It’s a film that is surrounded by as great a veil of secrecy as Tom Cruise’s
last film but one - Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. But to hear Cruise’s
producing partner, Paula Wagner, tell it, it’s quite simple. Vanilla Sky is best
understood, she says, as a cover version. Which makes a lot of sense, given director
Cameron Crowe’s obsession with rock ‘n’ roll. To be more specific, says
Wagner, it’s Crowe’s cover version of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes.
"We saw Open Your Eyes and we had wanted to work together with Cameron,"
Wagner recalls on a somewhat haphazard cell-phone link to a location that, says her
assistant Matt, is "kind of hard to reach". He should know: he’s been
trying to do just that for the past hour and a crucial meeting is getting closer and
closer as we finally get to talk.
As we speak, it is still a few weeks before Vanilla Sky’s US opening (December 14,
a week before it’s Australian release) and things are, as ever, pretty busy at
Cruise/Wagner Productions. It was probably much the same a couple of years ago, when the
project first began to evolve. Cruise and Crowe had, of course, worked together before: on
the latter’s directorial breakthrough, Jerry Maguire. They had remained friends. Then
they both saw the Spanish film.
"a ‘cover’ of a great song."
Wagner recalls the process as being pretty swift and decisive after that. "Cameron
said ‘I’ll write and direct; Tom will star’ - and it happened!" she
claims. "We all loved the film very much and these guys, Tom and Cameron, worked on
the script together. Cameron wrote it - masterfully, I might add - and as he says,
it’s an adaptation: what Cameron calls a ‘cover’ of a great song."
Even the normally affable Crowe refused to be drawn as to what the film was about when
Entertainment Weekly magazine asked him for a synopsis in its standard ‘Preview’
style of 10 words or less. "A man on a journey… look, I need way more than 10
words," he joked.
In the meantime, Amenabar brought The Others to Cruise/Wagner, a film which was
released in the supposed dog days of August this year and held onto its place in the top
five at the US box office for the next eight weeks - the first film this year to do so. If
any film starring Nicole Kidman could be called a sleeper, this was it.
A haunted-house thriller, it is the fourth of five films to date from C/W (Wagner is
endearingly vague about what the company’s proper name is, saying only "We use
both: Cruise/Wagner Productions and C/W Productions"). Founded in 1992, Cruise/Wagner
(or C/W) grew out of discussions between its two principals over the years that Wagner was
Cruise’s agent at CAA.
"It evolved," she says, claiming not to be able to recall exactly when they
decided to set up a production company. "We had talked about movies over the years
and our philosophies of movie-making. We both saw films very much the same way, even
though I was an agent and he was an actor.
"We both had a passion about films"
"Tom had always had a natural feel for the whole of the movie and I did too, so we
formed a company. I don’t remember the exact conversation but there were a series of
them. We both had a passion about films, about the kinds of movies we wanted to make and
how we made them and our beliefs in films. And that kind of joined us towards putting
together this company."
Wagner had been managing Cruise’s career "since the very beginning: right
before Risky Business". But she had already had another career of her own by then.
Raised in Ohio, she fell in love with film and "those ladies of the cinema - Hepburn,
Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh - and all the great epic films of the forties that you’d
watch on television". I guess Ohio can be like that.
"I wanted to be in movies, but it was this kind of kid’s fantasy," she
laughs, "but it evolved into going to New York and being on stage. There was a point
in the seventies where I had actually co-written a play and was working on Jean
Cocteau’s Orpheus and doing all kinds of, you know, avant-garde theatre. Then I came
out to California and continued to do some acting. But I had other interests and one day I
became an agent."
It was in fact Wagner’s own agent, Susan Smith, who made this suggestion,
beginning a process of transition that would lead from Cocteau to Cruise, from Orpheus to
Mission: Impossible. Wagner worked with Smith for two-and-a-half years, then moved over to
CAA where, in addition to Cruise, she also managed the careers of Demi Moore, Liam Neeson,
Oliver Stone and Robert Towne - not, one would guess, the easiest group of people in the
world. Wagner was obviously a very good agent.
