Cameron Crowe on Roadies, Almost Famous, Axl Rose
Almost Famous writer-director Cameron Crowe is going behind the music again — this time with Showtime’s new music series Roadies (June 26, 10 p.m.), which stars Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, and Imogen Poots as the backstage miracle workers of a touring rock band. Earlier this year, in a Q&A for EW’s First Look Issue, we asked the Crowe — the man behind such heart-on-sleeve beloved films as Singles, Say Anything, and Jerry Maguire — what viewers can expect from the upcoming hour-long comedy that marks his TV debut. Here is the bonus-track version of that interview.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In Almost Famous, you shined a spotlight on a kid coming of age on the road, following around a rising band. Now you’re shining the spotlight on the people who shine the spotlights on the band. What intrigued you about that side of the business?
CAMERON CROWE: I hadn’t seen their stories told. The similarity with Almost Famous really is it’s also about loving music, so it’s just another way of writing about characters that just live for music. You know it, you see it in people’s eyes when they’re part of that tribe. I just liked telling their stories, which are other ways of saying music is transcendent and changes your life at the right time and at the right place. When the song that happens becomes a living diary of the way you feel, it’s like, wow, that’s worth telling a story about. … I always used to see these pictures — or when we’d film something — where Elton John would come down the hallway of the Forum on his way to the stage, and some poor [stagehand] would be moving a cart, and he’d see the camera and Elton coming, and he’d be like [mimics someone trying to get out of frame]. The camera would just move past him, and I was like, No — let’s do the show where the camera’s on this guy that’s against the wall. Let Elton John go. We want to know his world. That’s kind of the show.
Obviously there will be comparisons to Almost Famous. On some level, do you feel that this is like a spiritual underdog companion piece to Almost Famous and serves to capture some of that spirit?
Yeah, and not even an underdog. There’s a feeling about Almost Famous that I never knew if it was going to find an audience. I just knew that we had a chance because of Jerry Maguire to make a movie that was from the heart, and that it was about something very personal, which is the way music can make you feel and the way it chooses you, sometimes, you want to make your life about that. And so, this is similarly a personal story about stuff that I’ve seen or experienced, or feelings that have happened among this kind of family that always grows away from your own family. It’s the family that you acquire out of a shared passion, and that was the same thing of Almost Famous. I like the comparisons to Almost Famous because it’s about a passion that I have, very strongly.
The thing about Almost Famous that I always hear, which makes me so happy and proud, is that people have said, “I didn’t want to leave that world. The movie cast a spell.” And that was what I came to this show with. I want to create yet another world that you won’t want to leave, and one day you wake up, and you’ve got the cast of your dreams, and you’re able to do it.
How long have you had the idea for Roadies?
It happened about eight years ago. J.J. [Abrams, a fellow executive producer alongside Crowe] and I both came up at the same time working with Jim Brooks, so we became friends. And then one time we just started pitching. He said, “I went to this show, and I looked up, and I saw this girl on a rigging tower, and I just wondered, “What is her world like?” And I was like, “Well, I’ll tell you what her world is like,” and we started talking, and he’s like, “You know, this is your show.” I said, “Wow, okay.” We never see the band, we never hear the band. It’s about the people. It’s about that girl and those people that disappear when the lights go down.
And so more years pass, and I made notes, and I always threw them into a folder, and then I started writing some ideas, and then there was this one weekend where I just got up and I had it. I wrote the whole pilot and just took all the pieces, put it all together. And you know that thing that’s like you don’t want to press SEND — “Let me take a night and just think about it, see if it’s good, tomorrow I might…because I don’t know. I’m having too much fun. I can’t press send now” — I pressed SEND. Boom. I swear to god, 20 minutes later, J.J. writes me back. I had no idea where he was in the world. I think he was already finding his way to Star Wars, and he said “This is it, this is the show, we got to do it! Let’s do it now.” So, we immediately were like, “Who would we want to do the show with?” and Winnie [Holtzman, who created My So-Called Life] was top of the list, and we reached out to Winnie and sent her the pilot, and Winnie came in [as an executive producer and Crowe’s co-showrunner.]
