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Cameron Crowe Interview: A bonus EP of b-sides and unreleased tracks
By Mark Olsen
When Mark Olsen spoke with Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Almost Famous, there was a lot of material that couldn't make the magazine due to space considerations. For fans, both of Crowe and the Seventies Rock he once covered for Rolling Stone, we include some additional excerpts here
After Singles you made a conscious effort to improve as a director. Why did you feel more writer than director?
I didn't feel confident enough in how to tell the story with the camera. I had that a little bit with Laszlo Kovacs [dp on Say Anything], but for some reason I never had the opportunity to spend as much time with the cinematographer as I had with myself on the script. Which would have been valuable. So I'd always be out there, particularly on Singles, trying to protect the script and get it exactly as written. But sometimes you're out there and you feel the moment and you love your cinematographer and you just say, Throw that speech away, let the camera and the music tell the story. And that was something I wanted to get closer to and I'm still trying to go to school on, because that's the best feeling. The deflowering scene in the new movie was something that had more dialogue and I was stressing about that— how do you shoot a deflowering scene, and then the night before the idea came to do it as a merry-go-round and let [dp] John Toll's camera just sort of float in as the girls circled him with scarves. And the extra gift that happened there, as we were sitting in dailies and I said to John, are those the scarves in the whites of the kid's eye? You can actually see those girls in his eye. That was a defining moment just in terms of telling the story with the camera, which I've always wanted to do more of. Just to say one other thing about Singles if I could, Singles was meant to capture the passion of what was going on in Seattle in '88. I loved that music so much, which my wife [Nancy Wilson, a member of the band Heart] turned me on to, because she's from Seattle. And the irony, and still occasional pain of it, is that the movie was held from release for a long time and was only released after Nirvana and Pearl Jam [made it big], so it still looks on paper like we made this movie to seize upon the Seattle scene, and nothing could be further from the truth. I took no participation in the soundtrack album because I didn't want to take any money that belonged to those musicians, and Warner Bros. came and wanted to do a TV show based on Singles, and I wouldn't do it. It was meant to be something pure, and still is for me. The whole thing was a little bit muted abouthow to pay tribute to the Seattle scene because by the time it came out it was a global phenomenon.
It's funny how it worked both—
For and against. Absolutely. Probably wouldn't have gotten released without it, and definitely has a flavor that was unintended because of it. To me it was more an attempt to do Manhattan in Seattle than to capture the grunge scene.
Apart from the Tom Cruise factor, what was it about Jerry Maguire that clicked with people in ways your previous films hadn't?
The love story was more adult and had some moments of pain that people related to, like, "We could spend the next ten years being polite." I think there were little spikes in the love story which people took to heart, which was a surprise and wonderful. And of course Tom Cruise playing a loser made it fun to watch. All the actors were on fire, everybody was happy to be there and competing with each other for the scene, so there was an energy there. And also, somebody who's been betrayed by others, but mostly themselves, who ultimately finds some road back, is more universal then I realized.
So going into Almost Famous you felt nothing had ever really captured the heart of the early Seventies? What was missing, and what did you do different?
Well, I'm not saying we were successful, I'm just saying we were successful enough, so I feel like the opportunity wasn't squandered. What was always missing for me was a lack of glibness. And on a real basic level, if you look at the movies set in the Seventies you'd think at the stroke of midnight on 1970, everybody had a mirror ball. That was the Seventies. But it wasn't, disco didn't come along until 1976. Glitter rock came along in 1972, and then glitter rock faded and there was a period between that and disco that was equally passionate, and beautifully naive in a way.
Mick Ronson, David Bowie's guitarist, died before we made the movie, and somebody got a deathbed interview with him and asked, "How did it feel to be at the ground zero of decadence in rock?" And he said, "It was a very loving time and a very naive time, or at least it was to me." And I just thought that was profound, even the guys who were playing glitter rock, which was so subversive, had a lack of irony and cynicism about it that today would be quaint. But the whole global change in rock, cool being a mass concept, was still around the corner, so it was still a little more personal, and all I can say is passionately naive. And I really wanted to catch that.
