Production notes from Bottle Rocket {archive}

Sources: (R.I.P.), from official Bottle Rocket website (Sony Pictures)

Bottle Rocket tells the gently comic story of three devoted, would-be thieves who prove the importance of friendship, honor and duty as they ineptly pursue a life of crime.

Directed by Wes Anderson, Bottle Rocket is written by Owen C. Wilson and Wes Anderson. In addition to Owen C. Wilson, Luke Wilson and Robert Musgrave, the film also stars Andrew Wilson, Lumi Cavazos and James Caan as Mr. Henry. Polly Platt and Cynthia Hargrave are the producers. The executive producers are James L. Brooks, Richard Sakai, Barbara Boyle and Michael Taylor. Robert Yeoman is the director of photography; David Wasco is the production designer; David Moritz is the editor. The film is co-produced by Ray Zimmerman and L. M. Kit Carson. Karen Patch is the costume designer. Music is by Mark Mothersbaugh.

Bottle Rocket, appropriately, grew out of the friendship between Wes Anderson and Owen C. Wilson. Anderson and Wilson met in a playwriting course at the University of Texas, albeit in a circuitous fashion.

“There were about nine people in the class and they all sat around this long table. I sat in the corner, away from the table, and there was another person in that corner, who turned out to be Owen. During the entire class, we never once had a conversation. I wrote a play in that class and the next semester, it was produced, and I asked Owen to be in it.”

Anderson can’t explain why he decided to approach Wilson, but they hit it off immediately. Among other things, they discovered that they both loved movies, especially the work of Terrence Malick, the writer-director of Badlands and Days of Heaven, as well as the Coen brothers, John Huston and Roman Polanski. Beyond that, they shared a similar sense of humor, an ironic sensibility laced with a profound appreciation of the absurd and ironic. They eventually found an apartment in Austin and from their misadventures as college roommates, Bottle Rocket was born.

“The movie emerged from a certain lifestyle we were living at the time. We were still in college but we’d already finished our required courses, so our existence was a little unstructured. Owen and I were roaming around, constantly doing things, but we weren’t exactly focused. It was from that feeling that we started writing the film,” Anderson says. “It’s about a group of guys who have lots of energy and the urge to do something. They are always planning and trying things, moving around. They have a lot of ambition and grand aspirations, it’s just that their direction in life happens to be a little unconventional. They are sincerely trying to accomplish something, they just don’t know what.”

Although the movie is not literally autobiographical, the film reflects certain experiences that occurred to Anderson and Wilson at the time, especially a bizarre encounter with their landlord. The windows in the apartment they shared in Austin wouldn’t shut, due to some defective window cranks, and their landlord steadfastly refused to fix them, despite the tenants’ repeated requests. Over a Christmas break, the frustrated roommates decided to prove to their landlord just how dangerous this drafty situation had become by breaking into their apartment, stealing some of their stuff and reporting it to the police. The landlord was unimpressed, noting that it looked like “an inside job.” While the window cranks remained stuck, the incident became a source of inspiration for Bottle Rocket.

Anderson and Wilson completed their feature length script and set out to shoot it with Owen Wilson starring as the enterprising, self-appointed leader of the trio of friends, Dignan. They enlisted Wilson’s younger brother, Luke, to play Dignan’s endearing understanding best-friend Anthony, along with actor and friend Robert Musgrave, as their long-suffering compatriot, Bob. The oldest Wilson brother, Andrew, who had produced some corporate videos, had access to film stock and equipment and also appeared as Bob’s older sibling and uber-nemesis, Futureman. However, due to a distinct lack of funds, the feature ended up as a thirteen minute black and white short. This short film got the attention of veteran producer Polly Platt by way of Wilson family friend, veteran screenwriter/producer L.M. Kit Carson. “Kit encouraged us to show it at the Sundance Film Festival, and he also sent a video of the short and the script to Barbara Boyle, who showed it to Polly Platt and James L. Brooks,” Anderson explains. “We felt incredibly lucky because we’d been trying to make a movie for so long and suddenly it was all happening.”

“This film really stands for loyalty, friendship, enthusiasm and having dreams,” says Wilson, referring both to the film’s themes and how the friends managed to get it made.

Producer Polly Platt, whose credits include The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, concurs: “This film explores the vital importance of friendship, honor and duty but it does so in a unique way. The short was an exuberant, beautiful piece of work and what was extraordinary was the fascinating sense of humor that colored the piece. Droll, self-deprecating and unexpected.”

