Portrait of the director as a young rock critic

Cameron Crowe talks about "Jerry Maguire," "Say Anything ..." and tiptoeing his way though the '70s for his new autobiographical movie, "Almost Famous."

Published September 6, 2000 7:26PM (EDT)

Until "Jerry Maguire," writer and director Cameron Crowe was known mostly as a maker of angst-ridden, teen-oriented cult favorites, films like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (he wrote the screenplay), "Say Anything ..." and "Singles" -- movies that almost anybody in his 20s could quote from. After "Jerry Maguire," Crowe became an Oscar-nominated A-list director and pretty much could have made anything as an encore. Few expected he'd write his life story.

Crowe spent his teenage years as a wunderkind rock 'n' roll writer. He got his start writing for scruffy, seminal rock magazine Creem, and came under the tutelage of that publication's famous wild-man critic, Lester Bangs. Then he moved over to Rolling Stone, which after a roaring start in the 1960s was confused about what do with a new breed of popular music the magazine's older staff of critics held in contempt. He became the magazine's most tolerant chronicler of this new generation of bands, penning major features on the likes of Led Zeppelin, Peter Frampton and Fleetwood Mac, all during his teens.

Now, some 25 years later, Crowe has decided to give us his version of his salad days. His new film, "Almost Famous," is a nostalgic look back on his unusual coming-of-age story. The hero is a precocious 15-year-old journalist, William Miller (played by newcomer Patrick Fugit), who goes on the road with a fictional band, Stillwater, on the cusp of stardom. The story is loosely based on Crowe's adventures with Led Zeppelin, whom a 16-year-old Crowe profiled in a 1975 cover feature for Rolling Stone.

The process of bringing his adolescence to the screen wasn't easy for Crowe. The script went through numerous rewrites, while the production had numerous delays, leading to several major stars dropping out of the film. Most publicized were the numerous title changes, and until about a month ago "Almost Famous" didn't have a title.

But the result is a sweet-natured paean to the '70s, a time when groupies in diaphanous dresses relieved 15-year-olds of their virginity, editors at magazines like Rolling Stone told their staff to write the truth and damn the consequences, and a song like Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" could induce even the most hardened rock 'n' roller to sing along.

At 43, Crowe retains both a boyish mien and the affability that made him so successful as an interviewer. The director hardly looked stressed, however, as he sat down to talk about his latest project recently in Seattle.

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So, come clean: What was the problem with choosing a title for "Almost Famous"?

I'm still getting used to it. The whole business with the title really got on my nerves. To me, it was always "Untitled." It's weird to become a poster boy for indecision, when in fact I always had called it "Untitled." I showed it as "Untitled." Every time I talked to the studio, it was "Untitled." I argued for a year and a half and ultimately they just wouldn't go for it. The thing was, I wanted to have that feeling of the fourth Led Zeppelin [album] -- you know, how it just didn't have a title? -- and [the studio] said, "Can you imagine going to a box office and saying I'd like two tickets to a movie with no title?" And I would say, "Yes! I'd be there on opening night!" [Laughing]

But they paid for the movie, so at a certain point I went with "Almost Famous," which was a title I'd put on an early draft of the script. I think it's good if you know that it comes from the name of [Stillwater's] tour. If you don't know that, it feels like some comment on celebrity.

But doesn't it also work in the context of not only the band but the 15-year-old journalist, William Miller, as well? Isn't the film partly about William realizing that he's not part of the band, that he's being used and he's really an outsider to this circus?

Yeah, true. There's the line in the film where he finally admits, "I'm not famous." And then there's the whole thing where Lester Bangs [Philip Seymour Hoffman] is telling him not to make friends with the band because it's all an illusion.

What finally led you to make this project? Were you thinking back over old times ... ?

Yeah, I was sitting back in the old rocking chair ... No, actually, this was always the next movie. I wrote it up here [in Seattle]. I wrote it 10 times up here. I always wanted to capture what I loved about music. I did so many different versions of this and most of them weren't worth filming.

Or they felt a little bit like "Austin Powers," where it was always an English band and some guy would come to the room and say, "Let the grooviest heads prevail!" There were funny things about those early scripts, but when it started to be about my family and stuff, I was nervous to write about it. It became a "put up or shut up" kind of project.