You were saying before you wanted the tribute to rock critic Lester Bangs to be a big part of the film. Did a lot get cut out? He's definitely a presence in the film, but its not overwhelming.
Well, Lester was a bigger part in other drafts of the movie, but the family was less prominent. And when I felt the need to confront some of the personal stuff in my home life, the way that music affected our family, it made the story more complete. But oddly enough, it also made Lester more important, because he becomes the voice of reason, the other parent, the father that's not there. The movie is filled with begrudging role models for this kid, and nobody wants the hero worship, but they sort of secretly dig it. Russell's that way, Lester's that way, and it's a lot about going out in the world and trying to find role models when role modeling wasn't that cool.
Did you prepare the concert sequences by watching a lot of the rock films of that period, or is that stuff ingrained in your system by now?
We had these rehearsals every night. We'd work on the movie in the day, and the band would practice at night and then we'd watch rock movies. Jason Lee is doing Paul Rodgers, of Free and Bad Company; that was the guy we picked to pattern the character after. The album covers, which you don't see a lot of unfortunately, were based on the Allman Brothers Band's albums.
Is the band really playing?
The band is half-playing. The drummer (John Fedevich) is a great real drummer, who used to play with Mark Kozelek, the bass player, and he's the leader of the Red House Painters. And they're playing live to a track that has Billy (Crudup) [miming]— well, Billy's playing a little bit— and Jason is lip-synching. Really well, too, because we had all those rehearsals. Every night we'd do their set a couple of times and they got very comfortable with it, to the point where they could play it live. But only by the end of the movie did Billy really have the prowess on guitar to not need the tape. We always fooled the audience though.
Is it really Jason Lee's voice?
No, it's a guy named Marty. We auditioned a bunch of voices for that 1973 era voice. And the odd thing is, in the era of Whitney Houston, everybody oversings now so we had to work really hard to find somebody who just sang the melody. We found him in the Valley.
So Peter Frampton and your wife wrote the songs?
Frampton and a collaborator wrote two of the songs, and my wife and I wrote the others.
Who wrote "Fever Dog?"
Well, I'm glad you asked. That would be Nancy Wilson and myself.
The one line that's in the movie is such a great rock line.
"Fever dog, scratching at my back door." Oh, man.
How many songs did you write?
We wrote most of them on our honeymoon in 1986, as an exercise, knowing sort of one day we might do a movie where we could use the stuff, but mostly just in a cabin on the beach on the coast of Oregon, having fun on our honeymoon. And we had this idea that this was a band from 1973 with a little bit of a father fixation in the lyrics, every song has some not so vague reference in the lyrics to a father or daddy. And none of the production values could be post 1973, and it couldn't be a parody. "Cheese and Onions" [by Beatles parody band the Rutles], you couldn't top that, so the other thing you can do is just try and be real. The songs all exist, and the full "Fever Dog" will be on the soundtrack album, sorry to tell you. And then Frampton came in and decided there needed to be a rave-up show closer, even more superficial than the other songs.
"Guess You Had to Be There."
Which Frampton now plays in his shows, and it's embraced exactly as it was written to be, a retro show closer.
If I can, I'm gonna ask you one small set of fan questions that have to do with Gram Parsons. In the movie, there's sort of a Gram and Emmylou Harris thing in the Riot House sequence, but it's kind of oblique, no one says his name.
Man, you caught it. Well, in the long version, the movie that we filmed, Gram Parsons dies halfway through the tour and they say "That guy, we were just with that guy," and they sing his "A Song For You" on the bus. It's great, I really wish it could have been in the movie. At the hotel, I really wanted it to be just a stolen moment where William's getting pulled down the hallway and Gram Parsons is just a couple rooms down. Gram Parsons was one of the first guys I interviewed. And I actually interviewed him when he brought Emmylou Harris out from Maryland, I think it was, and she'd just arrived and they were at his house, and he, on this tape, introduces me to Emmylou and says, here's this new songwriter you're going to be hearing a lot about, and that was one of those moments I wanted to pay tribute to somehow in the movie. So it's in there just a tiny bit.
