Almost Famous – Seattle PI

Crowe calls ‘Almost Famous’ one of his proudest achievements

Movie history tells us that just about the hardest kind of film for an established director to make is his own coming-of-age autobiography: Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, William Wellman and dozens of other film immortals have tried and failed to pull one off.

On the other hand, Fellini did it splendidly in “Amarcord,” and so has Barry Levinson with his ongoing series of “Baltimore” movies. And, now, so has Seattle filmmaker Cameron Crowe with his delightful new comedy memoir, “Almost Famous.”

Moreover, this film — which traces Crowe’s budding career as a 15-year-old rock journalist for Rolling Stone magazine — is not just a winning autobiography, it’s an oasis of wit and style that comes on the heels of what is generally regarded now as the most intensely raunchy and witless summer in Hollywood history.

In a conference room at Seattle’s Boeing Field last month, where he’d dropped in for the afternoon on a barnstorming blitz of the country in the DreamWorks corporate jet, Crowe said, “It’s the thing I’m most proud of in my life — this and the Wilder book (‘Conversations with Wilder,’ his 1999 book on Billy Wilder). What can I say? I feel blessed.”

An unassuming, genuinely friendly man who turned 43 in July, Crowe spoke about his labor of love with boyish enthusiasm, but he looked tired at the end of a long day of interviews that began that morning in San Francisco, and he seemed melancholy at the prospect of boarding the plane again at the end of our interview. “It’s so bizarre,” he smiled ironically. “I’ve come home — but only for a few minutes.”

“Home” is actually Woodinville, where Crowe has lived since the late ’80s with his wife, Nancy Wilson, half of the native-Seattle, sister-rock sensation Heart. He’s since filmed two of his four movies here, and it’s clear after a few minutes of conversation that he thinks of himself as part of the community and not just another Hollywood carpetbagger who spends a month in the San Juans every summer.

“I do all my writing here, and my family (wife, two children, in-laws) and most of my friends all live in this area now. I’m definitely the most comfortable when I’m in the Northwest — to the point that the hardest part of my job is having to spend so much time away. And I think these feelings have been heightened by the experience of making this movie, which is by its nature a (psychological) break with my California childhood.”

Why did he feel compelled to tell his own story at this midpoint of his career? “I guess because I could do it — the success of ‘Jerry Maguire’ bought me a ticket. And I’m realistic enough to know that this kind of clout doesn’t last very long in this business — it can slip away overnight. So I thought if I didn’t do it now, I probably never would.”

Is he afraid that such a personal movie might be regarded by some as a Hollywood ego trip?

“Yes, that possibility occurred to me — and I certainly didn’t set out to make a movie that would subtly glorify me. The movie is not so much about me as it’s about the people around me, about that particular era in rock music and what it was like to be in the middle of it. The character is an observer — just as I was.”

“That’s why,” he added, “the biggest challenge I had was finding Patrick (Fugit, the film’s young star). I didn’t want an idealized version of myself. I wanted someone who was funny, awkward and naively idealistic. Someone who was wide-eyed and open — interesting but passive. After months of looking and finding nothing, one day I popped in an audition tape from an unknown kid in Utah and suddenly there he was. He’s the movie.”

“Almost Famous” essentially tells a story that has already entered pop-music mythology: how, in 1973, a shy 15-year-old San Diego rock fanatic bluffed a plum assignment from Rolling Stone over the phone, experienced the headiness of ’70s rock life firsthand and eventually became a successful journalist and associate editor of the magazine in its greatest era.

Crowe’s film career, however, has been somewhat less of a Cinderella story and has involved its share of ups and downs in the two decades since he adapted his own 1979 first book — an “undercover” account of teen life called “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — into a hit 1982 movie that spawned the careers of Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Jennifer Jason Leigh and a half-dozen other notables.

He spent most of the decade after “Fast Times” with one foot in journalism and the other in youth-oriented movie projects like “The Wild Life,” a “Fast Times”-clone he scripted in 1984. But in 1989, after much travail, he finally put together his first film as a writer-director: an unusually perceptive and well-received, filmed-in-Seattle teen comedy called “Say Anything . . .”.

By this time, Crowe had “pretty much relocated to the Seattle area.” It was the early ’90s, just before the Seattle youth scene was about to explode in the national media, and he chronicled the roots of that cultural phenomenon in his second film as a writer-director: “Singles,” a bittersweet look at the “Seattle scene” starring Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon.

