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The Road Wes Traveled

Photo by Ted Soqui

The driver is breaking the law again. Tearing like a tornado across the Mojave wastelands in a rented white Ford Explorer. Hands at 10 and 2. Chewing highway. Approaching his favorite speed: 90 mph. What would the honorable folks at Disney’s Touchstone Pictures think?

Had they done a background check before anteing up for this buggy, they’d have known it would be like this. Wes Anderson is a recidivist. The last time he blazed through the Southwest, the law finally caught up with him in Van Horn, Texas. When the cop ran the registration and discovered Anderson had another speeding ticket besides the one he was writing, he threatened jail time. But first, he thought, let’s check the trunk to see what kind of contraband this scofflaw is running across state lines.

In the trunk, the cop found a portrait of Herman Blume, the character played by Bill Murray in Anderson’s latest film, Rushmore. The painting anchors the film’s opening shot. In it, Blume sits in front of his disaffected movie family, looking like Ted Turner on painkillers. Set against a burnt-orange curtain, the Blume family portrait lingers onscreen an uncomfortable 10 seconds before the curtain pulls back and the movie starts. Clearly, somebody’s meant to get the picture.

"Is that that guy from Groundhog Day?" the cop asked Anderson.

Anderson replied that yes, indeed, the face in the painting was Bill Murray’s.

"Then I went into my song and dance," he says.

The "song and dance" is that point during a pullover when Anderson humbly explains that he is a movie director on an errand of vital importance to the project. In this case, say, delivering the painting to Mr. Murray himself for approval.

"The cop ended up calling the judge at midnight, and I paid by credit card."

Then there was the time a couple years ago when a policeman in Tennessee pulled him over for doing 90 but knocked it down to 80 after the song and dance.

"The cop was really nice. He had a great accent. He thought it was really something that we were both the same age," Anderson recalls. "I thought he had some sadness about being only 27 and being an authority figure."

Anderson has learned that part of Hollywood’s magic is how it cools out the trigger finger of authority. The strategy in case we get pulled over, which seems like a safe bet given Anderson’s preferred speed, is for me to wave the tape recorder conspicuously and ask the officer if I can get the whole thing on record for the story I’m doing. The cop will ask what story, and . . .

"Then I’ll downplay it, like, ‘Oh, Jeez, I’m embarrassed,’" says Anderson. And the song and dance will be on.

Don’t blame him for planning for the inevitable. When you drive as much as Wes Anderson does, somewhere in the John Madden range, you’re bound to rack up moving violations. It’s best to have a strategy. Hot chicks cry. He does his song and dance.

Today he’s on the road from Los Angeles to New York, with a first stop scheduled for Amarillo, Texas. Any way you measure, it’s quite a haul, but it’s nothing compared to the larger journey of an artist who has come into his own. On that road, Anderson is somewhere between great expectations and deliverance. There’s a lot of emotional investment in how he negotiates this stretch, and not just his own. Many critics appear ready to anoint him as a favorite son. Some are even saying that Rushmore, just his second feature following the critically praised but largely ignored Bottle Rocket, marks his rise to the top of American filmmaking. Rushmore’s limited showing in December for Academy Award consideration earned it a place on dozens of 1998 Top 10 lists and serious Oscar hype. Premiere magazine has gone so far as to hail the somewhat gawky, 29-year-old upstart as the heir apparent to Allen, Brooks, Lubitsch, Sturges and Keaton. There are, though, dissenting voices in the chorus of praise, and among the naysayers one can sense an eagerness to lash back at whatever revenge-of-the-nerds factor Anderson’s work represents, like New Times calling the film "self-important" or Time saying it "delights in itself too much."

Even though this crisp Friday in December is a portentous one — the day Rushmore opens for a week in New York and Los Angeles — the driver is doing his best to ignore the signs along the big journey. Audience reaction? Critical response? Backlash from the early festival fawning? Full houses? Those are the questions crashing around in the world outside the speeding Ford Explorer. For now, Anderson is relieved they are off on the horizons behind and before him. For now, his song and dance is to keep his eyes on the road and his hands upon the wheel. For now, the smaller journey, the one that will take him to Amarillo for a short rest before he drives on, is posing questions.

