Almost Famous – Premiere Magazine

Sex & Drugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll-The Movie

“we are five or six weeks away from being finished on this thing. basically we’re bustin’ ass to make a brutal schedule. . . . i’m still figuring out what this movie is.”-e-mail from Cameron Crowe, 9/99

Hair was always a problem. Here was Cameron Crowe trying to make a movie about the rock ‘n’ roll scene of the early 1970s. But the extras who were hired to play fans, concertgoers, and hangers-on all seemed to have buzz cuts, and the wigs were almost as bad. To Crowe, it was like “a thousand little pinpricks saying ‘fake, fake, fake, fake . . .’ ”

And for Crowe’s movie, Almost Famous, fake wouldn’t cut it. It was Crowe’s life up there on the screen, his teenage years as a rock-journalist wunderkind-it was also the music he loved, the era he’d long felt had been misrepresented on film. It had to feel right. If he was going to film a lobby full of David Bowie fans, then damn it, they had to look the way Bowie fans looked back then: the multicolored glam-rock haircuts, the interplanetary rock-star duds, the appropriate amounts of glitter and mascara.

So the famously agreeable writer-director kept pushing, in a way he’d never pushed before. “You find yourself being the cliché director that you never wanted to be, flipping out because the extras look fake,” he says. “I wish a camera had been rolling, because it truly would be the most hilarious moment in an EPK [electronic press kit] ever. You’d see a harried guy, who clearly hasn’t been sleeping well, going, ‘Doesn’t anybody know what Marc Bolan looks like? Doesn’t anybody know what a Ziggy Stardust haircut is like?’ ”

He grins. “It’s fun to talk about now,” he says, “because it’s over.”

He’s 43 now, and the father of twin boys, who were born earlier this year, during the narrow window between the rigors of production and the stress of postproduction. But Cameron Crowe still looks boyish as he sits in front of a mixing console on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, clad in shorts and a T-shirt and fiddling with a baseball. On a big screen behind him, a scene from Almost Famous is playing: 15-year-old Rolling Stone reporter William Miller is backstage at a concert, checking in with his zealously protective schoolteacher mother Elaine, when budding rock star Russell Hammond gets on the phone to sweet-talk Mrs. Miller. She’s not buying it. “He is not ready,” declares Elaine (played by Frances McDormand), “for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking clearly to you?”

The rock star gulps and says, “Yes, ma’am,” and in the audience Cameron Crowe grins. The director is here to tweak the sound mix on -Almost Famous, the fourth film he’s directed and the first since the commercial and critical success of 1996’s Jerry Maguire. If that film opened up his future, then Almost Famous goes back to his past, way back when Crowe was that 15-year-old taking time off from high school to write for a music magazine, and when his mother did indeed give the occasional rock star a good talking-to.

A deft bit of lightly fictionalized autobiography that’s marked by telling detail and a surpassing sweetness, Almost Famous was also, and surprisingly, the toughest movie in his career. After a six-year run as one of Rolling Stone’s star writers, Crowe got out of magazine journalism in the late 1970s and spent an undercover year back in high school to write the 1981 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He got into the film business by writing the subsequent Fast Times screenplay, followed by the unsuccessful The Wild Life, then later made the move to directing with Say Anything and Singles. “Everything about it was deceptive,” Crowe says of Almost Famous. “It looked like the easy one from the heart, and it became hideously hard to accomplish.”

He could have taken an easier route after Jerry Maguire. “The corrupting thing,” Crowe says as he takes a break in Fox’s self-serve commissary, “would be to forget that Jerry Maguire had a big star playing a character part in a personal movie and say, ‘I direct big stars now.’ ” He was offered some star -vehicles and thought about writing “a big -romantic com-edy,” but instead walked away and spent more than a year interviewing -director Billy Wilder for the book Conversations With Wilder. It was like going to film school, and it also gave him a good excuse not to write another screenplay.

But for years, Crowe had been toying with the idea of writing about the rock ‘n’ roll he’d loved in the early ’70s. “I always wanted to do something that would take you to that time and place,” he says, “because my experience of the early ’70s was that it wasn’t The Brady Bunch. It was actually a really passionate time: sex before AIDS, music before MTV, the ’70s before disco and mirror balls. I felt like somebody just needed to say a word or two about the way it used to be.”

Initial drafts were set in London and -involved a journalist character only peripherally. But Crowe began to reconsider after writing a first-person piece for the now-defunct Live! magazine, in which he described taking his rock-wary mother to concerts by Elvis Presley and Eric Clapton. Though the piece was never published, it nudged him in an autobiographical direction that felt easy and natural. “I just sort of rolled into a mode that I didn’t question, for some reason,” he says. “It felt real, unfiltered.”