What kind of research did you do, and how much of the show is drawn from your own historical reporting experiences? You also have Kelly Curtis [Pearl Jam’s manager, who served as a producer on Almost Famous and Singles] on this…
Pretty much everywhere I go, if anybody has something to say about something I’ve done, it’s generally about Almost Famous. There’s a special look in people’s eyes when I can talk about it with them, and it’s the most personal stuff that kind of brings that out in people. For me, too — sometimes the scariest stuff to write is the personal stuff, so what I wanted to do is really write about the feelings that exist in this group of people. Kelly and I have been friends for a long time, and so we did the Pearl Jam documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, and so I was around, filming that for a while. I still go to shows a lot, and a lot of my friends are on crews. I just see things that are holdovers from when I first started doing journalism, and then I see new stuff, and I always fall in love with that backstage crowd. The band is usually the least interesting group of people because they’re there to work, but the other people are creating this magical spell around them.
So I’ve tried to pull together the people that I know love music, and Kelly and I are going to do the music supervision together, and [manager] Irving Azoff is helping us, godfathering behind the scenes, and we just really love reaching out to musicians that I have a relationship with or want to have a relationship with and just tell them, “Jump in, it’s going to be authentic.” Music happens in an organic way. So, anyway, that’s the long-winded way of saying authenticity is our god here, and if I’ve seen it, or I know somebody that I’ve written about or worked with, and they can deliver X, Y, or Z, I ask them if they’ll come in and help us tell the stories. The show should be something we saw, knew to be true, experienced, or I wrote about or something, because real life is the greatest giver of these stories, and I just want it to be always rooted in authenticity. Instead of somebody’s imagination of what the sex, drugs, and rock & roll world is like, go into the very deep well of s— that happened, so the characters all are rooted in people that I’ve met or spent time with, and feel like I saw them in their work mode.
How would you sum up the life of a roadie in one sentence?
First in, last out. They’re the first to get there and the last to leave, and they’re vagabonds with a very special emotional soundtrack that’s always playing, and I love that.
What kinds of stories can audiences expect week in and week out?
Each city [of the tour] is an episode. The show is about the crew, and it’s the family and the circus that exists behind the curtain that we don’t get to see. Their whole world ends when they’re able to put the band on stage, and begins again when the band comes off stage. The hour and 15 minutes when the band is on stage — that’s the only thing that’s off-limits in the show.
It’s Bill [Wilson, who plays the tour manager], and Shelli [Gugino, as the production manager], and their ongoing kind of road husband-and-wife relationship. I’ve been trying to work with Luke Wilson for 20 years, so finally it worked out. He was supposed to be in Jerry Maguire, when it was Tom Hanks, and then when Tom Cruise came in, Luke and Tom looked kind of similar around that time, and so for him to play the part that Jerry O’Connell played was kind of odd. It’s like, “I’m dedicating my life to you, guy who looks like me.” It was just kind of a weird thing, so I had to let Luke go; we had to part ways. I’d given him this football, and we had already started working on the part. We’ve come close to working together ever since, and there was this great moment where we were shooting this [show]. We have a song of the day in every episode where Donna [Keisha Castle-Hughes], who plays the sound engineer, has this song that will capture the mood of the day. So we’re shooting this scene, and Luke took this football and he threw it, and I’m looking through the camera. I’m going, “20 years later, I got this. I have Luke Wilson throwing a football, and I get to direct him.” And I went up to him, and I said, “Do you realize what just happened?” He’s like,”I just threw the football, man.” I’m like, “No, we completed the circle here.” I was really happy.
NEXT: Crowe reveals the ultimate roadie anecdote[pagebreak]
What style of music does the Staton-House Band play?
Well, you never hear that, but your sense is that it’s kind of Americana, an Avett Brothers kind of band, little bigger than the National, so that personalized songwriting. Their songs come from personal experiences, which create a different kind of fan, like Pearl Jam. If the songs are rooted in with the singer-songwriter sensibility, people feel so connected to the stories, and their fans are very connected to the two guys that front the band, and who the song is going to be about, and stuff like that. I like that.
And you’re going to have original music in this?
Original music and also just like an eclectic, beautiful radio station, all genres. We play all genres, all kinds of music, and I just think if somebody’s giving you an hour to watch your show, I want to play them the best music, the stuff that they might have never heard or different versions of what they have heard, and just ground it in character.
You said you don’t hear the Staton-House Band. How much do we see them? Do they interact with the roadies at all?
Limited. It’s stuff that the crew would be affected by.
Even those moments where they are dismissive of them? Because it could be interesting to watch that power dynamic.
