Cameron Crowe on ‘Roadies': Why Music Fans Need to Put Down Their Phones

“The thing that’s missing so often in shows about music is the joy of loving music,” writer-director tells TheWrap

“For me, it’s just cool to be a middleman to some characters that people might relate to,” said writer-director Cameron Crowe, whose characters have included the likes of the quintessential stoner Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the boombox-hoisting Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything,” the driven agent Jerry Maguire in the movie that bears his name and the teenaged rock journalist William Miller (based on Crowe’s own adventures) in “Almost Famous,” for which he won a screenwriting Oscar.

Crowe’s new cast of characters is on display in the Showtime series “Roadies,” his first foray into episodic television and a collaboration with J.J. Abrams and “My So-Called Life” creator Winnie Holzman. Starring Luke Wilson, Carla Gugino, Imogen Poots and an array of scene-stealers, the series follows the crew members who work for a mostly unseen rock band. Its affectionate backstage look at big-time rock is clearly drawn from the same well that produced “Almost Famous” – Crowe, now 58, may have been an insider in that world before he was out of high school, but he’s never stopped being a fan.

But rock fandom is a trickier, rarer thing now than it used to be, making “Roadies” a tougher sell to today’s viewers. The stakes for Crowe are significant as well, with the 10-episode first season coming on the heels of his three least successful movies: 2005’s “Elizabethtown,” 2011’s “We Bought a Zoo” and 2015’s “Aloha.”

TheWrap spoke to Crowe on the set of “Roadies” the same morning that HBO announced it was canceling its season-2 pickup of a rival rock series, Martin Scorsese‘s “Vinyl.” Full disclosure: As a former teenage rock journalist myself, I’ve been friends with Cameron for about 35 years. That may be one reason I find “Roadies” to be a fresh, funny and touching look at a world I’ve seen first-hand many times, and it’s definitely a reason our conversation occasionally veered into a couple of aging rock guys revisiting the way it used to be.

So is it fun to be back with rock ‘n’ roll?
Yeah, it’s a blast. It’s like my language. I don’t have to do a lot of research. It comes pretty easily, and there are lots of stories.

Early in the first episode, there’s a scene where Kelly Ann [Imogen Poots] tells the crew bus driver [Luis Guzman] that she’s leaving the tour to go to film school, and he says, “Don’t mean nothin’. You’re still one of us.” I immediately thought of you: You might be making movies, but that don’t mean nothing, because you’re still a music guy.
[Laughs] Yeah, in a way. It wasn’t written to be autobiographical, but it applies, I guess. I’m always doing music journalism on set, playing records and talking about music with whoever on the set is the music fan, whether it’s the cameraman, or on this show all the actors and everybody else. And this show is fun, because I can use these characters to tell stories, and be writing about music at the same time.

What brought you back to a music story, which apart from documentaries you haven’t done since “Almost Famous” 16 years ago?
J.J. and I had been talking about it for a super long time. And what happened was I went to see Fleetwood Mac, I went backstage, and I was sitting on these cases watching the Fleetwood Mac crew. There they were: They’d been together years, decades, and I just watched the dynamic happening. It was all the stuff that I’d been pitching with J.J. over time, and it all came together in the right size and shape.

I went home and started writing it, and it was very quick after that. And when we shot the pilot in Vancouver, it was the greatest thing: It just kind of raised its hand and said, “I’ve been waiting for you. You knew it was going to be fun. Here we are.”

Roadies pilot

Was this always envisioned as a TV series, or did you ever think about doing it as a movie?
It was always a TV show. I was going to do something with Scott Rudin for HBO, and then Scott had a fight with HBO and it went away. But there was a really cool pilot that we were working on for Michael Chabon’s last book, “Telegraph Avenue.” So that got me really thinking about episodic cable writing. It was called “Brokeland,” and I think “Roadies” was the follow-up to that.

