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, Wes 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 driving 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 driving 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!”
Here in Los Angeles like few other places, fame is something we encounter as an intrinsic part of the landscape. Where else is the painting covering the side of a Sunset Boulevard building likely to depict the person you’ve just seen jump the ticket line and go right into the theater at the Laemmle 5?
As a journalist in this town I’ve done my share of celebrity profiles, often of women on the verge . . . of something. There were the years of living dangerously when I had the unholy trifecta of celeb profiles: Carmen Electra, Jenny McCarthy and Shannen Doherty, in that order. Next came a year of living not so dangerously when I did, I think, three profiles of Kirsten Dunst, and a couple of Penelope Cruz, just as they were about to break. Assignments like these are usually rote exercises. You spend an hour or so poolside at the Sunset Marquis with the celebutante in question; you try to get something more than the canned quotes they’re programmed to give you, and you move on. Rarely do you stop to give the experience a second thought, except for maybe the odd “I knew So-and-So back when she was still living with her mother . . .” as you read about So-and-So’s latest trip to rehab.
Sometimes, though, it’s different. Sometimes you get the call to do that story about someone who isn’t merely on the brink of something that’ll amount to little more than fodder for the slicks (like Cruz’s home-wrecking tear through A-list leading men) but is also a revelation, something that marks an arrival of cultural significance. Hanging out at the Beastie Boys’ studio/skate park in Los Feliz when they were cooking up Paul’s Boutique, or kicking it at Largo with Paul Thomas Anderson just before Boogie Nights came out would be good examples. It’s even better when the subject is young and painfully aware, even vaguely apprehensive, of the forces out there conspiring to make the moment fertile — even though his or her own talent and desires set many of them in motion.
In December 1998, after seeing a screening of Rushmore, former L.A. Weekly film editor Manohla Dargis recognized that director Wes Anderson was at just such a place of revelation and reckoning. Manohla’s conceit was that I take a snapshot of Anderson just as everything was about to change for him. Somehow I ended up along for the ride with Anderson as he went from being a somewhat shy, relatively unknown hopeful to one of the most acclaimed directors of his generation — his generation being those auteurs who sprang from the mid-’90s, including P.T. Anderson, Todd Solondz, Alexander Payne and Spike Jonze.
At the time, there was a palpable desire among film geeks that both Anderson and his new movie, Rushmore, would be warmly embraced. Perhaps that was because his first feature, Bottle Rocket, was such a sweet, tender and vulnerable flop that filmistas wanted to root for him as he somewhat innocently drifted closer to the maw of the beast.
The part about being along for the ride turned out to be literal. It was just a couple of weeks before Christmas, and Anderson, a prodigious and heavy-footed driver, was on his way to New York City. He had a new girlfriend there, a publicist or industry person of some sort, but either way a handy symbol of the change from outsider to insider that was already under way. Before New York, though, he’d wind through his home state of Texas. He drove because he was afraid to fly. It was arranged that I would accompany him on the first 16-hour leg of the journey — all the way to Amarillo.
We set out in the early morning in a Ford Explorer, which Touchstone Pictures had rented and which he was driving back and forth across the country racking up speeding tickets at an alarming rate. Outside the bubble of the vehicle, the air was heavy with expectation and anxiety.
Mutually reassured by our love for Double-Doubles and with 14 hours still to go, we settled in and played the game: Anthropologist observes subject in subject’s natural state. But there’s something about being on a road trip that has its own logic, and in a way, though we were still playing the game, the rules were soon thrown out the window. We were still subject and anthropologist, but we were also comrades in a mild adventure that would take us through the greater part of the Southwest, spanning dusty deserts to snowy mountain passes, lapsing from dawn to dark. Because of that, I believe, I got a glimpse at the private worries Anderson was having about the future.
In Los Angeles, we often regard fame in light of how it makes us normal people feel — usually less beautiful, less rich, less powerful, less famous. The famous appear to have magically figured out the password into the Promised Land that is visible all around us here, but which remains just out of reach for most. What we don’t often think about is how fame is going to affect those just about to become famous.
Anderson seemed aware that his larger adventure — the journey from backwoods film geek to acclaimed writer-director — would exact the heaviest toll on the relationships he had with the friends with whom he had come of age back in Texas. Friendships are still the world when you’re 29, especially when you come from a broken home, and you didn’t need to drive 16 hours with Anderson to comprehend their importance to him. Both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore practically bleed from dissecting the nature of friendship. But 29 is also that age when you start to shed the friends of your youth and make the friends of your adulthood, perhaps, for example, that woman in New York that Anderson was on his way to see.
In my experience, driving long stretches on the verge of profound change makes for a good time to indulge in a peculiar kind of nostalgia — one that accounts both for things that have been and also for things you sadly realize will never be. I had a sense Anderson was taking that long drive just before Christmas to indulge in that sort of nostalgia and to prepare for the changes fame was certain to bring him and his friends. His world would never be as simple as it was when he and his buddies, Owen and Luke Wilson, were knocking around Austin and Dallas making short films about their landlord and the quirky people they knew — cementing the bonds of their friendship.
Inevitably with any team’s great success or great failure comes the question: Where do we go from here? On the eve of Rushmore’s opening, it was clear that fractures were already forming in the foundation of Anderson’s team. As we drove, the phone rang through the night with reports from the openings in New York and Los Angeles — news of sold-out venues and spontaneous applause erupting during credits, good reviews pouring in. That was all big stuff, and signs of things to come. But the biggest thing that would happen during the course of his journey was still lurking out there in the dark. The stream of phone calls back and forth between Anderson and Owen Wilson as they tried to repair a crack in their relationship — even as they worked on the script that would become The Royal Tenenbaums — may have been a glimpse of the future. For a short while longer, though, perhaps the rest of his trip, Anderson would still be who he was ever since he could remember — the kid who wanted to move people through moving pictures. I had the impression he would have been happy to drive for another year or two.