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WAGNER, PAULA: VANILLA SKY

VANILLA ABOUT LOVE
With plot details of Vanilla Sky kept very much under wraps, Nick Roddick talks to Tom Cruise’s producing partner Paula Wagner about the movie that is one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the Christmas season. And discovers it’s about love.

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 Cruise"

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 him."

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 come from…

"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 is."

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

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Paula Wagner & Tom Cruise

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