At 15, Cameron Crowe embarked on a career in rock journalism out of his San Diego hometown, apprenticing under local resident Lester Bangs and publishing articles in Playboy and The Los Angeles Times. Still in his teens, he was brought on as a staff writer for Rolling Stone, where he profiled such rock icons as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, and the members of Led Zeppelin. Ironically, the Crowe who was once mature beyond his peers returned to high school in his early 20s to do undercover research for his first novel, Fast Times At Ridgemont High. An authentic and funny portrait of adolescence, the book became a best-seller, and Crowe adapted it into a successful feature for Amy Heckerling in 1982. Seven years later, Crowe wrote and directed Say Anything…, a beautifully observed youth film that flopped at the time but has since become a touchstone for the genre, with John Cusack's earnest hero setting the standard for Crowe's later efforts. His follow-up, 1992's Singles—a loosely episodic romantic comedy set during Seattle's grunge movement—was released alongside a slew of awful Gen-X movies and suffered from bad timing. But his major commercial breakthrough came with the 1996 hit Jerry Maguire a star vehicle for Tom Cruise that showcased Crowe's newfound polish as a director without compromising his endearing idiosyncrasies. He returned to his journalistic roots last year, releasing an in-depth dialogue with the great director Billy Wilder called Conversations With Wilder. Crowe's latest and most ambitious film, Almost Famous, is a semi-autobiographical tale about coming of age as a rock journalist, starring Kate Hudson, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frances McDormand, and newcomer Patrick Fugit as his young alter-ego. Crowe recently talked to The Onion A.V. Club about rock journalism and the movies.
The Onion: What was the first band you ever profiled?
Cameron Crowe: For Rolling Stone? Poco. The first one I toured with was Yes, then the Allman Brothers Band.
O: What was that experience like?
CC: Poco was the first experience where you let down the person you were writing about and they were somebody you really liked. I spent all this time writing about Poco and interviewed everybody endlessly. And they were like, "Rolling Stone really wants to do a big story on us?" I assured them they did, because that's what I'd been told. "Are you sure? Because we're not big enough and we thought we'd be bigger by now. They really want to do it?" And I kept saying, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah." I spent all this time on the story, and then [the editors] cut it way down and the headline was, "Poor Poco, They Were The Next Big Thing Years Ago." So I had to take the magazine to the band when the article was published, because they knew when I was getting it and wanted me to bring it over. It was this terrible thing where I had to say, "Hi. Here's that article we worked weeks on." And it basically suggested that their career would never get off the ground.
O: Was there anything you saw on tour that shocked you?
CC: I used to see a lot of cocaine. I would never do drugs, so I would always get the same response from people: "Smart kid, more for me." There were journalists who [used cocaine] and didn't write about it, but I didn't and didn't write about it. Sometimes, out of courtesy, they would offer me drugs and I would say no, and it would always be, "Smart kid, more for me." Whether it was a joke or sincere or both, I never knew, but I was just happy not to be in there partying with the band like some of these other journalists. I didn't write about it, because nobody at Rolling Stone was writing about it in that time frame. Grover Lewis did earlier: He wrote about the Allman Brothers Band doing cocaine right before Duane [Allman] died. It was just a big mess, but even then, I felt that drugs were not the reason I liked a band. I don't like a band's music because I know they're on drugs. I don't listen to a record because TVs go out the hotel window. I want to be the guy who writes about the music and writes about what I see in general behavior.
O: Obviously, you had to spend a lot of time with these people. Did you ever have that conflict when you were caught between betraying the band and betraying the truth as you saw it?
CC: Sometimes. It's dramatically good to use that conflict in the movie, but in reality, that occupied a pretty small part of the trade. Mostly, I was just overjoyed to have a front-row seat, and I didn't want to squander that opportunity, nor did I want to be considered a "celebrity journalist." Now, you can make a whole career out of celebrity journalism, but at the time, you looked down your nose at that. "Oh, he's just a celebrity journalist. He's not a real writer." [Laughs.]
O: What was your worst experience as a journalist?
CC: It was probably when I would do an interview with somebody and not crack through the barrier, so I was just another guy with a tape recorder. I always wanted it to be a conversation, something that felt like more than an interview. Every once in a while, I'd just hit a brick wall. I did a profile of Jack Ford [Gerald Ford's son] once, when Gerald Ford was president. And Jack Ford said some stuff that was pretty interesting, but it wasn't audible on the tape. The fact-checkers called him to check some of the quotes, and he denied them. So the article got disemboweled and I got trashed in the media for this story, because the fact-checker had ruined the piece. Maybe that stuck with me when I wrote this movie. [A similar incident takes place in Almost Famous. —ed.] But that hurt a lot; I wanted to be a guy who could do a political piece, because I'd always done rock. And I sort of failed at that.
O: What are your feelings about the current state of music journalism?
CC: It's not bad, but it's not great at all. Some of the hip-hop stuff people get into is exciting, because there's a passion and there's something to explain to a more mainstream audience, so you get these passionate writers who want to express their love for rap and hip-hop, which is cool. But, generally, there are too many magazines, and the access has been diminished, so the quality of profiles has gone way down. Internet stuff can be really good, though. I like the dialogue between fans on the Internet. I think that's the best rock writing that's going on right now.