 

"Do you want a sandwich from the cooler?"

The driver pats the cooler lid with a casual grace that suggests he feels pretty at home behind the wheel of a rented white Ford Explorer. He ought to. He’s been driv ing one on Disney’s dollar since he went home to Houston for Thanksgiving.

"In lieu of In-N-Out Burger?" the passenger asks fearfully.

We are 120 miles into the trip and nearing Barstow. The digital display says we have 185 miles until empty, the voltage is good and the oil life is 99 percent. All systems are go. We’re in rhythm, which means we can stop looking ahead and start looking at each other. When you’re driv ing 14 hours with someone you’ve just met, you’re going to make some silent assessments. One is that the two people onboard would probably have intimidated each other in high school. The driver unduly pegged as an intellectual snob. The passenger dismissed as a smug jock.

"No. Not in lieu of In-N-Out Burger," the driver decides. "Let’s stop at the next In-N-Out!"

It’s a little early for that, but when you’re driving 14 hours with someone you’ve just met, a roadside In-N-Out Burger, like a lot of things you thought you’d given up, has a certain siren call. It’s a bonding thing.

"Hell," says the passenger, "it’s 12 o’clock somewhere. We can even drive through."

"We will drive through, believe me."

A wicked grin slips across the driver’s sharp face. With his round glasses and ’70s shlub clothes, he looks a bit like Mr. Rogers gone to pot, in pursuit of grease instead of grace. Soon enough, he’s ordering double-double with cheese, fries and Coke for the passenger; single with cheese, fries and vanilla shake for himself.

"Can you put it in one of those to-go trays please?" he says to the girl in the window.

We grab the stash and point toward Needles on Interstate 40. The colors of the Mojave — brown, blue and fading green — clash outside the white bubble of the Ford Explorer. As we dip fries into the same puddle of ketchup, it’s clear we’re in this together now. To break the ice, the driver asks the passenger how he typically passes the day. The passenger admits to being in the throes of a debilitating Beverly Hills 90210 addiction (reruns four times daily on FX). Painful admission that it is, it doesn’t stop the passenger from lobbying the driver to do for Luke Perry what he did for Bill Murray in Rushmore — the inspired casting-against-type that earns the actor rave reviews and shines him in a new light.

"How can you miscast him? As a Mexican or something?" the driver asks.

"I suppose as a bus conductor or an airplane pilot."

"He’d just become that," the driver says with conviction. "He’s such a chameleon."

Alas, ultimately Perry just doesn’t have the kind of face that interests Anderson. He likes a face like that of Jason Schwartzman, the 18-year-old acting novice he cast as Max Fischer, the lovesick, mildly sociopathic playwriting prodigy and lead character in Rushmore. The actor’s face becomes a billboard for teen angst and a sight gag at the same time.

"But Luke really needs this, for the indie credibility!" says the passenger, appealing to the driver’s magnanimity.

Finally Anderson relents. "Okay, I think we can do that. I think we can push him through the system. Man, Amarillo is a long ways away. At the moment, we’re still in California. We still have to go through New Mexico and Arizona, two of the biggest states in the U.S."

Centuries ago, a wise man said even the longest journey begins with the first small steps. The journey of the artist might be the longest and scariest of all. On this path the biggest step is a leap of faith: It is making the terrifying declaration, to yourself at least, that you are chosen, that you possess the tools to be an engineer of the human soul. Thanks to Mrs. Torda, Anderson began groping his way along that path a long time ago. You see, back in 1977, when Anderson’s parents were getting divorced, his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Torda, was into experimental teaching.

"She was doing this thing where she was making everyone do these weird meditation exercises, that thing where you drop a tissue and catch it in the air, you know?" he says. "And while everyone would be doing this meditation thing, she started giving me massages. It was a little odd. It was not a thing I enjoyed. She sized me up as being extremely anxious and a problem."

 

Part of the problem was that Anderson was embarrassed about the divorce. He saw it as a failure — not his necessarily, but the family’s. It drove him crazy. He denied it was happening and tried to keep it from everybody. Not surprisingly, the 10-year-old began verbally acting out, telling lies, running through the hallways, throwing things.

