Almost Famous –

Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe Looks Back at His Storied Adolescence

It’s been nearly four years since writer/director Cameron Crowe’s last movie was released into theaters and everyone, including Hollywood insiders, have been waiting with baited breath to see what this filmmaker would come up with next. After all, Crowe was nominated for two Academy Awards back in 1997 for Jerry Maguire, one for Best Director and another for Best Original Screenplay. And who can forget the movie’s star turns from Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. and Renee Zellweger’s break-out performance.

Initially, Crowe’s success frightened him off from writing and directing another film. Instead, he spent a year interviewing acclaimed director Billy Wilder for a book entitled Conversations with Wilder. Maybe it was documenting Wilder’s life, or perhaps the thought that he’d never get a better opportunity, but Crowe has turned to his own past for his latest film, Almost Famous. The movie’s story revolves around William Miller, played by newcomer Patrick Fugit, a precocious teenager who is afforded the wonderful opportunity to go on tour with some of 1973’s biggest rock bands, documenting their exploits as a magazine and falling in love with a groupie named Penny Lane.

While not exactly an autobiographical film, the story does somewhat resemble Crowe’s own life. At the age of 17, the future director was skipping high school classes in order to go on tour as a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine with rock bands such as Led Zeppelin. Crowe later took some time off before returning to high school as an undercover student. His observations were later recorded in his 1979 book Fast Times at Ridgemont High. When director Amy Heckerling turned the book into a movie, Crowe was there to write the screenplay and begin a whole new career in the film industry. After writing only two films, Crowe was given the opportunity to direct one of his screenplays in 1989. Say Anything went on to be a huge hit and provided the filmmaker with the opportunity to make Singles a few short years later. Almost Famous marks Crowe’s fourth film as a director, though he has already proven himself to be one of Hollywood’s most unique voices.

Crowe took some time out from his hectic schedule to sit down and talk with before heading to the Toronto Film Festival for the North American premiere of Almost Famous.

Q: Almost Famous centers around one of your great passions, music. As a matter of fact, it has over 140 songs. What do you love so much about rock music?

Cameron Crowe: I love everything. I love being alone with it actually. Being alone in my car just jamming to a mix tape that I’ve made. Getting lost in it. Playing the same song that I love like 12 times in a row so that nobody can see me and I can’t embarrass myself because I’m alone. I love the private thing that you have with a song you love.

Q: You’ve been around a lot of rock bands and have had some unique access to their lives on the road, so what does it mean to be a fan?

CC: That is a really good question. I do understand a little bit more about what it is to be a fan. It is to plant a flag and say this is what I love, whether I’m goofy to you for loving this piece of music or not. It’s sort of like the noble declaration for what you love and sometimes it’s the cheesiest piece of music and that’s cool, because to be a fan is the best.

Q: What was the first piece of music you were a fan of?

CC: Alvin and the Chipmunks! Alvin and the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Song” was to me, as a little kid, that was rock. That was like “Satisfaction” to me, it was subversive. And that’s why it begins the movie. It was the beginning of me loving music. So I have very dear memories of Alvin and the Chipmunks.

Q: How objective were you in telling the story in Almost Famous since it is somewhat autobiographical?

CC: Because you’re so close to it, I wanted the character to be in all the scenes, but the character that’s based on me is an observer. If he had great eyes, better eyes than mine, which Patrick Fugit has, then maybe we could just watch him watching them and feel that we were in his shoes. And I wouldn’t have to direct somebody to act like me, it would just be a little embarrassing. So we have this kid who’s at the circus, happy to be there and watching all the characters, and that became the way to make the movie I think. To show his point of view without making it too much about him or me. I just wanted to remember all those great characters from back then. And that was the way to do it I think.

Q: Well, this is Patrick Fugit’s first big film. How difficult was it for you, during the casting process, to find that pair of eyes?

CC: Very difficult. We were the kind of movie where we said, “We’re doing a nationwide search and we’re going to hire an unknown!” Everybody always says that and they end up hiring a famous kid from a TV show … and for a reason, because the guy’s experienced. It’s hard to make a movie with an unknown. But we found an unknown. We found him in Utah and he had done just a few things, but he had the face of a fan and the passion of a fan. We flew him to Los Angeles, it was the first time he had been in L.A., and he was our guy. So we actually hired the unknown that we found on the nationwide search!

