ALMOST FAMOUS, Production Design by Clay Griffith, at 20: Cameron Crowe, Patrick Fugit and Michael Angarano Look Back on the Classic Movie
October 6, 2020

by Meg Zukin, Variety

One of the keys to the longevity of Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” a love letter to 1970s rock and roll, is the film’s effortless cool. The iconic image of corkscrew-curled Kate Hudson in bell-bottoms and faux fur tossing up a peace sign was so emblematic of the era that it made the then-unknown actress into a movie star. But after 20 years, Crowe tells Variety, he’s ready to reveal the film’s biggest secret — he and the two actors who played a version of the director in this loosely autobiographical tale are deeply uncool.

“If it’s uncool to show your endless enthusiasm and appreciation, then viva uncool,” Crowe says of the film, which opened in movie theaters in the fall of 2000. “Because just to sit and talk with my Williams here is the coolest uncool thing ever. And they’re the maestros of the uncool.”

In “Almost Famous,” we follow William Miller (based on Crowe’s own adolescence), an aspiring teenage writer who gets his first big break profiling fictitious band, Stillerwater, for Rolling Stone. Miller is played by both Michael Angarano (at 11-years-old), and Patrick Fugit, (the 15-year-old version).

“I’ve always been a little bit odd,” 37-year-old Fugit said in a Variety Zoom reunion with Crowe and Angarano. “I am a nerd about a lot of things, a lot of different things, but I think those things are the coolest things.”

Here’s what Crowe and his maestros had to say about the enduring legacy of “Almost Famous”:

What do you remember from “Almost Famous?”

Michael Angarano: You know what’s so funny? I only remember the non-filming parts of it. I remember playing basketball and skateboarding and doing school with Patrick.

Cameron Crowe: I saw some footage of the rehearsal of you going, “Eleven,” in the car. You were rehearsing with Frances [McDormand]. I got right in close to you and I’m going, “You’re dying. You’re dying. It’s hideous and you’re dying.” And you’re just like, “Okay, I got it. Eleven.” And I’m just like, “Thank God he gets me.”

Angarano: I think I was 11 or 12. I was definitely young looking for my age, which, either way.

Patrick Fugit: I was 16, and I remember in the audition I was like, “Oh man, I don’t know if I should tell them that I’m so old,” because the character is going to be 15 or something like that. This was my first legitimate job, definitely my first big role, much less my first leading role that I’d got.

Angarano: As I’ve grown up, people will stop me sometimes, they’ll look at me, and they’ll say, “Eleven?!” And I’m like, “How do you know? How many times have you watched that movie to remember the five minutes that I’m in it, to see me now as a man and recognize me?” That blows my mind.

Do you consider the film iconic, 20 years later?

Fugit: There’s a vibration, there’s like a trueness at the center of the film that Cameron is so good at capturing, really in all of his films. But in “Almost Famous” it’s like the most personal and the most resonant because it’s a vibration that everybody can tap in to and that everybody’s felt. People usually come across the film when it’s time for them to feel that resonance, that vibration in the world, or they’ve already found it. And it’s a story about somebody finding it for themselves and going through the discovery of that, that life. And ‘Almost Famous’ really captures that. When I’ve been asked recently, that’s probably what I take away from, why it’s still so loved.

Angarano: As I watch it as an adult, it doesn’t only resonate in different ways, like I used to watch it as somebody who was in it and through my experience, and then I would watch it as a teenager or a young adult, and be like, “What a cool movie. What a cool thing.” Now watching it, it’s the kind of movie that feels like it’s more and more rare now. That just transports me to a time of when you would go to the movies and be able to see ‘Almost Famous.’

Crowe: You know what I think? And I thought this a lot lately too, is that it really helps if you have somebody that’s casting the movie with you, that really gets you and gets what your dream is. And I’ve seen it a number of times where there’s a casting person that just says, “I’m going to live and die to get every part of this great.” And that was Gail Levin on “Almost Famous.” And that’s when a lot of the magic happens, and that’s how we found Patrick, that’s how we found Michael. In the “Fast Times” reading the other night, I was reminded of Don Phillips, who did a very similar thing. It really makes a difference when somebody feels it way down deep. Every face matters.