"I kept getting in trouble. I kept getting little demerits."

He also started writing — plays, of all things. So Mrs. Torda launched a program with Wes where every two or three weeks or so that he didn’t get a demerit, she would let him put on another play. There was The Christmas Escape, and also his early mystery classic The Initial Bullet.

"The mystery is solved because it’s a doctor who has shot this guy and they found these X-rays of the guy with a bullet in his head, and if that’s not incriminating enough, the bullet has the doctor’s initials engraved on it that you can see in the X-ray."

The driver is staring out at the road ahead, smiling wryly. He’s a keen observer of youthful folly, especially his own.

"One of them," he continues, "was set all in cars. That was a big one, because that one, I remember, we did it for the class, then they expanded it for the lower school, and then they did it for the whole school. I was in fourth grade. Yeah, that was a big hit, that play."

The passenger looks into the rear-view, stealing a reflected gaze into the driver’s eyes. The past is rolling by in sequence like the broken lines on the highway.

"So, when Max says to his rival, ‘I’ve written a hit play, what have you done?’ you’re speaking from your heart."

"Yeah, speaking from my heart, except I think Owen [Wilson, his best friend and writing partner] might have written that line."

"Owen’s speaking from your heart."

"Yeah."

There’s a long pause, as if Anderson is trying to scrutinize something ethereal.

"We did an Alamo play, The Battle of the Alamo in three acts, and I was Davy Crockett. And we did The Headless Horseman, in which I played the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane."

"You had a grandiose sense of yourself at this time," the passenger suggests.

"Yeah, major ego, because I was" — he clears his throat — "I had a lot of insecurity, and I guess that’s the way it manifested itself."

"Do you remember what kind of affirmations you got when you were putting on your plays?"

"Yeah, the affirmation of me signing autographs for people who didn’t want my autograph. You know, I had a pad of paper and I was giving people my autograph. I was kind of standing there finding kids who I thought wanted my autograph and giving it to them. I was sort of feeling like I was a boy wonder."

Anderson chuckles at the thought, unaware of or uninterested in the irony.

"Well," says the passenger, "no one wants anything more in fourth grade than for people to want his autograph."

"Yeah, that’s right. I tried to create a market for that."

What do you get when you pay $5 billion to reroute the Colorado River 336 miles north and over 1,200 feet uphill to a desert cauldron fit only for rattlesnakes and scorpions, then decide the damned (literally) water is unfit for drinking but perfectly fit to be the new home of the London Bridge, which is transported and rebuilt brick by brick at a cost of more than $11 million and is now the centerpiece of a town that hosts the London Arms Pub and the Sherwood Forest Nursery?

The citizens of Arizona got Lake Havasu City.

The sign in front of the Pilot gas station near Lake Havasu City doesn’t say Welcome to the Biggest Mistake in the West, but it does say Welcome. And our gas gauge says empty. So at 2 p.m. and 320 miles into the trip, we stop.

During the last stretch of California, we passed a coyote on one side of the road and an attractive female hitchhiker in red pants on the other. The driver was concerned for both, especially the woman in red pants.

"Those red pants are going to get her picked up at some point," he said plaintively. "I just hope it’s the right person."

Inside the Pilot station, the Chipmunks are singing "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth, my two front teeth." Coyotes, singing Chipmunks, the desert, it’s all part of Christmas in Southern California. No wonder Bret Easton Ellis left with a bad taste in his mouth. But the driver seems supremely untouched by it all, even the road ahead of him. He’s got the air-conditioned solution. He’s got books by Don DeLillo, Tom Wolfe, Robert Evans and Roald Dahl on tape. He’s got the LBJ tapes. He’s got a towel in the travel bag. He’s got the Pixies, Rolling Stones, Elliott Smith and his best friend’s girlfriend (Sheryl Crow) on CD. He’s got a cooler full of sandwiches and chocolate-chip cookies. For the time being, he’s got the world at bay.

 

The characters populating Anderson’s movies are the same, existing in a heightened, insular world of their own making. In Bottle Rocket, the three friends at the film’s core barely come in contact with anything or anyone that could be mistaken for life as most of us know it. When they do, the outcome isn’t good.