Did you write a Rolling Stone piece on Gram?
I wrote a Rolling Stone piece about Emmylou later, and I wrote a story on Gram Parsons for a paper called Music World, and I did his bio for Warner Brothers.
In real life was he the doomed prince that he's now made out to be?
He was a Southern gentleman. He was not that druggy, he just seemed like a southern prince. The feeling in the air then was that he had boldly bucked the commerciality of The Byrds and was this grand fringe character. And Emmylou on that day asked him to sing [The Byrds'] "Feel a Whole Lot Better" and he laughed and did the most amazing version of that song you've ever heard, with her singing harmony. Photos exist of it, and it may be on my tape somewhere, but what I got was a huge, huge, huge talent that he was only showing a little bit of because he was obsessed with doing this pure country thing, but inside of him was all the Byrds history and all that stuff and he had chosen to be a fringe character for a while. I got the feeling he was going to be as huge as he wanted to be. He also seemed a little overweight, and not really in fighting shape. And I dug him.
There's a book with a photo of you with him—
It's from that day. Does that answer your question?
I was just asking for an anecdote about Gram Parsons. So, yes.
Yeah, he had that floppy hat and he was just really cool. But the real live wire was [road manager] Phil Kaufman, who was just really keeping the whole thing going. Looking back, Gram seemed very laid back, but he didn't seem that druggy. It seemed more like he was the kind of guy that everybody came to, as opposed to him going to everybody else. And you just ended up in really comfortable chairs, studying him. And that's what the day was.
To wrap up, I wanted to ask a couple questions about your journalism and interviews. What are some of the things you do to get something extra out of someone, because in your interviews, you always get more than you imagine someone planned to give up.
Thanks. It's sort of the same way I direct, which is to stay there until you get something that feels a little different or a little more, the kind of thing that you do when the pressure of the situation is over. It's the kind of thing where once you shut off the tape recorder and somebody is relaxed, then they tell you the really great shit. That's sort of the way I direct and it was always the way I interviewed. To spend enough time where it became more of a conversation and less of an interview. And you can't even really do that now because of junkets and there are so many publications, they can't really let someone on the road as long as they used to.
Is it also because the interview subjects are so much more aware of the machinery and are interviewed so much that it's harder to break them down?
Well, the publicists are different figures now. In earlier versions of Almost Famous there was this incredible character I was so proud of named Russell DeMay and he was this fading English publicist who was sort of a Derek Taylor [famed publicist to The Beatles and others], sort of not, and he had worked with The Beatles and he didn't ever discuss The Beatles and then one day on the way to New York City he started talking about The Beatles one by one. And he talks about them all gloriously and somebody asks, But what about George, and he goes, "George. George's mother had the rehearsal space, need I say more." I wanted David Bowie to play that part, I just thought it would be the greatest thing, rumpled white suit, and that was an important character that I'm sorry is not in there, because the publicist used to not be the buffer, the publicist used to be one of the band. The publicist was a participating band member whose job, whose instrument, was the press. So they would hang out with you and reveal stuff to you and pull you in on the trust level so you were a friend and you didn't want to betray a friend. The publicists were much more complex and almost Shakespearean characters, many of whom died early because they did have to party so much as part of their game. Now the publicist is more the one who screams No, who limits the time, choreographs covers; wasn't the case then. And that is one of the big things that's changed, but mostly as rock became more popular culture and popular culture became more establishment, from Time magazine on down, everyone would put Madonna on the cover as opposed to just a music magazine. So once everybody needed access, it destroyed the in-depth profile.
For more with Cameron Crowe, including his own list of films which influenced him, check out the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of Film Comment. And keep an eye out for Cameron Crowe's Guilty Pleasures in an upcoming issue.