O: Are you disappointed with where Rolling Stone has gone?
CC: Yeah, but Rolling Stone rallies. It's funny, because life is breathed back into that body quite often. But then you see something like [the recent] issue with a think piece on Keanu Reeves that I thought was just garbage. It was all about a cover shot where he was shirtless, and you die on the vine when you're always chasing the good cover shot. But still, it rallies. I remember that, before John Lennon died, everyone was saying that Rolling Stone couldn't do good reporting anymore. But when he died, they wrote this amazing issue—as they should have—about Lennon. They did that when Elvis died, too. They rise to the challenge. I guess I just wasn't a big fan of the Keanu issue, that's all.
O: Was it always your intent to segue from rock journalism into a career in film?
O: How did that come about?
CC: By accident. I always loved movies, but I never thought I would presume to be a screenwriter and definitely not a director. I wrote the book Fast Times At Ridgemont High and the studio told me, "We're looking for the cheapest guy who can adapt your book. Do you feel like writing a screenplay?" I said, "Sure. I'd pay you for the shot at that." And essentially I did. I spent a lot of time for no money trying to teach myself how to write a script. It always felt like everybody was looking the other way and sneaking that script through the system, but it did well later on video and got another chance.
O: When you did Conversations With Wilder, did you feel the shadow of Truffaut-Hitchcock [a book in which legendary French director François Truffaut extensively interviews Alfred Hitchcock] hovering over the project?
CC: More than a shadow: That book is on my desk. I love that book and I consciously tried to emulate it. Some people thought I succeeded and other people didn't, but that was definitely the model. But Billy gets more personal than Hitchcock, because that's just who he is. He engages in dinner-conversation theater. He's an anecdotist. He's a master filmmaker and so much more. Hitchcock, I think, was sort of determined to talk about craft in Traffaut-Hitchcock, and from the beginning, I knew my book was going to be different in that respect. Still, I loved that Truffaut was a fan and openly so. And I was, too. Why not? Why not wave the flag for your heroes? That's what Almost Famous is about. Wave it. Lester Bangs? Fuckin' wave the flag.
O: The thing that was strange about the book is that you acknowledge Wilder as a huge influence, yet your sensibilities couldn't be more at odds. He's sort of the ultimate post-war cynic.
CC: But he's not. He's perceived that way, but he reminds me of my grandfather—a sharp observer, fiercely protective of the things that he loves, wide open to life, and curious to the end. And he believes, with narrowed eyes, in the best of people first. That's Billy Wilder. He's not the Ace In The Hole guy, although he can access that [sarcasm] instantly, and I really responded to his optimism above all. Life is endlessly curious to him. He's 94 and one of the youngest guys I know. And one of the great lessons of Billy Wilder is how he lived his life—how he lives his life—and on that level, I couldn't wait to document that part of him. I would love to do something more corrosive, and I plan to soon, but only as long as it comes naturally.
O: When Singles first came out, it was lumped in with a lot of other films that attempted to define an ill-defined generation. What are your feelings on that in retrospect?
CC: I have my problems with Singles. To me, Singles is the least successful of the movies I've been lucky enough to make. It was meant to be Manhattan, a movie I loved, set in Seattle. It stayed in the can for a year until the studio released it on the heels of the so-called "grunge explosion," which created some problems of perception. But there were also some casting issues and some screenwriting problems I never quite solved. Pulp Fiction solved the vignettes issue in a way that made my jaw drop. I thought, "Fuck!" [Laughs.] If I had done Singles later, I might not have made some of those mistakes. I would have been one of the many movies that ripped off Pulp Fiction instead. [Laughs.] Singles didn't aspire to define a generation. It aspired to be my tribute to Manhattan. So there's a little frustration there. I hope that someday, as time goes on, it can live on as a snapshot of that period, because Seattle is not the same anymore.
O: So many of the key moments in your films have musical associations. How does music inform your conception of a film?
CC: It starts with the music. Always. I hear the movie before I can ever write it. I would say that 80% of the time, that's the successful stuff. It's the other stuff I have to work for to get right, and sometimes it doesn't work out, but the music is always the beginning. So I'm still a music journalist.
O: What defines a Cameron Crowe hero?
CC: The battered idealist. It's just my favorite character. I write it no matter what I do. It sort of comes from my upbringing. My mom would always say, "Be positive, be positive. It's rough out there, but don't succumb. Don't succumb to the cynicism in the world." To me, a hero is somebody who's able to accept the environment of the world, deal with the stuff that's thrown in their path—or, in Fast Times, the coffee that's thrown in their face—and somehow keep their heart. And I think there's a way to write a movie like that and a character like that without it being sentimental or Capra-esque in the worst way. Or, as Billy [Wilder] would say, [affects German accent] "Bad sentimentality!" I think sometimes good sentimentality is fun when it's balanced. You can have a bunch of people on a bus singing "Tiny Dancer" if you also have the brutal truth of the world represented. Because the way you battle the brutal truth of the world is to find that corner of the universe where maybe you get lost in a song and you do sing "Tiny Dancer." Which is embarrassing, and you don't want to look to your right or left, but you have that private moment. And when you're allowed to make a movie where you celebrate those private moments, you can't ask for more.