"There’s never a world, there’s never a real world that they’re involved with," Anderson explains. "They’re doing their own thing. It looks kind of like this." He waves at a flat, brown field outside the window of the Ford Explorer.

In much the same way, Rushmore focuses on the emotional lives of the kids orbiting around Rushmore Academy, particularly Max’s schoolmates. Adults, for the most part, aren’t allowed in the game unless they play by Max’s rules. When they don’t, there’s trouble.

"The thing I always think about with these movies, I always think a lot about Charlie Brown," he says. "You know how in Charlie Brown, in Peanuts, they are in their own little world? There’s only a group of kids. It has a mood all its own."

By focusing on this alternate reality, Anderson turns his camera into a microscope and his movies into lab studies. What’s under the glass, to a large degree, is the sustainability of friendship and the things people do when friendships are tested. Max in Rushmore and Dignan (played by Owen Wilson) in Bottle Rocket are the Charlie Browns of these little worlds, where things go awry when a storm blows into the emotional harbor of friendship.

"Both these movies are about friendships that get put through weird tests and that are renewed, kind of, you know? That are broken up and renewed, especially if you go through some big things together," he says, "like me and my friends who all did Bottle Rocket together. Our lives are so different from what they were when we started being friends."

When Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson started being friends, they were a couple of kids lollygagging through the tail end of college at the University of Texas. They met in a playwriting class and eventually became roommates. A mutual love of movies and writing proved to be a creatively combustible combination. In time, an idea for a quirky 14-minute short became the first installment of their eventual first script, Bottle Rocket. When the film was made, Owen and his brother Luke’s offbeat, charismatic performances landed them on the Hollywood hot list, winning them high-profile movie gigs and Sheryl Crow and Drew Barrymore, respectively. Things changed, all right.

Even though Wes, Owen and Luke presently live together in a ramshackle Tudor in an unfashionable part of L.A., Anderson seems to understand it’s never going to be the same among the three amigos. The ride from Texas to Hollywood is over, and now that theymade it, they’re certain to go in different directions. They already are. Each is looking for his own home. It’s hard not to wonder if the themes in Bottle Rocket and Rushmore are Anderson’s way of addressing the fear that the real world will impinge on his friendships.

"Yeah," he says, "I mean it happens. That’s the way it happens. But I don’t feel like we’re, right now I feel like our . . ." He searches for the right words, hands staying tight at 10 and 2. "The friendship that gets the most strain is the one between me and Owen. And I feel like that’s as strong a friendship now as it’s ever been, and we still have several movies we want to do together. And I just sort of feel like, it’s not something that I feel worried about right now."

When Wes Anderson idealizes himself, it is as an artist. He sees himself in a loft in New York, perhaps, with space and light and crazy hair and a breeze through the south-facing windows and the burnished reflection of creativity, emotion and connection bouncing back off the page through his round glasses and into his shy eyes. Something, he says, like Nick Nolte’s character in "Life Lessons," Martin Scorsese’s contribution to New York Stories.

"That would be something to aspire to," he says almost wonderingly.

Anderson’s next steps along the larger journey were little forays into the life he began envisioning for himself. In high school and into college it was time to try on the identity of an artist for size.

 

At St. John’s, the prep school Anderson attended in his hometown of Houston, where much of Rushmore was shot, he withdrew from the center stage he had provided for himself with the plays and began focusing more on writing.

"Short, like J.D. Salinger short stories," he recalls. "At that point, I sort of felt like I was going to be a writer. Just a story writer. A novelist or something. But I was also doing little movies at the same time. Then the movie stuff just started to take over more and more."

During college, Anderson made creative use of the University of Texas’ curriculum policies, engineering his course load so that almost all his credits were earned in independent or conference classes. The loose schedule gave him and Owen Wilson time to mine Austin’s cultural resources.

"We never had any money, so it was kind of limited. There was just a lot of hanging around and reading and going to movies. I was always doing some research. You know, they have this incredible humanities research center called the Harry Ransom Center."

