Sparks Over Tinseltown

Launching Bottle Rocket

Set in the low-rent Central Texas domain of the slacker, Bottle Rocket, the debut feature from director Wes Anderson and friends (and siblings) Owen, Luke, and Andrew Wilson, is a quiet little gem of a movie. It's the kind of film you're at first not sure what to make of but then end up telling all your friends about. Nominally, the story is about three friends who dream -- more or less -- of being professional thieves, but the movie is actually far more concerned with the themes of friendship, trust, and love with a capital "L."

The story behind the film is nearly as interesting as the film itself. Bottle Rocket began life as a 13-minute short film that the filmmakers began while just out of the University of Texas at Austin. Screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, a family friend, eventually got ahold of the short and, seeing the presence of a new cinematic voice, pushed for the short to be completed and submitted to Robert Redford's prestigious Sundance Film Festival. From there, Carson (every young filmmaker's fantasy benefactor) sent a video of the film and a copy of the script to producers Polly Platt and James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) who called meetings and essentially took the ball and ran with it. All the way. Before long, Bottle Rocket had been optioned by Columbia Pictures as a feature film, James Caan was picked to play elder thief Mr. Henry, and shooting was underway north of Austin in Hillsboro.

Apparent overnight success stories of this sort are rare enough, but the fact that Bottle Rocket is receiving major distribution from a studio behemoth is, to say the least, a bit out of the ordinary.

All three Wilson brothers (Owen, Luke, and Andrew), director Wes Anderson, and co-star Bob Musgrave were in Austin recently, discovering the peculiar joy/horror of promotional interviews. I had a chance to speak with them at the Driskill and here is what they had to say about the film, James Caan's odd take on ad-libbing, and Hollywood in general.

Austin Chronicle: First, what kind of film and acting experience did you guys have going into Bottle Rocket? Had any of you been in films before?

Wes: I went to school here at UT where I studied philosophy. We (Owen and I) were both working on stories and trying to do a play together. Kind of a rip-off of Sam Shepard's True West. Owen played the John Malkovich part.

Owen: My acting background? I've always been interested in the craft of acting. Plays and stuff. When you're writing you kind of act things out, or sort of sound stuff out in your head. My first film acting was when we did the short.

Luke: I just did a few things in high school and then more in college. English and drama major.

Bob: I took some acting classes in Dallas where I grew up. I've known Luke since I was 16. I took some classes in college and then went to the Film Actors Lab in Dallas. My first acting job was in kindergarten -- I played the king of Bethlehem. My mom made me a lavender cape and I sat around being kingly. I think it was a method process, really. My first film experience was the short. Most of the film studying I did was just watching films, you know? Actors that I really wanted to emulate.

AC: How did the short evolve into the film?

Owen: My dad had this public television station in Dallas. Kit had come to him with an idea for a series on southern writers and poets. Kit had moved back to Dallas while his son finished school there, in the early 1990s, and came over one night after we had filmed about eight minutes of that short and showed it to him. He got excited about it and said, "What you want to do is make it a short," and so we filmed another five minutes and sent that to Sundance.

AC: How did it go over at Sundance?

Owen: It wasn't in competition, but people laughed.

Wes: After that, it started making its way around to different people.

Owen: Kit eventually sent it to Barbara Boyle and she sent it to Polly Platt who picked it up and ran with it. We expected the short to do well, but we sure didn't expect to be making it into a feature. Jim Brooks wanted to sort of give the film a feel for local color and came by our apartment to see how we were living and was shocked at our living conditions. I think Jim was thinking, "If I don't make this movie, what's gonna happen to these guys? What will become of them? They just seem to be hanging by a thread here." Then we did a reading of the script at his hotel. It was the first time we had ever done a reading of the script out loud. He had suggested we go back to the hotel and do a reading, and we didn't feel like we could say no. It didn't go well. We were about two and a half hours into it and we're still on page 40 and Luke is just dripping with sweat. The script was way too long...

Wes: ...And man, I write really small to begin with...

Owen: ...and Jim Brooks is pale and just looks like he's been hit with a stun gun.... I guess what we got out of that was that it needed very badly to be stripped down. Then began a long rewrite process. That took about a year.

Wes: Our dream was to come up with a couple of hundred thousand if we could, otherwise we'd keep going for $30,000. Suddenly, it was about $5 million because if there's a studio involved, that's the lowest they go. So the scale of it kind of changed for us even though the script was still very much our movie. James Caan didn't become involved until right before shooting, actually. He was sent the script and he liked the character. He liked the idea of playing this father role, this paternal role to these young guys. He wasn't really our first choice. We were thinking more Donald Sutherland. Oliver Stone is someone we talked about for a while -- we wanted to see about getting him. Who knows how good an actor he would be, but as a person he seemed like a funny character.

AC: The film has a very streamlined look to it. Did you actually manage to use the entire $5 million, or did you sock some away for future use?

Wes: Oh yeah, we used it all. Probably $2 million of that went to studio overhead right off. The way a studio works, they're just not set up to make low-budget movies, and so the offices themselves cost millions of dollars. I think having a studio is a great way to get a $5 million movie distributed, but it's not a very economical way to make a $5 million movie. Not at all. The main difference between, say, a $2 million independent film and a $5 million studio film is probably that the offices on the $5 million are on a studio lot. That's about it.

AC: How did you hook up with the crew? Did Columbia provide them or did you get to pick who you wanted?

Wes: In Los Angeles, we were meeting with a whole bunch of different people: cameramen, production staff, and that kind of stuff. We managed to round up a bunch of people that we could work with on the film for quite a while. The production designer, David Wasco, had heard about the project and knew about the short, and so he came to us and said he'd be interested in doing it. We were talking for six months before we started shooting, though. I told him some of the ideas we had and right off the bat he totally got it. We started to exchange photographs and pictures and stuff and it all just fell right into place. Our director of photography, Robert Yeoman, who shot Drugstore Cowboy, was actually the first DP we talked to. He fit right in. We were lucky in that the people we met with all had the right personalities -- they're not like studio people, either. They're independents who just happen to have done some studio work.

Luke: Our focus-puller was a guy named John Boccaccio, and during the first days of shooting he'd be there behind the camera doing the focus and not smiling at all, just looking like he hated the whole thing. I spoke to Bob Yeoman, who was his friend, and Bob said not to pay any attention, he was just kind of jaded. But by the end of the thing John was kind of coming around, getting real excited about the whole project. It was interesting.

AC: How was it working with James Caan?

Wes: (laughing) Very scary. We'd be shooting a scene and he'd be in character and when the scene ended he'd shout, "Great! Good! Print that!" And I'm like the director standing off to the side scratching my head and going, "What?!" No, actually he was great. Very professional, genuinely interested in the project, really cool.

Owen: There was one scene we were doing together and I guess he didn't like my ad-libbing, so he just up and yells, "Cut!" I mean, right in the middle of a scene. I was trying to keep in character, and he goes, "No, I mean cut!" And I said something else, still trying to stay in character, and he head-butted me right in the middle of the forehead, knocked me back about two feet, and stunned me. By the end of the shoot he kind of came around about the ad-libbing and said, "You know, I like that kid. You can take a crap in that kid's face and he won't shut up!" He was kind of, uh, hard-edged.

Wes: I think that, at first, he felt we had a weird way of doing things, and even though he kept on making fun of it, he came round more and more. We went out to lunch one day and I was asking him what it was like being in The Godfather and working with Pacino, and he said, "Well, it was kind of like how you guys are with me." The way he said it wasn't arrogant or anything, it was in a nice way, kind of like he liked us. It was quite the experience.