Almost Famous – Creative Loafing

My Generation

Cameron Crowe tells his most personal tale with Almost Famous

Not unlike a thinking man’s John Hughes, writer/director Cameron Crowe has chronicled the growing pains of the Gen-X crowd in his films Say Anything … (1989), Singles (1992) and Jerry Maguire (1996). With his latest movie, Almost Famous (opening Sept. 15), Crowe quips during a recent promotional visit to Atlanta, “I feel as if I’m losing some ground, like instead of continuing to write about characters who are my own age, now I’m 43 going on 15.” Set in 1973, Almost Famous tells the semi-autobiographical story of a San Diego teenager and music fan who ingratiates his way onto the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. (Crowe was a rock journalist before embarking on his movie career, which began in 1984 with the screenplay adaptation of his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) Newcomer Patrick Fugit plays the young Crowe surrogate, with Frances McDormand as his understandably protective mother and Billy Crudup and Jason Lee as members of the fictional band with whom he hits the road to interview for Rolling Stone. The supporting ensemble also features Kate Hudson, Anna Paquin, Noah Taylor, Fairuza Balk and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

CL: You’re known as a writer and director who makes very personal films, and you’ve described Almost Famous as your “most personal.” How so?

CC: It had been definitely bubbling underneath all of the other movies I’d done through the years, and I almost didn’t do it because I didn’t want it to feel like a bottom-of-the-drawer, you-must-now-endure-my-pet-project kind of a thing, you know? I don’t know. It was just weird, filming on a street in San Diego where I grew up. I guess I was trying to recapture something from my youth. As trite as it sounds, this was a love letter, my movie from the heart.

After the success you had working with Tom Cruise on Jerry Maguire, did you feel under any pressure to cast big stars in your next movie, too?

Yes, I did. I mean, you’re certainly given the opportunity. If a superstar like Tom Cruise gets an Oscar nomination for doing your last movie, you don’t have a very hard time getting other superstars interested in doing your next one.

And yet you did have a hard time. Wasn’t Brad Pitt originally cast in Billy Crudup’s role?

Yeah. I guess he still had his head in Fight Club. I think if we’d waited a few more months we definitely would’ve landed him. But I don’t know if that would’ve made this movie any better, you know? I think I got lucky because Steven Spielberg [a co-founder of DreamWorks, the studio releasing Almost Famous] had read the script and said, “Shoot every word. Let the script be your star.” So we lost Brad Pitt, but the studio was still excited about doing it.

On the set, how does the dynamic of working with a superstar like Cruise differ from working with a relatively obscure actor like Crudup?

I swear, Tom had an entourage of one during Jerry Maguire. What he did was support me as a director. He never gave me one of those sidelong glances on the set that you hear about some big stars doing. If the star of your movie ever makes fun of you, a director is doomed because it’s a signal that anybody else on the set can do the same thing. It happened to me before with one actor, and it eroded confidence from top to bottom.

I want names.

Let’s just say it was probably the least-known leading man I’ve ever worked with. As for the best-known, Tom was the classiest and most supportive.

Was it very hard getting Frances McDormand to accept the mother role?

That’s a good question. No, it wasn’t, but I know what you mean. It’s one of her first mothers, if not the first. For a lot of actresses, mothers and older sisters would be taboo. Frances thought this part was interesting. There was enough going on with the character that it didn’t feel like the traditional mother role. She definitely made the part her own, but she also captured a lot about my own mom.

What did she think of the movie?

My mom loved the movie, and she loved Frances, although she keeps wanting me to point out she never went around barefoot in the house!

Do you direct a veteran like McDormand any differently than you do a newcomer like Patrick Fugit?

Yes, but both of them are very natural actors, and they certainly didn’t need any help from me in terms of relating to each other in their scenes. I’m sort of an environmental director, I guess. I try to create the environment where actors are relaxed enough to become the characters, where they’re comfortable enough to forget the lines and just be in the moment.

Is there one thing your films have in common?

They’re all about the journey of the idealist, the victory of the battered optimist. I’m always thinking it’s probably time to shake that up a little bit, but I seem to keep coming back to it.

How do you respond to critics who’ve accused you of being too sweet or sentimental?

I’ve taken some knocks for that perceived sweetness, but I think there’s usually a lot of pain beneath the sweetness and that makes everything more rich. I try to temper the lightness with darker shades, too. The example I always use is the breakup scene from Say Anything … . When [John] Cusack holds up that boombox, he’s truly pissed that he has to do this to remind (Ione Skye) about what they’ve shared. The sweetness of that gesture combined with the anger underneath it, that’s probably the biggest emotional moment I’ve ever been a part of.

Have you ever been tempted to tackle a sci-fi saga or a costume epic, just to get away from your image as a guy who just makes movies about contemporary relationships?

I can’t say I have. I mean, my original goal was to keep writing about my own age group as I got older. I’ve just fallen a little behind, that’s all! The scripts take such a long time to write, the characters end up being younger than I am. Almost Famous was sort of a look back, but now I’d like to catch up a little bit. It’s not about wanting to do a sci-fi movie or whatever, but I would like to do something a little bit more about adults, parenthood stuff. My wife and I have kids now, so the next time I write about a couple with children, it’ll be less based on the research I got from interviewing other people with kids and more about life as I’ve come to know it now.

You conducted your fair share of interviews as a writer for Rolling Stone and other magazines. Since hitting the publicity trail for this movie, is there one question you haven’t been asked that you’d ask of yourself?

If I were sharp, I’d ask that one! I don’t know. I guess I’d probably ask were there any current events that I’d want to write about in that Wilder-esque, “Ace in the Hole” kind of a way, any comments I’d like to make on the insane mediazation of our culture today, because it’s pretty rich. The answer is, I’m really thinking about it. You know, I see the brief shelf life of important cultural or national events or tragedies, and then I see the participants who are left behind. They’re media stars for a certain amount of time, but what happens to them after their run with celebrity? That’s really interesting to me. I mean, what ever happened to that guy who was out walking his dog and heard the plaintive wail of Nicole Brown Simpson’s dog? He was a huge star for a while during the O.J. trial, but where is that guy today?

Courtesy of Creative Loafing – Bert Osborne – September 16, 2000