All he could bring into the Ransom Center was a piece of notebook paper and a pencil, but once he was inside, a world populated by artists, writers and filmmakers was his to explore. Some of us spent the better part of our college years pouring beers over our heads. Anderson spent hours researching F. Scott Fitzgerald, François Truffaut and others who would become his cultural heroes.

"I was interested in those people, and just as interested in their lives as I was in their work," Anderson says.

The driver drifts off, and Amarillo is too far away for the passenger to pursue him. Conversations need rest stops, too. Inside the rented Ford Explorer, it’s basically inert. The miles roll by unheralded except by the digital miles-to-empty reading on the truck’s display panel. Finally, the shrill ring of the car phone interrupts the sound of wheels turning. It’s Anderson’s brother Eric in D.C., petitioning Wes to come home for Christmas or New Year’s or something like that. When the phone is handed to the passenger, Eric picks up where the conversation about college left off, telling of going through old stuff at their father’s house and stumbling upon a box of about 20 post cards Wes sent Eric from college. He says the post cards were bursting with enthusiasm for films and books and the lives Wes was discovering.

"They were the most vibrant things," Eric says. "They just got me excited about anything to do with movies and writing. That was my artistic education."

It wasn’t long before Anderson’s exploratory steps became more determined. He began using the local cable-access station’s equipment to make and air what he calls "little, short, stupid little movies." This enabled him to develop basic skills and to hone his eye for the endearing idiosyncrasies of the people in his world. Starting with his landlord.

"That was the main thing," Anderson says, "this landlord documentary."

It all began when he and Wilson, who were roommates by now, started to battle their landlord over his refusal to fix their window cranks. To illustrate the gravity of the issue, Anderson and Wilson staged a break-in of their own apartment. They took some stuff out, messed the place up a little and called the police, blaming it on the broken window cranks. When the police and the landlord arrived, the landlord said it looked like an inside job. The police didn’t take it too seriously, either. Things then escalated to where the guys stopped paying rent and the landlord tried taking some of their stuff as collateral.

"We ended up moving in the middle of the night, and he hunted us down with a private investigator," Anderson recalls fondly. "I went to meet him, and I proposed doing this project."

Amazingly, the landlord agreed to fund the documentary, which would run on the access channel, ostensibly to promote Carl Hindler Properties.

"He believed in, like, death penalties for drunk driving, burglary, and he had this pet snake that died and that he had given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which didn’t work. I said, ‘Well, what was the snake’s name?’ And he said, ‘Ah, we didn’t really give it a name, we just called it baby, or snake.’ And I said, ‘Uh, well, what did you do with the snake after it died?’ And he said, ‘I have it in the freezer in the back. I’d like to take it to a taxidermist.’"

Anderson continues with his head slightly nodding and a smile escaping. It’s as animated as he’s been since In-N-Out. "I asked him, ‘Have you ever used a lawsuit as a method of doing business, as a way of pressuring people to get what you want?’ And he said, ‘All the time. We use it all the time. And we’re always winning, always winning major settlements.’ He had this sailboat in his driveway. He liked to just go out and sit on the boat, but he never got the boat in the water. The boat was not seaworthy."

 

Welcome to Wes Anderson’s movie milieu, where friends apply nasal breathing strips or dress in yellow jump suits to do armed robberies, as in Bottle Rocket. Or where a sophomore preppie who looks like a discombobulated teen version of Superman-era Christopher Reeve tries to build an aquarium on school grounds to express his love for an older woman, as in Rushmore. Or where, as with the landlord, peculiar individuality is exploited for humor but never derision.

"I didn’t do the documentary in a way that was meant to look bad," Anderson explains soberly. "I just thought he was a funny character and I would just try to make it a truthful portrait."

Given all that has happened, the passenger is curious about what the hell the driver thought was going to happen when he and his friends started cooking up those 14-minute installments of their pet project, Bottle Rocket.

"You know, we were hoping we were going to become huge and all that stuff," he says matter-of-factly. "I mean, our ultimate hope was that people are going to see the movie and everybody’s going to love it. That kind of thing."

"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.

