Almost Famous – Juice (UK)

Welcome To The Jungle

Ever dreamed of accompanying your favourite band on the road at just 16? Director Cameron Crowe did just that, and now he’s made it into a movie called Almost Famous.

For writer/director Cameron Crowe, the music bug bit early. Born in Palm Springs on July 13, 1957, and raised in surf city San Diego, Crowe was a fanatical music fan who was obsessed enough with his idols to begin writing about the local rock & roll acts around him. By the age of 15, he was writing for magazines such Penthouse, Playboy, and the legendary Creem, where Lester Bangs presided. Crowe joined the editorial team of Rolling Stone aged a mere 16, and soon found himself on the road with the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin.

It was in 1979, at 22, that Crowe decided to return to high school in order to research his first movie screenplay. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, released in 1982 and directed by Amy Heckerling, became an instant cult classic, catapulting the careers of the actors (including Sean Penn). In 1989, Crowe wrote and directed another cult classic, Say Anything… (starring John Cusack and Ione Skye). He delved into the Seattle scene with Singles in ’92, but it wasn’t until Tom Cruise took on the role of Jerry Maguire, released in 1996, that Crowe became Hollywood’s favourite writer/director, landing an Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Now, with the soon-to-be-released Almost Famous, Crowe has taken his own life story and put it up on the big screen. Starring newcomer Patrick Fugit as a 15-year-old rock fan who goes on the road as a Rolling Stone journalist. Almost Famous is set in the heady days of 1973 and also stars Billy Crudup as Russell, the lead guitarist of the Zeppelin inspired (fictional) band Stillwater, and his lead singer, Jeff Bebe (Jason Lee). Along with “band aid” Kate Hudson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Fairuza Balk, Frances McDormand and even Noah Taylor, Almost Famous is Crowe’s most personal film to date.

“I wanted to find a way to tell a story that captured the people I’ll never forget,” says Crowe. “It wasn’t until it became personal that it became a movie worth making. When I took that jump, it was very scary, but then stuff started to pour out of me and the story became larger than just about rock in 1973. It became about music and how if affected me and my family, and how it still affects me today.”

JUICE spoke to the director about his new film, in Los Angeles.

It’s a great film.

Thank you. Thank you very much.

So casting rumours: why no Brad Pitt?

Oh no, let’s just chat for a while [laughs], and I’ll small-talk nervously. Wasn’t meant to be, it just wasn’t meant to be. I think our casting process got a little too much publicity. There’s a lot of movies that Brad Pitt toys around with and maybe spends a little time with, but it was destined to be Billy Crudup’s part. We just kind of tipped our hats and decided that maybe down the line we’ll do something. Jerry Maguire was written for Tom Hanks and that got no publicity, but we were crushed when Tom Hanks decided not to do it. And then Tom Cruise picked it up instantly and it felt like destiny. So it’s good when these things happen.

The cast of this film is fantastic.

I was just looking at the poster earlier today going, “Boy, if we had a different cast it would be such a different experience.” This one allows you to discover new people getting lost in characters that are good-natured, and yet there’s pain and all that stuff just below the surface. That was the right mix, I think. Knock on wood!

What were the most gratifying things about making this movie for you?

I could torture you forever with my love of Billy Wilder, so you must stop me. [Laughs] I love his heroines, even the way they sat in a chair and just gave a look, and then a minute later they’d be in tears. Kate Hudson gave me that quality. And the fact that you don’t really know her that well as a screen presence yet, that just gives the movie a little burst that I love.

Billy Wilder saw the movie last week, what was his reaction?

Boy, it was the toughest two hours, because I couldn’t really tell. He laughed at a few places. I sat behind so I could work the volume control, because he’s rather famously not a fan of rock [laughs]. So I said, “We can stop it at any given time. I won’t get my feelings hurt.” And he said [imitates Wilder], “No, just play the picture, play the picture!” I had this strange volume panel that you had to press to take it down, and so her comes this Black Sabbath song, and I was late on the draw, you know? My finger was headed to take the volume down and I hear Billy go, “It’s too loud! It’s too loud! Why so loud?” [Laughs] He really laughed, and I felt, if I can write a line that makes him laugh, anything can happen and I’ll be the happiest guy.

Were you worried about putting yourself and your life in the limelight?

I have a basic belief that writers should be anonymous, so yeah, things go horribly wrong when somebody whose livelihood really depends on being invisible stands up and says, “Look at me.” I never wanted the movie to feel like, “Look at me.” Patrick is an observer in the movie – he doesn’t drive the story, it’s about him, but the other characters drive it. That was the only way I could really deal with it being about my life.

You’ve captured the differences between bands and actors out of the spotlight superbly.