So how close is this to your real-life experience?

Agonizingly close. Painfully close. It's too close to even cop to, you know? But I can't be the coy guy who says, "Don't confuse me with the protagonist." I can't. It's mostly all true. It happened.

Was your mother as obsessively protective and conservative as Frances McDormand's character in the film?

Oh, yeah. Remember the scene where she drives William to the Stillwater-Black Sabbath concert and screams, "Don't take drugs!"? That's not far off. But she also kept encouraging me to write the movie, and she was even on the set many times during the production.

Talk a bit about the Stillwater tour that William embarks on. Is it an amalgam of several of the tours you covered for Rolling Stone? If you read the Rolling Stone interview you did with Led Zeppelin in 1975, it sounds a lot like that.

It is very much the Zeppelin tour, and it's somewhat the early writing I used to do about the Eagles. The Eagles were very much delinquent guys who were not that much older than me, it seemed, so I really loved hanging around with them.

But, yeah, Zeppelin, I'll tell the story quickly: As many probably know, Rolling Stone ripped apart all of their albums. So Jimmy Page said that he'd never talk to Rolling Stone, but Rolling Stone always wanted to put them on the cover. Page said, "We're not going to help that fucking magazine sell issues." But I had written about them for other places, and they also knew that I wrote for Rolling Stone. I went on tour with them for another publication, the L.A. Times, and stayed on the road with them to try to convince them to do Rolling Stone. And as in the movie, a couple of days turned into a long three-week tour. My eyes got blood-red because I just didn't sleep. One by one, they all said they'd do it, except for Page, who kept saying, "In another city, I'll make the decision." Of course, that becomes the [focus] of the movie, too, as Russell Hammond [Stillwater's guitarist, played by Billy Crudup] continually plays that game with poor William.

Were you scared of '70s nostalgia when approaching this film?

Yes, absolutely.

What was your plan for avoiding the usual '70s stereotypes?

Shoot the timeless part of the '70s, as opposed to the kitschy part. Joel Bernstein is a really good friend of mine, and he's a great photographer. We do a little homage to his Neil Young cover for "Time Fades Away" in this movie. He'd always take pictures of the audience back then, and three out of five could be around right now. The fourth was a beatnik from the '50s and the fifth, maybe, had the mullet. I just got tired of these movies that were all about the mullet guy! So if you put the other three in the movie, then you could maybe tell a story that was somewhat more anti-nostalgia, and the jokes reminding you that it's actually '73 might be funny.

Music has always been such a big part of your films, and not only the soundtracks -- Lloyd Dobler [from "Say Anything ..."] is defined by his Clash T-shirt; Mike Damone, the ticket scalper from "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"; the grunge band in "Singles." Did you just feel it was a matter of time before you made a film that was purely music-culture driven?

Yeah, well, speaking of "Singles": This movie is what people, for whatever reason, thought "Singles" was going to be. It was this movie. People thought "Singles" was going to be "The Mark Arm Story." [Arm was the lead singer of early grunge band Mudhoney.] What "Singles" was always meant to be was "Manhattan" set in Seattle. I never got that movie cast right. It's the only movie that I've directed that didn't feel right. There's problems with "Singles" and there's stuff I really like, such as Bridget Fonda's performance and just the fact that we caught parts of the city at a key time.

But the problem was that the studio hung onto it for a year, not knowing what to do with it, and then Nirvana exploded, and they decided to put it out. At that point, it was the perception that somebody went to Seattle to do a movie to exploit the scene. It was really disappointing, not only for me but for people in Seattle.

Let's talk about mainstream perceptions of your movies. Many people seem to think that films like "Say Anything ..." or "Jerry Maguire" are romantic comedies with happy endings. However, if you dig deeper, they seem to be subversive movies about codependency: Jerry Maguire and Dorothy Boyd get together out of loneliness and, at the end of the film, aren't holding hands with each other but rather with the kid while Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm" is playing. In "Say Anything ...," Diane Court comes back to Lloyd Dobler, but only when her father deceives her.

Definitely. And with "Almost Famous," I just didn't want anybody to end up with anybody that they're expected to end up with. The only love story here is between the sister and the mom, and they don't truly bond properly -- and still it ends up being hopeful. After watching this, people have said, "Oh, it's sweet," and I always feel like if it's so sweet, then why is it based on such pain in my own life?