“I never stop agonizing about ‘Singles,'” he said, the minute I brought it up. “The movie was held up for a year after we completed it — for a while, it looked like Warner Bros. might not release it at all. By the time it did finally come out, Seattle had become this media event, and the bands I used had all become famous. So instead of being there first, it looked like the movie was just trying to jump on the bandwagon and exploit the thing.

“I suppose I’ll always wonder what would have happened if the movie had come out when it was supposed to — before the grunge thing hit. And I’ve always felt the bands here resented the movie as a (rip-off). But I have to tell you that I recently got an e-mail from Courtney Love. She said that when she wants to show her daughter, Frances, what it was like here in those days, she’ll show her ‘Singles.’ That meant a lot to me.”

“Some years later, a television producer wanted to make a series out of ‘Singles.’ I wouldn’t go along with it — refused permission. I felt that really would be an exploitation of the scene. This is the city I love, and I just didn’t want to be in the position of milking it. Later, the producer turned roughly the same idea into ‘Friends,’ so I probably cost myself a bunch of money. But, if I had to do it over, I think I’d probably do the same thing.”

Seen today, “Singles” seems like the definitive statement about the Seattle youth scene in the early ’90s, but it was perceived as a setback in Crowe’s career. For his next project, he decided to take a big step out of the contemporary youth scene and take his time writing and polishing the script — three years, in fact. The film was “Jerry Maguire,” the hit 1996 comedy about a sports agent (Tom Cruise) whose life is changed big time when he decides to write a personal “mission statement.”

“‘Jerry Maguire’ was like the perfect filmmaking experience. Tom — the biggest star in Hollywood — was a dream to work with. On the first day on the set, in front of all the crew, he empowered me — absolutely empowered me — to make that movie. He respected the script so much that he allowed me to give line readings to the actors, (presenting the inflections and emphasis) I wanted. Believe me, I can’t say enough good things about Tom Cruise.”

Included in the film’s five Oscar nominations were two for Crowe, for best director and best original screenplay. On top of the film’s smash box-office success, this recognition instantly moved him into the midlevel of Hollywood’s A-list of bankable directors. “Its success changed everything for me: It got me a deal with DreamWorks to do this movie, and — just as important — it got me a publisher (Knopf) for the Wilder book.”

Crowe regards Billy Wilder (“Some Like It Hot,” “The Apartment”) as Hollywood’s unchallenged all-time master of sophisticated comedy, and the book is a sumptuously illustrated, freewheeling series of conversations between the young and old directors during a period of a year and a half. It’s one of the most revealing of all inside-moviemaking books, and it ultimately reveals as much about Cameron Crowe as it does about Billy Wilder.

“For me, Billy Wilder defines the art of movie comedy. There’s just no one else who can touch him. We don’t have anything close to (his talent) working in movies today, and it’s such a loss. Seeing his movies makes you realize how much the art has deteriorated since his peak. When was the last time anyone made a movie in this country as good as ‘Some Like It Hot’ or ‘The Apartment?'”

In the book, Wilder talks about his long-standing dream of making a film about his career as a young journalist in the magical days of pre-war Vienna. Was this frustrated desire on the part of his filmmaking hero one of the things that made Crowe want to embark on his own version of the idea?

“Probably it was, because I did realize from talking to Billy that, the further removed you get from your youth, the harder it becomes to do that kind of film successfully. I’m in the stage of my life now when that (formative) period is distant but not so distant that it’s dim in my memory. Also, the early ’70s are not so removed for us that recreating them becomes a (prohibitive) task — as re-creating ’20s Vienna would be for Billy.”

“Almost Famous” opens in Seattle Sept. 15 and nationally on Sept. 22. After the publicity tour, Crowe begins pre-production on his next film, a comedy that the trade papers speculate will star Cruise. This will allow him to spend more time at home — where he writes and rewrites his scripts in a process that usually takes several years and always involves his wife as a ghost collaborator.

Given the fact that he misses his home so much and already has made two films set in and more or less “about” Seattle, has he contemplated making it a trilogy?

“Absolutely. Because right now is the most extraordinary time in the city’s history. Overnight, it’s become like the cultural capital of the world. Since the WTO thing, it’s become even more of a metaphor. The impact of Bill Gates and Paul Allen — dominating the community like two benevolent Renaissance princes — is just so amazing. Sure, if I had a story that captured all this, I’d be very interested in doing it.”

Courtesy of the Seattle-PI – William Arnold – September 7, 2000