Almost Famous – Corona Coming Attractions

The Widgett Interview: The Cameron Crowe Experience, or Pretty Darn Famous, Part 2

Who better to spend a fiftieth issue with than director/screenwriter/cool guy Cameron Crowe.  I mean, it would be one thing if he had only created my favorite flick so far this year, Almost Famous.  But he also did Jerry Maguire, which was a hoot, Singles, which I loved, and Say Anything–which hit so close to home I was tempted to ask Crowe for royalties.  What’s really scary is that without Crowe, we might not have had John Cusack as a big star, and since Cusack is one of two people that I’m always told I look like–the only person I would be compared to now would be the kid from The Omen.  So I owe the man for that if nothing else.  So onward to the interview.

Q:  So here you’ve made this film, based on part of your life.  How hard was it to actually create this project that was so personal to you?

A:  Hard.  Hard on a lot of different levels, because you end up having to kind of serve your memory, and your slight embarassment that you cast a guy who plays a version of you, and you’ve got Lester Bangs as a character and you definitely don’t want to let down Lester, who you feel is judging you from beyond someplace, you know.  It was hard.  But I think the most personal stuff that I’ve written has been the stuff that people kind of responded to the most.  So it was a little bit of an exercise in…what if the whole movie is virtually personal?

Q:  Is it your distance time-wise from the events you’ve fictionalized for the film or the success of Jerry Maguire that enabled you to make this film?

A:  It was both, really, honestly.  And I was running from doing this a little bit and looking for excuses not to.  But I just, you know, I just kept everything from that era. All the artifacts in the movie are mine.  I couldn’t throw them away, or put them away.  I always knew I’d use them for something.  And I never really had written about the experience of the early seventies.  So when I found I could do it with the cinematographer that I really wanted to work with, and with the budget–which was not huge, but good enough to get it accurate–I went for it.

Q:  Did you ever consider having the William Miller character actually be named Cameron Crowe?

A:  Well, that…would have been a little bit too narcissistic, I think.  [laughs]  I thought about it.  In fact, I wrote one version and I got about three lines of dialogue in typing “Cameron” in the dialogue and I was like, “Wait a minute…nonononono…”  But I always liked the Woody Allen movies where he made himself Alvy Singer, and [it would be] his youth or a version of his youth, but it would be Alvy Singer.  So I tried that.  And for a while I tried to change Lester to Roger Banks or somebody, to see if that really freed the movie up…but it didn’t.  It made it…I don’t know, I just was sort of, [on a] case by case basis, I wanted to pay tribute to a few people…by name.

Q:  What does Rolling Stone think of the film?

A:  They like it.  They like it.  I think they look at it as a little bit of a link to their early days.

[Another interviewer responded here astutely “Even when it reminds them that they’ve been ripping bands like Led Zeppelin for a decade.”]

A:  Well they need to be reminded of that.  And that also helps us get the songs from Led Zeppelin, because they know that the filmmakers remember the cross they had to bear.  But, you know, I think it was truthful.  And I think that…that was the experience I had with the factchecker.  That was the experience I had, sticking up for one of my early stories.  Damn, I worked hard to get the photos right on the walls and I think they had sympathy for my desire to make it accurate.

Q:  You’re the filmmaker, the screenwriter…but you were once “the enemy”, as it’s mentioned in the film, a journalist.  What’s it like now that you’re the one up for scrutiny for your work instead of the other way round?

A:  I think I felt a little more comfortable on the other side.  I think that…it’s very safe to stand back and judge the work of others, and I love to do it and I do it, and I still try and do journalism as much as I can, but I…also had a desire to get out there and say some things.  And, you know, sometimes I get knocked for various things…often I get knocked for sometimes a lack of cynicism and stuff like that, but you know…it’s who I am.  And when rock critics get together, I’ve found that a lot of times it’s about, “You know if I got out there, I would have said this or I would have said that.”  And so…I got out there and, you know, it’s sort of…this is who I am.  Particularly this movie.  So it’s just, you know, trying to find my way, my level of comfort with all this.  But I generally am happiest interviewing Billy Wilder for example.  That’s pure joy to me.

Q:  So do you have final cut?

A:  I do.  I get final cut.  I get final cut but I didn’t exercise it, really, I kind of…  Well, I didn’t come to the point… [thinks for a moment]  Well, you know what?  I did exercise it.  The studio really wanted me to cut that scene of Penny Lane dancing to the Cat Stevens’ song, “The Wind.”  They thought, you know…it wasn’t like a huge whip came down to say you must do it.  But there definitely was a drumbeat, “Why do you keep hanging on to that scene?  It doesn’t move the story along.”  But to me, it was the story.  And I refused to do it, so in that way I did exercise it, yeah.  But this movie was originally a little longer and I cut it down.

Q:  Speaking of cutting, there’s a sequence towards the end in which Penny and William are talking, walking through the park–it seems like we’re coming in on the tail end of it.  Was there a cut there as well?

