“Almost Famous”: Cameron Crowe Interview

SAN DIEGO, Calif., Aug. 12, 2000 — Cameron Crowe‘s adoration for music is obvious.

There’s his nod to the Seattle rock scene in 1992’s “Singles,” where Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell make appearances. There’s 1988’s “Say Anything,” where a heartbroken John Cusack holds a boom box over his head outside the window of Ione Skye, blaring Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”

Finally, there’s his latest film, “Almost Famous,” which finds its turning point on a tour bus, where the members of ’70s rock band Stillwater rediscover their love for music while singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.”

This time, however, Crowe is investing far more than his melodic tastes.

“I was on a disastrous date,” the 43-year-old writer-director recalls. “One of my very first dates, in 1973. And I heard ‘Tiny Dancer,’ so I always go back to that happy/sad moment. The beginning piano part always evoked a real specific time.

“I think music is a souvenir of something that happened while you heard it, the most definitive time you heard it. So I thought, ‘What if the band sort of breaks up and then finds what they love most about music over a song?’ The actors got really sick of the song cause we filmed it over two days.”

It’s just one of the many personal juices sprinkled throughout “Almost Famous,” which stars newcomer Patrick Fugitas 15-year-old music lover William Miller who is hired by Rolling Stone in the early ’70s to follow the rock group Stillwater on tour. Despite warnings from legendary rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Crowe’s real-life mentor, and his overprotective mother (Frances McDormand), William comes of age on the road as he falls for an ethereal fan (Kate Hudson) and grows close to the band’s lead guitarist (Billy Crudup).

It’s an ode to rock ‘n’ roll that is almost completely autobiographical for Crowe, who began writing for rock magazines at 15. By 16 he joined the staff of Rolling Stone, tagging along with Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and other legends. By 22 he’d written his first book, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” which was optioned into the 1982 film. Adapting his own work into a screenplay put Crowe on a new path, and soon Hollywood was beckoning Crowe to “the other side.”

“[But] I miss sitting where you’re sitting,” Crowe says of his days as a journalist. “I miss being able to ask questions of people and what they’ve done. I did a book last year on Billy Wilder and it was a blast — it was just a blast to do it. Billy Wilder is one of my heroes, and I was able to get lost in his body of work. It was great. So I still kind of go back and forth.”

The industry has been kind to Crowe, however; his box office smash “Jerry Maguire,” the only big studio film to be nominated for Best Picture in 1996, won him the clout he needed to get a project like “Almost Famous” off the ground. He even had assistance from his wife, Nancy Wilson of Heart, who wrote the score and Stillwater’s original songs (Crowe helped out).

“I still can’t believe I did it,” he marvels. “I sort of turned to my friends and said, ‘Thanks for all those late-night phone calls when I was screaming in disbelief that I was actually doing a movie about my life. But that’s what makes it the most rewarding in the end. … The thing is, I guess, when someone doesn’t like it they’re basically saying ,’I don’t like your life.'”

But Crowe needn’t worry; the buzz surrounding “Almost Famous,” despite its lack of marquee stars, is pushing it to the top of DreamWorks’ Oscar campaign. Not that he needs the help; his next project, “Vanilla Sky,” is already starring his “Jerry Maguire” lead Tom Cruise and current It girl Penelope Cruz in a modern-day love story.

Despite his success, however, Crowe still didn’t get everything he wanted. The title of his opus, nonexistent until just a few months ago, was called “The Untitled Cameron Crowe Project” — a little long to put on a billboard, and to his dismay Crowe had to settle on another name.

“I was rooting for ‘Untitled.’ I like when paintings don’t have titles — I know it sounds pretentious. I like when albums don’t have titles, like the fourth Led Zeppelin album,” he says.

“But I like ‘Almost Famous.’ ‘Almost Famous’ is probably more truthful. And I woke up to the fact that you can’t put a movie out with no title. [You can’t say] ‘I’d like a ticket to …'”

“Almost Famous” opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 15.