After Anderson briefs him on the situation, Murray seems eager to talk. It’s clear he likes the idea of a couple of guys driving into the night with a fairly absurd destination in mind. Amarillo? Why Amarillo? Because that’s where Anderson made his first stop the last time he drove to New York, and it worked. Weirdly enough, as Murray warms up to the car phone, the passenger gets the idea the actor wouldn’t mind riding shotgun on this trip.

"Is what you see with Wes what you get?" the passenger asks, looking over at the driver, who has resumed looking straight ahead.

"No, no. I don’t think what you see is what you get with Wes. You get much more," answers Murray. In the background is the excited pitch of the family pool tournament we’ve taken Murray away from. "He looks like R. Crumb’s old drawings of himself. He looks like he’s going to be outraged, like he finally sees what’s really wrong with you, and then the horror backs off and the beauty comes through."

Murray goes on to say that what made the Rushmore shoot work for him, besides the quality of the material, was Anderson’s ability to stress the positive. "Wes could find the good content in whatever you were working with. That made it easy. It freed you up to work."

His wife’s sharp cue having hastened an early departure from the action, Murray peppers the conversation with droll commentary on the tournament’s progress. It isn’t hard to place him there as Blume, off to the side in a tux, cigarette dangling from his lips, a spectator in a tournament of his own making, tossing peanuts to the family retriever in a small act of resignation and rebellion.

It is suggested to Murray that his characterization of Blume has an elegant, spiritually wasted quality that suits the actor.

"I was feeling the elegance of my own spiritual wastedness. I was feeling how all the touchstones of wealth and privilege are slippery," he says. "Those emotions are not far from anyone’s home if you’ve lived a little. Some days I came home and I felt a little sore. I felt like I’d been cooked a little."

What about Anderson? Has Murray seen something in him that might not be apparent to the casual observer, or even the 14-hour one?

"He’s very good at what he does, but don’t be afraid to ask him if he needs a Band-Aid or some change, things you generally ask of people who look like they’re in worse shape than him," Murray says in a way that makes you unsure how serious he is. "A Band-Aid, yeah, I think a Band-Aid. There’s some cuts there."

"The first night we were on the shoot, he gave me three pairs of socks," recalls Anderson, after Murray hangs up. "Two are still in my bag."

 

Darkness wraps around the rented Ford Explorer like a blanket as we drive into the plains of eastern New Mexico. We made it from the kiln-baked landscape of the low desert to the higher elevations of pine trees and snow on the ground and moonlight reflecting off mountain silhouettes. And back down again. The driver was right, Arizona and New Mexico are big, but at last Amarillo seems within reach. It’s not that far from Tucumcari, and Tucumcari is not that far from here. The driver is ready for the home stretch. Ever since he stopped flying two years ago, he’s used to putting these miles on a day.

"Wes won’t characterize it as a fear of flying, but more as a love of the open road," explains Owen Wilson, calling from Los Angeles. "Once my mom asked why he won’t fly, and Wes replied, ‘Nobody knows.’ That’s become the standard answer."

It’s the third or fourth time in a matter of minutes that Wilson has called. He and Anderson are in- ä volved in a minor squabble regarding some advice Anderson is giving Wilson that Wilson probably agrees with but doesn’t necessarily want to hear.

"That was the smooth-things-out conversation," Anderson says of Wilson’s latest and most conciliatory call, "which then becomes the general criticisms, the ‘Okay, I agree, but here’s your big problem.’"

Anderson is chuckling. "We’re like an old married couple. Never go to bed angry."

Outside the Explorer, the Rushmore hoopla is steamrolling. In fact, the car phone has been ringing off the hook all afternoon and into the evening with reports from the openings in Los Angeles and New York. The larger journey seems to be catching up with us.

"We had two guys who were either on hallucinogens or laughing gas," buzzes Randy Poster, the film’s music supervisor, from New York.

Übermanager Geyer Kosinski had a stool pigeon at the L.A. opener who phoned in a report. Kosinski phoned Owen with a report of that report, and then Owen called Wes with a report of the report of the report. The report? Only front-row seats for latecomers. Spontaneous applause when the credits rolled. And this from a typically blasé L.A. matinee crowd.

