This piece is part of our ongoing coverage of the 20th anniversary of Almost Famous.
Four minutes into the new Almost Famous podcast, Kate Hudson describes a discussion she recently had with her therapist. “‘I’m feeling like I’m 40 and I just wanna…’ And my therapist goes, ‘You wanna get back on the bus with Stillwater?’ And I was like, ‘Yes! I want to get back on the bus! You’re right, that’s exactly what I want!'”
Hosted by James Andrew Miller, all five binge-worthy episodes of Cadence13’s Origins: Almost Famous Turns Twenty provide insight and incredible details about Cameron Crowe’s beloved semi-autobiographical film (available to watch here). It features the main cast, including Hudson (Penny Lane), Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), and more, with Crowe sharing his memories of making the film and its impact and legacy.
“If I could tell a story about discovering music,” Crowe says, “the way music can change your life and your family and not necessarily be all about sex and drugs — all the very easily stereotyped aspects of rock — if you can tell a love story about music in that tone, well, that would be the way to tell that story.”
Here are 10 things we learned from the podcast.
1. Brad Pitt was almost Russell Hammond.
Actors originally selected for the film include: Meryl Streep as Elaine Miller; Natalie Portman and Sarah Polley as Penny Lane; and Brad Pitt for the role of Stillwater’s lead guitarist, Russell Hammond. Crowe met with Pitt around the time of his 1989 directorial debut, Say Anything, and spoke with him again after Jerry McGuire, with Pitt inquiring about Crowe’s next film. “He was just starting out, and he just really had something,” Crowe noted. Pitt read for the role of Russell with Portman and Fugit. “I would go to his house, we would read through it,” Crowe says. “We geeked out about music and everything. He was slowly putting on the Russell Hammond persona.”
Four months later, Pitt backed out, and the role went to Crudup. “I wept,” Crowe laughed. “I tortured all of my friends with, ‘What the fuck are we going to do?’ But I think in the back of my brain, I knew that he had never fully fallen in love with the character.” Casting director Gail Levin suspected that Pitt backed out for financial reasons, while Crowe added that Pitt may have been uncomfortable with the age difference between Russell and Penny Lane. “I think six or seven months later, he just walked in the door one day at our office, said he was driving by, just wanted to come in and say that we’d always been on his mind, and good luck. And he left. I loved him for it.”
2. Kate Hudson was originally cast as William’s sister, Anita.
Before Zooey Deschanel appeared as Anita — the rebellious sister who sneaks Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends into the house, flees San Diego to become a stewardess, and gifts William with all of her albums — the role was given to Hudson. Polley was initially cast as Penny Lane, but like Pitt, she backed out after four months.
In need of a Penny Lane, Crowe called Hudson. “He was like, ‘Well, everybody’s out. Brad Pitt is no longer doing the movie, and Sarah Polley is no longer doing the film,'” she recalled. “‘And I just want you to know I’m still going to make this movie.'” Hudson, who had turned down two large roles for Almost Famous, reassured the director that she wasn’t going anywhere, and begged him to audition for Penny Lane.
“I did a screen test with Kate as Penny Lane, and it wasn’t the mystical kind of Penny Lane that I’d been working on with Sarah Polley,” Crowe said. “Here was somebody that just walks in the room and you’re like, ‘I love her!’ She was that character.” Deschanel was given the role of Anita. “It really ended up making so much sense because Kate was so brilliant in the Penny role — she was so perfect for that part,” Deschanel remembered. “I look like Frances McDormand, I look like Patrick, we look like such a family that it really ended up being exactly the thing that was supposed to happen for Kate, and for me, too. That just ended up being a total career-making part.”
3. Cameron Crowe’s mom cornered Frances McDormand on set.
McDormand was cast as Elaine Miller, a character inspired by Crowe’s mother, Alice. The film was based in Crowe’s hometown of San Diego, where Alice lived. “That’s weird to be directing your life, with your mom on set, and now you’re directing a character based on your mom,” Crowe said. “One of the crew guys came up to me at one point and said, ‘Don’t you think therapy would have been a little cheaper?’”
Crowe warned his mother not to hassle McDormand on set, but it happened anyway. “I turned around 10 minutes later and she’s buttonholing Frances right in front of me, and I was freaking out,” he said. “I talked to Frances first about what the conversation was, and she said, ‘Alice, it’s not gonna be you, and it’s not gonna be me. It’s gonna be someone else.’”
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman would not read for the role of Lester Bangs.
“We read so many people, and there were so many great Lesters that happened,” Crowe said. “But nobody was really that magical version of the guy that I remember — the guy that changed my life.” As Levin recalls, Hoffman would not read for the role of the legendary rock critic. Instead, he ranted about a billboard he had seen on the way to his audition, which was an American Express ad with Martin Scorsese. “It wasn’t anything negative,” Levin said. “It was just something that he was talking about in a very impassioned way. That’s how smart this actor was: He came in and created this sort of improv that was channeling that character and created a faux audition without really auditioning, and that was, to me, amazing.”