Oh yeah, definitely. And the oddest alliances form, I found. Rock bands are more gloriously trivial and open about their problems, I think. Actors can sometimes hide in asides to their friends. I mean, it’s all random, they act.

Who’s given you the most problems so far in your movies?

Of actors? Wow, that’s a good question. [Pauses] I think Singles had some problems in that the cast didn’t quite come together enough, and that was a problem – I didn’t feel what I felt on this movie, where we did have that ensemble feel. I see movies like Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies [Magnolia, Boogie Nights] and I just love the connective tissue between the actors and the characters. It seeps into the movie when people are comfortable with each other.

What was one of your worst experiences as an interviewer?

I went to do a story on Steve Miller once and I was 17, I think, and in a very straightforward way he said, “I think you’re too young to write about me.” I said, “I wasn’t too young to buy your records!” [Laughs]

What is the story behind your infamous Neil Young interview? [The musician claimed that he never agreed to be interviewed for a story.]

Actually Neil didn’t want the entire story to run. He felt that he hadn’t actually approved the whole idea of being on a cover. The he realised that I was gonna get fired over it and changed his mind. But the magazine did say, “You’re in trouble because we spent the money and sent you out on the road and we have a cover prepared and this guy is now saying he likes you as a journalist but he never said yes to this story.” And Neil stepped forward and let it run.

You changed his mind.

Yeah. There were always people who denied things. I would always do interviews in the back of limo or anywhere I could get them, so I just had scribbles and notes.

You didn’t tape the interviews?

Sometimes I would. Sometimes the interview would be on a plane and you’d hear a rumble and I would end up telling the fact checker, “I swear to you, he said that!” [Laughs] The fact checker is the biggest villain of any of the characters I’ve written I think, because they were the ones that held my age against me the most, because they were the closest to my age. “What’s he doing writing? I just got out of college!” But they have a job to do.

Whose shows would you pay to see now?

Radiohead in a second. Ron Sexsmith’s a great singer/songwriter. I generally like the singer and the song, when it’s stripped down or when somebody does an acoustic tour. I love that. But Radiohead is the story waiting to be written right now – that’s the big thing. They should let somebody on the road with them for a few weeks, it’d be wonderful.

Is it possible to get the respect and access as a journalist that you had in the ’70s?

There’s more cameras now. They’re gonna bring a cameraman and do a documentary if they’re gonna allow that kind of access, then they can do clips from it. What happened to the guy that gets to be a fly on the wall? He’d better have a camera, or you’re not gonna be there.

Which rock star shocked you the most when you were a young journalist?


In what sense?

It was one of the more exciting peek-behind-the-curtain profiles that I was able to do. I don’t know if you guys have ever written about Bowie, or interviewed him, but he’s very giving as a subject, and back then he was going through some strange stuff. He was saving his urine in a bottle, he was going through… a reinvention [Laughs]. And eventually, he became very straight and moved to Berlin. But he was going through a wild phase, which he didn’t hide from me, nor did he ask me not to write about it, and I was the only journalist that had access to him for a couple of years and it’s my favourite profile that I’ve ever done.

What was he doing with the urine?

I think he was studying a lot of mystical, metaphysical, lifestyle practices at the time and it was just swirling around me. I do remember his manager at the time taking me aside and saying, “See that glass with the yellow stuff in it? It’s pee!” But it was great too, because at the same time he was exploring the [William S.] Burroughs cut-out method, so he would have pieces of paper all across the floor and be writing songs, just with the words. Talking about Patti Smith, seeing what punk was gonna be like, he saw it coming. It was an amazing time.

Can you describe the process of writing the script for this movie?

It was difficult. I don’t have a formula, but I have a process of reading it out loud. So I will read these hideously long versions of the script out loud to friends and loved ones, and when I start to bore them, or they find things to do, I know I’ve gotta make some cuts [laughs].

After Jerry Maguire, did you find Hollywood eating out of the palm of your hand?

The temptation was to take a script that was already written and to do it, so I could get back to work quickly. But I didn’t get offered a lot, frankly, because I think people expect that I’m gonna write my own stuff – which is nice to have that reputation. I got offered Out of Sight with George Clooney attached, and he called me, and the producers called me, and that was tempting ’cause it was such a great script. I later met Steven Soderbergh and he thanked me for passing [laughs], he said, “Oh you were hot as sun back then and I’m really glad that you passed so it came to me,” and I said, “Yeah, I know, it was fun for about a minute.”

Which do you think is the best film about the backstage world of rock?

Documentary, Don’t Look Back, and I can’t wait to see the re-release of Gimme Shelter. I always loved Quadrophenia. The movie to me is as much about rock as a documentary.

Courtesy of the Juice (UK) – Michele Manelis – October, 2000