Cameron, can you talk about it what it was like essentially casting yourself? And how Michael and Patrick fulfilled that vision?

Crowe: It’s a little bit awkward, probably more for them than for me. Sometimes they’re like, “Okay, I’m going to be in the room with the guy that I’m supposed to play, so I’m going to take visual notes off of him in my audition.” I’d cross my legs in a certain way and they would cross their legs in a certain way. Like, “Okay. Well, I don’t always cross my legs like that.” You have to go to an out of body experience a little bit or it feels really, really awkward. Patrick and Michael both took their own flight with it, and captured the soul of everything that was going on at the time. To be in most of the places where those things actually happened, with these great actors, they’re just soaking up the spirit of the city and the time and the stuff that’s still in the air where we first met Lester Bangs… Patrick’s on the street on the very corner where I stood with Lester Bangs a number of years earlier, and it was spooky and inspiring and thrilling all at the same time. Because I felt what I felt on the day, watching them do it for the movie. And that’s got to be rare.

Fugit: Wow. Wow.

Crowe: Patrick’s out there swinging on first day with Philip Seymour Hoffman. They’re filming big scenes on a corner in San Diego, with traffic barely stopped. And I’m the guy with headphones watching it happen, going, “Holy shit. It’s real. Again.”

Fugit: It’s funny because we had to embody the heart of Cameron. Cameron was really great at setting the table for creativity. He’s like, “Yes, you are playing a character based on me.” I was trying to pick some mannerisms or things like that to put in, but Cameron was very forward about, “Hey, I don’t need an impersonator.”

Crowe: It was just such a soulful thing that both of these guys just had a goal in mind that was kind of beyond the movie. It was also showing why we loved music and community. There was a lot of stuff in the air. And I felt like all the actors were focus on just this shared goal of what is it that we love about music, and the places you can go when music really affects you. I never felt anyone on that movie was looking for the next job or somewhere else, and I felt spoiled by so many of the passionate people playing even the smallest parts.

Fugit: Cameron, I’ve been asked several times over the last 20 years, how you get that level of passion out of everybody, that level of craftsmanship. And my answer is usually it speaks to your heart and your own commitment, your own passion to get that. Cameron never had to demand that level of commitment from people. Everybody there, to the last person, is like, “I want to do the best I can do for Cameron’s movie.”

Crowe: I am so honored. I guess I didn’t realize how many takes I asked for. So I just want to thank you guys both right now for all the takes. I had James Brooks’ words in my head. He would always say, “You know, Buddy, you spend years on a script, you get out there, don’t settle.” I would think about that, and I would think “That’s true. Nobody ever said, ‘I saw the greatest schedule last week.'” But still, if you ever want to do it again, you have to make the schedule. So it’s a little bit of the push and pull, but these guys were like, “Okay, let’s do one more.” And sometimes I would ask Kate [Hudson] to do different readings on stuff, and she would do the reading and then she’d say, “Cameron Crowe, Jesus.”

Angarano: I remember actually the scene that I shot and re-shot, I don’t know how many times, it felt like three times or something, that I was called back in to re-shoot a scene. It was the scene looking at the album covers.

Crowe: Yeah. Well, that’s everything.

Angarano: I think I shot that scene at least three times.

Crowe: And I thank you to this moment, because you caressed the albums in the way that a real music fan does. In the time past the movie, I’ve interviewed or run across some of the people whose albums are in that sequence, and they’re like, “You really treated my album really well there.” And I’m like, “That’s Michael Angarano.”

Patrick and Michael, how much did you know about music before signing onto the project?

Angarano: I was pretty well-schooled. I grew up in New York, and I remember going on auditions in Manhattan with my dad, and so we would just listen to music all the time. I was pretty well-schooled in Simon and Garfunkel and The Who.

Fugit: I was a musical plebeian. I did not have any musical knowledge. It was not a part of my life when I was 16. I had some Chumbawamba. I had some Green Day. The thing is, when I auditioned for it, Cameron had rewritten the sides for the audition as though William Miller was actually a political journalist following a candidate on campaign. So, the Russell character was actually a candidate, and William was writing about that. I had no idea that it was about music.