5. An early draft of the script featured a role for David Bowie.
The first attempt at a script was titled Ricky Fedora. In the script, Ricky Fedora was an English rock star based off of Peter Frampton. Penny Lane was the love of Fedora’s life, albeit in a smaller role. Crowe also wrote a role specifically for David Bowie, a character based off early rock publicist Russ Shaw.
However, the release of 1997’s Austin Powers changed all that. “The idea of a foppish British rock star was suddenly a comical thing,” Crowe said. “It was too Austin Powers.” He decided to make it about an American band from Michigan named Stillwater, and changed the story to the perspective of the journalist. “The only sad part of that is I had no part for David Bowie,” he said. “So when I last saw David Bowie, it was at an Almost Famous event. I was able to tell him that the whole thing began with me wanting to write a part for him that he could play. He said, ‘Well, write me another one.’ I was trying to do that when he died.”
6. The film was originally named Untitled.
Since this was Crowe’s fourth film, he almost called it Untitled, a nod to Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. “I liked the idea that there was going to be a music reference at every turn, and that was like Led Zeppelin had the untitled album,” he noted. When the studio refused to call the film Untitled, Jimmy Fallon, who played the role of manager Dennis Hope, provided a list of over 10 alternate titles. Possible names included Gather No Moss, I’m With the Band, The Kid’s With Us, Vinyl Reality, What Music Can Do, and more. “‘What Music Can Do’ — that’s terrible,” Fallon said. “That sounds like a really recent Beach Boys song.”
7. Jimmy Fallon kept breaking on the airplane scene
It took two days to shoot the chaotic airplane scene, where Stillwater is flying over Tupelo, Mississippi, in a storm. Fearing for their deaths, they vent their frustrations out to each other — and blurt out some secrets. Fallon’s character shares that he committed a hit and run in Dearborn, Michigan. “Not a day goes by I don’t see his face,” he says.
Fallon, known for breaking character during his stint on SNL, found it impossible to get through the scene without bursting into laughter. “That was the closest I almost got fired, because I kept laughing,” he said. Fallon had become close with Jason Lee during the filming, and avoided eye contact with him to keep from laughing. “We made each other laugh till we cried,” Fallon said. “I think at one point, they threw me off the plane, and they got everyone else’s shots. I did my scene by myself.”
8. Kate Hudson’s “You are home” line during the “Tiny Dancer” scene was improvised.
The most iconic scene in the film occurs after Russell returns from his “Golden God” acid trip at a house party in Topeka, Kansas. Tensions with the band are temporarily smoothed over when the cast begins singing along to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer.” As William looks at Penny Lane and tells her he has to return home to San Diego, she replies, “You are home.”
According to Crowe, the line was improvised. “That’s just in the moment,” Crowe said. “Like, ‘Try saying this, try saying this,’ and it was essential. That definitely was the thing that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I made it my first movie. It happened at the perfect time. Almost Famous happened at the perfect time.”
9. Kate Hudson filmed the Central Park scene on no sleep.
Toward the end of the film, Penny Lane meets up with Stillwater at Max’s Kansas City in New York City, against Russell’s wishes. His girlfriend, Leslie, tells Russell that she’s “creeping her out,” so the band’s manager, Dick (Noah Taylor), asks her to leave. She returns to her room at the Plaza, overdoses on quaaludes, and William ends up saving her life. The next morning, the two stroll through Central Park, and she finally tells him her real name.
Prior to shooting the scene, Hudson had gone out the night before until 4 a.m. with Fallon and Lee. “I thought, ‘Well, shit, I’m just going to go right to work,'” Hudson remembered. “‘And this is great ’cause it’s my hangover scene!'” The producer warned Hudson not to let Crowe see her in her “full-out regalia” from the night before, but he did anyway. “Cameron sees me and he looks at me, and I look at him, [we make] eye contact,” she said. “And he goes, ‘Rock & roll.'”
10. A rerelease of The Exorcist overshadowed the film on opening weekend.
On the opening weekend of Almost Famous (September 22nd, 2000), the classic horror film The Exorcist was rereleased. It was dubbed “The Version You’ve Never Seen” and grossed $8.1 million, while Almost Famous grossed $2.1 million. “It was disappointing that it took a while to catch on,” Crowe remembered. “But it caught on to the point where people don’t remember now that it actually got the shit kicked out of it by a movie from 1973.”
Looking back 20 years later, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t a box-office smash. “The movies that last are the ones that touch people, and that’s all they remember over time,” Crowe said. “Ultimately, the life it’ll have won’t be part of a box-office report.”