of knowledge that makes one optimistic; it’s if people know the score, but still decide to open their hearts,” he said. Added the film’s executive producer, three-time Oscar winner James L. Brooks, “It’s a good time for that message.”
Throughout most of the evening, however, the message was one of embracing a classic experience both on-screen and off. Ione Skye, who so perfectly captured beautiful and vulnerable valedictorian Diane Court, felt that even as Crowe pushed her during a final audition for the role. “Cameron said, ‘You just have to go for this. Just go for the ‘great.’” And, as all four panelists told moderator David Edelstein, everybody’s shared commitment “got everybody in perfect pitch,” Cusack said.
As much as Cusack’s brilliantly fidgety performance stands out best today, Crowe said Skye’s Diane was always the central figure. “It grew to be a celebration of a golden girl,” he said, “and the idea that she was able to pick the person who would honor her best. And Jim [Brooks] said, ‘Let’s create a hero for her we haven’t seen yet.’”
Given a film that still appears somewhat magical, it’s almost no surprise that the model for this offbeat Romeo simply knocked on Crowe’s door.
“We were really stuck on the leading guy,” Crowe said; that is, until his new neighbor knocked on his door one day. “This guy said, ‘I live next door. I’d like to meet you. I’m from Arkansas.’ And he wiped a hand on his pant leg first before shaking my hand because he was nervous. Then he said, ‘I’m a kickboxer. It is the sport of the future. I’d like to share my sport with you.’ I said, ‘I have to get back to work.’ Later on, I told Jim about this guy who moved in next door and Jim started laughing and said, ‘Buddy, go home and start writing this.’”
The panelists traded similar on- and off-set nuggets. The boom box scene, among the last filmed for the movie, was a bit of brilliance from famed cinematographer László Kovács, who found the perfect bit of daylight to film it in. The film’s budget didn’t quite cover the cost to license Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” for that scene (“There was no noblesse oblige; he wanted a ton of money,” Brooks recalled of Gabriel), but Crowe insisted. As Brooks put it, “Passion has a purpose and it does move things.”
Speaking of which, Cusack brought more than just his passion to the role; he also supplied the character’s signature overcoat and Clash T-shirt. That said, he was a bit of a hard sell for the part; after seeing Fast Times At Ridgemont High, which Crowe scripted based on his book, he was wary of co-starring in what could be another teen movie. What sold him? “I like that [Say Anything…] didn’t treat them as teenagers but like literature would treat them,” he said.
The other central relationship in the film, between Skye’s Diane and her secretly felonious father, played by the late John Mahoney, grew out of Brooks one day watching a father very sweetly guide his daughter as they crossed a busy Manhattan street. “It really stuck with Jim,” Crowe recalled. “Then he said, ‘Now what if that guy was a crook?’ And that was such an inspiring thing to study as a writer.”
Also up for Mahoney’s role? Strangely enough, Dick Van Dyke. “He came in and he was fragile and wanted to make sure he was really in the running,” Crowe recalled. “He went up for lots of meetings where people wanted to just meet him. He got very excited about this. He did know he was a little old for the part and he was honored to come in. We also sent it to Richard Dreyfuss. He wrote back, ‘It’s a great script. I wanna play Lloyd.’”
It is, of course, impossible to see anyone but Cusack in that role, an idea the actor now wears as comfortably as he once did that coat. “With Jim Brooks and these other incredible artists involved, you had to take this film seriously,” he said. “These people were encouraging you to risk big. They were badasses. It was a very potent time.”
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