Almost Famous – Gallery Magazine

Almost Famous Interview: Cameron Crowe

In just five films, writer/director Cameron Crowe has given the world Jeff Spicoli and Jerry Maguire. John Cusack with a boombox in the rain. Pearl Jam and the Seattle grunge scene. “Show me the money” and “Aloha, Mr. Hand.” But rock fans might also know his name from the early 1970s, when he served as Rolling Stone’s 15-year-old contributing editor, interviewing legends Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton, among many others. The San Diego, California upstart also wrote regularly for Creem and unlikely as it may seem, Playboy, and Penthouse. At the age of 22, Crowe re-enrolled in high school to explore adolescent culture in the post-Disco era. The resulting book, Fast Times, is a dynamite read and was adapted for the big screen by Crowe and directed by Amy [Clueless, Loser] Heckerling. Today, it stands as perhaps the definitive teen movie, funny, sensitive, and realistic at once. For his adaption, Crowe earned an award nomination from the Writers Guild of America.

It was seven years, however, before Crowe’s next film, Say Anything…, would be released. It was Crowe’s directorial debut, and cemented the writer/director’s reputation for crafting complex, multi-dimensional characters with zippy dialogue, and genuine storytelling. It also had a superb rock soundtrack, including songs by Peter Gabriel and Heart’s Nancy Wilson, now Crowe’s wife of nearly 10 years. Singles followed in 1992, playing a seminal role in the introduction of grunge music to Anywhere, USA. Then, of course, came Jerry Maguire, his finest film to date.

Last September, Dreamworks released Crowe’s latest feature. Almost Famous, a highly autobiographical roman a clef that examines Crowe’s life as a young journalist on the road with an up-and-coming rock band, based loosely modeled on Led Zeppelin. The film is deeply felt, unflinchingly honest, and one of the year’s best. Next up is a reteaming with Maguire star Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky, a contemporary romantic comedy also starring Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. Gallery caught up with Crowe when he was promoting Almost Famous, just a few blocks from where he grew up in San Diego.

Over time, you’ve become much more than just a writer/director. People really have gotten to know you as a personality, too. Is there a trade-off in that?

I don’t see it that way. I really don’t. The only time I ever felt like people knew who I was after I had done a [VH1] Behind the Music on Heart. You know, I was on that, talking about my wife. That’s when I got recognized. But after that ran its course, nobody knew who I was again.

Well, America may see you on TV again this year, as an Oscar nominee for Almost Famous. What made now the right time to tell such a personal story?

Probably because it’s the only possible time to do it without it seeming like the golden mists of time kinda feel. Movies tend to take on a musty kind of feeling if they don’t have an immediacy about them, if they don’t belong to their period; I thought, You know. I’ve lived with all of these boxes of things, these artifacts, and its time to do something with all of it. Either that, or to stop talking about how all of the other ’70s films didn’t capture what I remember.

Was it cathartic to do this movie?

It was fun to write, very difficult to make, scary to release.

What was scary about it?

Well, it was scary to release it because this stuff happened. And it happened to me. So everything’s a little more personal and it’s the only way you can make a movie about your family and your life. You can’t be glib about it. I don’t think you can. And that means you have to be a little bit out there, somewhat raw. On one level, I think the movie’s gentle and compassionate. And on another level, it’s got a lot of pain in it and a lot of real truths about my family. So it’s tough to put something like this out there. If somebody says they like it, they’re saying they like your family. And the opposite is [also] true.

Was it difficult to be honest writing about yourself as a teen?

Yeah. Patrick Fugit’s character isn’t exactly me, but it’s close. It definitely captures the fan that I feel like I still am.

You grew up writing about rock in the ’70s. Who do you think were the decade’s best bands?

Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Eagles. I spent a lot of time touring with both. [Skynyrd lead singer] Ronnie Van Zandt was just an amazing guy. He was a man who saw what was coming. I also really like Neil Young. He’s a real hero. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys.

Jerry Maguire was a big box-office hit. Did you feel like you could afford to be more autobiographical this time out?

But Jerry Maguire is a very personal movie, too. It appears to be, looking back, a very mainstream movie, but there was a lot of fear going into that: Is this just an in-between movie for Tom Cruise? So I feel a very personal connection to that movie. This one just pushes it a little further. And I’m proud of it. I just laid my cards down on the table and said, “This is who I am.”

How does one go about making an autobiographical film, sorting out the facts from what a film requires to keep its narrative moving?

Sometimes things have to be a little less complex [in a movie] because I think any crosscurrents that exist in real-life need to be reduced to central issues in a movie. Basically, that was the dilemma I felt as a journalist a lot – torn between two camps. Loving music so much, but needing to be objective.

