Almost Famous – Total Film Magazine

Cameron Crowe

Jerry Maguire and become pals with Billy Wilder. Famous? Almost…

Once there was this kid living in 1970s San Diego. And he loved rock ’n’ roll. He loved rock ’n’ roll so much that all he ever did was listen to rock ’n’ roll and write about rock ’n’ roll. When he was 15, this kid – we’ll call him Cameron, Cameron Crowe – began writing for a magazine called Creem, under the guidance of a veteran music writer named Lester Bangs. One day Lester told Cameron: “You are not cool.” Cameron listened, and by 16 he was contributing editor at a bigger magazine called Rolling Stone, leaving home to tour with his heroes, bands with names like Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers.

Then Cameron gave it all up for movies. At 22, he went undercover at a high school to write a best-selling book, which became a successful teen movie (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) starring then-unknowns, people like Nic Cage and Sean Penn. During the next two decades, Cameron made his directorial debut (Say Anything), his Seattle grunge paean (Singles) and his Oscar-nominated Tom Cruise movie (Jerry Maguire). Each dealt with themes dear to him, like the triumph of youthful innocence over cynicism or his abiding passion for rock ’n’ roll. Cameron even wrote a book about another one of his heroes, based on his conversations with him. This man was never in a rock band. However, he was a great director. He is called Billy Wilder.

But Cameron never forgot his roots. In his new film, Almost Famous, he returns to his teen years in the tale of a fictional band called Stillwater. The group criss-cross America in search of fame and fortune, led by guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and white-trash groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson). Cameron based the central character on himself: observant 16-year-old William Miller, who persuades Rolling Stone to give him an assignment, without the magazine realising his age or inexperience…

After Jerry Maguire, were you tempted to take the money and run?

There was an enormous temptation to take a script that was already written and direct it, just to get back to work quickly. I got offered Out Of Sight with George Clooney, and George called to try and persuade me to do it, which was tempting. I later met Steven Soderbergh, who ended up directing it, and just said: “Thanks.” To put George together with Jennifer Lopez, like he did, was a brilliant move. But writing my own stuff and then directing it is a hard route to follow.

Why did Almost Famous take so long for you to write?

I don’t have a formula, but I have a process of reading hideously long versions of the script to friends and loved ones. When I start to bore them and they make excuses not to listen, I know I’ve got to make changes. This happened again and again, so I knew the script wasn’t right. I ended up with about 20 versions. But they were 20 different scripts, rather than rewrites – and then I rewrote each script, endlessly. There were versions which were like Austin Powers, because I was too chicken to make it personal. It didn’t make sense for a long time.

You were originally talking to Brad Pitt about playing Russell Hammond…

Brad and I worked on the part, and he was very funny in it, but in the end it was just not meant to be. There are a lot of movies that Brad toys around with. To be honest, I think he still had Fight Club in his blood and hadn’t really got rid of that character. In the end, Billy Crudup was the right man for the job. When we saw him, he knew that we had been dealing with Brad but his enthusiasm was incredible. He knew how to hold a guitar, play a few chords and do basic stuff. When we put him together with Peter Frampton, he was such a willing pupil. Once he picked up the guitar, he didn’t put it down. The last thing I wanted was for a band to go out there, looking as if they were in a movie.

And Kate Hudson was originally going to play William Miller’s sister…

I think our casting process must have got a little too much publicity! We were talking to others about the part of Penny Lane – including Sarah Polley – but Kate was brilliant. Kate is like a heroine from a Billy Wilder movie. I could torture you forever with my love of Billy Wilder, who had the greatest screen heroines. They would sit in a chair, with a certain look, and you’d be laughing; a minute later, they would be in tears about something and you would think: “My God, I know someone like that.” Kate possesses sexiness, charm, confidence and a touch of vulnerability. Just like Penny, she lights up a room just by entering it. As a director, you put the camera on her and never want to cut away. You just want to watch her.

What does Billy Wilder think of Almost Famous?

