- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

NEW YORK — ''Vanilla Sky" stars Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, a romantic duo in real life, but it looms as something of a tough sell.A remake of the Spanish import "Open Your Eyes," the Paramount movie opens Dec. 14. It casts Miss Cruz, a Spanish actress, in the role she originated.

Only writer-director Cameron Crowe and Miss Cruz showed up recently for interviews with the press to promote the film. Where was Mr. Cruise? He obviously was in town and available for an abundance of other promotional gigs. He also intended to continue with promotional trips to Dallas, Chicago and Toronto, where, incidentally, critical groups vote annual film awards. In a matter of days, he seemed to duck and then embrace a similar sit-down in Los Angeles, which also distributes annual awards.

Mr. Cruise and Miss Cruz's liaison and his divorce from actress Nicole Kidman have provided fodder for the tabloids. Director-writer Crowe has been quoted celebrating the emergence of a romance during the shooting of "Vanilla Sky," but he seems to soft-pedal this, perhaps in belated deference to Miss Kidman's feelings.

"They're both really strong," he says, alluding to Mr. Cruise and Miss Cruz. "When they met in rehearsals, I found them making each other laugh a lot, which I loved. It was a great beginning for a love story: bringing out the fun in each other. I don't think anything else happened until later."

"Vanilla Sky" tracks "Open Your Eyes" very, very closely while transposing the principal setting from Madrid to New York City. "Open Your Eyes" was a supernatural and fitfully morbid romantic-psychological thriller of 1997 that awakened many people to the talented young director Alejandro Amenabar. Coincidentally, Mr. Amenabar's first English-language feature, the virtuoso ghost story "The Others," was a major hit this year. Produced under the auspices of Mr. Cruise, it may bring an Academy Award nomination for Miss Kidman.

Miss Cruz plays the desirable consort who eludes the "Vanilla Sky" protagonist, Mr. Cruise as a young publishing tycoon, David Aames. Mr. Cruise's character seems to have everything before calamity suddenly intrudes, leaving him behind bars, facially disfigured and possibly out of his mind.

The shift from luxury to misery that bisects the plot may be an obstacle for some moviegoers. They may resent the morbid drift, especially when Mr. Cruise and alternate leading lady Cameron Diaz, who plays a discarded and vindictive lover, appear to be sharing a big inside joke in the introductory sequences.

Mr. Crowe says he experienced an overwhelming remake impulse after seeing "Open Your Eyes." A similar impulse seems to have motivated Mr. Cruise and his business partner, Paula Wagner, who share producing credits with Mr. Crowe. As collaborators on the enormously successful "Jerry Maguire" five years ago, the star and director were eager to find another pretext for working together. "Open Your Eyes" seemed a mutual bolt from the blue.

"You drive along, and you keep hearing songs on a CD or a mixed tape you've compiled and you think, 'Wow, that would be perfect in this movie.' Before you know, you're writing the scene in your head," Mr. Crowe says. "But it's tough, you know, because I'm really connected to writing my own stuff. On the way home from seeing 'Open Your Eyes,' I had this song in my tape deck, 'By Way of Sorrow,' by Julie Miller, a Nashville singer. I was thinking that would be cool if the guy in the movie were running down Times Square, and he was the only person in sight. But how would you shoot it?"

Eventually, Mr. Crowe shot a dream sequence in which Mr. Cruise has Times Square to himself. "I was there last night, and I thought, 'Whoa. The sheer audacity of trying to empty this place out.' You know what? They said, at the time we got the permission, 'This will never happen again. Take a good look.' But on the morning of Sept.12, when I turned on CNN, Times Square was empty again. And that was 10:30 in the morning. It was so chilling."

Mr. Crowe usually is associated with self-generated and sometimes autobiographical material, from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" 20 years ago to "Almost Famous" a script that won an Academy Award as best original screenplay last year. He concedes that he "kind of envisioned a day, not unlike today," in which he would be asked what attracted him to remake someone else's movie.

"The original is [very] good. You gotta believe you can bring something to it, and not defy the original director, who gave us his blessing," he says.

Mr. Amenabar has contributed an elegant statement of support for "Vanilla Sky." He likens the original and the remake to "two very special brothers. They have the same concerns, but their personalities are quite different. In other words, they sing the same song but with quite different voices: One likes opera, and the other likes rock 'n' roll."

Mr. Crowe says the movie has "a kind of structure: It's a golden guy who learns a hard lesson.

"Tom plays things from the inside out. He's a kind of sparkling, charismatic leading man who can also play like a character actor, show you the emotions we all have. As Jerry Maguire, people with no interest in sports could still feel the anguish of this sports agent," Mr. Crowe says. "One of the things I really like about his performance here is that Tom does not play the disfiguration like an actor playing a disfigured person. It's just a guy who has to deal with the fact that what he's always relied on is gone."

Miss Cruz insists that the role she originated in "Open Your Eyes" still "felt fresh."

"Working with Tom and Cameron was certain to make things different," she says. "I had heard about the project two years ago. I was secretly waiting to do it, so I said in a couple of interviews that I really wanted to do it, without knowing if it would be made. Then Cameron called me. They had seen all the movies I did in Spain. Every single one of them. We had a long conversation, and the next day, he offered me the movie."

Miss Cruz, the beneficiary of a major buildup this year while appearing in four other movies "All the Pretty Horses," "Woman on Top," "Blow" and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" says she regards "Vanilla Sky" as "a huge step for me."

Miss Cruz says she hopes to continue working in both Hollywood and the Spanish film industry. "We just released a movie two days ago in Spain. The English title will be 'No News From God,' with Victoria Abril. We play angels. Wherever I am, I try to enjoy the process of doing a movie. I cannot think too far ahead, to the results," she says. "Movie people are as competitive in Spain as here."

Miss Cruz has her doubts that the camera can distinguish between genuine emotional chemistry and artful simulation. "I've been in scenes with actors who had little natural chemistry," she says. "A romantic attraction can be acted. Everything can be. When you have a good relation with the people you work with, it's always better. Not only with the actors you play a love scene with, for example. Better for everyone involved with the movie."

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