Almost Famous – Chit Chat Magazine

Cameron Crowe Q&A

Even when he was well into his 30s, Cameron Crowe, was referred to in Hollywood circles as “the boy.” Crowe, 43, writer of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” writer-director of “Say Anything” and other breezy hymns to sweet youth, attained the equivalent of Hollywood carte blanche with “Jerry Maguire,” a surprise block buster he wrote and directed, that starred Tom Cruise as a sports agent who finds redemption. The wunderkind soon found he could have his pick of projects; an enviable position afforded a select few. The film he chose to make is “Almost Famous” a semi autobiographical story that is a valentine to his teenage self and to the 70s rock and roll scene where he blossomed. Indeed Crowe was a precocious fellow: at age 15 he began his career as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone, when he covered the Led Zeppelin tour in 1973 ( the group is called Stillwater in the movie); a trial by fire and song that is the focus of this nostalgic story. “What’s so remarkable about Cameron is that he gets to the truth about so many people in this picture through a knowledge of cynicism and a way of working through it,” filmmaker James L. Brooks told the New York Times. Brooks produced “Say Anything” and “Jerry Maguire.”

Crowe wrote “Conversations with Billy Wilder,” a book about his idol. Although he lacks the cynicism or acerbic wit of Wilder, Crowe does highlight a conflict shared by William, (Crowe’s movie alter ego) and many entertainment journalists who, if they write truthfully and the truth is harsh, are denied access to celebrities by a flank of publicists. (With the ascension of marketing in the entertainment industry, the price of journalistic independence is considerably higher than it was in the 1970s.) “If he (William) writes a puff piece Rolling Stone won’t publish it; on the other hand, if he betrays his friends and writes a candid, aggressive article about a struggling bunch of egotists, he has a cover story, ” writes David Denby, Film Critic for New Yorker Magazine. “The issue is presented as a moral dilemma, though Crowe makes it clear that writing a tough piece is also a terrific career move (it’s one of the unusual cases in life in which integrity pays off.)”

When he sat down with fellow journalists in San Francisco recently, Crowe was affable and collegial. And, yes, he’s still boyish.

Q: Do you think having a background in journalism is good training if you want to be a screenwriter and director?

A: It’s the best, at least from my experience. Billy Wilder is an example of that too. You just get used to talking with people. You’re not stuck in vacuum-sealed room imagining things. You know the rhythms of the way people talk and a lot of that comes from transcribing interviews, as you know. You see the things people do to fill in or the vernacular that they use. In the best of Billy Wilder’s work, something I aspire to, you feel like you’re glimpsing life, you’re listening in on a life-as opposed to something more theatrical.

Q: Yes, you have to capture people in a short space, without being simplistic.

A: Sometimes you only have a short period of time, but there are always those revealing things that people say-with only a few words– and do and you get that from observing people. I’m eternally grateful for the time I spent as a journalist and I still feel I’m like I’m a journalist. I wish there was a term for the combining of film and journalism because that’s I try and do. I did the liner notes for Bob Dylan’s Biograph collection and proudly got him to talk about why and how and where he wrote those songs for the first time ever. That was a journalistic victory for me. It’s my first language.

Q: You started writing for magazines when you were fifteen. Did you finish high school?

A: Yes. It overlapped a little. I started doing articles while I was still in school but when I graduated I was able to go full time on the road. Ben Fong Torres was my editor.

Q: You had breaks and success from a very early age. Did it pose a challenge for you, always being the youngest? Did you feel that you had to play catch up?

A: I had a lot of sponsors and I got lucky because I was able to spend time around people that I could learn from. My mom was a teacher and I grew up in a household where, ‘if you weren’t learning, you were losing.” So, if I got a chance to be around Ben Fong-Torres or Annie Leibovitz or Jan Winner, I just tried to soak up everything I could and that helped me a lot. I’m grateful to the people that gave a break because not many people do give you a break when you’re a young kid trying to bust into their world. Most people were amused that I was so young but sometimes the fact checkers were rough because they thought I was too young to be a reporter. I kept all the artifacts from that era, though, and they’re all in the movie.

Q: How has the rock scene changed since you began writing about it?

A: More publications and less opportunity for journalists to spend weeks on the road with the bands, which, for me, was everything. To go cross-country with your heroes and see how they acted when they forgot you were a journalist. People don’t get that chance anymore because for whatever reason you get fewer chances to talk. People should open up their movie sets more completely to journalists.

Q: In your film, the iconoclastic rock journalist, Lester Bangs, warns William not to become friends with the band and that he should be unmerciful in his reporting. Hasn’t that become more difficult to do?

A: Publicists exist to cut off access for your next story if you’ve been merciless with the person before. There’s a lot of politics, there always were politics but basically you get your chance to observe and how poetically and how truthfully you capture it is a measure of how good you are as a writer.

Q: Could you talk about the way Billy Wilder influenced you?

A: He taught me how to live a life, really, even more than being my favorite director. To know a guy at 94-I’d never known anyone that old or anyone that inspiring at any age really. But, now, if I’m lucky enough to get that old, I will know what he was like at that age and I will know what a rich, full, committed, curious life is like. He’s happy to get up every day and he’s not the world-class cynic people like to think he is. He’s still a journalist taking in all the information and he’s funny as hell.

Q: Has he talked to you about your films?

A: He likes Jerry Maguire-I don’t think he’s seen anything else.

Q: Wasn’t James Brooks also a mentor for you?

A: He’s a real hero of mine. He’s a character genius who celebrates the little things people say and do.

Q: You haven’t made a movie where the protagonist is north of 30 and every movie has a rock and roll sensibility to it. Do you envision making a film that doesn’t come out of a youth or rock base?

A: I think we got it up to 35 on “Jerry Maguire” but I guess you could say he behaved like an adolescent. The next one is more adult. This was my last chance to make this movie. I’m really glad I did it. I wouldn’t have told you that in the middle of it but now that it’s finished I’m starting to get some perspective.

Q: Are you still known in Hollywood as ‘the boy'”

A: No, I’m no longer the boy- Trust me, there are a lot of boys coming up behind me.

Courtesy of Chit Chat Magazine – Sura Wood – September, 2000