Almost Famous – Soho Independent

Definitely Famous

There wasn’t a film released in the US in the year 2000 which earned better reviews than Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s very personal odyssey chronicling his own teenage years as a precocious Rolling Stone reporter. Yet excellent reviews do not always a box office titan make, and Almost Famous is no exception. Certainly, it was a difficult sell. Though Brad Pitt flirted with the project for months, Crowe says he ultimately “didn’t get it. He just couldn’t see himself in the role.” Though Crowe harbours no animosity towards Pitt and, in Billy Crudup, found a most worthy replacement to play his fictional band’s heart-throb guitarist, the film was left without a name. Indeed, in the US, it was marketed with the tag line ‘From the director of Jerry Maguire’. Maguire, of course, was the film that shot Crowe into the rarefied Hollywood super-A-list, taking more than $153 million at the US box office. But its legacy did not put American bums on seats.

Certainly, Almost Famous has made a star of the luminous Kate Hudson who wasn’t even supposed to play the role she did, but the buzz surrounding its release never translated to commercial success. Award nominations could make a difference but for Crowe and everyone else associated with the film, it is already a success. Another casting choice crucial to the film’s veracity was that of Patrick Fugit, a largely inexperienced 15-year-old from Utah whose trip to LA to meet Cameron Crowe was his first to the city. His real-life wide-eyed wonderment conveyed exactly the sort of naive enthusiasm Crowe wanted for his screen alter-ego, though he was quick to advise Fugit that his role was that of William Miller, not Cameron Crowe, teenager. But Almost Famous is nevertheless a thinly-veiled biography with most of the film’s through line based on actual events. Crowe really was mentored by famed writer Lester Bangs, and feels Philip Seymour Hoffman “just found him. It was a beautiful thing”.

Was Almost Famous really going to be set in London originally?

Yeah, partially. I went there with a hi-8 and just shot some locations at one point including the place where the cover of Ziggy Stardust was shot, which is a xerox store now. You go in and look around and the guy says, “Yeah, it was shot here”. And it didn’t happen partially because of Austin Powers and these CD Now ads started to run here and there were British roadies speaking kind of like the characters in my script so I thought, ‘Well, it’s harder to write an American band but let me see if I can do it’.

You were one of us, a journalist, and now you’re one of them. What’s that like?

I want to be both actually. I did this book on Billy Wilder and people were surprised I’d want to do that but to me, interviewing and journalism is still my first language. I hope as a director I’m still a journalist. The people who work on the movies with me have to say enough already with the table and what’s on the walls, you have to direct the actors now. I just love the details.

In retrospect, were you too young to be doing what you were doing?

That’s a good question. Emotionally, maybe. Professionally, no. I got my heart broken a few times. I hadn’t even had a girlfriend when I first went out on the road so I was looking for my first girlfriend and they were looking for rock stars. It was like it is in the movie. To me, I thought, ‘Wow, these are girls who will actually talk to me’, because I was much younger than the girls I went to school with. But of course they were talking to me about the guy.

How different is the Almost Famous filmed screenplay from the one you wrote?

Very different. Jerry Maguire was the closest to the way I wrote and imagined it. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s going to be easy now’ but it wasn’t. I think that was a good fluke. This one was tough.

Did you get huge directing offers after Jerry Maguire?

Not a lot, frankly. I got offered Out of Sight and George Clooney called me himself. He said, “This is George Clooney, TV actor, and I have a script for you”. It was that, and I love that writer, Scott Frank, and I almost did it. But I chickened out. I knew I’d be more comfortable if I’d written the script and I sort of already knew I wanted to do this one. I’ve tried to get movies offered to me that I haven’t got close to. I really wanted to direct Little Man Tate, for example. With Out of Sight, though, I really wasn’t sure I could get the gunplay business down. Look at how Soderbergh did it, though. He did it great and it’s not about gunplay. The scene that I really wanted to be able to direct was Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the trunk of the car. That’s like, ‘Whoah, let me at that. Can we make THAT scene an hour and a half?’ Soderbergh later thanked me for passing and I could not have done the job he did. I love that movie.

