ALMOST FAMOUS, Production Design by Clay Griffith: The Oral History of a Golden God’s Acid Trip
July 23, 2020

by Ilana Kaplan, The New York Times

As the coming-of-age rock tale turns 20, the cast and crew remember how a star’s badly aimed jump and other near-misses became a standout scene.

The writer-director Cameron Crowe was already a beloved voice in cinema for high school tales like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Say Anything.” Then came “Almost Famous” (2000). Also a coming-of-age story, it gave audiences a backstage pass to the 1970s rock ’n’ roll scene and in the process became a classic.

Loosely based on Crowe’s teenage years as a music journalist covering the Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin, “Almost Famous” is the story of the 15-year-old aspiring scribe William Miller (Patrick Fugit), who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when Rolling Stone magazine sends him from his home in San Diego on tour with Stillwater, fictitious rockers on the verge of fame. As they travel, William forges relationships with the guitarist, Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), and a “Band Aid,” or groupie, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

“Almost Famous” was released on Sept. 13, 2000, and gave Hudson and Fugit their big breaks, and Crowe an Oscar for original screenplay. As it nears its 20th anniversary, the movie has been the subject of a stage adaptation (headed to Broadway but delayed because of the pandemic) and a podcast. It’s beloved in part for standout scenes like one riffing on 1970s rock-star hubris: during a tour stop in Topeka, Kan., Russell crashes a party and ends up on the roof of a house tripping on acid, ready to jump into a murky pool. Before he does, he has a few final words: “I am a golden god!” Also, “I’m on drugs!”

I talked to the film’s cast and crew — including Crudup, Fugit, Crowe, the editor Joe Hutshing, the production designer Clay Griffith, and the costume designer Betsy Heimann — about how that scene came to be.

Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was the inspiration, and not just for the quote.

CAMERON CROWE There was a famous moment where [Plant] was on the balcony of the Continental Hyatt House, [the Sunset Strip hotel known as] the Riot House. I think there’s even a photo of the moment, and he’s holding his hands out, and he said, “I am a golden god!” It’s Zeppelin lore.

BILLY CRUDUP The reason Robert Plant said it was because he had long, golden hair. Because my hair is brown, I wasn’t making that connection at all. I was just imagining that Russell was thinking of himself as some sort of tribal idol.

CROWE When I was writing it, I was thinking, I love the playful relationship Plant had with his own image. Sometimes he would wear a Robert Plant fan T-shirt that someone had thrown onstage. He just had a wonderful sense of humor about his position as a big-time rock star. Wearing that shirt was saying that he understands the fan experience. In effect he’s one of them. Russell being with fans was doing a version of the same thing. “We understand each other, and I can even collaborate with you about my deepest feeling from your roof!”

CRUDUP Cameron, from his perspective as somebody who had spent time around these [famous] people, wanted to articulate their utter humanness, even with somebody like Russell. What it took was an acid trip for him to expose this childlike experience of being a rock god.

CROWE Russell goes to the fan’s home in search of “what’s real.” This was originally one of the discarded titles for the movie, “Something Real.” Before Russell is pulled back into the hermetically sealed world of Stillwater, I just wanted to make sure that we celebrated the fans there because “Almost Famous” is so much about us as fans of music. To me, the sequence with Billy on the roof, in the pool, that whole joke lives in a little bit of a love letter to the fans, which is what I always wanted it to be.

The film’s Topeka party sequence became an actual party.

CRUDUP We spent, I think, two days or three days in that house with all of the background artists who were playing the partygoers. To have everybody gathered around was quite a joyful experience.

CROWE Mary-Louise Parker [Crudup’s partner for a time] showed up, Nancy Wilson [the Heart rocker who contributed music to the film and Crowe’s wife at the time] showed up, and it really became like a Topeka party.

