Almost Famous – Seattle Times

‘They’ say no one’s interested in a movie of your life. They’re not Cameron Crowe

One of the first things would-be writers learn in Screenwriting 101 is that no one is interested in your life. No matter how pivotal that date you had with Mary Jane in high school is to you, no matter how much it defined your entire existence, it doesn’t mean it’ll make a good movie.

For most, this sounds like smart advice. However, most of us didn’t write for Rolling Stone magazine when we were 16 years old. Most of us weren’t mentored by lethal, legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (of Creem magazine) at age 15. Most of us didn’t hang out with the Eagles or Neil Young, or travel on tour with Led Zeppelin before we could drive.

Miraculously, writer/director Cameron Crowe did all of these things, and now, some 25 years later, the filmmaker is in a position to ignore film-school advice and give us his personal accounts of those wild times.

Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” due out Friday, is a rarity nowadays: a $60 million, studio-financed (DreamWorks fronted the cash), intensely intimate, ensemble picture that shows its director openly, dangerously wearing his heart on his sleeve. The film is a wide-eyed, romantic poem to early-’70s rock ‘n’ roll set against Crowe’s own turbulent, dysfunctional family life.

“Almost Famous” stars unknown actor Patrick Fugit as Crowe’s 15-year-old alter ego, William Miller. Stuck with an obsessively nurturing, conservative mother (played by Oscar winner Frances McDormand), William escapes his suburban San Diego upbringing through rock ‘n’ roll.

Early on, he contacts Lester Bangs (perfectly embodied by Philip Seymour Hoffman) for advice about rock journalism, and soon after, is hired by Rolling Stone to do a piece on Stillwater, a fictional band from Troy, Mich., who are riding high on the success of their single, “Fever Dog.” William embarks on a short tour that turns epic and crazed when lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) dodges numerous requests for a sit-down interview. As William loses his objectivity and increasingly becomes part of the band’s inner circle, he’s forced to question concepts like reality, family and friendship.

The “Almost Famous” press tour resembles Stillwater’s frantic cross-country journey, with the participants hitting numerous cities often for only a few hours before jumping back on a plane. Seated in an airport lounge at Boeing Field, however, Crowe hardly seems exhausted. He talks a mile a minute, often jumping out of his chair when the excitement of his latest project consumes him.

The pressure of “Almost Famous” is entirely on Crowe’s shoulders; he’s following up his biggest success, “Jerry Maguire,” and unlike in that Oscar winner, he doesn’t have the big-name presence of Tom Cruise to sell the picture. It doesn’t help, either, that Crowe’s been working on this project his entire film career.

“This was always the next movie,” Crowe says. “I wrote it up here (in Seattle) . . . I wrote it 10 times up here. Just as an aside, this is the best place to write. I have a house with Nancy (Wilson, his wife) in Woodinville and I’ve always done my best writing here. Anyway, I always wanted to capture what I loved about music. I did so many different versions of this and most of them weren’t worth filming . . . When it started to be about my family, and stuff I was nervous to write about, it became a put up or shut up kind of project.”

Unlike some directors who might try to divert personal associations with the fictional characters they’ve created, Crowe is bluntly honest about how his real life fits into “Almost Famous.”

“It’s agonizingly close, painfully close,” Crowe admits. “It’s too close to even cop to, you know? But, I can’t be the coy guy who says, `Don’t confuse me with the protagonist.’ I can’t. It all happened.”

Though fictional, Stillwater, for example, is a composite of numerous tours that Crowe embarked on during the early ’70s. Crowe says that the Eagles are a definite inspiration, mostly because they were slightly wild guys who weren’t that much older than him. The primary source material for the tour, however, is Led Zeppelin.

“Rolling Stone ripped apart all of their albums,” Crowe explains. “So, (guitarist) Jimmy Page said that he’d never talk to Rolling Stone, but Rolling Stone always wanted to put them on the cover . . . But I had written about them for other places and they also knew that I wrote for Rolling Stone. I went on tour with them for another publication . . . and stayed on the road with them to try and convince them to do Rolling Stone. And, as in the movie, a couple days turned into a long three-week tour. My eyes got blood red, because I just didn’t sleep. One by one, they all said they’d do it, except for Jimmy Page who kept saying, `In another city, I’ll make the decision.’ Of course, that becomes the lull of the movie, too, as Russell Hammond continually plays that game with poor William.”