How has Rolling Stone changed since you wrote for it?

Well, I still read it. There’s a joke in the film where someone says “Rolling Stone doesn’t put someone with one little hit on the cover”. And no one laughs. Because now all you need is to be sort of successful and good-looking and you’re on the cover. Groups used to say, “Look, we’ve done eight albums. Embrace us.”

Why is that?

There are so many more magazines now and it’s more expensive to do them. And a flashier image is what will get the attention on a newstand. I think they still do good pieces inside. But you can’t sit back and say give me the old days. Time moves on.

Did Rolling Stone know how young you were when you started working for them?

No. I always thought if I acted like Woodward and Bernstein in All The President’s Men I’d kind of get away with it. I kind of acted like Dustin Hoffman and put on this deep voice. What actually happened is different from what you see in the movie. Ben Fontorres called my house and my sister answered the phone and said, “Do you know he’s only 16 years old?”. And I came home and she told me and I said, “Why did you do that?” And she said, “Well, he was really friendly.” So they printed it in the magazine and it became sort of a calling card for me but I was forever meeting people later who said when they found out how young I was they really hated me because they were 16 and wanted to do that more than anything.

The relationship with your mother is a central theme of the film. How is your relationship with her now?

She still thinks I’m going to go to law school. We moved to this house in San Diego so that we’d be close to this law school. And every time I go home, she says, “Let’s go walk up there.” And we do. And she says, “Isn’t this a wonderful campus.” And I keep saying, “Mom, I’m too old.”

She’s a great character, isn’t she?

Isn’t she! You try and write a mother and I always found I couldn’t write a character as great as my own mother.

What about the line she says she never said: “You are rebellious and ungrateful of my love”?

Well, she said it in other ways. I’m afraid that’s the truth.

Does she like herself in the movie?

She does. She likes Frances a lot. And there are little things she says she never said. She said she never went barefoot in the house, which she didn’t. So sue me. String me up.

There’s a moment in the film where you discover your mother has lied to you about your age, and you are a year younger than you think you are. Did that happen?

Oh yes. And that was a scene I knew would be a definitive one and I always knew I wanted to have that in something. I don’t know how it happened either that I lost a year, but I really was hurt.

Wasn’t Sarah Polley going to play Penny Lane originally?

Yes, but destiny was not on our side. I’m a big fan of hers but she couldn’t do it. And it was really unplayable I think, the way I wrote it. I based Penny Lane on the real girl and girls like her, and then there was a little Audrey Hepburn and a little Shirley Maclaine. You had to sort of subtract something so there was something there to play. And there was one line Kate did as the sister which was so great. It was when she finds her brother in the airport and says, “You guys, I’ll see you later. I think I’m needed here.” It killed me. It was very hard to give that up but that’s the trade-off. We got our trade-off and I love Zoey Deschanel as the sister.

Did Kate want it badly?

Badly. I knew I was in trouble because I thought if I didn’t give her Penny Lane I was going to have someone who was a little less happy in the other part. Maybe. It was a conversation I had with her before we tried out for Penny Lane. But I would feel that way. I would feel like, “Okay, I didn’t get what I really wanted”. But I really feel like fate was on our side.

Tell me about Vanilla Sky.

Well, I’m trying to get right back to work. It’s with Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and Tom Cruise. So we’ll see. Contemporary love story set in New York. That’s all I can say. Cameron and Cameron, and Cruz and Cruise. Weird how that worked out.

Could there be a love triangle?

There could be.

Finally, did you really invent the word ‘wuss’?

No, I heard that in school though we might have been the first to use it in a movie [in Fast Times at Ridgemont High]. What an honour!

Courtesy of SoHo Independent – Lesley O’Toole – February 2001