Almost Famous – Well Rounded Interview

Cameron Crowe: The Well Rounded Interview

He’s not almost famous anymore. Deep down, every journalist who deals with entertainment in some way secretly wishes they could find the time, money, nerve, the right inspiration or someone important to listen to them, then take the plunge. Create instead of just merely analyzing others’ work.

Cameron Crowe is the living embodiment of this dream.

As the ripe old age of 16, his perseverance and love of rock ‘n’ roll won him an opportunity to write for seminal rock publication Creem and then the venerable Rolling Stone. From there, he went on to write for Creem, Playboy and The Los Angeles Times.

For his next act, he returned to high school at 22 to research a novel he was writing. It turned out to be Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Before the book was even published, he was asked to write the screenplay for the film, which became a smash hit and earned him a Writer’s Guild nomination for Best Comedy Screenplay Adaptation.

In 1989, Crowe wrote and (for the first time) directed Say Anything starring John Cusak and Ione Skye. It was an impressive debut and again created a huge cult following. Next up was Singles, a romantic comedy starring Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon and Kyra Sedwick, set amidst the drizzly, grunge-filled backdrop of Seattle.

In 1996, Crowe went from fringe player to bona-fide big-shot with the release of Jerry Maguire. Receiving five Oscar nominations (including two for himself), it won for Best Supporting Actor (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) and pretty much secured a future for the former wunderkind.

After a couple years working on a book about director Billy Wilder, this month sees the release of Almost Famous, Crowe’s long-awaited follow-up to Jerry Maguire. Based on his early life as a budding writer, it is a surprisingly warm and endearing picture about the harsh and often unforgiving life on the road with a rock band and a young man’s adult awakening.

WRE met with Crowe on a recent visit to Atlanta.

How hard was it to do such a personal movie?

Very. And on a lot of different levels. I had to rely a great deal on memory; the slight embarrassment that I cast a guy who was doing a version of me and the portrayal of real-life people – Lester Bangs, Ben Fong-Torres, Jan Wenner. But I also feel the stuff that audiences have responded to the most positively is the material that I drew on from my own personal experiences.

You mixed real people with fictional characters in the film. Any particular reason why the character based on you wasn’t named Cameron Crowe?

That would have been a little too narcissistic [laughs]. I thought about it, actually, and in one of the earlier versions, he does have my name, but after writing about three lines of dialogue and typing ‘Cameron’ I had had enough. I like to think what I did here was what Woody Allen has always done. Like in Annie Hall, he called himself ‘Alvie Singer’ – it was what he thought of himself as a child. I left Lester and Ben and Jan intact because I wanted to pay tribute to them.

Lester Bangs is deceased, but how have the others reacted to their portrayals?

They liked them; I think they see it as a link to their earlier days; and I also believe Lester’s looking down and giving it his blessing also. Hopefully, the audience will feel that way too.

One of the principal threads running through the film is the character’s need to remove himself personally from his subject and remain objective. In your early days, you were a music critic. How do you react now when the tables are turned, you’re the creative force and people critique your work?

[Long pause] I think I felt a little more comfortable on the other side, where you are now. I think that it’s very safe to stand back and judge the work of others and I love to do it myself, still. I also had a desire to get out there and say some things. Sometimes I get knocked for various things, particularly for a lack of cynicism, but that’s who I am. When I used to get together with other rock critics, the conversations went like, ‘You know, if it was me up there, I’d have said this or I’d have done that’…and then they kind of just trail off…I wanted to make statements as honestly as possible and I think I’ve succeeded. Particularly, with this movie.

It’s rumored that you’re one of the very few director’s with final cut approval. Is that true?

Yes, it is, but strangely enough, I didn’t really exercise that privilege with the new film. Come to think it, there was a scene with Kate’s [Hudson] character dancing to a Cat Stevens song that the studio thought held up the progress of the story and although they didn’t exactly insist on it being cut, they made it clear they didn’t care for it. It’s still in the movie. [pause] I did cut a lot out, however. Originally, it was about 20 minutes longer.

You’ve managed to work your way into pop culture; you know ‘Show me the money’ and ‘You had me at hello’. How does that make you feel – being quoted like that?