What are the advantages to TV? And are there disadvantages?
In the beginning, I thought time was the disadvantage. Because obviously TV goes so fast. Now I’m addicted to it.

The thing that I love about it is the quickness of inspiration to filming to air. The movies have always taken so long, and so much thought has always gone into every little bit of them. ‘Cause generally they have been not one or two million dollar projects – they were expensive enough for people to worry. But Showtime has a real belief in the show, and they love the things that we love, like character. They’ll come back and say, “Why did you cut that thing from a previous draft? Put it back in.”

It’s three people — [Showtime executives] Robin Gurney, Gary Levine and David Nevins. And they are so invested in the characters. That’s different from movies. You don’t often get movie executives following it every step of the way who are jacked for your progress. It’s more like they’re protecting their investment.

When you wrote the pilot, did you have a sense what the rest of the season would be like?
Yeah. I started putting stuff into this bible, which was a folder I had, while we were doing the movie in Hawaii [“Aloha”]. And it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. I always knew how the season would end — but beyond that, the stories just started growing, because everybody wants to tell you their roadie stories. We helped out on a documentary with David Crosby, and he kept going, “When are you going to ask me about my crew?” The same thing happened with Robert Plant, who ran into one of our crew guys on a plane. He said, “Tell Cameron to call me, I’ve got so many stories to tell him!”

But it’s funny, because the stories they tend to tell you are like, “It was when we came through the door with a chainsaw in 1976…” That’s not really what this show is. It’s not about the most salacious, sensational stories you can tell. It is really about the family, and these people who happen to have these jobs that they love, and they’re all living in each others’ pockets.

The first episode does open with a sex scene – so even if there’s not much apparent drug use in the first few episodes, you do have two-thirds of the “sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” equation.
I liked what you said on Twitter, that there was a raunchiness about it that maybe wasn’t in “Almost Famous.” Which is true, and I think it’s good.

We also have another show built into this, which we haven’t really talked about – but I’ll tell you because I’m so jazzed about it. The idea was there should be a show within the show where all the nudity and exploitive premium-cable drama could exist. So we created a kind of HBO-esque show that has all that in it. It’s called “Dead Sex,” it has a premise that’s completely exploitive, and David Spade is the irony-free star of it. We’ve shot scenes for this show within a show, which is always playing on the tour bus, and we see pieces of it.

I thought, great – you can get your premium-cable necessities on the show within the show, if there aren’t enough in “Roadies.”

That stuff aside, there’s a lot more affection in the way your show approaches rock ‘n’ roll than in the way that “Vinyl” did, or the Denis Leary series “Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll” does.
Right.

Which I think is very much you, but maybe not what people are expecting from a show about rock music on cable TV.
Good. It’s the thing that’s missing so often when there’s a drama or even a comedy about music. It’s the joy of loving music. It’s being able to geek out about music — the souvenirs you keep and the memories that you have and the laughs that you have and the super-detailed questioning that you have about lyrics and songs. That’s part of the game of falling in love with music.

And when it’s all about sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll and the cocaine on the table, I feel like, yeah, but there’s also that great thing that happens when somebody that loves Dylan’s Christian period is ready to talk to you for three hours about it. You get high from that. Where’s that aspect? It’s the joy of fandom, which I always want to make sure is present in the show.

Speaking of Dylan fandom — at the beginning of the bus scene I mentioned earlier, Luis Guzman starts rhapsodizing about “Theme Time Radio Hour,” the weekly radio show that Dylan did from 2006 to 2009.
Yeah, yeah.

And he’s dead right – those were amazing radio programs.
Amazing.

But how many TV shows would take the time to actually stop and talk about Bob Dylan the deejay before moving on to something that might actually advance the plot?
Ours will. This is the main reason for the show: so you can take the detour and spend time talking about some odd corner of music history. My scripts have always been super long, and that stuff tends to get cut. But I like the idea that those scenes and moments don’t get cut in this show.

