How Cameron Crowe Used An Unusual Technique For The Dialogue In Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe's 2000 film "Almost Famous" was a semi-autobiographical nostalgia piece about a 15-year-old aspiring writer named William (Patrick Fugit) who lands a gig for Rolling Stone following the hip new band Stillwater on their most recent 1973 tour. This is based on Crowe's own experience writing for Rolling Stone as a teen, following the Allman Brothers Band on tour. Although highly fictionalized, "Almost Famous" captures a very palpable sense of teen wonderment one experiences in entering a previously verboten adult world. Everyone is freewheeling and cool. Sex is all around. Much of the drama of "Almost Famous" stems from the young William's eventual realization that he is a very, very uncool teen journalist, and not the band's friend at all. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the real-life rock critic Lester Bangs.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, Crowe managed to find a near-miraculous balance of honest teen emotions and ultra-hip adherence to a particular music scene. His "Say Anything" captures teen romance and growing up in all its exhilarating, messy glory. "Singles," set in grunge-era Seattle, might be one of the most '90s movies of the '90s. His unusual "Jerry Maguire" appears to capture what happens when someone who was once cool sells out and then tries to un-sell out. And "Almost Famous" delves right into the awesome A.F. music scene that defined the director to begin with.

"Almost Famous" was the first film appearance of Patrick Fugit, Crowe's avatar. The actor, now 40, was said to uncannily embody the character, and he would go on to star in films like "Spun," "Saved!," "Gone Girl," and "My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To."

In a 2020 interview with the Observer, Fugit recalls his time on "Almost Famous," particularly Crowe's strange fashion of directing scenes with dialogue.

Acting capsules

As one might intuit, Crowe has a deep, abiding affection for pop music. This bears itself out on his films' oft-amazing soundtracks. It seems that on "Almost Famous," Crowe would relay direction to his actors in the form of his favorite songs. Fugit recalls that Crowe seemed to grow antsy whenever a scene began to feel too structured and would start interrupting to retain a certain degree of naturalness. Fugit said: 

"During scenes that were really rehearsed, I think I could sometimes become too technically focused or too mechanically focused. So Cameron would just start playing songs during the middle of the take or he would start saying things to me while we were in the middle of the scene."

Crowe also seemed to frequently brainstorm — and film — what appears to have been a long series of "mini scenes." Fugit recalls that Crowe seemingly constructed a patchwork of short, brief moments between characters, and then would spring them on his actors. Fugit called these scenes "capsules," and it seems they served a vital anti-rehearsal function, perhaps employed as a means to keep Crowe's cast improvisationally limber and conversational. As Fugit put it:

"He also liked to plan these little morsels or capsules of interactions. It would be like a set of dialogue interactions that lasted maybe five to 10 seconds at most. These short, sweet interactions that he would have on standby. We had rehearsed them, but they didn't have a specific time or place in the script. He didn't have them written as part of a scene. He would just have them ready to go whenever he felt."

Manufacturing memories

The capsules were also a means of giving characters memories, or internalized backstories, that they would be able to draw from within a scene. Fugit remembers that the capsulized moments directly altered his reactions when the actual take would be lined up. He was, in a way, being fed memories from a broader time. Crowe was seemingly filling in all the small moments from the character's recent life when he wasn't on camera. Fugit describes it more: 

"[Crowe] would cue one actor and say 'OK, let's do this capsule,' and I would be in the middle of the scene doing what was in the script. Then Kate [Hudson] or someone would walk up to me and start saying this little capsule, and I would recall it from rehearsal and we would do that 10-second interaction. So there were these moments where I was visibly buffering and remembering this little planned capsule and you would get these genuine reactions from me in that sense. Those are very much parallel with William's filter of this world."

Fugit recalls that any moments of hesitation or awkwardness seen in his character were absolutely genuine, and he credits Crowe's unconventional directing style for it.

"Almost Famous" was a critical hit, but not a huge box office success. Regardless, it has come to be held in high esteem, and a musical adaptation of the film recently opened on Broadway. If this writer may editorialize, it was one of the best films of its year.