It was the toughest two hours of my life, because I couldn’t really tell. I sat behind him so I could work the volume, because at 94 he is not a fan of rock music. He laughed when Penny Lane was told that her rock star lover wanted to trade her for $50 and a crate of beer, and she looks hurt, before saying: “What kind of beer?” I have written a line that made Billy Wilder laugh! Anything can happen from here and I will still be a happy guy.

Why were you worried about putting your own life in the spotlight?

I basically believe that writers should be anonymous. Things go horribly wrong when someone whose life depends on being invisible suddenly stands up and says: “Hey, look at me!” William does not drive the story, he’s an observer. It’s the only way I could deal with it being about my life.

Did you ever consider making a cameo appearance?

No. I’m a terrible actor. Even in a wordless cameo, I’d stink up the room. I would fire myself on sight…

Is William’s sexual initiation in the film based on personal experience?

Kind of. But not three girls! Those girls were closer to the heart of rock ’n’ roll than most of the musicians they slept with. They knew every word of every song and actually fell in love with these guys. But I don’t know where they are today. They are sort of released into the mists of time.

Have you found actors to be as jealous of each other as rock stars?

Definitely. They can hate each other, but if the movie turns out to be good, it is all forgotten, as if a big deodorant had been squirted all over them. Or you can have the greatest experience making a movie, and if it doesn’t turn out too well, they all head for the hills and don’t speak at all. Rock bands are more gloriously trivial and open about their problems.

Which cast has given you the most problems so far?

Singles. The cast didn’t quite come together. They were in different worlds, and I didn’t feel in control. For Fast Times At Ridgemont High too, the cast were young, but wanted their say. Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Eric Stoltz: they were all going places, and had strong opinions. But when you’re directing and writing, someone has to take charge.

And what lessons did you learn on Say Anything, your directorial debut?

Always hire talent and be ready to take risks with it. John Cusack and John Mahoney brought their opinions to the table, and while you can’t make too many changes, and have to rely on preparation, I’m always ready to listen to new ideas.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given about becoming a successful director?

“Always hire a good cinematographer.” And I’ve depended on them ever since. No one thinks I’m the director on set – certainly not the extras or anyone on it for a short time – because I let the cinematographer take charge. He’s the one going around saying: “Put the camera here. We are going to shoot from there.” I just try and create an atmosphere in which everyone is comfortable.

What were your worst experiences while you were a journalist?

Neil Young felt he had not approved of the idea of appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. The magazine told me: “You are in trouble, because we have spent money and sent you on the road and have a cover prepared. This guy is now saying that he never said yes to the story.” But Neil then found out I was going to get fired over it and changed his mind… just like Russell does with William in the film. I also did a story on Steve Miller when I was 17. He just looked at me and said: “You’re too young to write about me.” I said: “I’m not too young to buy your records.” He said: “You’re too young to grasp what I’m about – so go.”

So what’s the best gig you’ve ever seen?

The Who in San Diego, 1971. I don’t think anyone is going to top that. Now? I’d pay to see Radiohead in a second. They should be on the cover of Rolling Stone with a report from someone on the road with them.

In your six years on Rolling Stone, which rock star shocked you the most?

David Bowie. It was one of the most exciting peak-behind-the-curtain profiles that I was able to do. He was going through some strange stuff then, like saving his urine in a bottle. He also had pieces of paper all across the floor. He was in a wild phase in LA, before straightening out and moving to Berlin.

Did you recognise Joe Eszterhas’ depiction of Rolling Stone in the ‘70s as a madhouse of sex and drugs, as he wrote in his book American Rhapsody?

There is always a world which I don’t see, for some reason. Actors on Fast Times At Ridgemont High have said that we were partying constantly. Well, I wasn’t invited to any of those parties, in the same way that Rolling Stone must have shielded me from that stuff. I never saw pot being smoked in the office and there was certainly no sex. I once saw Joe, this big burly guy, standing in a doorway. He looked at me, went back in to the office and shut the door. We now know what was going on…

Courtesy of Total Film Magazine – Garth Pearce – February, 2001