It's a topic of endless discussion among Hollywood gossips: "Almost Famous," promoted as one of the big movies of the year, is a box office disappointment. Budgeted at $45 million, the film cost $60 million to actually make. And so far, "Famous" hasn't even grossed half that.
DreamWorks might deserve some of the blame. Maybe its executives should have opened the film wide the very first weekend, or cast a certifiable star. But director Cameron Crowe's skyrocketing costs didn't help: His penchant for reshooting scenes and his obsessive attention to detail allegedly drove costs far higher they should have been for a movie without special effects.
There's another argument to be made. We liked the movie from the start. And a second look only reaffirmed that Crowe's meticulous attention to minutiae is what made "Almost Famous" so unforgettable. Many recent movies have found inspiration in the '70s--from "Boogie Nights" and "The Ice Storm" to "Remember the Titans"--but for those of us who came of age back then, none but "Almost Famous" truly captures the ineffable, burnt-orange and avocado decade that we knew and loved.
"As Cameron would put it, we never wanted to compromise, ever," says the film's production designer, Clay Griffith. His staff made every effort to recreate both an era and a milieu--down to the right kind of duct tape covering audio cables in concert scenes and thumb tacks, not pushpins, on the walls backstage.
Then there was the not-so-small matter of clothing, hair and makeup. One would expect the principle players to look period perfect, and they do--especially Kate Hudson as head groupie Penny Lane and Billy Crudup as the lead guitarist for the fictional band Stillwater. But every single member of the movie's huge concert-arena audiences appears to have been torn straight from the pages of a 1973 high school yearbook.
"That's because we dressed all the extras," says costume designer Betsy Hyman, who outfitted them in scores of T-shirts she had had made (bearing names like Stillwater and Black Sabbath) and vintage articles culled from thrift shops and warehouses all over the country. She also made use of several barrels of used Levi's 517s ("the ones that fit so tight, and then just at the bottom they're big enough to put your Frye boot on"), which Hyman stumbled across in Los Angeles. Extras also went through hair and makeup, and according to makeup artist Lois Burwell, each crowd's look was even varied as Stillwater traveled from one city to the next. "Some would look more '60s, in the Midwest," Burwell explains, "then more up-to-fashion on the East Coast" (where glam rock was just then filtering in from England). "Everybody was seen or touched or taken care of," says hair stylist Kathryn Blondell, speaking with an emphatic pride that seems to mark each staff member's recollections. "It was really hard work, but you always felt really happy when you walked onto a set filled with [hundreds of] people and it looked right and it felt right."
Layer upon layer of detail was applied, capturing the rich, messy texture of real life. The first time prop master David Allen saw the finished film, he recalls, "I was exhausted by the truckloads of crap that we [had] brought into every set--the period cigarette packs, the gum packs, the ashtrays full of cigarette butts...making a [rock musician's] dressing room look real, with day-old sandwich meat on the table, flowers, scarves on the lamps, incense burning, candles, guitars and picks and strings.... It was sick," he adds with relish. "Endless."
Take beer cans. Allen actually tracked down the inventor of the original pull tab (which came off when the can was opened, unlike the current pop-top), and had dozens of cases specially made for the movie. What about the right carpeting? To restore the Continental Hyatt in West Hollywood to its '70s glory, Griffith and his people captured the original lobby carpet pattern from a scene in Rob Reiner's 1984 classic, "This Is Spinal Tap;" they fed the image into a computer, blew up the pattern and sent it to a mill in North Carolina, which fabricated 400 garish yards of it. (Greenfield estimates the production spent about $50,000 on carpeting alone.)
Research for the film was equally obsessive. Crowe himself had a formidable horde of '70s mementos and was "the font of all information," as Greenfield puts it. But the creative staff also combed through old magazines, the Internet and countless other sources. They also interviewed former Rolling Stone staffers, DJs and others who were a part of the '70s rock-and-roll scene. What was the radio station of the moment in Phoenix in 1973? KPUD. In Cleveland? WMMS. (KPUD appears on a bumper sticker on the Stillwater bus, WMMS on a poster backstage.)
What airline would Penny Lane have flown for her final trip home from New York to San Diego? Eastern went that route--but the carrier no longer exists. Instead, a 727 bearing the original Eastern logo, together with a sizable airline-terminal set, ran about $100,000, according to Griffith. He and Crowe understood that this sort of thing wasn't mere trivia: that it's just such small, odd moments of recognition--Oh, I remember Eastern Airlines!--that would make the film such a delight to watch.
Next to Crowe, the production's richest resource were pictures by former Rolling Stone photographers like Joel Bernstein and Neal Preston. Crowe and the creative staff pored over hundreds of these images, taken on concert tours with Neil Young, Led Zeppelin and others, in order to duplicate every possible detail. "I'd look at a picture," recalls Hyman, "and if Cameron said, 'I'm trying to recreate this picture,' I recreated the picture." Griffith also had his staff bring in family and yearbook photos, enlargements of which he hung up around the office--"just as a point of reference, to keep us real," he recalls. (The words "reality" and "real" seem to hold a certain uncanny magic for the creative team. Griffith: "That was really reality." Greenfield: "Just keep it really real." Hyman: "For me, it's like, it's real. It's real because I took real things and brought them to life.")
Hollywood insiders may have sniped at Crowe last week in the press, but those who worked on "Almost Famous" speak of the director with a kind of awe. Rather than driving them crazy, Crowe's unyielding pursuit of authenticity apparantly gave his production team great pleasure. "We didn't really want to stop making the movie," Griffith says. Like the teenager William traveling with the band, he says, "you didn't want to get off the bus."
Griffith even gets choked up talking about the last day of filming--a scene shot outdoors in New York City, when Penny Lane tells William her real name. After the third and final take, Crowe and the whole cast and crew burst into tears--"sobbing in the middle of f---ing Central Park," says Griffith. "That doesn't happen on every film, believe me." Later, over dinner, he and the director were unable to speak. Has Griffith ever felt that way about another project? "Never like that. Not that kind of joy--joy that you realize someone just got to tell a really great story." And with all the right details.