“Rushmore” director Wes Anderson talks about his first “collaborative” writing effort, his recent pilgrimage to the home of Pauline Kael and New York telephone booths.
BY CHRIS LEE
Director Wes Anderson’s rise from cable-access obscurity to Hollywood buzz boy is the stuff of indie auteur reverie. After graduating from the University of Texas, Anderson and his roommate, Owen Wilson, wrote and shot a 15-minute short on a shoestring budget. Through a combination of luck, talent and some well-connected family friends, the film found its way to Hollywood, where it gained the support of producer-director James L. Brooks. Brooks helped the duo hone their screenplay and secure a $5 million budget. The resulting feature, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket,” which starred Wilson and his brother Luke, is the story of a couple of suburban slackers whose aimlessness leads them to commit a series of half-baked heists. Though it opened to critical raves, it was more cult hit than blockbuster, but Hollywood took notice: Anderson commanded an eight-figure budget from Disney for his second feature, “Rushmore.”
Wilson and Anderson again share writing credits for the upcoming film about 10th-grade prep school student Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), whose enthusiasm for extracurricular activities belies his foundering academics. He heads the bee-keeping club and the dodgeball society and stages ridiculously gritty plays (such as an adaptation of “Serpico”) while nearly flunking out. The school’s dyspeptic tycoon benefactor (Bill Murray) becomes Max’s unlikely co-conspirator, and later his rival, in winning the affections of a widowed first-grade teacher. The film (to be released by Touchstone Pictures Feb. 5) was the unofficial hit of the New York Film Festival, and Murray’s modulated performance is already creating a healthy Oscar buzz.
The gangly 29-year-old Anderson seems an unlikely next big thing. But with two pictures in the can and writing begun on his third feature, an ensemble New York comedy, the Houston native who counts Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth as an enthusiastic supporter is currently generating quite a bit of what Hollywood refers to as “heat.” Anderson spoke with Salon in between bites of hamburger at Disney’s corporate offices in Los Angeles.
Your characterization of the private school in “Rushmore” was so fully formed. How much of the film was autobiographical?
Really just the plays. Most of it was just from me and Owen Wilson, my writing partner. It developed mostly from the character of that kid. Once we figured that out, it all started to go from there — the Bill Murray character, too.
So you weren’t really like Max?
Just with the plays. The idea of taking all the clubs was just made up.
Eighteen hundred actors tried out for the part of Max. What was it about Jason Schwartzman that fit the bill?
I didn’t want to have some Hollywood kid. That’s why I did this long search. I did not expect to find somebody in Los Angeles. The last thing I wanted to do was to have some kid who’s from a movie family. [Schwartzman is a nephew of Francis Ford Coppola.] But the fact is, there’s a reason why so many people in [Coppola’s] family are working and doing interesting things. They’ve got good genes. I guess that’s what I responded to. His personality was much stronger than most of the people in there. Some people can just be real when they’re doing a scene. I was always thinking of someone different, but when he came in then I started thinking in more like a Dustin Hoffman kind of way, which wasn’t what I originally pictured.
What were you originally thinking?
Did you ever see this movie “Flirting”? There’s an actor named Noah Taylor who was in “Flirting,” he’s Australian. He was also [David Helfgott] in “Shine,” you know, when he was younger. That was more like what I was thinking — a pale, skinny kid. Schwartzman was not pale and not skinny. He’s short. He’s not like anyone else who had come in. And I just knew I would get along with him.
Bill Murray delivered an excellent performance as well. In most movies, he seems to place himself above whatever’s going on in the scene, but he didn’t do that in “Rushmore.” You wrote the part with him in mind, right?
Did you know that he was capable of such a serious performance?
Yeah. There are several movies he’s done where he’s very different from his persona — “Mad Dog and Glory,” “Ed Wood,” “Tootsie” and this movie called “Razor’s Edge.” Did you ever see that one? That one was just a straight dramatic role. He’s funny in it, but there’s none of the making fun of people, the sort of sarcasm where everything’s kind of ironic.
But you got something out of him that those four didn’t.
Well, those were mostly little roles, for one thing. “Mad Dog and Glory” is a bigger role, but it’s different because he’s playing a mobster. He’s not showing much weakness or vulnerability.
I thought James Caan was kind of cast in a similarly atypical way in “Bottle Rocket.”
With that one it just kind of happened before we started shooting the movie. We have the same agent as Caan. We just got him the script and it happened really quickly. We were catching him at the right time.
What’s up with his karate?
He loves karate. He has a guy he calls his master, this guy Tak Kubota, who he’s studied with. Tak came down to Texas and so we put Tak in the movie, too. He’s the guy in his underwear. In fact, when we did that scene, Jimmy Caan was not happy about it at all. Tak had on a robe and I said, “OK Tak, time to take off the robe.” He takes off his robe and Caan was saying, “What’s going on here? That’s what he’s going to wear in the scene? This guy’s a holy man. You don’t ask a holy man to do this.” And I said, “It’s going to be funny.” And Caan said, “Oh, oh, funny. You’re going to start now. Why start now?” But then he did the scene.
Your protagonists in both “Rushmore” and “Bottle Rocket” are kind of misdirected and go against the grain, yet they’re not intentionally trying to be iconoclastic.