And I love what you say about "Jerry Maguire" because it's sort of gotten this reputation of being the commercial juggernaut that was the only studio movie nominated [for best picture at the Academy Awards] that year. Yet it's so much about feeling alienated and lost. There's no guarantee that Dorothy, or even Rod Tidwell, will stay with Jerry Maguire four minutes after the movie's over!

Despite the so-called sweet nature of "Almost Famous," you've got some interesting, difficult stuff going on regarding the illusion of reality going on in show business.

William is constantly trying to define what's real and what's not as the tour continues. Everybody is looking for something real, and Lester Bangs is sort of the only guy who says that it's all a dirty industry. Yet these people -- the band, the groupies, William -- are all kidding themselves that they're part of a family when they're really part of an industry. It's more of an industry as it goes on.

But this film is filled with contradictions, probably more than any of my other ones. People are continually contradicting themselves. There's Penny Lane [Kate Hudson], the groupie who says she only gives blow jobs when she's clearly not -- everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Even Lester Bangs is a contradiction. In the longer version of the movie, Lester's jealous because the kid got an assignment at Rolling Stone. Hell, the real-life Lester, the next time I spoke with him after he lectured me about not making friends with bands, told me to come to Troy, Mich., because he was hanging out with the Tubes. They'd become friends. So, really, no one, nothing, is really how it seems in this film.

Can you talk about the casting? Instead of having a big-name star like Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," you chose a total unknown, Patrick Fugit, to play William and carry the film. Were you concerned about casting this part?

Yeah, even after we cast Patrick, I was worried. You know, he doesn't have a lot of so-called technique, which is why I cast him, but it also made us run long and go over budget. I caught a lot of shit making this movie.

It's a tough performance because he's really forced to react to everything rather than participate.

That's right. And, probably for the best, I lost a lot of jokes. He's so real that I think I fell in love with the idea of the character being gloriously passive, just being the observer at the circus. I just put the camera on him and we watch him watch everything else. I had all these witty-guy jokes that I just tossed out. But I'm glad, because the tone of the film is never dominated by one emotion.

Or one genre, either. You've basically made a rockumentary/romantic comedy/dysfunctional family drama/road movie. If you look at all of your movies, though, you've never really adhered to the strict rules of genre, have you?

I really have a problem with genre. Even Billy Wilder, when he would do a so-called genre film, it was so charactery. I was watching "Double Indemnity" the other night, and everything is defined by oddball behavior and great characters, and he isn't leaning on genre for help.

I read that Kevin Williamson was going to make a movie that would deconstruct typical Hollywood romantic comedy movies like "Jerry Maguire." I thought, "What!?" So I'm interested to see what he's going to do. [Shakes his head] I don't know, maybe if it was genre, it would have been easier to write that script.

Yeah, you take a while to write those. [Laughter] Why does it take you so long to make your films?

I'm trying to beat that now, be more prolific. I've got my next one written already. I'm slow. I just don't have a formula. A friend of mine said that I avoid rewriting by writing, which I do. I'll write a whole new thing just to avoid rewriting the thing before it.

So the time lapses between films aren't related to problems with getting movies greenlighted by studios?

Well, before "Jerry Maguire," I was going to a lot of meetings to talk about stuff I wanted to do and got very similar responses. Stuff like, "Well, you get some good reviews sometimes, but do people really go see your stuff? Isn't it the kind of thing that people wait for on video? Isn't it that way?"

Tom Cruise, I actually met around "Fast Times," because he was hanging out with a bunch of the actors, but I didn't think he'd remember me. But he called after "Say Anything ..." and said, "Man, I saw your movie, and if you ever have a part like Lloyd Dobler and felt like doing for me what you did for John Cusack, I'm first in line."

I was like, "Holy shit." That is the first and only star that had ever said anything like that to me. Most of the time, I would try to get a bigger name to help the movie out, and they'd be like, "Ah ... that's really hard for me to play and ..." You know, I understood their point of view. I've tried to get Johnny Depp to be in almost everything I've ever written, but it just never works out. It's a strange example, too, because he has been in such quirky stuff.

[Long pause] I don't know, maybe one day.

The thing about Cruise, though, is he approached that part like a character actor. He was a leading man that wanted to be a character actor. Usually it's character actors that want to play the lead that I get, which is cool.

