Slouching toward Hollywood

Can four young Dallas filmmakers sell their dream-and still keep their souls? Matt Zoller Seitz follows the trail of Bottle Rocket

Jimmy Caaaaaaan!
Luke Wilson was thrilled. It was November 1994, and the star of The Godfather, Thief, and Misery, icon to two generations of aspiring young actors and a walking template of life's rougher passages, was jogging beside him on train tracks near a downtown Dallas factory.

A film crew was gathered nearby. They were shooting a scene for the new movie Bottle Rocket. In it, Luke Wilson played a younger thief taken under the wing of an older heist expert--Mr. Henry--played by Caan.

The guy was a living legend. He'd been making films for three decades. He'd been directed by Howard Hawks and Francis Coppola. He'd acted opposite everybody from John Wayne to Al Pacino to Kathy Bates.

Hollywood had come calling in Dallas. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures, an arm of Sony, Luke and a small group of fellow Dallasites would get to make a feature-length, $6 million version of their short film "Bottle Rocket." Minimogul James L. Brooks--who gave the world "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi," and the Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment--was mentoring the project, protecting the young Texans from studio interference.

The feature would employ some of the same people who'd worked on the short--including Owen Wilson, Luke's brother, who cowrote and costarred in it; his friend Wes Anderson, the director; his other brother Andrew, who was both coproducing and acting in the picture; and actor Robert Musgrave, a dear friend.

Like his friends and brothers, Luke was under considerable pressure. As the movie's hero, he had to be strong, sensitive, righteous, and quiet, but not boring. That's tough when you're surrounded by supporting players in more colorful roles. He also had to act opposite James Caan in the actor's first screen appearance since going through a stint in drug and alcohol rehab. Most intimidating of all, Luke Wilson had acted on film only once before--in the low-budget short.

Fortunately, Luke and Caan were working well together.
Then the great James Caan blew a line. "Ahhh," he winced. "Cut it."
"Cut what, Mr. Henry?" Luke shot back, still jogging, not missing a beat.
Caan did a double-take. "I said cut, kid. I blew it! Let's take it over."
"Do what over, Mr. Henry?" Luke stammered.

When the crew members realized what Luke was thinking, they had to laugh. On a low-budget short, if you screw up, you keep going--because film is expensive and you don't have much of it. He was instinctively ad-libbing, trying to save the take.

When Caan figured it out, he grinned. He walked over to Luke. Their noses were inches apart. "Fuckin' moron!" Caan chuckled, shaking his head. "Fuckin' MORON!" he repeated, grinning even wider.

Then he head-butted Luke.
As Luke stumbled back in surprise, the crew cracked up--because in Jimmy Caan's world, a head-butt is a sign of deep affection.

"I love this kid!" Caan bellowed to Owen. "I mean it! I love your brother. He's the greatest! You could throw a plate of shit in his face and he'd ad lib!"

Everybody laughed.
Then it was back to work. In the time it took for everybody to have their laugh, the studio's invisible money meter had ticked off enough loot to pay for the humble short film Bottle Rocket was based on.

Director Wes Anderson often thought about this predicament--about having so much money and so many people at his disposal, and being so young and inexperienced.

Looking back on the shoot last week, from the vantage point of six long months spent in a Los Angeles editing suite---obsessively cutting and re-cutting Bottle Rocket to please James L. Brooks, Columbia Pictures, and his own perfectionist notions--the rookie director still finds the experience a bit surreal.

"We had a couple of moments where we'd get together and look around and think about how weird it all seemed," he says. "We'd look at all the huge trucks and all the lights and equipment, the incredible number of tables and chairs set up for the cast and crew to eat, and all these experienced people all around us, working on our movie, and we'd go, 'Jesus Christ! Can you even believe this?' It almost felt like a con."

"It was a scary feeling," says Owen Wilson. "I'd think, 'Man, are we really gonna do this? Does something like this really come from when me and Wes used to sit around during college making up funny stuff? Is this what it was all leading up to?'"

Access to more film stock wasn't the only difference the Dallas wunderkinds encountered during the three years it took to bring Bottle Rocket to fruition. On every level, the experience illustrated the difference between independent and Hollywood filmmaking.

Independent filmmaking is a gut-wrenching crap shoot. Every now and then, a film hits; most of the time, it doesn't. According to respected New York-based independent producer John Pierson, whose finds include Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, and Jim Jarmusch, hundreds of features were produced independently last year in the United States alone. A handful became bona fide mainstream successes. Perhaps two dozen more went on to brief theatrical runs in major cities. A few dozen others played at film festivals and then went directly to video without passing "Go." The rest disappeared into the ether.

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