Since the setting up of Cruise/Wagner, she has revealed herself to be a pretty
accomplished producer, too. The company settled in at Paramount, with Wagner moving into
an office that had previously been occupied by studio chief Sherry Lansing (and, before
that, by Lucille Ball). It was, she has said, a film-makers’ studio, and she and
Cruise have no intention of moving on.
"only three of the five films ... have starred
Inevitably, there have been suggestions that C/W wouldn’t exist without the
‘C’. And, in a sense, that is probably true: Wagner herself once famously listed
the reasons why cinema owners should book the company’s first film, Mission:
Impossible, as "Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise."
But, to date, only three of the five films produced by the company have starred Cruise:
the two Missions, plus Vanilla Sky - all of them Paramount pictures. On the other two -
Without Limits, written and directed by Wagner’s former client, Robert Towne; and The
Others - the films have been based at other studios (Warners for Without Limits;
Miramax-owned Dimension Films for The Others).
What is more, the Cruise vehicles have so far alternated with the non-Cruise ones on
strict rotation. Was this part of the plan, I ask, or was it just chance? "It’s
chance," she says, and then laughs at the fact that she has just pronounced the word
the British way. "No, it’s not a design per se: it kind of happened that way.
The design is both to do movies with Tom and to do films that don’t necessarily star
And what sort of films? Is there a recognisable Cruise/Wagner movie?
"I don’t like to sound too lofty," she says, "but I think it comes
down to making films while having a real commitment to each and every one – to the
script, to putting all the elements together and to staying with the film as producers:
being involved with it, nurturing it. You know, kind of seeing it through all the way to
that moment when you finally let go of it - and that doesn’t happen until it’s
out of the theatres and onto DVD. We want to involve ourselves with things that are
meaningful, that we believe in, and that have very strong, compelling characters - films
that are about something and have really strong stories."
So how do they divide up the job between them?
"we’re always looking at material"
"Well, sometimes we do the same things," she says. "Sometimes we’ll
divide it up in terms of, I will do more of the day-to-day business; but sometimes
we’ll do things together. I don’t think there’s any particular kind of
delineation in that sense, other than I oversee the day-to-day running of the company. As
for where the films come from, we get sent scripts; writers have ideas; we have ideas:
we’re always looking at material. Movies can come from anything, anywhere. Movies can
"Look," she continues, "here’s the quote I always seem to give:
‘Shakespeare took a lot of his stories from Plutarch’s Lives‘’ OK? Do
you know what I mean? It’s wherever it comes from because, with film as a medium, you
can originate something or you can illuminate it. You can adapt a book, a play, a song,
another film. Wherever it comes from, it’s all about what the film is – what
that particular film is at that particular moment and how you best fulfil what that film
Which leads to the inevitable question: what this particular film, Vanilla Sky, is at
this particular moment?
"It’s a romantic thriller with humour woven into the fibre of it - which is
distinctly Cameron Crowe and Tom," suggests Wagner. "Tom plays a man who
basically has it all. He meets the girl of his dreams and he makes a mistake, all on the
same night: and he really has to suffer before he can find renewal. It’s kind of the
journey into hell that he goes through before he can come back out again. It’s a
thriller with some interesting and unusual turns of events…"
Before she can really nail it, however, the threatened meeting intrudes and the subject
is left hanging. Given the lack of specific information about what actually happens in
Vanilla Sky, I have no real idea how I am going to end this piece, beyond that hoary old
get-out of saying that the film will undoubtedly speak for itself.
It appears, however, that something of the same concern has occurred to Wagner in the
meantime. A day later, she calls back.
"a man’s search for eternal love"
"I’ve just been watching the movie," she says, "and I realise what
I needed to say was that it’s really a love story. It works on many levels -
it’s a romantic thriller laced with humour - but it’s about a man’s search
for eternal love and the hope that that love gives.
"It’s also very much ‘Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky’," she
adds. "He has a style, particularly in this movie, that is really, really unique.
It’s a warm, emotional movie about taking responsibility for yourself and your
actions. And it’s a movie about love."
Published December 20, 2001