Newsweek, December 7, 1998
Two young friends make an adorable new comedy about passion and prep school. Go, Rushmore!
by Jeff Giles
You think you know a person. Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson have been friends for nearly 10 years. After graduating from the University of Texas, they wrote a caper flick called Bottle Rocket. Anderson directed the movie. Wilson turned in a hilarious performance as Dignan, a zealous loser who tries to get his buddies excited about a life of crime, shouting orders into a walkie-talkie and launching every half-baked robbery attempt by barking, “Let’s get lucky!” Bottle Rocket was a winning debut. But, like Dignan, it underperformed. Tonight, in a restaurant in Dallas, Wilson reveals just how disillusioned he was when the movie was released in 1996. As he puts it, “I was exploring a career in the armed services.” Across the table, Anderson looks up, confused: “What are you talking about? You’re making that up, right? You called the Army?” And the Navy, it seems. And the Marines.
Wilson’s still a civilian, thank heaven. He and Anderson, 30 and 29, have written a new movie. Anderson has directed it — and it’s been lauded at film festivals. Rushmore will open in New York and Los Angeles for one week in December — to be eligible for awards — and nationwide early next year. It’s a marvelous comedy from deep in left field — immaculately written, unexpectedly touching and pure of heart. Max Fischer (newcomer Jason Schwartzman in a priceless performance) is a geeky, loquacious 15-year-old at New Englandy Rushmore Academy. He arrived at the school as a second-grader, having impressed the headmaster with a play he’d written (“A little one-act about Watergate,” says Max). Since then, he’s become the captain of every club he could find, plus some he had to invent.
As it turns out, Max is adorably delusional: he’s a god-awful student, but plans to apply to Oxford and the Sorbonne. Early in Rushmore, he gets a titanic crush on a lovely young teacher named Miss Cross (Olivia Williams). Soon, he’s decided — why ask why? — that he must build Rushmore an aquarium in Miss Cross’s honor. On his quest for capital, he befriends a depressed tycoon named Mr. Blume (Bill Murray). Unfortunately, Mr. Blume falls for Miss Cross, too, and he and Max become mortal enemies. Rushmore is about being an outsider, about having more passion than you know what to do with, about how young hearts want to be old and old hearts young. Max tries ruining Mr. Blume’s life — and don’t expect the tycoon to play nice just because he’s 35 years older. He drives over Max’s bike with his Bentley.
Anderson and Wilson’s writing has an exuberance and an innocence you never see in the often nihilistic work of young filmmakers these days. “I thought Rushmore was very unusual and quirky,” says Peter Bogdanovich, who directed The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. “The movie’s very honest — and yet it isn’t dirty. It isn’t salacious. It isn’t trying to be sexy. I think it’s a very encouraging sign.” Meeting Anderson and Wilson, you get the feeling they couldn’t write a black-hearted movie if they tried. In person, the pair appear entirely different from each other. Wilson looks like a fledgling movie star. Anderson — who’s 6 feet 1 inch and maybe 135 pounds, whose shirt is always untucked and whose hair is always sticking up in tufts — looks like someone who’s come to help you with your homework. But both are bored by slacker characters, and both admit to being squeamish. “I don’t like scatological humor, and I know Wes doesn’t,” says Wilson. “Wes probably doesn’t even like the word ‘scatological.'”
The pair’s debut, Bottle Rocket, began its life as a 15-minute short. Producer Polly Platt and director James L. Brooks were intrigued by it, and flew to Dallas to hear the full-length script. The reading took forever — Anderson had used the wrong font size on the screenplay, and the script was far longer than he’d thought. Says Wilson, “I knew it wasn’t going so great when [Brooks] started watching a basketball game on TV.” Brooks told the guys to trim the screenplay, and later committed to executive-producing the movie for Columbia Pictures. “My self-confidence was at an all-time high doing Bottle Rocket,” says Anderson. “I just felt like, ‘Wait until we get this in front of an audience!’ So it was a real shocker when it was just brutally rejected by the first test audience in Santa Monica.”
After disastrous test screenings — and test screenings tend to be disastrous for unformulaic pictures — Columbia’s devotion to Bottle Rocket cooled. The movie grossed less than a million dollars. Still, it inspired a cult following in Hollywood, and launched the acting careers of both Wilson and his brother, Luke. Owen has done edgily funny little turns in Anaconda and Armageddon, and has been cast in Jan De Bont’s The Haunting of Hill House, with Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Luke can be seen in Home Fries, opposite his real-life girlfriend Drew Barrymore.
Director Anderson got a boost from Bottle Rocket, too. Disney scooped up Rushmore, and Bill Murray’s agent, a “Rocket” fan, urged him to read the new script. Murray agreed to work for scale. On the set, he was a funny, avuncular presence. The first day, Anderson delivered his directions to the star in a whisper, so he wouldn’t get embarrassed if Murray shot him down. But the actor made a public show of deferring to his director. He hauled equipment, sang “Happy Birthday” to the sound man and — when Disney was urging Anderson to drop a $75,000 shot of Max and Mr. Blume riding in a helicopter — gave the director a blank check. (Anderson ultimately never shot the scene.)
Murray is restrained and wistful in Rushmore: every bit of affection you ever had for him comes rushing back. It’s the 18-year-old Schwartzman, though, who’s the real delight here. Schwartzman is the son of Talia Shire and the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola. “I think Jason’s performance in Rushmore is a breath of fresh air — he carries the picture,” says Uncle Francis, who notes that his nephew also plays drums for a band called Phantom Planet. “This was his first performance in a film, but the kids have always done one-act plays in the summer. Not only did he write a play, but he also acted in several plays that his cousins Sofia and Roman directed.” Casting directors considered 1,800 teenagers before finding Schwartzman. He came to his audition wearing not only a prep-school blazer, but also a Rushmore patch that he’d made himself. Max Fischer would certainly approve. You’ve got to love a kid with school spirit.