“Who’s Laughing Now?” {archive}

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Icon Thoughtstyle, September/October 1998

Backed by some big Hollywood players, Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have two movies, a house in California, and the same life they had in Texas.
by Philip Zabriskie

In high school, Houston-native Wes Anderson directed shorts on a cable-access station and wrote plays, “real crowd pleasers, stuff designed to get a big audience reaction,” says the 29-year-old. “We did a play, The Alamo, that was just like a big war scene. We did one called The Five Maseratis, that all took place in these Maseratis. When I look back, it seems kind of static, because everybody was just sitting in these cars. I always cast myself as the hero. Maybe that was the reason I wanted to do them.”

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, maybe…advertising?” says Dallas-native Owen Wilson, also 29. “I guess movies seemed impossible. It seemed so far away and so difficult to break into.” Anderson and Wilson met at the University of Texas. Anderson was not wearing a monocle, as Wilson claims, but they shared prep-school backgrounds and a similar sense of humor. And, Anderson says, just as “we might think the same things are funny, we might think the same things are sad.”

They began writing what was intended to be a gritty crime story called Bottle Rocket. With a few hundred dollars and some film stock they found, they shot eight minutes of footage. Anderson directed and Wilson and his brother Luke — neither of whom had studied acting — played the leads: Anthony and Dignan, two slightly misguided friends who rob Anthony’s house as practice for a later bookstore heist, then go on the lam. Anderson and Wilson sent the short to Wilson’s family friend, screenwriter Kit Carson, who offered script advice and instructed them to ask their fathers to help raise a few thousand dollars to film another seven minutes. Carson sent the results to producer Barbara Boyle, who sent it to producer Polly Platt, who sent it to producer-director James L. Brooks. After Anderson and Wilson finished a full-length script at the Sundance screenwriters lab, Brooks helped them hone the story, secure $5 million, and keep their respective roles.

But it was hardly a gritty crime movie. “Bottle Rocket, to me, ends up being a lot more about the friendship of these characters than anything else,” Anderson says. “They do these little crimes and stuff, but the movie has nothing to do with the crime.” The characters were skewed and insecure, equal parts naive and innocent, clueless and charming. They probably “want to be cool,” Anderson says. “But they’re just so not connected to what is considered cool.”

When it was released in 1996, Bottle Rocket was well-reviewed but not widely seen. “It’s probably not the greatest to describe your own work as people not getting it,” Anderson says. “That implies you’re going over their head. I don’t know if people don’t understand it; I think a lot of people just don’t like it.” Regardless of the box office numbers, Bottle Rocket bred opportunity: Wilson landed small roles in Anaconda, The Cable Guy, and Armageddon — “a combination of trying to make a living and what I thought would be interesting,” he says — while working with Anderson on their second script. Anderson turned down directing jobs and used “a looming fear that maybe we’ll never be able to write anything else” as motivation to concentrate on what became Rushmore (due for an October release from Touchstone Pictures, a division of Disney).

Anderson again directs, and he and Wilson are co-executive producers (Wilson was also an associate producer on Brooks’ As Good as it Gets). Rushmore‘s budget is roughly double Bottle Rocket‘s, but the characters still aren’t cool. Anderson used the same crew from Bottle Rocket, some of the same cast, and, again, a score by former Devo frontman, Mark Mothersbaugh. Again, it’s the first movie for several key players: Weeks before filming began, Jason Schwartzman, then 16, was selected from a pool of more than 1,500 candidates to play Max Fischer.

Fischer is a somewhat detached, somewhat disturbed Rushmore Academy student who wears his school blazer at all times and is so thoroughly devoted to extracurriculars (French Club, Yearbook, Bee-Keeping Club, Go-Carting Club, etc.) and the plays he writes and stages with the Max Fischer Players that he flunks out of school. Max finds a mentor in Mr. Blume (Bill Murray), a wealthy and miserable local businessman, but their friendship becomes a desperate, often-cruel rivalry when they both court Rushmore’s recently widowed first grade teacher.

Anderson feels that Rushmore‘s script is more emotional, more complex than Bottle Rocket, and points out that there are twice as many camera shots in this movie. Whether or not the story and the humor will find a significantly larger audience remains to be seen. Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth is a prominent booster, but for Anderson and Wilson, a promising future hasn’t significantly altered the present. “I feel good about the work, and that’s the most important thing,” says Anderson. “But there’s enough other stuff that I don’t feel great about. Maybe no matter what happens, you go up and down but stay at basically the same level.” He and Wilson live together in Los Angeles with Wilson’s brothers Luke and Andrew, who both appear in Rushmore. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, that’s a good sign,” Wilson says, though California “doesn’t seem tremendously different from life in Texas.”

Both of their movies regard friendship as something to be guarded. This is unsurprising considering the devotion to their partnership expressed by Wilson — “The first priority is the stuff, the work that I do with Wes” — and Anderson: “I hope it’s not like a thing where it ends.” Anderson says he gets lonely at times — what’s unfulfilled right now, he’s not sure — and guesses Wilson does too. But, he says, they depend on each other because they want to. “Some people have a partnership, and it’s so intense and so exclusive that it ends up self-destructing. We both have work we do independently. It’s more balanced. So I don’t feel any insecurity about it.”

Like their characters, Anderson and Wilson are trying to figure out where they fit in, trying to adjust to the world as it is or shape it into something that makes more sense. “Writing stories or making movies, if you’re really into it, you just sort of go into that world,” says Anderson. “I especially try to do it by making movies. I want to get away from everything. But,” he adds, unlike Max, “I’m not pathological about it.”

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