It’s strange. When I was trying to write memorable stuff as a journalist, people just ran for the hills [laughs]. Now…well, what can you say? People ask me if I get angry or irritated that people say these lines ALL THE TIME and I say, ‘Hell, no!’ I love it. I won’t lie. I was watching the Westminster dog show on TV a while back and a commercial came on in the middle saying ‘Show me the Dog Chow!’ That was a real stitch!

One of the movie preview magazines was talking about whether or not the movie would make it and pointed out that maybe you made this one now because the success of Jerry Maguire allowed you a certain amount of ‘artistic latitude,’ which to me meant – if it flops, that’s O.K., it was just his pet project. How do you feel?

I never wanted anyone to feel that this was a movie you had to ‘endure’ just because the last one did well. ‘This is the one from the bottom of my drawer…sorry, you’re going to have to sit through this one and wait for the next hit. I’ve earned the right to bore you. So there.’ I felt like this was the best story I had not yet done and I really didn’t have to spend a lot of time researching it, ’cause…well, I was there; it happened to me.

So we still have to wait for your long, boring self-indulgent failure?

Frankly, the success of Jerry Maguire is what allowed me to spend a year and a half interviewing [and writing a book about] Billy Wilder. I’d have never been able to get to interview him before that. He said yes only after he’d seen the Maguire and liked it. I actually wanted him to be in Jerry Maguire and, even when I showed up at his office with Tom Cruise…

You wanted Cruise there to help ‘sell’ him?

Yeah…even then, with Tom Cruise, he said no. And he REALLY loved telling Tom no. He hammered him with it. NO. NO. NO. And he then started to criticize his wardrobe. [Imitating Wilder in a European accent] ‘In the old days, stars did not dress like this. They wore suits, looked good for the public when they went out.’ Tom actually looked pretty good that day, that’s the strange part. That was a trip.

You’re someone who grew up in the ’70s. Do you ever think that rock ‘n’ roll is dead?

Rock & Roll dies every year and ends up getting resurrected every year in some form or fashion. That’s the way it works. If it didn’t die or re-invent itself constantly, it would become…I don’t know…it would become something that wasn’t Rock & Roll. I remember seeing The Who in 1971 and being up front, getting crushed by the audience. I looked up at Pete Townshend and he looked 30 feet tall to me. If someone had told me I’d be looking at him 30 years later as this little guy on a TV screen, I wouldn’t have believed it. I thought all of my Rock heroes were too big to ever be on a TV screen. For better or worse, that’s the big difference between then and now. Rock is no longer a performance medium as much as it is a TV medium. Like football. Or baseball. It’s more of a marketing ploy than art, rebellion or entertainment.

You used about four or five Led Zeppelin songs in the movie and Zeppelin is notorious for not letting ANYONE use their material in movies. Was it your personal history with Jimmy Page that allowed you to do this?

I’ll say this much – it didn’t hurt. But it wasn’t really a done deal until he and Plant saw it and gave it their O.K. Which was a huge relief. It would have been a major chore to excise their stuff because the songs themselves play such a major part in the story.

You’ve made just four movies, but all of them have been successful. Have you ever wanted or have you ever been asked to make a sequel to any of them?

I would want to continue the Lloyd Dobler character [portrayed by John Cusack in Say Anything]; it’s the only thing I’d ever want to revisit; and only if John would want to. I watched him in High Fidelity and saw a lot of potential in extending Lloyd’s story. We actually talked about it once. In a few weeks, we’ll both be recording the audio commentary for the upcoming DVD version of the movie. Maybe I’ll spring it to him again then. Put him on the spot while we’re being recorded.

There’s been an awful lot in the news recently, calling for artists and entertainers to take more responsibility for the product they offer to the public. Do you feel a responsibility of any kind with your work?

Absolutely. If someone’s on a soapbox saying this is what I am or, more accurately, this what I think you should be, I run for the hills. But if there’s more of a gentle ethic in the message that creates an impact, especially a positive impact or comment on the way we live our lives, I think that’s great. Mr. Wilder once told me “Sugar-coat that bitter little pill.” To me that meant, you can still get a point across, even a difficult one, if you finesse it a little and not ram it down people’s throats. I want people to walk away with something; something that, not necessarily changes them, but says something that makes them think. I love movies that don’t squander the opportunity and don’t smack you over the head with it either. I think that’s what everyone wants – that happy medium.

Courtesy of Well Rounded Entertainment – Michael Clark – September 2000