I've got 15 minutes to interview and photograph Cameron Crowe, the man of the moment at this year's film festival. He's the indie-spirited writer/director who makes Hollywood movies -- movies that celebrate youth, romance and, most of all, personal integrity. NHe enters the bedroom of the hotel suite and sits down for our on-the-fly session. There's a lot of ground to cover, but the moment Crowe steps into the room, my nerves calm.
He has that effect on people. He's warm and effusive, and all those years of interviewing rock stars have made him an especially gracious interviewee. I also love his cherubic looks -- if the Beatles had been American, Crowe would be Paul.
He's directed just four films: Say Anything, Singles, Jerry Maguire and now Almost Famous, a memoir about his first assignment as a teenage rock reporter for Rolling Stone magazine in 1973. It's not a long filmography, even if you include his screenplays for Fast Times At Ridgemont High (based on his best-selling book) and the mostly forgotten The Wild Life.
But because his films resonate in both mind and heart, he's become a near icon, the man who believes the characters in his films should do right by others because, well, it's the right thing to do.
"You're never going to achieve all you want to achieve when you make a movie, so you'd better shoot high, knowing you'll end up someplace a little less noble but still with something left to say," remarks Crowe.
"So if your movie is about prom night, at least have it be about the greatest prom night ever, where something important, emotionally important, is also tackled."
In Almost Famous, newcomer Patrick Fugit plays Crowe surrogate William Miller, the 15-year-old writing phenom who hits the road with the fictional band Stillwater. In real life, Crowe profiled marquee names like Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell for Rolling Stone, Playboy and the L.A. Times.
What strikes you immediately about the film is its loving period detail. The clothes, the musical instruments, the pens William writes with, all scream "the 70s."
"It's all my stuff," says a proud Crowe. "The first shot, when you see the drawer opened and it's full of mementoes, they're all mine. My memories are good, but so are my archives. I'm a pack rat by nature, and I kept everything. The truth is, I kept it because I felt those bands were too important to forget, even though they were making gloriously disposable rock. I knew it was essential to keep the Deep Purple hotel room list," says a laughing Crowe.
"I never truly thought I would use it, but I did. Now I have to face the terrible dilemma of maybe throwing it away. What do I do? I don't know how to throw it away."
You can see in his eyes that he's really bummed about it.
But I'm curious -- did his re-creation of his own past turn out the way he expected?
"Jerry Maguire turned out almost exactly the way I wanted it to, and I got spoiled," says Crowe. "This one was different. I thought it would be funnier in a different way. I'm happy with the way it ended up, but the surprise is that it plays as a more painful movie for me than for other people.
"In a way, it's like an album. If you go back and listen to it again, you'll see what's really going on. In the movie you see a very dysfunctional family situation and a kid who is manipulated and sold out by his heroes, and there's no assurance that his family ends up together -- and that's cool.
"As a filmmaker, you hope you've made something that's worthy of one look, much less two, but I think this film has something to offer on the second look. There is so much stuff built into the corners, and hidden clues and hints."
One of the highlights of Almost Famous is Frances McDormand's performance as William's intellectually passionate college-professor mother, who allows her son to seize the opportunity to go on the road and live out his dream.
"My mother's mad that I cut so much of her out of the film. She thinks there should be more of her," says Crowe with a grin. "But she's excited by the movie. She was such a fan of me doing this. She's a real follower of my work and one of the great editors I've ever worked with. She reads all my stuff and is brutally honest.
"She always used to say, 'This is the movie you gotta make. You always talk about doing it and you never do it.' There were a couple of different films after Jerry Maguire that I thought about making, one was a Hawaii Five-O-type movie, and my mother said, 'What?'
"It was almost too late to make this film, because if I'd waited any longer I'd make one of those weird genre movies -- the memory film of an older man with a glamorous sense of himself and the nubile woman who changed him and whom he never saw again.
"I don't mean to be cynical about those movies, but they purport to be truthful and they're not. They're a fantasy, a wet dream."
There is one memory Crowe did get wrong in the film, and he wants it corrected.
"My mother wants it known that she didn't go barefoot in the house, and she's right. She didn't. I need to clear that up."
ALMOST FAMOUS, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, produced by Crowe and Ian Bryce, with Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A Vinyl Films production. A DreamWorks Pictures release. 125 minutes. Opens Friday (September 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 100.
Rating: Rating: NNNN
It's 1973, and 15-year-old William Miller (Patrick Fugit) is terminally bright and completely entranced by the power of rock 'n' roll. With the help of rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and permission from his unorthodox mother (Frances McDormand), William hits the road to cover the Stillwater tour for Rolling Stone. The problem is, the band's magnetic guitarist and leader, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), doesn't want to talk to the kid.Crowe's tale is remarkably sweet and sincere when you consider the milieu he's working in. Sex, drugs and rock and roll spin around William's head like cartoon stars, but he, and we, are never quite tainted by any of it. Fugit is great as William, the professional rock critic squished into an adolescent frame. Crudup pulls off a sexy, sardonic, slow-burn performance as the defensive musical talent, and Kate Hudson shines as Crudup's devoted girlfriend, Penny Lane. But in the end the film is a love letter to Crowe's wonderfully passionate mother. It's impossible not to respond to the emotionally present and very funny McDormand, who loves her kid enough to let him go, but not without an emotional meltdown.