You wrote two films ["Fast Times" and "The Wild Life"] before directing your third script, "Say Anything ..." Why did you decide to finally direct?

We couldn't get anyone to direct "Say Anything ..." James Brooks, who was the producer, told me that at a certain point I should add three more people to my directors list, and if they turned me down, I should be No. 4 -- and I was.

I was scared to death. The first scene I ever directed was Lloyd showing "Cocoon" in the old folks home and it was so easy. Cusack did it and it was a wide shot and it sounded pretty good. I did three takes and I was happy with it and I said, "Print! I got it!" I walked off the set, I was feeling pretty good and the crew followed me and said, "You know, you have to do a closer shot." [Laughs]

So I was like, "OK, we're going back!" Everyone was standing there, staring at me. I saw the film on TV the other night, and that scene still makes me blush.

Going back to using character actors, you ended up with a lot of them in "Almost Famous," but didn't you also try wooing bigger names? Brad Pitt was originally going to play Russell Hammond, but dropped out six weeks before shooting. And wasn't Sarah Polley [from "Go"] cast as Penny Lane before Kate Hudson?

Yeah, all sorts of shooting delays really messed up the casting. However, I got really lucky with Kate. She was going to play William's sister and hung in there after numerous delays. Sarah Polley had to drop out because of the delays and Kate moved in. We had absolutely no rehearsal time, but man, I got lucky. She really lights up a room. There was jealousy from some of the acting community because they said I cast her just because she was Goldie Hawn's daughter. I remember thinking, "Would Goldie Hawn send a hit man to your house because you didn't cast her daughter?" Silly.

This film, like "Fast Times," like "Say Anything ..." and -- based on the maturity level of its protagonist -- like "Jerry Maguire," is dominated by teenagers. You're 43 now ...


What is it about adolescence that has fascinated you for almost two decades?

Well, this is probably the last time. There's a feeling I love in music that when I get it in a scene -- and Nancy [Wilson, from the band Heart, Crowe's wife] is the same way -- we have this thing and it's called happy-sad. It's the Paul Westerberg feeling, happy-sad. It's "Feel Flows" by the Beach Boys, and it's a feeling that I really think is based in an emotion we associate with adolescence, or easiest to write about as an adolescent emotion.

The end of "Jerry Maguire" is happy-sad, and "Almost Famous" follows that tone. It's so easy to access the memory of that feeling when you were a teenager, but I don't know if it's becoming to go back creatively to that well with teenage careers now. I see shows on the WB network, glamour fashion shows supposedly about teen angst, and they're usually done by significantly older people. Some of them are entertaining, but make no mistake, it's not like you're watching a documentary; it's just feeding at the trough of the industry of cool. So there are things that have happened over the last five or six years that I really want to write about that are basically adult themes.

When you look over your career, is it strange to see all of the pop-culture references and icons you've created? You've got the quotable Jeff Spicoli, Lloyd Dobler and, of course, the "Show me the money" thing.

I've got to be honest: I get a thrill even listening to you ask me that question. What it means is that people didn't cringe and say "That would never happen" about any of those things or people you mention. So if they want to remember Spicoli, or Lloyd ... brother, I am there. I will take it. [Laughs]

It's good to also remember that nothing that I ever did to be remembered in a pop-culture sense ever was. I tried it a few times -- you know, trying to re-create the buzz -- and I don't do it anymore because there's nothing more embarrassing than getting called on being the guy trying to do another "Make my day" line.

I did a movie called "The Wild Life" after "Fast Times." It's bad. It had its roots in something noble, I thought -- a young guy obsessed with Vietnam. But I definitely wrote the line "It's casual" to try to be another "Hey, bud, let's party." And you know what? It stunk from a mile away. But, hey, you learn. "Show me the money" was never meant to be like that -- it's funny; I guess that just means it resonates somehow.

As a "Say Anything ..." fan and Lloyd Dobler devotee, my final question must be this: Do you have any plans to release it on DVD with some commentary and features?

We're going to do it. I've already talked with Cusack, and we're going to do audio commentary for it. It's my favorite of all my films and the response it still gets is wonderful. We've got to do it.

By Dave McCoy

Dave McCoy is a music and film writer in Seattle.


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