The building your band plays in the first episode is a very old-school, pretty dilapidated arena, not a fancy new building with luxury boxes.
When you go into those old buildings, I think you can hear the echoes of all that happened there before. That’s why Bruce [Springsteen] came back to the [Los Angeles] Sports Arena. The memories and the feelings are all still there. I love honoring the venues, and the events that have occurred in the cities.

But those buildings are all being torn down — and not only are the venues going away, but the rock ‘n’ roll business is almost unrecognizable from what we once wrote about.
I know. And we explore that in the show. That’s why I wanted to start the pilot in a place like that, an old sports arena. It was almost like “Slap Shot” — that hockey team is going to that beat-up building to continue the sport, but what’s the future? The future is big-time professionalism in the Staples Center. Our band ends up in that world, too.

There was a time when rock ‘n’ roll felt like it was at the center of pop culture.
Yeah.

And now rock is essentially out on the fringes. Is it harder to make a show based on the premise that rock can be central to people’s lives when most of the viewers aren’t feeling that?
Great, great, great question. I like to proceed from the premise that it’s all as important as it once was and always will be. There’s still the power of music, and it still can change you, and it’s still like no other feeling. It’s not like live theater, it’s not like poetry, it’s not like movies, it is its own thing. Hearing a piece of music and letting it invade your soul is a very hallowed feeling, and it’s not going to go away. I just want to honor that feeling.

But what you’re saying is true. Carla Gugino is good friends with Jack White, and she shared the pilot with him. And his response was so meaningful to us. He wrote a two-page email to Carla and to me talking about this exact thing, saying, “This is honoring a thing that is rapidly vanishing, and this feeling about music is worth fighting for.” And he said this truly amazing thing that we put into one of Imogen Poots‘ speeches, which is that even the way people clap is different now, because they’ve got a phone in one hand. The sound that you get onstage is not the same. And that metaphor to me was super powerful.

I want the show to essentially say, “Put down the phone for at least a song.” Because that feeling is still one of the best feelings in the world, just to give yourself over completely to music and surrender to that feeling.

However the show is received, I imagine there will be a narrative out there that you had a couple of movies that didn’t do very well, and now you’ve gone back to familiar territory. Did the reception for the recent movies factor into you wanting to do this?
No, because it was already in the pipeline. It’s just kind of the rhythm of doing it over a period of time. There’s a period of time when people are really anxious to go to the movies and see stories about characters, and a movie like “Love, Actually” can do really well, or “Jerry Maguire” can do really well. And that’s super exciting. But to try and build a body of work over a period of years, the rhythm will be with you some times and it won’t be with you some times.

I don’t know – in my mind, the movies or TV shows have always done better when there’s the right team of people, because it’s such a collaborative thing. When you have a cast like “Almost Famous,” there’s a certain magic that happens. The movies that worked better than the others have been when the team coalesced in a better way. And I’m responsible for the team.

Are you planning a second season of “Roadies?”
We’ll have to see. I don’t know. I wanted this season to be like a book with 10 chapters, and it has a very clear last-chapter ending. So if we never got to do more of them, that’s OK.

Either way, I feel like I’m just getting started. I feel like you and I were doing music journalism a minute ago. I have no sense of time, except that I feel really lucky to have done the movies that I’ve been able to do. People actually say, “I grew up with your stuff.” And I think, “How could you grow up with my stuff? You must be talking about somebody else.” [Laughs]

I took [my son] Billy to see Kraftwerk, and this woman came up to me and said, “You know, I have grown up with your stuff.” I said, “Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.” She said, “Is this your son?” I said, “Yeah, this is Billy.” She said, “You should know about your dad. From the time I was really small, I loved these characters and these things that he was doing.” And then she said, “And I can’t wait to tell my friends that I met Richard Linklater!”

[Shrugs] I was like, “You know, I love Richard Linklater too, and I feel like I’ve grown up with Richard Linklater.” She said, “Wait, who are you?” I go, “Cameron,” and she said, “Oh. I like you, too!”