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Sucking in the '70s 

& & by Ray Pride & & & &

The words and sentiments in the best pop movies are singular and salutary, and knowing that, makers of movie dialogue often reduce heart and hope to trailer-ready phrases.

Writer/director Cameron Crowe has at least one infernal phrase to his credit: "Show me the money!" Yet the nerve and fortitude of his characters' struggle to be good and kind and, well -- happy -- lets me disremember that particular barnacle on the zeitgeist.

As would be expected, there is a line late in Almost Famous that sounds smack-worthy on the page, yet in context, it is filled with goodness and hope and does not belong in a moment so fragrant with the potential of death and demolished youth. It's tough. Tenderly so. A central character earnestly in need of a stomach pump, being kept awake until a doctor arrives, burbles, babbles, and comes out with the line, "I'm all about the positivity!"

The same could be said about Crowe. Meeting him before this week's debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, Crowe told me about how Billy Wilder, Crowe's idol and the subject of his book, Conversations with Wilder, viewed the idea of Almost Famous.

"I kept trying to audition ideas for what I was working on, and he would have none of it," Crowe says. "'These personal movies, they are garbage! Who cares about such a thing? Next question.' 'What if it was about you as a young journalist in Berlin?' 'Even more boring. Who cares? Maybe your mother and father, mine are dead, next!'"

Crowe laughs with the memory. While commercially successful and respected, Crowe takes a lot more time than a director like Wilder between projects. I wondered what took so long. False starts, many drafts, doubts, permutations, finding the core of the story?

"All of the above. I avoid rewriting by writing. Sometimes whole new things. Where you write yourself into a corner almost so you give yourself a break and you don't have to write. Or the other thing is to hit a wall and then torture all your friends and family and loved ones with Hamlet-izing, which I am really big on. 'Why am I doing this? What is the point? Let's speak objectively! Let's forget we've had this conversation a hundred times before, let's just make it all fresh, come to it fresh right now, should I really be doing a movie about sort of my own experience?'"

Is that doubt or has that become process? "It's become process. It's doubt that's become process. If I remember that, it might save me a couple days at least. But it's true. It's indulgent to make that part of your process. I really want to work on a faster basis."

But you've been a professional writer for how long? "Too long. Too long to have these problems." I cite Neil LaBute's version of a writer's need to bang up against deadlines: "If you really needed it on Monday, you should have told me, so I could have started it late on Sunday night."

Crowe pauses, then demonstrates the enthusiastic gratitude for experience that characterize both his films and how his co-workers describe him. "The whole thing is a privilege. It's fun to talk about the funny little ways of process, but overall, y'know, I'm very lucky to be here. If people hadn't have liked Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli [in Fast Times at Ridgemont High], I would be doing something else. I would be a deejay, moving around the country, trying to find a radio station that would keep me for a while. That's the truth of it. I got lucky early and didn't put a string of failures together that was long enough to keep me out of the arena."

So did he have concerns that Almost Famous would be his pet project, taking advantage of all the goodwill earned by the massive success of Jerry Maguire?

"I think my alarm system is good enough to have stopped if it was going to be like that. I have a real problem with bottom-of-the-drawer scripts or the pet project that you must endure," he says. "It was more like I wanted to do the movie that answered the question of what it was like back then. I used to feel bad that I had never gone to prom or things like that. And then, as time went on, I came to realize that I was lucky -- I was lucky to have been on the road with Led Zeppelin."

Crowe also credits multiple Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll with helping him envision a film larger than his own glory days. "It's great when that bus takes off [in one scene] and you're hearing 'That's the Way' by Led Zeppelin and there's a flare [going off]. It's the kind of moment that I remember, and it's good to have it up on the screen. So yeah, I wanted to use just a little bit of my credit line, but to do it right."

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