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

But even if an indie movie fails to break through to the mainstream, its makers can still carry their heads high, for one simple reason: they kept their freedom. If you are an independent filmmaker, and you decide to play offbeat games with characters, dialogue, or narrative, or indulge in a style of drama or humor most viewers might not get, nobody at the home office can tell you "No"--because the home office is you.

Hollywood studio filmmaking rarely affords such freedom. Because millions of corporate dollars are at stake, bean counters are forever peeking over your shoulder, second-guessing everything you do, urging you to avoid being strange or provocative and aim for as broad an audience as possible. Not even powerful filmmakers have absolute freedom; even Oliver Stone has to kiss somebody's ass.

Every filmmaker dreams of a situation that combines the best of both worlds--a situation that will allow him or her to use studio money to make a quirky, personal film. Some directors toil for decades and never once make a movie under such ideal conditions.

But every now and then, the impossible occurs. The stars line up just right. And a bunch of ambitious young greenhorns stumbles into Eden.

That's what happened with Bottle Rocket.
The project started in 1991 as a black-and-white 16mm short film about a bunch of bored rich kids who become thieves. Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson conceived it when they were living together in Austin.

They had met the previous year in a University of Texas playwriting class full of talkative people. They didn't speak the entire semester. They found the class dull, and most of their classmates duller. Wes sat in one remote corner of the room, rarely participating. Owen sat opposite him, usually reading The New York Times.

At the beginning of the next semester, Wes saw Owen standing in a hallway. For reasons he can't explain, Wes walked over to his fellow mute and asked him what creative writing courses he ought to take. "I talked to him like we'd been best friends," he says. "It was kind of weird, but it felt right."

They hit it off, meeting frequently to discuss their favorite authors and filmmakers, their love of Steve McQueen and Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese, of wide-screen Westerns from the 1960s and anti-establishment melodramas from the '70s. They sat up late at night spinning movie ideas, cracking each other up with off-center observations and strange stories. And they dreamed about what they'd like to do with their lives.

They had many things in common. Both were intense, somewhat solitary undergraduates with hifalutin' majors (Wilson's was creative writing, while Anderson's was philosophy). Both were middle children raised in well-heeled, artistically inclined families who sent their kids to private schools.

They eventually moved together into a small Austin duplex owned by a grandiloquent German landlord who had come to America via Colombia.

What followed was a strange period that kick-started their screenwriting. The students had been feuding with their landlord for months over some old window cranks that had got stuck, leaving some windows perpetually half-open, ensuring the place was freezing in winter, sweltering during the summer, and a tempting target to burglars.

Wes and Owen refused to pay rent until the landlord fixed them. He refused to fix the cranks until they paid their rent.

Finally, the students took drastic action: they busted into their own apartment, then called the cops to report a break-in, taking care to explain that this horrible event wouldn't have happened if their landlord had fixed the damned window cranks.

The landlord arrived, peered about the crime scene suspiciously, and announced, "This looks like an inside job."

The cops shrugged, told the squabblers to work out their own dispute, and split.

More months passed without resolution. The landlord arrived one morning to seize the students' belongings until they paid their rent. Wes got into a loud, violent, frenzied struggle with him over a vintage 8mm camera.

The altercation resulted in another visit from the cops, who again cautioned the warring factions to quit acting like idiots, and work out their differences. But Owen and Wes were angry and scared; they fled to a friend's apartment that night without giving notice. The landlord hired a private detective, who promptly tracked them down. Chastened, Wes and Owen apologized, explaining they didn't mean to skip out on their rent--they'd simply freaked out.

To get back on the landlord's good side, Wes made a video documentary of the old German telling stories about his life.

It was capped by a painfully emotional monologue. In it, the landlord told how he'd seized a pet python from a delinquent tenant who'd skipped town. The landlord kept the python in his apartment for a while, trying to decide what to do with it. To his astonishment, he grew to love it.

He decided to keep it. But he soon discovered the giant snake had a digestive illness. It would not eat. The landlord tried everything to get the snake to eat, including force-feeding it. Nothing worked. The python grew weaker and sicker. It stopped moving. And one day, it simply died in his arms.

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