By the time Patrick Fugit was ready to shoot an extended sequence where Stillwater, the fictional rock band at the center of “Almost Famous,” shows him the best of 1970s New York City, he was physically exhausted.
It makes sense. Shooting came towards the end of the film’s five-month production and required the 16-year old Fugit to be on set at 4 a.m., something that had left him barely able to keep his eyes open. As cameras rolled, Fugit felt himself drifting off, but his exhaustion couldn’t have come at a worse time, because the filmmakers had shut down traffic on Queensboro Bridge to film the scene.
“We’re sitting there in a limo, and as soon as the sun rose and we had enough light, we had to start filming so we could get off the bridge quickly and people could get on with their lives,” says Fugit. “But I could not stay awake and Billy Crudup [playing Stillwater lead guitarist Russell Hammond] would kick me when it was time for my lines. He kept telling me, ‘Patrick you’ve got to stay awake. It’s disrespectful to fall asleep when you’re off camera.’ Even when they turned the camera around and it was on me, I was nodding off.”
Fugit had always dreamed of being an actor, but he’d only been in a few small parts in productions that shot near his native Salt Lake City before he scored the role of William Miller, a fledgling teenage rock journalist who is hired by Rolling Stone to follow Stillwater on tour. The unknown actor was tasked with carrying the next film from Cameron Crowe, then riding high off the success of “Jerry Maguire” and “…Say Anything,” while playing an ever-so-slightly fictionalized version of the writer-director. Like Miller, Crowe was filing to stories to Rolling Stone before he could even legally drive. To get Fugit ready for the challenge, Crowe and acting coach Belita Moreno would obsessively run through scenes with the young star at the filmmaker’s production offices months before cameras ever rolled.
“When it came time to film things, I felt I was ready,” says Fugit. “They set me up for success, so if we’d be shooting some big emotional scene, like the beer scene with Penny or the airplane scene where we think we’re going to crash, it felt like the culmination of all that work.”
There was one scene, however, that no amount of coaching could prepare Fugit to pull off. At one point in the movie, Miller is deflowered by members of the “band aids,” a group of female fans that follows Stillwater from gig to gig. It was a sequence that required the sexually inexperienced Fugit to kiss Fairuza Balk and cavort in a hotel room with Anna Paquin and Olivia Rosewood, while wearing nothing but his underwear. Shortly before filming, Fugit turned to co-star Kate Hudson for advice.
“When she asked if I was nervous, I said, ‘look I’m 16, Fairuza, Anna and Olivia are all beautiful,’” Fugit remembers. “‘What happens if I get a certain physiological response to what’s happening?’ Kate laughed and said, ‘If it does happen, that’s what’s supposed to happen in nature, so you shouldn’t feel too ashamed.’”
Hudson assured Fugit that filming the scene would be mostly technical and that his biggest problems would be making sure he hit his mark or remained in the frame. That didn’t prove to be entirely true.
“Fairuza is a titan of an actor and fully committed so she was just making out with me and telling me to eat a strawberry before I kissed her,” says Fugit. “I was like, ‘holy hell. This is not what Kate Hudson promised.’”
“Almost Famous” hit theaters in 2000 and was a box office failure, despite being a critical success. But its reputation has only been burnished in the ensuing decades, with the film routinely turning up on lists of the best films of the aughts. In a sign of its durability, Paramount Pictures is releasing a newly remastered version of the film on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on July 13. Fugit thinks that “Almost Famous” continues to find fans because Crowe was able to capture something universal in his story about a teenage music lover thrust into an unbelievable situation.
“There’s a vibration at the heart of all of us as observers and audience members and Cameron is able to harmonize with that,” says Fugit. “There’s something about the way that Cameron makes films that’s so uplifting and so optimistic. Even though there are bittersweet and tragic moments, as well as funny and romantic parts, it all feels true. You watch his movies and somehow you feel like everything is going to be okay.”