CLAY GRIFFITH We cast the extras more by their look. We had a bunch of extras one day in San Diego, and they all looked too contemporary. I’m not sure how to say what a 1970s look is, but it definitely was [very] 1990s. So, we went to local places, I can’t remember if it was bars or restaurants, starting to pick people out and asking if they wanted to be in this movie.

FUGIT [That house] was the first time I was around a lot of people closer to my age.

CROWE The people that lived there became part of the party, too. But it was filled with these extras. It was heavenly because, as it happened a few times, life became the movie, which became life, which became the movie. Patrick was that age and entranced with Kate Hudson, just like the character.

FUGIT She came from Hollywood royalty and [her mother, Goldie Hawn, and stepfather, Kurt Russell] would come to set. That was crazy to me because I had grown up watching a lot of their movies. Also Kate is beautiful and talented. It made an impression on 16-year-old me. I crushed on her for two months. As we got more and more into filming, she became much like an older sister.

Crudup and Fugit bonded between takes.

FUGIT The night we shot the “golden god” sequence, mostly Billy and I were off between setups. For multiple hours, because that scene took a while to shoot, we were doing pratfalls in the backyard, judging each other’s pratfalls and laughing our asses off. I ended up with grass stains on my jeans, which is horrible. You’re not supposed to be ruining the wardrobe.

CRUDUP We had an absolute ball in every scene. There was something nice in particular about [that scene] because that brought out my own affection for Patrick that was veiled throughout because Russell was so guarded.

FUGIT I was constantly picking up things that Billy was doing, and skills that he had really mastered, trying to pattern off him and how he did it. In our downtime, [Billy] would joke around with me that I hadn’t done anything to get the movie, I was just so lucky. He’d be like, “How old are you again?” 16. “And how’d you get this movie?” “It was just a shot in the dark, Billy.” He wasn’t mentoring me directly, but the way that he was in the scenes and on set, [he] mentored me, and I believe he did that on purpose.

Crudup nearly missed the first time he jumped off the roof.

Crudup on the rooftop: “The practical part of just standing on a relatively steep roof feels precarious.

GRIFFITH We were looking for a place that looked like the suburbs in Kansas, and we found it in the San Fernando Valley [in Southern California]. We were trying to find a house [very] near a pool. [We ultimately decided to] find the right house and then we built a total theatrical facade that we could push toward the pool.

CRUDUP The roof was quite steep, so I didn’t feel totally comfortable up there. The practical part of just standing on a relatively steep roof feels precarious, even if you’re only 20 feet off the ground or whatever.

CROWE We were just trying to be safe, but also [thinking] what would be the most wild and woolly way where we can see enough of him before he helicopters into the pool?

BETSY HEIMANN From a costume point of view, we were all a little nervous about all the kids diving in the pool and Russell diving off the building, because in any film, you say the word “water,” and you’re like, “How many do I need?” We probably had four backup [outfits].

CRUDUP I jumped onto one of those stunt pads that deflates when you jump into it. The first time, I was so jacked up with adrenaline, I came close to missing the pad. I could see by the whites of the eyes of the stunt person that they were concerned that I was not fully capable of managing that moment.

GRIFFITH I remember the pool wasn’t dirty, like it hadn’t been used. So, we had the [team] bring in leaves, and we tinted it a little bit green.

CROWE The idea was to always let [Billy] do his Russell magic as much as possible without having him get sick from a pool that had less than pristine water in it. But we were pretty careful.

CRUDUP I jumped into the mat and then they did an overhead shot of my stunt person jumping into the pool. I don’t want to ruin anybody’s suspension of disbelief, but that was not me going into the pool.

FUGIT After Russell goes in the pool, a bunch of partygoers also jump in the pool to save him. There was also a little bit that’s not in the film, where Russell gets out of the pool. So between takes it took a long time because everybody had to get changed and dried off.

CRUDUP I do remember when all of the kids jumped in, but I kind of remember watching it. It’s really strange to think back at it now, wondering if I actually did jump in at some point. I’ll defer to whatever Patrick said. I would put it this way, the Fugit does not lie.