Crowe’s wife, guitarist Nancy Wilson of the rock group Heart, encouraged him to pursue that direction; so did his mother, Alice Marie Crowe, to whom he often turns for advice on his screenplays. The story that evolved uses real incidents from Crowe’s journalistic career but features a fictional rock band called Stillwater; at its heart is a love -story between the young writer and an openhearted groupie who calls herself Penny Lane. Crowe’s mother pegs the result as “95 percent accurate” but she also says that her son agonized over how much of himself to include in the story.

“I must have at least a dozen notebooks of his script, which he wrote and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote” she says. “It was too close, too intense for him, and I think he kept running away from it. Cameron doesn’t like to be in the limelight. And to him it felt laudatory to make the movie about himself as a child. He wanted it focused on other characters, and have all the characters pivot around the boy, rather than focus on the boy.”

Crowe says he tried not to write “the golden-tinged reminiscence of an older guy, because I really dislike that genre of movie.” He kept his own experiences at the center of the film, but sketched in a cast of characters he still remembered vividly, from the poker-playing, hard-partying roadies to “superfan” Rick Muñoz (an emotional Latino teenager who followed his -favorite bands around and wept in the front row during concerts) to the groupies who called themselves “Band-Aids”-women who knew all the words to every song and were, he says, “closer to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll than most of the musicians they slept with.” Crowe still knows where to find some of those people-the real Penny Lane visited the set one day-but has no idea where most of them have gone.

“Who knows where they are,” he says. “You can’t track them down. They’re sort of released into the mists of time, but they’re real. And the way I felt on this one, if you have to cut the Rick Muñoz character out of the movie, you have no movie. That was another reason to write the movie: to celebrate what it was to be a fan back when it was all just a little bit more private and personal.”

DreamWorks agreed to make the movie, and the success of Jerry Maguire enabled Crowe to bring on topflight talent, like -Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll. But for the casting of such roles as William Miller, Penny Lane, and Stillwater’s guitarist, Russell Hammond, Crowe had other ideas.

“after ‘jerry maguire,’ i found myself sitting on a panel or two with mike leigh. i always admired the way his movies spilled into the lives of the actors, and how everyone lived their roles during the filming. i wanted to have a similar experience making this movie . . . and it happened. the actors, in most cases, were cast according to who they were . . . and where they were at that stage in their lives. [billy] crudup, like russell hammond, was on the verge of a greater and more mystifying kind of success-a success he’d never sought or truly craved. kate hudson has long fluttered just outside of the spotlight, a little bit of a social butterfly, always making everyone around her feel better . . . all the while hovering somewhere between laughter and tears. and patrick fugit, like william miller, is a fan. an observer thrown into the circus, wondering if his sense of -belonging was going to last.”-e-mail, 7/00

Fugit was living in Salt Lake City when he heard about the auditions. The 15-year-old, who’d appeared in a couple of episodes of Touched by an Angel but not much else, sent in an audition tape and was surprised to find himself summoned to Los Angeles to read for Crowe. “The pages I was given had been rewritten as politics to keep the movie secret, so I thought it was a movie about politics,” Fugit says. “And while we were reading, Cameron said, ‘You’re doing great, Patrick. So, do you like rock ‘n’ roll?’ I went, ‘Um, no.’ And it was silent for a minute. I thought it was an odd question.” Despite his lack of interest in rock, Fugit got the part. “He’s not me,” Crowe says, “but he’s a version of that person who found himself backstage, in a world that he loves.” When he was hired, Fugit’s first -assignment was to watch the Led Zeppelin concert movie The Song Remains the Same.

The key roles of Russell Hammond and Penny Lane were originally set to go to Brad Pitt and Sarah Polley. But Polley dropped out to work out her own project, and Pitt, for whom Crowe had written the part of the “guitarist with mystique,” worked with Crowe for months before finally admitting, the director says, ” ‘I just do not get it enough to do it.’ ” In both cases, Crowe was resigned to abandoning the project rather than recasting, but DreamWorks argued that the script was the star and pressed him to proceed. Crudup stepped in and learned to play guitar in six weeks; Hudson, who’d initially been cast in the smaller role of William Miller’s sister, begged for a chance to read as Penny Lane, and ended up turning in a heartbreakingly luminous performance.

The cast rehearsed for six weeks and -immersed themselves in the period, courtesy of the many magazines and souvenirs Crowe had saved; at night they went to “Rock School,” where Crudup, Jason Lee (who plays the lead singer), and the other actors who were cast as Stillwater learned to play the songs (some of which were cowritten by Crowe’s wife, who also worked on the Jerry Maguire score), and where the Band-Aids learned every lyric and lick. Costume designer Betsy Heimann, meanwhile, made many of the vintage-looking clothes by hand, working to Crowe’s exacting specifications. “Every detail was correct, and the authenticity seeped into the movie in fantastic ways,” he says. “The backstage passes were correct, the blazers on the security guards were correct, the equipment on stage was carefully found and of vintage quality-the whole idea being that if we got lost in that world, people watching the movie would later allow themselves to get lost in that world, too. . . . I never stopped until it felt real.”