I like characters that are trying to realize their projects. They have a strong idea of something they want to execute and they just won’t let anybody shut ’em down. It might seem ridiculous or it might seem too big — I mean, building an aquarium, that’s crazy; putting on a Vietnam play with explosions from the stage is crazy — but [Max] does that. Of course, it’s a movie, so I can have whatever I want to have happen. But I do like that kind of thing of people with unrealistic ambitions and their ambitions are not just to be rich. They have ideas and projects that they want to do. So that has a strong appeal to it.
Does that drive your writing?
Yeah, it does. It’s in both movies.
Can you tell me a bit about your relationship with Owen Wilson? I know that you once wrote a paper for him. What was it about?
Edgar Allen Poe. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The deal was, we lived in this house and I lived upstairs. I found the place, so I moved in first, and I took the top floor of this little house. It had its own balcony, its own bathroom and it was kind of a big room. He lived downstairs next to the kitchen. It just wasn’t a very good room. The deal was that we would switch after mid-term. But he got in trouble with this Edgar Allen Poe paper and couldn’t get it together and he really needed a good grade on it, so I made him a deal that I would stay upstairs for the rest of the year and I would write up the paper.
But I have to say, he had created this relationship with the professor where the professor thought he was unfocused and searching, but interesting and talented. The professor was interested and thought Owen had something, but Owen had never really turned in his papers and had always done half-baked work. Then I wrote what was probably a pretty good paper and he got an A-plus on the paper. The professor thought, “See? This is what this guy could do.” So I think Owen really got his money’s worth.
Your collaboration with him has been compared to Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s partnership. What do you make of that comparison?
Well, I liked “Good Will Hunting.” Are those guys gonna write some more?
Supposedly they’re going to write another movie in which they’ll both appear, except this time Ben is going to be the hero.
Oh yeah? I don’t know what I think. I can understand it, though, a couple of guys writing a script. But that’s about all I have to say about that.
I heard that you showed your film to Pauline Kael. What was that like?
That was uh …
It was nerve-wracking because you almost never screen a movie for a critic sitting in a room with them. That only happens at a film festival or something, and then you have a bunch of other people with you. But it was fun, because she’s a real character. She’s not like anybody. I felt like I was on a real pilgrimage. I mean, she doesn’t write anymore. She’s not going to review the movie. It was more personal — just me wanting to get her feedback. I had no way to find out if she’d seen “Bottle Rocket” or anything.
What did she think?
She’s not a wild fan of “Bottle Rocket.”
Did you get that vibe?
I got that vibe, and I asked her about it. And she said it had some nice parts … but it was thrown together. “Rushmore” I think she liked more. She promoted it a little bit to other people, that kind of thing. But I also think she thought it was weird. I don’t know if it was really her bag. But she did tell other people to see it and that she liked it.
Now that you’re making a name for yourself, are you making more of a point to network?
Mainly I just wanted to meet her. If you’re going to network, I recommend that you do it with a critic who writes. [Laughs.]
So what’s your next project?
I want to do this New York thing, about a family in New York. It’s a comedy. I’d liken it to the Salinger Glass family stories. Salinger’s not my favorite thing right now, but those stories’ characters … it’s a family and it’s complicated and there’s something in it. It’s got maybe a little bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald in it, too.
Sounds like an expansive American comedy.
Yeah, but it probably has more in common with “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore” than any of those dudes.
Being from Texas, does it scare you to take on such a specifically New York story?
No. I’m not even trying to specifically do a real New York. I mean, “Rushmore” was a made-up place.
I couldn’t place where it was supposed to be taking place. I had to look at Max’s sneakers and the kind of car Mr. Blume drove in order to figure out that it was even set in the present day.
This one’s sort of the same way.
One thing I know I’m going to do is have telephone booths. Telephone booths don’t exist in New York. You only have those little half-covered things. Ultimately, when you start doing enough stuff like that, you sort of lose where you are in time, which is OK. What you’ve made is to make the movie its own little world. The events and characters are a little bit unlike anything you’re likely to meet in real life. If you set it up in the right way, people will just accept this world. If you do it the wrong way, people will say, “Well, that would never happen.”
I noticed you included many such unlikely but vivid details in both your films: Max’s best friend in “Rushmore” is in fourth grade, the guy who antagonizes Max has a thick Scottish accent; in “Bottle Rocket,” Andrew Wilson’s character is inexplicably named “Future Man.” People must wonder, “What’s up with this?”
[Laughs] I know. It’s all that kind of stuff. It’s not really real life. It’s something else. The way the movies are designed, especially “Rushmore,” there’s a lot of stuff in it that’s like that. Like the headmaster’s office — it’s like a crazy room. There’s like 100 paintings on the walls, and all these little dogs, and every single article of clothing he’s wearing is tweed: tweed shirt, tweed jacket, tweed pants, tweed tie. It’s just slightly heightened strangeness. It’s stuff that we happened to think is funny, but it’s also a choice to not just do what is real. It’s hyper-real instead of just real.
SALON | Jan. 21, 1999
Chris Lee writes about the entertainment industry for Bikini, People and Premiere.