How hard is it to take a movie like this into a test screening and have people tell you your life is wrong?

Well, we had a rather lengthy screening process where I sort of learned what the tolerance level of an audience was for going on tour. In the longer version, people were like, “Can we go home now. I don’t want to go to Cleveland [with the band].” We reduced it. It sort of felt like a solid piece, but in its longer version it was a little shaggier.

Isn’t that leisurely pace integral to the storytelling? Wouldn’t that have better represented your experience?

Yeah, I mean, it’s still shaggy. I didn’t cut the movie to the bone on purpose. There was debate about whether everything in the movie served a purpose, and people got all worked up into a frenzy about things. I mean, there are a lot of things in this movie that maybe don’t really move the story along. But I’m so proud of them. That’s the way life is. The good stuff isn’t necessarily the stuff that’s gigantic and life altering.

What plans do you have for Almost Famous on DVD?

We have a two hour, 40 minute cut of the movie, which will be called Untitled. It’s the original title. I can’t give that up. People were always giving me crap about this legendary indecision about the film’s title. There was never any indecision. It’s always been called Untitled. And ultimately I lost the battle with Dreamworks to keep that title. So we went with this earlier title, which works for me for a lot of reasons. But the longer version of the movie really feels like it should be called Untitled. It’s shaggier. It’s less developed in a way. Hopefully, it doesn’t get too indulgent. It has a whole different shape. It’s no the short, compact version.

Did Dreamworks really pressure you to cut the film, or did they leave you alone?

Well, they were supportive in that they let me shoot, in Steven Spielberg’s words, “Every word of your script.” It was 172 pages long. What they were anxious to do, and what I wanted to do as a director, was to get the version that best told the story. So we did six previews to see where we were losing people and how to sharpen the jokes.

What is the analogy between the rock industry and the movie industry?

It’s a good question. I’ve worked through that a lot. The movie industry changed right around the time the music industry changed – right around the time that Jaws really hit hard. And there’s a similar thing that happened. Movies got a little less personal, a little more global. The same with rock.

Where do you fit into the whole scheme of things?

I’ve never had much success, as a writer when I’ve written anything other than from a real personal viewpoint. So I always try to write for one person – me, or an imaginary person – rather than trying to reach everybody.

What can you tell me about Vanilla Sky?

It’s a little different, and its super contemporary. It’s a love story, but coming at things from a different point of view.

This will your second movie with Tom Cruise.

It’s the oddest thing. I would always run into trouble any time I’d try to get a so-called big name to do a script of mine. They would always say, in one way or another, “This is a character part. I want a starring part. There’s no starring part here.” Tom Cruise is the biggest name, in some ways, who has ever said, “I want to do one of those character parts of yours.” No one had ever done that. I’ve been trying to get Johnny Depp to do something I’ve written forever. But it never happens. I love Johnny Depp. I really hope I get to work with him one day. My stuff might be a little romantic for him. I don’t know. Cruise definitely was anxious to play something like this. What he first said to me when we met is, “I want to play a character like John Cusack in Say Anything…” He wanted a romantic lead in something I wrote. He put his actions where his mouth was. He signed on to Jerry Maguire without asking a bunch of people. He just read it and said, “I’m in.” He never backed out. Never backed down. This guy was a gift. I’d never had that from anybody, big or small. We had so much fun doing that movie that we’ve been trying to figure out a way to get back together. I’m as surprised as anybody else that he wants to continue the collaboration. The funny thing is, he is fun to write comedy for. For some reason, the combination of things that I write match well with his sensibility and gifts.

You’re jumping into this new very quickly after the last.

Actually, I just don’t want to let the muscles go flat. You know what I mean? I always have to sort of gear back into things when I’m making a movie after a long break, and just as we’re finishing, I’m like “What’s going on? Where’s everybody going?” I just need to get some sleep, and I’ll be good to go again.

Fast Times was a seminal film. It really changed the whole teen genre. What do you think you’ve learned since writing that film nearly 20 years ago?

Um, you know what? With Fast Times I sort of instinctively knew things I had to re-learn later. Again, it was a very personal script for me, and nobody had any wild dreams about anybody showing up to see that movie. I don’t think we kidded ourselves and thought we could have a hit. I think, really, we thought, Oh my god, we’re going to sneak this one through. The fact that people showed up, and a lot of people remember it more than other things I’ve done is amazing. I guess I’ve learned not to try to write for other people, or who I think my audience is. I used to always say, “Man, this stuff cracks me up! I don’t know if anybody else is gonna get it.” But I’ve learned to enjoy the process of writing to please myself. That’s what its all about.

Courtesy of Gallery Magazine – J. Rentilly – Holiday 2000