Those who have seen all of Crowe’s work will realize that music has always played a huge part in his films . . . and way beyond his near-perfect, best-selling soundtracks.

Mike Damone from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (which Crowe wrote in his early 20s) makes his living scalping concert tickets and quoting lyrics to customers. Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) from “Say Anything. . .” is defined by his Clash T-shirt. And then there’s “Singles,” Crowe’s glimpse at the early ’90s Seattle scene, in which grunge music nearly becomes a character all its own. Looking back, Crowe says it was just a matter of time before he dedicated an entire film to music culture, and that “Almost Famous” is the type of movie that many people expected “Singles” to be.

“People thought `Singles’ was going to be the (Mudhoney vocalist) Mark Arm Story,” he laughs. “What `Singles’ was always meant to be was `Manhattan’ set in Seattle . . . There’s problems with `Singles’ but there’s stuff I really like, such as Bridget Fonda’s performance and just the fact that we caught parts of the city at a key time. But the problem was that the studio hung on to it for a year, not knowing what to do with it, and then Nirvana exploded, and they decided to put it out. At that point, it was the perception that somebody went to Seattle to do a movie to exploit the scene. It was really disappointing, not only for me but for people in Seattle.”

Crowe says the experience bruised his career, and a lot of the frustration he felt went into the script for “Jerry Maguire.” While cult successes, films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Say Anything . . .” weren’t exactly box-office hits either, and his reputation among Hollywood studios was shaky.

“I was going to a lot of meetings to talk about stuff I wanted to do, and got very similar responses,” Crowe remembers. “Stuff like `Well, you get some good reviews sometimes, but do people really go see your stuff? Isn’t it the kind of thing that people wait for on video? Isn’t it that way?’ ”

Crowe freely admits that Tom Cruise changed all of that with one phone call. He called the director after seeing “Say Anything” and told him that if he ever wrote a part similar to Lloyd Dobler, he wanted to be first in line to do it.

“That was the first and only star that had ever said anything like that to me,” he says. “Most of the time, I would try to get a bigger name to help the movie out and they’d be like `Ahhh . . . I’m supposed to work at a coffee shop during that time, and that’s really hard for me to play and . . .’ ”

Despite the success of “Jerry Maguire,” Crowe experienced the same casting hardships with “Almost Famous.” Brad Pitt was originally scheduled to play Russell Hammond, but dropped out six weeks before shooting. Then, there was the part of Penny Lane, the promiscuous groupie who falls for Hammond, but is equally adored by William. Sarah Polley (“Go”) was cast in the part, but also dropped out after DreamWorks delayed the production numerous times. Kate Hudson, who signed on for the role of William’s sister, Anita, slipped into the Penny Lane part. Crowe’s misfortune, however, may prove to be a stroke of genius, as Hudson nearly steals the entire picture.

“We had absolutely no rehearsal time, but man, I got lucky,” Crowe says. “She really lights up a room.”

If casting problems and numerous delays weren’t enough for a director already struggling to make such a personal film, it was nothing compared to the grief Crowe experienced after production was finished. In a much-publicized dilemma, it appeared that while Crowe had a film with great buzz, he couldn’t give it a title. Up until a month or so ago, it was still being called the “Untitled Cameron Crowe Project.” Crowe says that the press misunderstood the situation, and that he actually had a title the whole time.

“To me, it was always `Untitled,’ ” he claims. “It’s weird to become a poster boy for indecision, when in fact I always had it called `Untitled.’ I showed it as `Untitled.’ Every time I talked to the studio, it was `Untitled.’ I argued for a year and a half and ultimately they just wouldn’t go for it. The thing was, I wanted to have that feeling of the fourth Led Zeppelin album – you know how it just didn’t have a title – and (the studio) said, `Can you imagine going to a box office and say I’d like two tickets to a movie with no title?’ And I would say `Yes! I’d be there on opening night!’ ”

Courtesy of the Seattle Times – Dave McCoy – September 10, 2000