Platt says that it was the writing that attracted her to the project initially. “I heard a new voice in the script. It was just exceptional writing, funny, different, with brilliant, completely original characters.”

With Brooks’ help, Platt mounted a production which would allow Anderson the freedom to make the movie he’d envisioned, starring the same actors who had appeared in the short, as well as enlisting top rate talent to fill out the cast and crew. Movie legend James Caan (The French Connection, Misery, Honeymoon in Vegas) joined the cast as seasoned thief Mr. Henry, and Lumi Cavazos, who had captivated American audiences with her starring role in Like Water for Chocolate, was cast as Inez, the woman who instantly wins Anthony’s heart.

The film shot on various locations in Dallas, including St. Marks High School, a setting that represented particularly sweet revenge for Owen Wilson, who was unceremoniously expelled from the institution in the 10th grade. A self-described trouble-maker as a youth, he had a particular sympathy for Dignan, who has a knack for stumbling headlong into trouble.

“Dignan is kind of like a little kid,” Wilson explains. “I don’t think he does a lot of soul-searching or is very introspective. He is an instinctive person and constantly reacts to things. He is like a twelve-year-old; his attention span isn’t very long, so he can become sidetracked or diverted very easily. He is very tightly wound and gets tremendously enthusiastic about an idea. He likes to have everybody marching along towards this goal he’s set.”

It is Dignan’s idea to pursue a life of crime…or, at least, one of petty theft. According to Owen Wilson, however, Dignan’s true objective may not be the actual felony. “I don’t think he necessarily thinks of himself as a criminal,” says Wilson. “He likes to consider himself a leader and forming this band of thieves lets him to do that. Of course, he really isn’t the leader. His best-friend, Anthony, is the more conscious of the two. He allows Dignan to be the leader out of his generosity of spirit because it’s so important to Dignan. Also, I think Anthony respects Dignan’s energy and enthusiasm and gets kind of caught up in it.”

Luke Wilson agrees with his brother’s assessment of Anthony’s relationship with Dignan: “I think there is something he really loves about Dignan. They’ve known each other since they were kids and both of them are sort of outsiders. Dignan really needs someone to listen to all of his speeches and ideas and Anthony recognizes that. Dignan amuses him, but he’s also interested in him and genuinely likes him. I think their whole crime thing is related to that, actually. It is never their intention to hurt anybody, it’s more like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The robberies, in some ways, express their loyalty and friendship to each other.”

Luke Wilson describes Anthony as “…a good person who is a little aimless at this point of his life. He is kind of exposed emotionally. He’s searching for something substantial and true, and at the beginning of the film the things that are important to him are these people around him, Dignan and Bob.” During the course of the movie there are other ambitions he should be shooting for.”

Bob, the third of the trio of friends, serves as “…the provider. He provides the car, the house the money. He is a good supporter, he’s enthusiastic but not brilliant, a little intimidated because he is constantly tortured by his older brother, Futureman. Anthony protects Bob a little bit, but Bob is a perfect person for Dignan to have around because he can push him around and ridicule him,” comments Anderson.

“Dignan thinks that Bob tarnishes his and Anthony’s reputation and prevents them from being taken seriously, when, in fact, it’s Dignan who does that,” Owen Wilson adds. “I think he kind of likes Bob, but would never admit it.”

Robert Musgrave, who plays Bob, describes him as “…a lost guy. He is really soulful and sweet but afraid, in a lot of ways. He comes from a big family with status, pretentiousness and stuffiness and he’s been damaged by that because he’s had all that protocol and social ambition shoved down his throat; that is obviously not who he is.”

The common thread between the friends is that while they may know what they aren’t, they are slightly fuzzy when defining what they are. “They’re all kind of misfits and oddballs,” says Anderson. “They huddle together because none of them are part of any community, although Anthony is that way by choice. They’re basically nice people, wandering souls who latch on to each other and create their own strange, little world.”

“It seems that people our age are always represented as somewhat cynical and jaded and we weren’t much interested in that,” adds Owen Wilson. “They’re innocent and ingenuous and funny, hopefully. The important thing is that they have a lot of enthusiasm and commitment and vitality, even if it is a little misplaced.”

In effect, Anderson says, they create their own family unit. Indeed, throughout the film, very few members of the friends’ families are introduced, with the exception of Anthony’s sister, Grace, and Bob’s older brother, Futureman (Andrew Wilson). (“That was a bit of type-casting, he plays the mean older brother,” Owen Wilson jokes, referring to his own older brother, Andrew. “Andrew looks like he is from the future. He’s sort of a big, Terminator-looking person.”)

