Almost Famous – Urban Cinefile

Crowe, Cameron: Almost Famous

Stone the Rolling Crowes!

When filmmaker Cameron Crowe describes his latest movie, Almost Famous, as deeply personal, he’s not kidding. The 43-year-old writer/director of Say Anything, Singles and Jerry Maguire has finally told the story of his own start as a rock journalist at the tender age of 15, when his mother let him go on the road with Led Zeppelin for Rolling Stone magazine. Crowe tells all to Jenny Cooney Carrillo.

“People who don’t know my story watch the movie and say, ‘as if that could happen’,” Crowe says with amusement as we sit down in a hotel in New York, where he is currently filming his next romantic comedy Vanilla Sky, reuniting him with his Jerry Maguire star Tom Cruise. “If I lived to be 100, I couldn’t make a movie that is closer to me.”

In the film, his character is played by newcomer Patrick Fugit and the fictional band of Stillwater includes actors like Billy Crudup and Jason Lee. So how much is fact and fiction? And who are some of the real musical acts that inspired scenes in the film? And was there a groupie like Penny Lane, played by Kate Hudson, the daughter of Goldie Hawn, whose poignant portrayal won her a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress? This fascinating filmmaker who straddles the worlds of movies and music – thanks to his wife, former Heart musician Nancy Wilson – reveals all.

So how true is the movie really?

It’s agonizingly true, to be frank. I still get a pang of embarrassment when you even ask that question because this is the one where I couldn’t hide behind a sports agent character or anything. It happened that way. At the time I met all these vivid, very passionate people that had this love of music so that’s what I wanted to capture. But I think it’s good that I’m slightly embarrassed about this stuff because if you aren’t, then maybe you aren’t telling the total truth.

How did it feel to be 15 and travel with these amazing bands?

I felt like I was a fan and I’d somehow found a front row seat and I felt like I snuck in, so I wanted to be true to the other fans and give them the experience that I was having. My original goal as a journalist was to be a fly on the wall and that’s still my goal today as a filmmaker.

So in the movie your character writes the story and then the singer flatly denies saying the quotes. Did that ever happen to you?

Yeah, it happened a couple of times and it was really painful. I spent a couple of weeks on the road with Neil Young who was an artist that I really admired and I turned the story in and the fact-checkers called him and he said, ‘I never said that. I’m not approving the story of the photos and I don’t want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone’. The magazine called and said, ‘you spent three weeks on the road with Neil Young and cost us money and now he’s setting the story aside – you’re in trouble’. I called his manager and told him I was in trouble and what happened was Neil changed his mind at the last minute because he didn’t want me fired.

What about the real woman that inspired Penny Lane? Are you in touch with her?

Yeah, I called her when I was making the movie and she said, ‘I hope you’re just true to the music and don’t do some tell-all sensational thing’. She herself never did a tell-all book and was nervous about what I would write so we brought her to L.A. and showed her the movie and she wrote me a letter saying, ‘if I die tomorrow, I would be satisfied that there was a movie out there that described what it was like to love music and dedicate your life to it’. I’m going to save that letter forever because a lot of the stuff you see is all sensation and it’s all behind the music and it’s all the Spinal Tap version, but a lot of those girls really did believe in the music and she was one of them.

What does the title Almost Famous mean?

I fought hard to call the movie Untitled because I thought it would be great to put a movie out with no title. The studio didn’t agree with me so we went back to this title Almost Famous, because I used to go to concerts and I’d see Mick Jagger or whoever standing off to the side looking at everybody and asking; ‘who are these people? Are they groupies? Friends of the promoter? Married to the bass player? Because they’re almost famous and the movie is a lot about those people as well as the people on stage. I’m still a fan. I’ve met with actors who are shocked that I show enthusiasm but I try and be a fan of the people I work with and I believe in fan-dom. That’s why there’s that speech at the end of the movie about what it is to be a fan.

You’ve said you also made this movie to bring your sister and mother back together. Were you successful?

We’re still working on it. They were together watching the movie the other night and it’s always a tender thing when my mother and sister get together. You never know how it’s going to go, frankly. They’re strong personalities and they sat one row apart watching the movie. When Frances McDormand, who plays my mother, says in the movie, ‘you’re rebellious and ungrateful of my love’, my mom turns around and very loudly patted my sister on the knee and said, ‘I never said that’ and I was like, ‘mom, please not in the middle of the movie!’ But this movie was a very personal thing to put out there for them too and I just hope it helps build a bridge.

What can you tell us about your next film, Vanilla Sky?

It’s a contemporary love story set in New York and it’s just got some really strong, modern characters. It’s Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz so it’s Cruise, Cruz, Cameron, Cameron and I figure if we found a way to get Russell Crowe in there we could make it really confusing!!!

How do you come up with ideas for your films?

Every time I’ve tried to write a so-called successful film, it either hasn’t been made or at a certain point I figured if I was given the privilege of making the movie, I wouldn’t even want to go see it myself! I think my taste is such that there hopefully would be other people like me out there. The movie ideas come a lot of times from the music because I sort of work from the score and music first. It’s an odd way to work, I know, but it works for me because I’m married to a musician and there is always music in the house.

Being a writer-producer-director today must be difficult with the Hollywood studio system being what it is. How do you maintain control of your films?

The directors I admire were the ones that were able to work in the mainstream and do personal movies, sometimes subversive movies, like Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, William Wyler, even Truffaut to a certain extent. I don’t know how mainstream Truffaut’s great hit was but I think that’s my goal. They are my heroes, directors who reach people with universal themes but don’t make it bland and make it true to yourself.

Courtesy of Urban Cinefile – Jenny Cooney Carrillo – February 22, 2001