By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
"So, you literally had this naive idea, ‘Hey, let’s make a movie with our friends and we’ll just throw everybody in it and we’ll tell our story and the world will love it’?"
"Yeah, more or less."
Remember when you were like that? When you and your buddies had your own language, your own style, your own way of looking at things — your own world in the larger universe? And you thought to yourself: If we could just capture this, this magic, how cool would that be?
That’s what Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson thought during that senior year at the University of Texas, when they were hanging out and doing the landlord documentary and the Super-8 films about themselves and their friends. They finally made the declaration: We want to make movies, and this thing, this thing that is us, that’s gonna be our bottled lightning.
So Wes and Owen went to work on Bottle Rocket with a manic determination. It would start with a staged break-in, an inside job. They wrote a 330-page script. They moved to Dallas, where Owen’s older brother Andrew worked at an advertising agency and could supply 16mm film, cameras and a crew. They cast themselves and friends. And they made the first 14-minute installment. It wasn’t about them, per se, but it did represent how they saw themselves at the time. And it worked.
At least to the degree that in 1994 screenwriter/indie kingpin L.M. Kit Carson passed the short on to producer Polly Platt, who passed it on to writer-director James L. Brooks, who badgered Columbia Pictures into coughing up $5 million for the feature-length version. It would have the same cast —- Owen and Luke Wilson in the lead parts, Robert Musgrave as the third wheel, Kumar Pallana as the incompetent safecracker — and the same director, Wes Anderson.
"And you felt totally assured in your ability to do this?" the passenger asks.
"Yeah, because there’s never any time to have too much self-doubt anyway," Anderson says with the distant tone of someone who is stifling a post-traumatic-stress flashback. "And also, I was of the opinion that we were going to make this thing that everyone was going to love. But at that point, I was operating under total naiveté."
"Why’d you think it was so special?"
"I don’t know. Just because it was our thing. I mean, I had nothing else. Our whole lives were dedicated to this, it was a thing that meant something to us. It was based on our own ideas, and we thought they were different from other people’s ideas, and it was just what we were stuck on."
When Anderson speaks of Bottle Rocket, it’s as if he’s talking about a first love. There’s tenderness for what it was, for how it opened up new worlds, but there’s also disappointment for everything it didn’t turn out to be.
"I was just so personally excited about what it was going to be that I thought, ‘Wait until they see this.’ That’s why I was so blind-sided."
What blind-sided him was the audience reaction at test screenings in Santa Monica prior to the film’s release in early 1996.
"When we had our first test screening and it was a disaster, I was just in shock, because I always felt like people were going to . . ." Anderson hesitates, his voice hinting at the distress he felt. "I had it in my mind that people were going to like it. I didn’t realize it was a strange movie that only certain people were going to like and a lot of people would hate. And that was the situation.
"We just thought we’d blown the whole deal, kind of," he continues. "I kind of always felt like if the movie’s a disaster, well then, okay, it’ll be harder to make the next movie. It’ll be very hard. There are a million ways to do it, you know? But it was sort of an awful time.
"I mean, Owen wanted us to go into advertising at one point, and he says he investigated joining the military, which I didn’t know."
Anderson turns and looks directly at the passenger. It’s his grandest physical gesture in at least 300 miles.
"You know," he says, "I could be a trucker."
For a long time now the vistas have been numbingly spare and redundant. Interstate 40, the more efficient if less resplendent replacement for old Route 66, goes on in a monochrome Southwestern blur. We’re not sure where we are on the map, but it feels as if we must be halfway to Amarillo. To combat something like the doldrums, driver and passenger down large colas and a gigantic bag of peanut M&M’s. Then we agree to take advantage of the driver’s access to ambush the notoriously inaccessible Bill Murray with an unsolicited call. Beneath road-weary giddiness at the prospect of interrupting him at home is the notion that this might not be a good idea, that if Murray is not up for it, the wind could go right out of our sails. Then what’ll we do? But the sugar and caffeine prevail, and the driver dials the secret number.
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