Q: Well now that brings up another interesting aspect of your life, especially since Patrick is so young and basically playing you as a teenager. How did you have the fortitude to write for a national magazine when you were 16 and 17 years old?

CC: Well, I was fooling them. They thought I was older than I was, so I had to pretend that I was older than I was. I kind of adopted the persona of an older man, who had a very objective yet passionate view of music. It was only when they found out how old I truly was that I got really nervous about what I’d gotten myself into, which is in the movie. But I got very lucky, because my mom is a teacher as is Francis McDormand in the movie, and my mom turned me onto the great stuff about art — Woody Allen, Mike Nichols movies — when I was really young. So I wanted to be in there swinging for the fences with the heroes that I’d gotten to know through my mom.

Q: The character of William spends a lot of time talking to his mother, played by Frances McDormand. Assuming that you modeled William’s mother after your own mom, what does she think of being portrayed in the movie? Was she there on the set when you were making the movie?

CC: She was there on the set. It made me nervous sometimes because it’s hard enough to direct someone who’s playing a version of your mom, but to have someone there saying, “Um, that take was good for me” was a little strange. But I’m very close with my mom. She’s in the next room right now! We’re in San Diego and she lives in San Diego and we filmed a lot of the movie in San Diego. The doorbell rang at the hotel first thing in the morning and I opened the door and there was my mom saying, “Don’t take drugs,” just like Frances McDormand in the movie. “Don’t drink coffee, it’s bad for you!” She’s adamantly there for me, so that’s a wonderful thing, so I wanted to celebrate it because I’m there for her.

Q: You wrote a couple of the songs for the movie with your wife, Nancy Wilson of the rock band Heart. Can you talk a little about what that was like?

CC: We wrote those songs on our honeymoon actually. Just to kill time. She’s the songwriter. I’m the guy that says, “Let’s rip off Eric Clapton.” We decided we’d write songs set in 1973 and they would be kind of serious committed songs about being on the road and missing your woman, stuff like that. It became the music of Stillwater.

Q: Stillwater is the rock group portrayed in Almost Famous, but it wasn’t the group in real life. Who was the group you’re trying to portray in the movie?

CC: The real group was a couple of different bands, it was the Allman Brothers, The Eagles, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, it was basically all the bands that I was lucky enough to tour with back then, who let me into the circus. They all kind of got mushed into one.

Q: There’s so much music in Almost Famous. How did you pick the songs for the film?

CC: They’re all my favorite songs and they’re slightly obscure. Not all of them, but I had this bunch of songs that I wanted to use and slowly but surely I saw some of them going to commercials and it was like, “Wait … don’t sell a Toyota with that song. I was going to use that!” And these were the ones that were left over, even though the Cat Stevens song, it was too late to change the song. Timberland Boots now uses “The Wind.” That’s why we had to get this movie out! But there are more songs than classic radio lets you remember from the era. Those albums were filled with fabulous songs, not just the obvious ones. So we wanted to use some of the more obscure ones and say, “Deep Purple is more than just ‘Highway Star.'”

Q: There have been a lot of films that try to capture a live concert. Some have been successful, some haven’t. What are some of the obstacles of filming a live show?

CC: What you have to do is be true to the era. What we wanted to do with this film is shoot it from the point of view of the fan; the kid who’s lucky enough to be on stage next to the guitarist’s amp. What’s his perspective? Watching the audience past the rock band. That helped us a lot. And another thing was that we based it a lot on the photographs of Neil Preston who I used to tour with back then, a great concert photographer. And just less; less lights, no video hook-ups, more of that private feeling that it’s just you and your favorite band. Not much in the way of frills, but all music, and that feeling has changed a little bit over time with MTV. To just take a step back and remember a little bit what it was like.

Q: What about your statement that the only true currency is being uncool. Now that you’re successful and famous are you cool or uncool?

CC: I’m completely uncool, can’t you tell? C’mon!

Q: Well, is there a danger of you selling out when you become as successful as you’ve become?

CC: I think you just have to keep eating at the places you eat at and do the things you always did and drive the car you always used to drive and not turn into this person you think you should be. Just be the person who you truly are, and all these characters in the movie helped really shape who I really am. I still try to be true to the stuff I discovered through them, and to me that’s cool.

Courtesy of – J. Sperling Reich