There’s little doubt that Cameron Crowe has a passion for music — his character-driven movies have famously celebrated the world of rock, whether by chronicling the life of a young journalist in “Almost Famous” or through the soundtracks woven through “Singles” or “Say Anything.”
Now he’s turning his creative skills to the small screen for the first time with Showtime’s “Roadies,” the story of the crew-turned-family behind the scenes of the Staton-House Band tour. Crowe created the series, working alongside executive producer Winnie Holzman (“My So-Called Life”).
Here, he tells Variety why he decided to make the move to television, why he’s frustrated with the movie business, and why he had to make some tough creative decisions along the way.
How did this project begin?
J.J. Abrams and I both worked at Gracie Films for James L. Brooks, a character comedy hero [of mine], and we made friends back then. He would start to say stuff like, “If you ever want to be a guy that does TV, let’s do it together.” I was like, “Absolutely.” We started pitching on this vague idea which became very quickly this. We just stuck with it over the years. Before I was leaving to do our last movie, I got really excited about it. And I took all these stray drafts, and just rode the wave of being inspired and boom, it’s done! And you think, “take a break. Don’t press send” — and I just pressed send. And 40 minutes later, J.J. wrote back and says, “We’ve got to do this. This is our show.” And that’s what happened. I’m lucky to know J.J. He’s able to make it easy to find a forum in TV, and he hooked us up with Showtime.
Did you have any trepidations about TV?
I did before. Post-“Sopranos,” I felt much safer about doing TV. The thing they say to you is, put your name on it, you don’t have to do anything, and you’ll make a lot of money. It doesn’t work that way. For anything to be good, you have to be there all the time, and money doesn’t matter. I waited until there was time and the right environment to say, “I’m here. And I’m going to do everything I can to make the show great.”
Was the experience what you expected?
It was the most fun I’ve had directing in a super long time. I couldn’t stop talking about it. I’d come home at night bubbling because I loved the cast. And the world. And the music. We are all music lovers. I played music all the time on the set. People would come up to me all the time and say, “you’re really a joyful director.” On this project! You’ve made me joyful on this one. It’s just working faster, which can be super fun. I’m lucky to be working with Winnie Holzman. “My So-Called Life” is my favorite show.
How did working with Showtime compare to working in movies?
I can only imagine they must take a million calls a day from people being like, “Are you going to pick us up?” So it was a lot, “Are you going to pick us up?” Robin Gurney, David Nevins, and Gary Levine are so personally involved in a great way. The adjustment to the collaboration with them has been great. They’re not scared. A lot of the movie people are scared to do a movie that’s about characters and comedy and people. Where does the machine come in? Where does the alien come in? Where are the vampires? That’s not the case at Showtime.
You’re not happy with the movie business right now.
People get so nervous about doing my stuff sometimes because there’s no real formula to it. It’s just stories about people. I remember when we finished “Jerry Maguire.” They used to say to me, you don’t have a star so we don’t know how to sell your movies. Finally we get Tom Cruise, and they’re like, “We don’t know.” You don’t know? It’s Tom Cruise! Is there a problem selling Tom Cruise? They’d say, “It’s an in-between movie, man. Is it football or is it a love story? You’ve got to choose.” But does life choose? Maybe it’s both. Ultimately they put a commercial together that was both football and love. And people really responded. The journey getting there is sometimes hard because [with “Almost Famous”], the story of a 16 year groupie in 1973 and a young journalist who befriend each other and they go on a journey to understand a fictional rock band — that’s a tough sell. I was lucky that DreamWorks said “make that movie.” I think you’re always looking for people that you can look to either side of you and go, you’re being supported by people who get me. That’s happened here and that’s happened sometimes in the movies. I’m just so lucky to have that job. It’s all part of it.
What is it about the world of music that fascinates you?
[The characters] are drawn together by a love of music. They’re a family that formed in place of their own family. This is the family of the circus and the people around this band. So many kinds of stories about rock and roll are, “Woah, check out the lifestyle!” And I always found that there’s the lifestyle, there’s the stereotype of the lifestyle, and there’s the real lifestyle. Which is a lot of people serving a love of music. Drugs and sex and stuff like that are not the reason any of these people got started. They got started because they heard a song someplace that changed their lives. And they couldn’t say no to this world. The other stuff are satellites around this planet. I like writing about the planet of music lovers. Loving music and the way music can affect all of our lives. And just change your day in an instant. Change your frame of view in an instant. Give you something to fight for. And these are people who’ve grown up around that glowing love of something that’s so important to them. And me.
That theme characterizes much of your work.
I guess so. I guess we all write about that the thing you can’t say no to. I always feel like I can’t say no to writing about this thing that’s so important to me. And you can write about loving music without ever having anyone be a musician. It’s kind of a partner in the creative process.
Carla Gugino took over in a role originally intended for Christina Hendricks. Why didn’t it work out with Christina?
I feel like that’s process, and that’s cool. We all fell in love with Christina, and we’re still in love with Christina. We’re still in communication with her. The character was morphing into a different thing. It ultimately it wasn’t the perfect part for us to collaborate on. We all agreed on it. But I never let go of somebody that I know can do my stuff. I’m grateful that I know when they’ve studied it. My stuff can be deceptive in that it seems natural. But it’s hard to be natural. It was a breeze for her. So I never forget that. So there will be something that we meet at the crossroads on. Luke was an actor that I’ve been desperate to work with forever. He was almost in “Jerry Maguire” [in the Jerry O’Connell role]. And Tom Hanks fell out, and Tom Cruise came in. And at the time, Cruise and Luke looked a lot alike. They looked similar, could be brothers. And there were all these scenes where Cruise was like, “You’re my life,” and it was a little narcissistic. I’m putting my hopes and dreams on you, man who looks like me. It was a little weird. So I had to tell Luke, we have to recast. It was almost “Almost Famous,” and it was almost another part. And then this came up, and it was like, “Luke, I wrote it for you.” There was this moment when we were shooting the pilot and he just casually picked up a football and was throwing it for a montage sequence and it hit me – it took me 20 years to be the guy directing you with a football. We did it. We got there. Similarly, I don’t think it will take 20 years for Christina and I to hook back up again. You don’t forget the people you have chemistry with. It wasn’t this one, but it will probably be the next one.
The pilot ends with a fantastic movie montage scene. How did you pull that off?
Those clips are expensive! We had all these clips put together, but then they take you aside and say, “Did you have fun? Was it fun for you? That was $25 million worth of cinema that you just put together.” So, we kind of trimmed it down to just the essentials. Some of the filmmakers helped us out. Dustin Hoffman gave us a break. That was very cool. But the one that got away is the sequence – also Dustin Hoffman – from “Kramer vs Kramer.” He’s running across the street with that kid in his arms. Oh my god, that was amazing in that montage! But it was way too expensive with all the rights. That having been said, making a scene out of all of those pieces of film that I love so much, was really inspiring. I hope to do it again. [Imogen Poots’ character] still has a film mini-obsession going throughout. Hopefully those ideas come back.