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Cameron Crowe Gets "Almost Famous"

The “Vanilla Sky” director on the bootleg cut of his highly personal movie, and why the director went back and expanded his film for DVD

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It won him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. And even though Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s fictionalized version of his I-was-a-teenage-rock-journalist years, didn’t set any records for putting moviegoers in seats, it’s set to win a whole new audience with the special-edition DVD expansion of his magnum opus, Almost Famous—Untitled: The Bootleg Cut. We called Crowe for the skinny at the sound-mixing stage where he’s finishing up the Tom Cruise-Penélope Cruz romantic drama, Vanilla Sky, due in theaters Dec. 14. (What’s the proof Crowe is sequestered there? The background sound of technicians replaying the same audio cue over and over, from a scene in which Cruise evidently sings Joan Osborne’s ”One of Us” a cappella at the top of his lungs.)

Why didn’t Almost Famous do better in theaters?
For whatever reason, people weren’t compelled to see a movie about rock. Our movie about 1973 got its ass kicked by a movie from 1973. The reconstituted special edition of The Exorcist whomped us two weekends in a row and basically booted us out of the theaters. But it’s been finding its audience ever since it came out. We hear from bands all the time that are just now seeing it and love it. It’s still out there.

So how did you persuade the powers that be to produce a deluxe DVD nine months after the no-frills edition came out?
We had a really good relationship with DreamWorks Home Entertainment. They loved the movie, and they footed the bill. And [music supervisor] Danny Bramson did all the legal work to get all this extra music for no money. All the bands except Cat Stevens gave us the extra [extended-scene] usage of their songs free.

Didn’t it still cost plenty to reedit?
We’re lucky because we had the same editorial and sound and mixing crew working on Vanilla Sky as we had on Almost Famous. So we were able to…do long hours and stay after school, basically, to do Untitled.

You wanted the movie released in theaters titled Untitled. How did marketing folks react?
It was like I was speaking Zulu. They looked at me like ”Brother, you’ve been in the editing room toooo long.”

Did you try other alternative titles before settling on Almost Famous?
One of the discarded titles was Vanilla Sky. It was a sweepstakes. The crew put all these suggestions in a box. One was Saving William’s Privates. But nothing to me felt as right as Untitled. It was like the Zeppelin album that didn’t have a title.

The mom Frances McDormand plays is, of course, modeled directly on your own mother. Is that why you decided to have your mom record the DVD commentary with you?
I originally was going to do it with Joe Hutshing, the editor. But we couldn’t both be away from Vanilla Sky at the same time. One of the guys in our editorial crew said, ”You know what’d be really funny? If you did it with your mom!” And I was like, Now that seems like a good idea, but I can’t just casually mention that to my mom. It’s not like you can kick the idea around with my mom. Once I mention that to my mom, she’s in. So I did, and she was. She’s a real character. And she’s my greatest editor, still. So I like having her there.

Did it give you pause showing the whole world the fights your mother and sister had, even though you fictionalized them and reconciled the characters in the end?
I suspected my sister [Cindy] would be upset at my writing about our family dynamic. We watched it together in a screening room in Santa Monica. And I think she was relieved. Her reaction, over time, was so positive. She started saying, ”Look, I can’t hold on to this stuff anymore that was festering inside of me. It’s all up on screen in this movie. And I can always say to anybody, ‘Go see this movie—this movie is how I felt for many years.”’ She said the movie made it easier for her to let it go.

Is it easier for you to let it go, now that you’ve restored so many cuts to the ”bootleg” version?
We really can’t stop [re]editing the movie. We were sitting around the other day going, ”Oh, man, remember that scene in the back of the van with Fairuza [Balk] and Anna Paquin, where they’re [suddenly] on the road with Humble Pie instead of Stillwater and they’re trying to figure out how exactly they got there? How did we forget to put that back in?” Okay, we need to do Untitled: 2003.