Word on the reviews is overwhelmingly positive, too. The New York Daily News says it’s "the best and most beautiful movie of 1998." The New Yorker can’t keep the smile off its face. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin says . . . well, who the hell ever knows what Janet Maslin is saying, but it seems really good.

The passenger wants to know how this makes the driver feel. "You’re the next big thing. Does that rattle you?"

"Do you think that’s right? I don’t know if that’s right."

"Film critics are building altars to you in their offices."

"Yeah, but did you read Kenneth Turan’s? Turan’s wasn’t that great."

"How do you know? I want to talk to someone who knows this."

"Barry Mendel [Rushmore’s producer]. He can read it to you. Okay, I mean Turan’s review is not the greatest review ever. It’s not terrible, but he says, like, he says something like . . . he didn’t like Max."

"He didn’t like Max?"

"He didn’t like the character. Not the performance, but the character."

"All right, but you’re being hailed. You’re being praised. You’re being compared to Buster Keaton. Are you skeptical?"

"No, I’m not skeptical. I mean, I like it. It doesn’t feel that great, but it feels good."

"Why doesn’t it feel that great?"

"Well, I don’t know."

"Are you like Max in that you think, ‘Hey, I should be making what’s being called the best American movie of the year’?"

"No, I wouldn’t say that. I’m actually in good spirits. But the reviews, bad reviews, I think, make you feel horrible. And, like, Turan’s review does not make me feel very good."

"It doesn’t sound that bad."

"It’s not that bad, but it just has a tendency to, like, draw everything into that. You sort of look for the worst and sink to that level."

"Well, I could be sitting in the car with the Woody Allen of the next generation. How do you think I’m supposed to feel?"

"Well, you gotta know that it’s hundreds of miles to go tonight, so I don’t care who you’re sitting in the car with, you’re not going to feel that good."

"Yeah, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, either."

"I actually feel pretty good. I wish we had some more daylight, but aside from that, I think we’re doing pretty well."

"That’s what I mean, you’re keeping your eye on the project at hand, but I’m trying to talk about, not your place on this road to Amarillo, but your place on this road of life."

 

"Right. The road to, uh, the road to Mulholland. The road to Fifth Avenue. Well, in terms of that, I can’t say that I feel ecstatically happy about it. The thing is, we really don’t have any sense of what level of attention the movie is going to have when it really comes out, you know?"

Anderson should be forgiven if he’s a little wary of the warm embrace being extended to him and Rushmore. He heard it from the movie people before with Bottle Rocket, although not on this scale. Then, when Bottle Rocket, which refers to low-impact fireworks, lived up to its name at the box office, the experience left him thinking there were "lots of people hating that movie that we don’t know about."

Rushmore, however, is different in important ways. Even though it clearly shares the same tender heart and skewed sensibility, the film is the product of an examined life — mostly Anderson’s — whereas Bottle Rocket was a snapshot of a particular moment. It’s a short distance between Max Fischer, the hurting adolescent who is trying to find the right balance of insecurity and bravado, and Wes Anderson as a boy.

"It definitely couldn’t be more personal. Bottle Rocket was about our behavior at the time. This is about our lives and backgrounds and all that family stuff," Anderson admits. "When I talk about the story, I talk about it as something we did together, but there’s a tremendous amount of personal connection with me."

Indeed, when Anderson speaks of the paradoxes of Max Fischer’s tenure at Rushmore Academy, it sounds as if he’s talking about himself in Hollywood.

"Max wants to lead everybody, but he wants to do it in a way that uses this whole establishment, kind of," he says, obviously getting a charge out of divining his and Max’s character. "But he has his own ideas about things. He’s just not a conformist, but he hasn’t, like, reconciled himself with the image he wants to have, you know?"

Of course. For men and for artists, that’s something that happens a ways down the road, on the larger journey. And that’s if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, even as his much-hoped-for film opens on both coasts, the driver is moving further into the anonymous middle of America, where for a few days, anyway, he won’t have to reconcile anything. The passenger suggests it’s kind of symbolic.

"Now that you mention it," says the driver, "it sounds a little psychological. Like something’s happening and I don’t even know what I’m doing."

Rushmore opens nationally on February 5.


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