A:  There’s a whole speech that…that actually came from Bebe Buell, Liv Tyler’s mother and ex-Playboy centerfold, who used to chase Jimmy Page around when I would write about Led Zeppelin.  And she would Jimmy Page around, and very quickly, I mean, we sort of said to each other: “That’s the most beautiful woman we’ve ever seen!  Why’s she keep hassling us to find Jimmy Page?”  You know, it’s like “Is this what beautiful women are like?”  And…she actually was a rabid rock fan and even then a fascinating person…and later a recording artist…but I read an interview with her once where she talked about how she first became a so-called groupie and…virtually took her speech out of Mojo and put it in the movie.  Added to it a little bit, but it was about…she went to a Rolling Stones concert with her mother and she went to the front of the stage and Keith Richards picked her out.  And she was pulled up out of the crowd and brought backstage and they gave her a Coke with lemon…and she never went home.  I thought that was the greatest speech.  So I gave it to Penny Lane and…Kate did a really great job, it was the very last thing we filmed.  And when we put it together it was just, like, too long.  You know, you’re ready for the movie to be over.  So it was a little bit of a cut there.

Q:  One thing you’re noted for is bits of dialogue that pass beyond your films and into popular culture.  “Show me the money” is the best known example, I think.  Do you make a conscious effort to create these bits or does it just happen?

A:  When I have thought about it, when I wrote something to be remembered, people ran for the hills.  It was…it was a bad movie we did after Fast Times called The Wild Life.  I thought: “It’s casual”, eh, it’s the new “Hey bud, let’s party!”  And, man, it stunk up the room…and always did.  And…and I never really tried for it, although I did think that the idea of “Kwan” was maybe something I’d hoped people would notice in Jerry Maguire, but it wasn’t, it was “Show me the money.”

Q:  Are you ever surprised when you see that a line takes off like that?

A:  Yeah, I am.  I’ve been asked, “Aren’t you pissed off that they use it so much?”  Hell no!  I love it!  Watch the Westminster Dog Show and they say, “Show me the…dog chow!”  It’s like, fuck yeah, this is funny.

Q:  Francois Truffaut did a series of movies based on his life, could William Miller turn into a franchise for you?

A:  Too painful.  We’ll see, we’ll see.  I thought when we first cast Patrick [Fugit] that…this would be great, it’s like…this is…this is my Antoine Doinel!  It just…I tortured friends and family by saying, “This is the hardest thing ever!  Don’t let me ever do this again!”  And then the other day I was sitting with Patrick and he’s funny and he’s getting older and I’m like…”So what are we going to do next?”  [laughs]  I don’t know though, maybe if there’s a way to do it…I think that Truffaut is the god to serve on this one because he somehow didn’t make it an exercise in navel-gazing or self-glory.  It always had bite.  And I think…this one sort of wanted to be a love letter.  If I did another kind of semi-autobiographical movie, I probably would do it with Patrick, and I think it would have…more bite.  You know what I mean?  It would just be about the later stages of relationships.

Q:  What was the take from the studio on this project?  Was it “Now that you’ve done Jerry Maguire, we need another hit?”

A:  No, no, they don’t…I never got “We need another hit.”  I think…and I never wanted this movie to be feel like this is the movie you have to endure because the last one did well.  This is the one from the bottom of my drawer.  “Sorry, you’re gonna have to sit through it!  I’ve earned the right to bore you, okay?”  No, I felt like this is the best story that I had not yet done.  And I didn’t have to spend a lot of time researching it.  And it was written in different forms but it was never completed.  Billy Wilder…the Billy Wilder book was really, truthfully, how I was able to spend whatever credit line I had from Jerry Maguire, because I didn’t do anything but work on that book for a year-and-a-half.  And Billy himself wouldn’t have sat for it if he hadn’t liked Jerry Maguire.

Q:  Jerry Maguire was your ticket in to the book with Billy Wilder?

A:  Absolutely was my ticket in.  He recently made friends with Sam Mendes and there’s…just a little something about a guy who’s gotten out there and gotten noticed in a way similar to the way that he was noticed…that just gives him a little twinkle, like he’s meeting the current crop.  And he…Billy Wilder respected me, I think, to a point before he saw Jerry Maguire, but after Jerry Maguire he took me seriously.  I mean, there was a great moment when I tried to get him to act in Jerry Maguire and I went over to his office with Tom Cruise…to [get him] to play Dicky Fox [the older agent].  Because I thought, Tom is going to close Billy Wilder, I can just sit back and watch this happen.  And Billy just really enjoyed hammering Tom with “No.”  And “No” and [Wilder impression] “In the old days, the stars did not dress like this.  They dressed in a suit they look good when they go out.”  And Tom looked pretty good that day.  He was just hammering him.  As we were leaving, he said, “Nice to meet you and nice to meet you, especially you [to Cruise].”  He was a little bit like [to Crowe] “You’re a fan, who knows about you?”  But [to Cruise] “You’re a star and in my next picture I may need you.”  Later I heard that he liked Jerry Maguire and if I wanted to interview him for my column, I could.  And so I went to interview him and said, “I don’t have a column but I would like to do a book” and he said, “No!”  And that argument went on for about six months and then he finally said, “Well, okay, give it a shot.”