“It was a deliberate thing, not to involve too many of their family members, especially their parents,” Anderson explains. “Basically, they’ve either been rejected by their families or they’ve rejected them. That allowed us to focus on this little world these guys have invented, without any distractions.”

This world, Anderson says, is “about five degrees removed from reality, but it is extremely real to them. They don’t have any affectations, they’re somewhat vulnerable but they have real goals and genuinely are trying to accomplish something. They’re also not afraid to look stupid and that’s what I admire about them and what attracts me to these characters.”

The appearance of a luminous Mexican housekeeper called Inez disrupts the trio’s curious little world, much to Dignan’s confusion and dismay. Inez, according to Luke Wilson, “saves Anthony. He falls in love with her instantly and really looks up to her. When he realizes that she loves him too, it’s just incredible; it’s as if he is a new man. Up until then, he’s just been drifting in self-imposed exile, but when he falls in love, that gives him a whole new perspective.”

Inez, played by Lumi Cavazos, provided Luke Wilson with the opportunity to assay his first on-screen kiss, an initially traumatic but ultimately rewarding experience. “I got along well with Lumi, so that helped. At first, I wondered, ‘How am I supposed to kiss her? What kind of kiss is this?’ I knew I was in character, but I didn’t want to cross a line with her and offend her,” he recalls. “I felt really comfortable with her, though, and it was actually fun.”

The relationship between Anthony and Inez was one of the key story points to be augmented from short to film. Anderson notes that much of what the character Inez became can be attributed to the artist playing her: “Inez became so much more developed when Lumi showed up. Because she speaks Spanish and Anthony doesn’t, she doesn’t speak much and her personality depends so much on the kind of reactions she has. You instantly sense that Inez is an intelligent and good person. A lot of that is due to the way Lumi played her and what she brought to the character.”

James Caan, who has embodied a host of infamous rogues throughout his career, was well-prepared to play the artful Mr. Henry. Dignan characterizes Mr. Henry as a master thief with a crack team of criminal associates — a charitable description, at best.

“Dignan idolizes Mr. Henry and thinks, ‘This is exactly how I’d like to be.’ What fascinates Dignan about Mr. Henry is that he thinks he has a real sense of style and confidence. He’s the kind of guy a twelve-year-old would admire. Dignan sees that he drives a Jaguar, has all these babes, seems to be very confident, and Dignan is very impressed, but a sophisticated person would see through all of his flash and manipulation.”

“I guess he went to the school of bullcrap,” Caan says of Mr. Henry. “He tries to perpetrate the notion that he is a world traveler, a teacher of everything and yet of nothing. He is very charming and I don’t think he would consider himself a bad guy because he doesn’t really hurt anybody badly. He always plays the odds and they are always stacked in his favor”

Caan enjoyed his experience with the first-time film actors and director, noting that “…these kids seem to have their heads in the right place. They’re talented, funny, nice to be with and are good souls, which is not a common trait to find in this business.” Which is not to say that the team did not ever encounter “creative differences.”

“Luke would get irritated with me because I improvised so much during rehearsal,” recalls Owen Wilson. “He would tell me I had no respect for the script we wrote, but I figured I was allowed to, because I was the co-writer. I didn’t consider it improvising, I considered it writing.”

“We had some time in pre-production to hone things and to get to know the new crew members. For instance, I hadn’t ever worked with our director of photography, Bob Yeoman, so months before shooting began, we met in my office and watched movies every day and discussed our ideas. By the time principal photography started, we were already fairly close,” the director notes.

Anderson, in collaboration with Yeoman, shot the entire film with a 27mm lens, which he thought would help underscore the protagonists’ quirky, charged personalities, as well as add scope to what is essentially a dialogue-laden, character-driven piece.

“I thought this movie needed a snappier style, faster cutting, because characters’ behavior is so weird and energetic. Using a 27mm lens, you get better depth…the thing I hate is when you have a scene shot for the master and the lens is a 35 or 27 and then you cut for the close-up and the lens is a 70 or something and all the background disappears. I wanted to include the background as much as possible, because most of the movie is three guys moving around, talking. A lot of times, one guy is in front of the frame and two guys will be further back and we needed that kind of space on screen to hold everybody.”

