Almost Famous – Looking at Movies

Cameron Crowe

Other than the times when I got to talk with Peter Greenaway and Todd Haynes, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed talking with a filmmaker as much as when Cameron Crowe came through Boston on the promotional tour for his latest film, “Almost Famous.” But I also don’t think I have ever been as embarrassed when I realized what a stupid question had come out of my mouth.

After the first time I saw “Almost Famous,” I went back and watched his earlier work – “Say Anything,” “Singles,” and “Jerry Maguire.” I had picked up lots of themes and ideas that get repeated from film to film, like the presence of single parents, and mentors, and the emphasis on ethics, and Crowe seemed appreciative when I asked him why he returned to these themes again and again. And then I said, “you also have a scene in every movie in which one of the characters is singing along to some song on their car radio – why is that?”

He didn’t seem to be able to find words for a second, and then I realized that all of his work has centered around the essential nature of music in our lives, and if I didn’t understand this after seeing “Almost Famous,” that there was no string of words that the director was going to be able to come up with to explain something that was so obvious. It wasn’t as bad as saying, “paint another ‘Starry Night,’ man,” but it was close.

Fortunately for me, Kate Hudson, who plays Penny Lane in the movie jumped in at that point and exclaimed how much she loves all of “Cam’s” earlier films. She mentioned a theme I hadn’t noticed – how many scenes are set in airplanes or airports, and theorized that “you put them in all the time because you are so afraid of flying yourself.” Hudson and I turned into a two-person Cameron Crowe Admiration Society, and my faux pas seemed to be forgotten, except of course by myself.

Crowe seemed remarkably at his ease in this interview, and he helped his two young colleagues, actors Hudson and Patrick Fugit (who plays William, the Cameron Crowe alter ego and protagonist of the movie) feel the same way. If we focused too many of our questions on the director he would say, “but enough about me – we have these two wonderful actors here who can tell you a lot more about some of these things.”

Fugit is a young man from Salt Lake City whose voice has gotten deeper since he starred in “Almost Famous,” and Crowe riffed on that a little when the actor reminisced about the silliest movie he had ever acted in. He played the best friend of a young protagonist in a TV movie set in Alaska, called “Legion of Fire: Killer Ants.” Fugit’s character gets eaten by the ants. “It was a really terrible movie,” Fugit recalls. “It was intended for TV but ended up going straight to video.”

Crowe chimes in at this point and says, “this story was very different when I first heard it, and then proceeds to repeat it word for word, but in a higher, not-quite-falsetto, tone. Fugit looked a little embarrassed, as would any teenager reminded of his growing pains, but went on immediately, with unaltered enthusiasm, to talk together with Hudson about how they developed their characters.

“We had four weeks of rehearsal,” Hudson remembers, “and we would sit down with Cameron and the others and talk about the essence of our characters. But then I didn’t try to think too much about how to express something specific like the sexuality. It was more about the masks that Penny Lane kept putting on, and underneath them all, her vulnerability.”

Again Crowe comes back into the conversation to talk about Hudson’s special relationship with the music. “We used to play music a lot on the set, and it would really get to Kate. I remember the first time she heard Joni Mitchell singing on ‘Blue’ – she started crying.” Hudson says, “it was really embarrassing! I would be listening to a Bruce Springsteen song and someone in the crew would look at me and say ‘are you crying?'” The director adds that “it really felt like cheating some times – if we wanted Kate to express sadness all we had to do was play one of these songs.”

Complimented on the exceptional quality of the actors he had chosen for these central roles, Crowe remembered that he and his partners were getting nervous about this towards the end of the pre-production period. “We didn’t find Patrick until we were almost down to the wire. We had the band, we had the Band Aids (the group of young women, led by Penny Lane, who prefer this title to that of ‘Groupie’), but we didn’t yet have the guy who was in every scene.

“So one Sunday we were down in the office going through demo tapes, and we found one Patrick’s agency had sent in, and he just seemed very real. Plus he has these great eyes (holding hand in front of Patrick’s face so that we focus just on the eyes) – all the rest is just a bonus!” Talking about Hudson’ portrayal of Penny Lane, Crowe is equally animated. “There’s something very timeless about Kate’s enthusiasm – when her character talks about ‘being there for the music’ she really reminds me of the girls of that time, and the guys too. She’s able to say stuff that, if someone said it now, you’d laugh at them. But nobody laughed back then, and she makes you believe.

Asked what it was like to write a story which involved so much of his personal life, Crowe responds “this is a story I’ve always wanted to do. Because of my age (he was two years younger than most of his classmates) I didn’t go to the prom or do other things people in my class were doing, but I did get to go on the road with Led Zeppelin. When I would tell people about this later on, they would say ‘What? You’re making that up!’ But it’s all true. So I decided to write about it.”

The inevitable next question is how do his family members feel about the finished movie. “My mom loves the movie, but she wants me to tell everyone that she doesn’t walk around the house in bare feet. I found this a lot in journalism – you could write some really dicey stuff about people and if you ran into them later that would not be what they were upset about. It would be, like ‘why did you have to write about my shirt being wrinkled? The murder stuff is all true and everything, but you make me sound like a slob!’ I really wanted to get Lester right, and my sister. I really wanted her to feel honored by the movie. You try to be responsible.

“And as for me, I tried to be honest to what was happening. I mean I was manipulated a lot, but I was also a manipulator. I think Patrick really caught this in the scene where some people in the band want William to leave when they’re having an argument, and others say ‘but he’s our friend – he won’t write about this. Patrick’s eyes say ‘yes I will, and if it’s off the record now I’ll try to get you to say it on the record later.'”

Courtesy of Looking at Movies – Stephen Brophy – September 14, 2000