Former Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres, a supporting character in the film, visited the set one day and was startled by Crowe’s attention to detail (though he says the movie’s -re-creation of the magazine’s San Francisco offices is way too dark and hippie-ish). “Somebody had a line about ‘Chet’s Who story,’ ” says Fong-Torres, “so Cameron took me aside and asked if [writer] Chet Flippo really did cover the Who that year. I said I couldn’t remember, but I did know that we never called him Chet; we always called him Flippo. So he changed the line to ‘Flippo’s Who story.’ ”

The air of reality didn’t unnerve Crowe until Philip Seymour Hoffman showed up to play the late, great Lester Bangs, a mentor to Crowe and a gonzo music critic almost as well-known for the excesses of his lifestyle as for his passionate, defiant prose. “Before we made the movie, everybody said to me, ‘Isn’t this weird for you?’ ” Crowe says. “And I’d say, ‘Nah, it -isn’t strange at all.’ But when Hoffman was there, and we did the scene in the diner-from a distance, he really did feel like Lester. And that’s when the emotions of it all kind of hit.”

He had Hoffman for only four days, during which the actor was fighting a bad case of the flu. In his script, Crowe played up the humor of the loud, bearish man who warned the kid about being co-opted by the record industry and who bemoaned the impending death of rock ‘n’ roll. But Hoffman, he says, refused to take that road. “I was headed for a version of Lester where all the jokes would work, because he was a very funny guy,” Crowe says. “But there was also pain and heartache in that guy, and a real need to -figure out a place in the world. I was shying away from it. Hoffman, without having even known Lester, refused to not play that. He played the loneliness of a guy who’s most at home in a cluttered room filled with records. And it’s shocking, because Lester himself would have felt that the other version was a sellout. And to me, that is why the movie has depth.”

The actors, Crowe says, were always aware that they were playing scenes from the director’s life. “They’re looking to you after a take to see if the performance was right,” Crowe says, “but also to see if they captured some weird, amorphous feeling that you remember, but you can’t quite -articulate.” Expecting to recapture the easy chemistry he’d encountered on Jerry Maguire, Crowe instead found himself calling for take -after take, struggling to portray his past honestly and to re-create the breeziness of real life.

“I’ve watched him on every film, starting with Fast Times, and I’ve never seen him so -apprehensive as he was on this one,” says Alice Marie Crowe. His apprehension was clear to her when she came to the set to shoot her small role as a high school teacher, and her son gave her strict instructions to stay away from Frances McDormand. (He may have been afraid that she’d communicate her distaste for the one line in the film she says is inaccurate: “I tell my daughter, ‘You are rebellious and ungrateful of my love,’ which I would never have said.”) Crowe thought McDormand should be free of any maternal lobbying. “I said, ‘I don’t want you influencing her; I want her to have her own interpretation,’ ” he says with a laugh. “And then I had to leave the set for a few minutes, and when I came back my mom and Frances were having lunch together!”

“She came to me,” explains Mom. “She sat down next to me and said, ‘How do you want me to portray you?’ I didn’t know what to say, because Cameron warned me not to talk to her. But I said, ‘Please don’t play me shrill.’ That’s all I said: one sentence. And then she started talking about raising her little boy, and the conversation went on for half an hour. Cameron saw us talking, with our heads together, and he freaked out.”

Crowe owns up to a few other freak-outs, including the one over the Marc Bolan and Ziggy Stardust haircuts. “My flip-outs are pretty tame, but to people who know me, I think it was surprising,” he says. Others scoff at the notion that Crowe was difficult. “He’s out of his mind,” Kate Hudson says. “If he calls those flip-outs, then he’s a saint.”

During production, Crowe played music on the set constantly-rock songs by the Stones and the Who to get the cast revved up, softer songs by Joni Mitchell to put Hudson in the right frame of mind. “It worked, and he knew it,” Hudson says. “There are times in the movie where my eyes are watering, because just before we shot I was crying over a song he’d played.”

“music played from every trailer, and often was playing during the takes. . . . we created the circus to film a movie about the circus . . . and in many cases, the actors are still living their roles. kate is with chris robinson of the black crowes, and has had a hard time shaking the character of penny lane. and last time i talked to billy crudup about doing more press for the movie, damn if he didn’t sound exactly like russell hammond in the movie. it’s eerie, and it’s amazing . . . the movie is still a living thing.”-e-mail, 7/00

Don in San Diego, where Crowe grew up and where his mother still lives, Alice Marie Crowe thinks about what the son who might have been a lawyer has wrought. “It’s scary,” she says, sounding more proud than scared. “I tell my younger friends who have children, ‘Be very careful what you tell your children. Because they might grow up to be directors, and you might hear your very words coming out on the big screen.’ ”

She laughs. “Recently, Cameron said to me, ‘Mom, when did you realize I wasn’t going to be a lawyer? When did you stop wanting me to be a lawyer?’ And I said, ‘Well, I haven’t. There’s still time. . . .’ ”

Courtesy of Premiere Magazine – Steve Pond – October, 2000