Billy Crudup invented the Russell Hammond acid trip.

Crudup, left, and Fugit, center, practiced pratfalls during their downtime. Fugit also crushed on his co-star, Kate Hudson, right. 

CRUDUP Cameron wanted to do these shots where the camera is craning over me, and I have to hold my arms out and look up to the camera and scream [the lines]. That felt a bit dizzying when I think back on it now. Cameron also encouraged any kind of weird interpretation of what a trip might be like for Russell: that was just seeing energy and feeling energy. It’s doing all this weird stuff with my arms.

CROWE I remember at some point, Billy was on fire. And he said, “OK, I’m on acid, right? Give me something specific. Give me something to do.” And I said, “Well, you’re tingling, you’re feeling it in your hands. It’s like, your hands have a mind of their own.” And he did that thing with his hands, which I just can never get enough of, where he’s feeling the tingly air on his hands, and it’s just like, “I dig music.”

CRUDUP I can remember just how giddy that made Cameron.

CROWE It became the bravura moment that I had dreamed it might be, and you don’t always get there. The movie’s way different without that sequence. I’m always grateful for it.

Cameron Crowe held a screening for Led Zeppelin to get the musicians to license their music, something they didn’t do much at the time.

JOE HUTSHING Cameron and I had to fly to London to show [Jimmy] Page and Plant the movie and hopefully get their blessing. After the lights came up, Robert Plant immediately said, “So Cameron, is your mum really like that?” There was a pause, and we all burst out laughing. She was exactly like that, and Frances McDormand had played her perfectly.

CROWE Never have you watched two heads more than we watched their two heads watching “Almost Famous.” Every once in a while they would whisper something to each other. And we’d look at each other like, “What did that mean?” And then comes the “golden god” sequence. And Billy goes, “I am a golden god!” And Robert Plant lets out the greatest laugh and claps. We could breathe now. We’re like, “We got a shot that they might like the movie.” Then comes the end, where Billy Crudup is on a bench and he’s finding out that the kid has written all of it [in the article], including screaming, “I’m a golden god.” I think Billy says, “I didn’t say that.” And Plant shouts out, “I did!” in the theater.

CRUDUP Cameron told me afterward, “Robert Plant said, ‘Yeah, I liked it a lot. That Russell character, I know that guy.’” And Cameron was like, “You know Billy?” And he goes, “No, no, no, I know Russell.”

CROWE We sat in the screening room with Page and Plant for a while. And one of the first things was, Robert Plant said, “Wow, so many memories.” He said, “I have a bottle of quaaludes from the early 1970s that is ornamental on a shelf. I think I’m going to go home and open it up tonight.” That was when I felt like “I’m a golden god” found its rightful home and went back to its creator. I often think of Robert Plant himself dialoguing with the movie when I see that scene.

Years after “Almost Famous” was released, the two “golden gods” had an unexpected encounter.

CRUDUP I actually saw Robert Plant [in] the airport, carrying his guitar, and I was thinking, “God, I wish I could just have the guts to ask him if it was true that Cameron witnessed him saying that.” Of course, the moment passed, and I go to board my plane, and he’s sitting catty-corner to me and it’s a five-hour flight back to New York. I spent five hours paralyzed, trying to imagine some way to introduce myself. Nothing comes to me, the plane lands, and I go to get my carry-on. Apparently, my carry-on was a piece of [garbage], because Robert Plant took the time to say, “Well, I guess that’s seen better days,” to which I replied, “My name is Billy Crudup. I was in the film ‘Almost Famous,’ and I played Russell Hammond, the guitarist.” He goes, “It is you!” And I said, “Yeah, I had that line, ‘I’m a golden god.’” He said, “That’s my line.” I said, “Well, that’s my line now” and walked off the plane, at which point the flight attendant goes, “Wow, the two golden gods.” It made me so satisfied that he remembered the movie and remembered that line.