Q:  Is rock n roll dead?

A:  I think rock n roll dies every year and gets resurrected in one form or another.

Q:  But do you like its present incarnation?

A:  I do, I do and I like the fact that…that we had something to say about the seventies and now I can put those records away for a little bit.  You know, I filmed so many records for that, they had to just kind of say, “You have actors, you have real people waiting, you gotta quit filming records.”  When we’re making the DVD, I asked the editor, I said, “How many records did we film for that?  I want to add a few more records to that.”  He said, “You filmed a hundred albums for that.  You have a lot.”  And the one thing about rock then and now that I remember is…I went to a Who concert in ’71, it was one of my first real concerts.  And I got crushed to the front of the stage.  And I remember Pete Townsend came out, and he had a crown on his head, this was in San Diego.  He said, “It’s an honor to be here in your…trashcan!”  And they started playing “I Can’t Explain”…and the guy looked to me to be thirty feet tall.  And if somebody had said to me, “One day they’re going to be [squeezes fingers together] this big on a TV screen” I wouldn’t have believed it.  And I thought that all of my rock heroes were too big to be on a TV screen.  That’s the big difference between then and now, for better or worse.  Rock is now a TV medium like football or baseball.

Q:  What have you got coming up next?  There’s been talk of projects with Brad Pitt and/or Tom Cruise.  Any comments on that?

A:  There’s a movie that I want to do in November, which the idea being to pick up the pace a little bit.  And I don’t know if Tom will be in it, it would be fun to do something again with him.  But I’m going to be back out there again soon, I hope.  The script’s finished, that’s a first.  It’s a contemporary love story, that’s about all I can tell about it right now.

[Widge’s Note: Since this interview took place, a tad more about the project,  has been revealed.  At least we have a title now, Vanilla Sky.]

Q:  Back to the film at hand, when you were writing Almost Famous, did you actually have the songs that wound up in the film referenced in the script or did you add them later?

A:  They always were part of the script.  [Led Zeppelin’s] “That’s the Way” is just a…that one’s on the soundtrack album…”That’s the Way” is just a song I always loved, and that was written in the script.  [Elton John’s] “Tiny Dancer” was written in the script. “Misty Mountain Hop” was written, staying with the Zeppelin stuff.  “The Rain Song” was in the script, “Tangerine” wasn’t.  It was “Four Sticks.”  And “Four Sticks” just seemed too much in the mode of “Misty Mountain Hop”, so we tried out “Tangerine”.

Q:  Eric Stoltz didn’t make the cast of this film.  What happened with that?

A:  I offered Eric Stoltz a chance to be Bowie and he probably rightly sent me a message saying it was too small a part.  And so we were scrambling to figure out what part to give Eric Stoltz because I wanted him to be in all the movies.  So I guess we had surprised him with the smallness of the part, I thought he’d get into it as a cameo and stuff, so we’re looking for a bigger part.  And then I decided we would put his name on a marquee outside the Queenland Arena, and it would be “Coming: Miles Davis, August 9th; August 10th, Graham Parsons; August 12th, the Eric Stoltz Experience” and we would always have that.  And then we spent too long filming the “Tiny Dancer” scene and I couldn’t get out there to shoot that marquee, so now there’s no Eric Stoltz [in this film]. The streak is over, I don’t know.

Q:  Has there been any thought to returning to your other material, like a follow up to Say Anything?

A:  Yeah, I would continue the Lloyd Dobler character. It’s sorta the one thing that I would do…revisit, that kind of thing.  With [John Cusack] if I could.  Yeah, I’d love to do it.  I love the little whiffs of Lloyd that were there, maybe only I saw them, or felt that I saw them in High Fidelity.  And got me feeling very anxious to try something else with him.

Q:  Is this just wishful thinking or would you actually go out and make this a reality?

A: Well, I talked to [Cusack] about it once.  And we’re gonna do an audio commentary on the DVD of Say Anything and maybe I’ll just put him on the spot while we’re being recorded.

Q:  Movies, amongst other entertainment mediums, are such a large part of modern culture.  Do you feel you have a responsibility when it comes to the message that you’re sending to people?

A:  I absolutely feel there’s a responsibility.  I really do.  The thing is to, as Mr. Wilder would say, “Sugar coat that pill.”  You know what I mean?  Because if you’re on a soapbox saying, “Here’s who I am…” or more accurately, “Here’s who I think you should be,” I think…I run for the hills when I see that.  But if there’s a sort of gentle ethic, you know, that hopefully has some kind of positive impact or just…you know, an impact is great, or a comment on how we live our lives, I think that’s great.  There’s a lot of mindless stuff.  And the heroes that I’ve had, even Truffaut and the movies that they call a souffle, I always walk away from them with something.  A way to live life, or a hint as to how to stay inspired.  I love movies that don’t squander the opportunity and don’t hit you over the head with it either.

Courtesy of Corona Coming Attractions