Crowe: I thought I was being clever. Poor Patrick, he’s done two weeks of research on the Kennedy era and all this stuff. I’m like, “So what do you think of Jethro Tull?”

Fugit: Yup. I’m like, “What?”

Crowe: And it was poorly written as politics. “That’s the best speech I ever heard. I listen to it every night.”

Fugit: Then after that, Cameron actually got me a guitar for my wrap gift. I don’t know, Cameron, if I ever told you this, but Billy also got me a guitar for a wrap gift. Cameron took me aside and was like, “Hey man, I got you your wrap gift, but you can’t tell everybody else what you got because I got everyone else stuff, but I got you the thing. So you got to keep it on the down low.” It was this beautiful Seagull acoustic steel string guitar, that I still have. And then a couple nights later at the wrap party, Billy took me outside, was like, “Hey man, I got you this thing but you can’t tell anybody else what I got you because I got everybody else like keychains or some shit.” He gave me a beautiful Martin steel string, which I still have. And after that, I started playing music with my best friend. We started up a collaboration where we were writing music and playing gigs in Salt Lake City and stuff like that. Yeah, it’s huge.

What else do you have from set?

Fugit: I still have the out-of-focus guys Stillwater shirt. I have a couple of those. I have a couple of the Do Not Disturb signs from different hotels. I have some pens. I think I may have a William Miller bag. I might have one of the bags that held the big tape cassette recorder in, that I have on my shoulder like the whole movie.

Angarano: I was obsessed, and still am, with “Jerry Maguire.” And so, Cameron gave me a hard copy of the script. So I still have that hard copy of “Jerry Maguire.”

Crowe: I kept Penny’s coat. And I’m glad I did. I may bust it out this Halloween. I take it out from time to time.

Lester Bangs said you can’t be friends with rock stars. Is that true?

Crowe: There’s an amazing moment in the Bob Woodward tapes with Trump I thought, that was very kind of in the ballpark of what Philip Seymour Hoffman is talking about in the movie. I think it’s in their last phone conversation before Woodward stops talking to Trump and finishes his book. They’d been jousting and having conversations and late night phone calls and everything, but it comes down to Woodward just saying, “It’s going to be a tough book.” And it’s just straight up. He’s just like, “This has been our relationship all along. It’s going to be tough.” In that moment where the subject of his book realizes that he has been tangling with a guy who is of the utmost integrity and it’s all been on the record, was very much a flag for journalism that I love to see waving. And that’s kind of what Lester’s about in the movie. Boy, I got a tingle of “That’s what it’s about.” You have a front row seat to capture some truth and soul, and that’s your job.

To quote the movie, are journalists the enemy?

Crowe: Wow. Journalism is a privilege. I know that. Again, to quote Woodward, they get to write the first draft of what history is going to be about this music and this people. They’re not the enemy. They’re a partner in the pursuit of truth and passion, and sometimes it gets sticky. And then sometimes you have a wonderful collaboration that happens, because the person like Pete Townsend, is just all about truth, and just lays it out.

What does being uncool mean to you now, 20 years later?

Fugit: I don’t think I would have got the part if I was cool.

Crowe: It made you cool.

Fugit: It did. Kind of. [Laughs] I’ve always been a little odd. I am a nerd about a lot of things, a lot of different things, but I think those things are the coolest things. And the other people that I meet that are into those things are also like the coolest people I’ve ever met. I don’t know, cool’s kind of in the eye of the beholder a little bit.

Angarano: It feels like cool now is a little bit more abstract. Living in the 50s, it was very cool to wear a white T-shirt and grease your hair and work on cars, or playing guitar. But now, it’s like, I don’t know, I play Pokemon Go and fantasy sports. Is that cool? I don’t know.

Crowe: I’ve only gotten more uncool. I was listening to this interview that my sister and I did with John Prine back in the day. I was so much cooler then. I wasn’t embarrassed and I was just asking him all these questions. I’m like, “Holy shit, I’ve only slid off of this mountain since.” It’s all vaguely geeky because I just love music and I love directing and actors bringing this stuff to life. If it’s uncool to show your endless enthusiasm and appreciation, then viva uncool. Because just to sit and talk with my Williams here is the coolest uncool thing ever. And they’re the maestros of the uncool.

Production Designer: Clay Griffith