With his long awaited, autobiographical follow-up to ”Jerry Maguire” new in theaters, director Cameron Crowe is coming clean — sort of — about his teenage years as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone. ”Almost Famous” stars 16 year old newcomer Patrick Fugit as Cameron’s young alter ego, a San Diego teenager and aspiring journalist who goes on the road with a legendary but fictional rock band led by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee. Crowe sat down with EW.com to talk about mixing fact and fiction, corrupting the minds of innocent actors, and telling the story of rock and roll on film.
Why a ’70s movie now?
The story was slipping away. I was starting to see the ’70s as kitsch, and I always remembered the passion of the time and the people who gave me a hand in the early days of rock journalism. I tried to tell the story in different ways over 10 years, but it didn’t work. This time I just tried to write nakedly about my life and family. Unfortunately that became the right tone.
Because the only way to do it was to be raw.
What is it about this era in rock that’s so charged for you?
I love music. I write scripts with music blasting. And like any fan, my perfect day is buying bootlegs. I’ve always been that guy.
It shows — I’m thinking of the scene in ”Singles” with Kyra Sedgwick and Campbell Scott poring over Scott’s record collection.
Yeah! Or even John Cusack making a mix tape to impress Ione Sky in ”Say Anything.” The first thing I did when Tom Cruise said he was going to be in ”Jerry Maguire” was I pulled him into this room and played him the Who’s live ”Magic Bus” from ”Live at Leeds,” and said this is what the movie is going to feel like. I guess the time came where I had the courage to give [telling the story of ”Almost Famous”] a try. It’s hard, though, because documentaries always seem the best way of catching music. Take that Elton John doc, ”Tantrums in Tiaras,” I could watch that for DAYS. It’s just great and you think: Can you make a movie that’s not too sentimental, about what the ’70s were like and why music is so great?
Which names have been changed to protect the innocent?
The band [in the movie] was all the ones I wrote about. The Who, Led Zeppelin, the Eagles, the Allman Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Ronnie Van Zant from Skynyrd singled me out from a lot of press buzzing around in 1973. For some reason he loved my writing and tried to sponsor my stuff. He actually was the first guy I knew really well who died, and I could never write about him afterwards. I was supposed to do an obit and I couldn’t. It was the first thing that I just failed at. I was shattered. I mean, I couldn’t even listen to Skynyrd for 20 years after [the plane crash that killed several band members]. Writing this movie helped me pay tribute — even in a composite way — to the guys who took care of me.
It has an intimate feel.
What I’m proudest of is that I was able to champion my mom [in the film]. She never did reconcile with my sister until, really, about two weeks ago. And the movie had something to do with it, because my sister knew that it was comin’ out and we all got together. And my mom and my sister hugged, and it looked almost exactly like Francis McDormand and Zooey Deschanel in the movie and I just thought: Okay, anything can happen now. I dunno what else would have done it, barring a tragic accident involving one of us, probably me.
Any awkwardness telling your own story?
The sepia toned self portrait is really one of the worst subgenres in movies. They do stuff like bring in actors that look like you. Pity the poor soul that happens to look like the guy who is doing his autobiographical movie… man. You sit in the room with your hands kinda dangling between your legs, going, so, uh, hi. And the guy’s like, uh, hi. And so what’s goin’ on. And you’re both looking at each other going THIS IS WEIRD!
How do you go about casting an actor who’s YOU at age 15?
You lie to yourself. You say you’re not [casting yourself]. But there are moments [where the cast and crew] almost watch you and think: ”Hey, therapy would’ve been cheaper and we could be working ‘Charlie’s Angels.”’
Mixing fact and fiction in an autobiography seems a double edged sword to me — I’m curious where it cut.
It hurts if the ”you” character has your name. It’s confusing. So we gave [Patrick Fugit’s character] a different name. Otherwise, there are real figures mixed with composites. In the end, I think composites help you reach a greater truth. Take Penny Lane
the groupie played by Kate Hudson — her name was the name of a real girl, but in the movie, she’s a composite of a type of girl that was around.
It seems to me a major theme is finding community, fitting in.
Yeah! Music became a friend — it gave me that feeling of ”you’re not alone.” Particularly Todd Rundgren. That sad sack, lovelorn geek guy was me. When I heard Rundgren, my first reaction was holy shit! There’s more of me out there. My mom had skipped me all these grades and music was the thing that I clung to. And when I started getting assignments, I would hang out with these bands and they were like me. Remember, you couldn’t see rock. To read about it you had to go to a head shop to get some of these magazines and they were stacked with porno. All of a sudden you had this thing, it was like a drug. And you know what? People still feel that. There are little girls who listen to Britney Spears and feel there’s someone out there who understands them.
Was there ever a story you did that was as difficult as the one William goes after in the movie?
Yeah. A number of ’em. Jackson Browne, the Allman Brothers. Then there was Led Zeppelin. They had never talked to Rolling Stone, I think because of a fight that Page had with [publisher] Jann Wenner in England in ’69. The legend was that Zeppelin got all their albums panned in Rolling Stone and Page was sure that Wenner had a vendetta, so nobody would talk to Rolling Stone from Zeppelin. So I got an assignment from the L.A. Times to tour with them and the idea was to talk them into doing Rolling Stone. So as the tour continued one by one they all agreed. And I filed my story — over a MOJO, just like in the movie — and [Rolling Stone] called me to San Francisco. I thought that Jann was going to congratulate me for getting them their cover. I remember that it was the day Ralph Gleason died and Jann was really upset. I think he’d been crying. Jann said: ”We’re going to run this piece because we need it, but we’re not happy with it. You wrote what they wanted you to write.” Then he gave me a copy of ”Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and went home to mourn Ralph Gleason. But that was the most vivid memory of coming into the Rolling Stone office for me — so it’s in there.