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

As the landlord finished the story, he was crying. The death of that snake broke his heart. For the privilege of telling his story on video, the landlord paid Wes $600.

"That taught me that you always gotta keep your eye peeled," Wes said. "You never know where the next strange, colorful character is coming from."

A few months later, the roommates wrote a comedy script titled "Bottle Rocket." It was, Wes says, a kind of spiritual autobiography of that crazy time in their lives, capturing what it felt like to be young, naive, and stubborn, and determined to live in the moment.

The plot is simple: a bored young rich kid named Anthony falls in with another bored young rich kid, a live-wire petty crook named Dignan. They break into houses together--including Anthony's mother's house. Deciding that the real money is in armed robbery, they acquire a charming but panicky wheel man named Hanson; together, the trio becomes a dedicated but hapless gang of thieves.

A botched bookstore heist sends them on the run, but they soon return to the city. They are taken in by a dapper and mysterious older thief named Mr. Henry.

Mr. Henry introduces the boys to his colorful crew, wows them with glitzy, Rat Pack-style parties and anecdotes about his exploits, and promises them a life of wealth and danger. He is a raconteur and philosopher who makes pronouncements like, "The world needs dreamers--to ease the pain of consciousness."

He invites his young charges to take part in the elaborately planned robbery of a cold storage factory. The boys are in way over their heads but don't yet know it. As TV Guide would say, complications ensue.

But the screenplay's strengths did not lie in its razor-thin plot. What made it special was its droll sense of humor and peculiar mood--warm, wistful, childlike, enchanted.

Anthony, Dignan, and Hanson inhabit a universe Wes Anderson says is located "about five degrees removed from reality." There are few adults around, and fewer adult consequences; the story's world is as huge and sketchy and eerily quiet as the world of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts," a comic strip Wes and Owen loved reading when they were kids.

The petty crooks' criminal activities rarely draw police attention and never draw blood; in fact, their misadventures have no palpable effect on anyone except themselves. They rob houses and bookstores for the same reason Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed trains--to express their loyalty and affection for each other.

Anthony, Dignan, and Hanson coast through life on sweet sensation, hoping to find in action the identities they lack in repose.

Owen Wilson knew some people who could help. His family had been friendly with L.M. "Kit" Carson, a maverick independent writer-director who wrote and starred in the late-'60s cult favorite David Holzman's Diary, and scripted the 1983 remake of Breathless and the 1984 Wim Wenders-Sam Shepard art house favorite Paris, Texas. Carson and his wife, producer Cynthia Hargrave, lived in Dallas.

"I'd first met Owen and his brothers at the Wilson house," Carson recalls. "They were movie maniacs. Their father had asked me over for dinner for the express purpose of talking them out of a career in movies. I figured out pretty quick that there was no way anybody could talk them out of it."

So instead, Carson invited the Wilsons to accompany him and Hargrave to the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. The trip energized the young would-be moviemakers. Over the next few months, they planned out the shooting of "Bottle Rocket."

Luke Wilson would play the soulful, reticent Anthony. Owen, with his wild head of maize-colored hair and his charmingly crooked smile, would play the mischievous Dignan. Owen and Luke's older brother, Andrew, who had experience producing corporate videos, would produce the movie.

Wes Anderson had worked under Andrew Wilson on his producing job; during that time, he'd met film industry professionals willing to donate their time and talent to an interesting shoestring project. The group courted investors, then kicked in their own money. They borrowed most of the necessary equipment. For film, they used 16mm black-and-white stock Andrew had been accumulating in a refrigerator over the past couple of years.

Every piece fit.
So in May 1992, the filmmakers shot the first eight minutes of "Bottle Rocket" at various Dallas locations, including the Greenway Parks homes and the storefronts of Deep Ellum.

A few weeks later, they showed the results to Carson and Hargrave.
"It was basically a first act," Carson says. "As a feature script, structurally, it had some problems."

But Carson loved its uncensored, immediate quality. It was an innocent film made by innocent sensibilities. "Reading it for the first time was like reading The Catcher in the Rye as written by Holden Caulfield," he says.

Carson and Hargrave told the filmmakers to shoot a few more scenes, edit it down to a compact short, and accompany them on their yearly trip to Sundance, which was coming up in January, 1993. They hoped they would meet someone willing to bankroll a feature version.

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of 1992, Wes and Owen had to shoot the next few scenes from "Bottle Rocket"--the scenes introducing Hanson, the crew's lovably flaky wheel man.

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