They’re so loyal to the band that they don’t have to hang with the band. They’re so used to everybody wanting to get backstage and meet Bono, and “Can I get a picture with blahblahblah?” It’s like they pride themselves in not needing that. Though they want to get that for you. When I was a journalist, the roadies always helped me get my interviews. It was so great. They wanted to share their little family, but they would always want you to know that, “Oh, I don’t have to stay. You just go in there, I’ll set you up, and then I’ll leave.” So, essentially, the roadies, I always felt, were like cooks for the banquet, and like a cook wants to watch you eat, to know that you appreciate the meal, that’s kind of how the roadies were, you know? They like to watch you watch the show because they see you getting off. I always loved those people because they’re all fans. It’s like more than a film crew, and I never got the feeling that film crew would, on their weekend off, go get Criterion Collection to watch movies. Roadies buy bootlegs, and listen to music after the show, and hang out, and it’s that whole culture, so that’s our world.
Christina Hendricks was initially cast, and then you revamped that character [which ultimately became Shelli, played by Gugino] and recat. What exactly happened there?
I think it was just the show finding itself. And we all love Christina and are totally still in communication with her, obviously. I can’t wait to work with her. I wrote her last night. It’s like…we love her. It’s my first experience with TV, and what I like is that it’s a thing that grows, and the stories become chapters, and you kind of look at the long haul, and it becomes itself, and it wasn’t the part that was going to work for her and us, at that time, but I think fate wanted Carla to have this one, and the next one will be Christina’s.
What has your experience has been like in TV so far? How is it been different than you expected?
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but movies take a long time, and so much pressure gets built up, and the rooms are filled with people that are just hanging on to the table and going “What more can we do, and how can we send it out there and do blahblahblah?” because there’s such an investment. I loved the kind of quiet confidence that came with working with people that do a lot of TV, and that know that you’re playing the long game, and you’re telling stories that can evolve over time, and there’s less pressure on it. It feels more like the kind of writing that you do for yourself that can then find a home, and actually be shot and filmed, and things don’t have to be condensed in the same way.
My original dream was to be a short story writer, and then I just kind of realized recently: Now I get to be a short story writer. I love it because I love characters, and I’m always writing about characters, and I’m always making notes about things, and little details, and doing something that takes place over a longer period of time. You can use it all, and I can use all these stories that I’ve had for years in my mind. When we were doing our writing room, I would just say, “There’s a thing that happened when I was a journalist. A guy turned to me and he said, “Blahblahblahblahblah,” and then we’d pitch on it, and that would become a big chunk of an episode. So, I just like the process. It’s like you get to play free-form jazz a little bit more and also just take detours that are really exciting.There’s one episode in the season that’s just an all-night story told on a bus ride, so we just get to do that. There’s a freedom that I really love.
Coming out of Aloha [last year’s poorly received big-screen romantic dramedy], what lessons do you take from that and into this?
Good question. Coming out of Aloha, I think just telling personal stories is always the best for me. And Aloha is a personal story too, but it’s like I never want to not listen to instincts, and this show is pure instinct, so I think it’s fun, but I just want to keep doing it. I love the guys that just build a big body of work and keep going, and that’s what I love doing most of all …. “Work more” would be one of the other lessons from Aloha. It took so long. It’s like, you can spend so long on something that the other stuff that’s in your mind loses oxygen, so you have to keep going and be able to do as much as you possibly can. I got a lot of stories I want to tell on this show.
What music are you listening to these days that may be informing the show? And what do you make of, say, Justin Bieber or One Direction? Do you ever listen to that?
Sure. I actually like the new Bieber. I love Alt-J. I think Alt-J is one of the most forward-thinking bands right now, love them, loved seeing The Weeknd. But I listen to everything, and I listen to a lot of internet radio, and I can go for obscurities and stuff, and things that I might have never heard before. I listened to this three-album set by Titus Andronicus, and that was amazing. The Most Lamentable Tragedy, that was great. I like Matt Nathanson, I love Tame Impala, and it’s just great to mix all that stuff together, mix it with Rosanne Cash, and blues. What it does is it creates an atmosphere where people don’t know what to expect, musically, and it’s kind of surprising.
Final question: Through all your years of reporting on bands, what’s the best roadie story you’ve heard?
I heard some roadies talking about how something had to be “yellow-jacketed” and I [asked] “What is yellow-jacketing?” They said, “There was a guy that worked with Guns N’ Roses, and there was a show and Axl Rose needed a yellow jacket that he’d left in England before he would perform. So a roadie was given the job to get on a plane as fast as possible, go to London, find Axl Rose’s yellow jacket, and come back so he could play the show.” The best part about that story is not that somebody had to go get a yellow jacket for Axl Rose, but that it became such lore among other roadies that it became a verb — to yellow-jacket.
Do you see yourself weaving a version of that yellow-jacket story into the show?
Oh, yeah. We have a yellow-jacketing situation. Or two. Or three.