Anderson and Wilson, when writing the script, envisioned the film in three acts and Anderson’s use of color limns each act.

“I wanted the first act of the film to be as colorless as possible, with the exception of Anthony. Anthony is really the central guy, even though Dignan makes everything happen. Anthony provides the point of view, so we wanted to highlight him. Dignan wears all white, Bob wears mostly black but Anthony wears this bright red jacket and it’s almost the first bit of intense color you see in the movie. In the second act of the movie, they arrive at this hotel where everything is going to happen to Anthony, his whole life will change. All these colors bloom here. We searched a long time for this hotel and we found the perfect one, with red doors, lots of oranges and yellows and turquoises. In the third act, when we meet Mr. Henry, the idea was to lose all of those vivid colors and return to the more neutral shades, except that they would be richer, more sophisticated colors, deep greens and purples.”

Of course, the exception to this color scheme in the third act is the appearance of the thieves’ signature, garish yellow jumpsuits. The whimsical jumpsuits, as well as all the costumes the actors wore, emphasized the bizarre camaraderie between Anthony, Bob and Dignan. “We tried to figure out clothes that wouldn’t be cool because I wanted them to be original and to be cool, you have to fit into something,” Anderson explains. “These guys are totally separated, they aren’t part of any community or culture, really; they’re just adrift in their own little world, so we wanted them to have their own style.” Anderson jokingly adds that “yellow jumpsuits might be borderline cool but they haven’t crossed that threshold yet.”

Costume designer Karen Patch explains that “Wes did not want a hip look, it was always slightly odd, slightly off. If we got anything that looked trendy, he nixed it. The idea was that some of the things were left over from when they were kids. We used colors that were strange, that had no name. It was definitely challenging and fun, which was one of the reasons I was attracted to the film. We were able to take risks, in terms of creating something new.”

The props were also essential in defining the friends’ quirky world. “We tried to get objects that were made between 1975 and 1979, thing like a digital watch with a red LED, boy scout binoculars, that kind of thing,” Anderson notes. “We chose that time period because, in a way, everything they do is in the mindset of somebody who is about twelve-years-old and that’s when Owen and I were twelve.”

An avid fan of all kinds of music, Anderson knew the score would be a vital element. Polly Platt noticed that a certain musicality informed his directing style, and comments that “Wes has a lot of internal energy. I saw it sometimes when he rehearsed the boys, he’d start shuffling his feet, he clearly had a beat there. I think he has music in his head.”

In Mark Mothersbaugh, the film’s composer, Anderson found the perfect partner. A gifted musician with many television shows and movies to his credit, Mothersbaugh is also one of the founders of the punk band, Devo. Devo was famous for its staccato sound and outrageous costumes, which included flower-pot hats, overalls and, yes, yellow jumpsuits.

“When we made the movie, a composer wasn’t attached yet, so the yellow jumpsuit thing was just luck,” Anderson reflects. “He came to a screening and seemed to really get the movie and he contacted us about doing the score.”

A confessed jazz fan, Anderson says that Mothersbaugh brought a “jazzy feel” to the score, in innovative ways. A catchy drum solo, for instance, doesn’t originate from the standard percussion instrument, but from a gourd strung with a beaded net. Mothersbaugh even invited the director to participate in some of the recording sessions. “I got to play little shakers and act like I was part of the band,” Anderson says.

Such an original and offbeat movie demanded an equally evocative title.

“We always wanted to name it after fireworks and Bottle Rocket seemed appropriate,” Anderson explains. “Bottle rockets are these dinky, cheap fireworks that explode but are illegal because they’re so hard to control and are so poorly made. They are the kind of thing that could catch a garage on fire but a neighbor with a garden hose could put it out.”

James Caan elaborates on that metaphor: “Think about it…what is a bottle rocket? It’s a firecracker that only goes so far. It isn’t a stick of dynamite that’s going to blow everything to bits and attract a lot of attention. You light it and, whoosh, it makes it only to about the second or third floor, tops. Then it burns out and falls. That’s what these guys are, bottle rockets. They go only a certain distance and then they stop. That’s ok, though, because they’re happy.’

Caan continues: “All these guys want something they don’t have; they want to be something they aren’t. Anthony wants true love. Bob wants to feel like he’s a part of something. Dignan wants to be a criminal. So, what happens? Anthony gets a girlfriend, Bob gets to be part of a group and Dignan ends up in prison, which is secretly what he wanted all along. So, everybody gets what they wanted, but not in ways they expected.”

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