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

The knew just the guy. He was a 28-year-old blues guitarist, a transplanted West Virginian with brown hair, hound dog eyes, and a drawl thicker than molasses. His name was Robert Musgrave. His friends called him Bob.

Bob had known the Wilsons for about a year. He met Owen at the Stoneleigh P., shot pool with him, and lost $40. He cajoled Owen into jump-starting the battery on his car, then invited him to Blue Cat Blues to watch him sit in with the band that night. They liked each other immediately.

Later, Owen introduced Bob to the others, who liked him right off. They auditioned him for the part of Hanson, then cast him. The character had originally been conceived as a much larger, tougher, harder-edged character, but the filmmakers eventually ended up tailoring the role to suit the actor playing him. They even changed the character's name to Bob.

Bob's friendship with Wes and the Wilsons meant a lot to him. He was at a crossroads in his life. He was always a creative guy, but he hadn't had much luck building a career doing creative things. He'd tried stand-up comedy and sketch writing, but neither panned out. He'd built a promising career as a Dallas blues guitarist in the 1980s, even touring. But he was rootless and confused, unsure who he was or where his life was headed.

Then he found himself doing cocaine. Lots of it. "Most of my money was going straight up my nose," he says. "I ended up screwing myself. That was a four- or five-month period in my life, but it took me a year to dig myself out from under the wreckage."

With emotional support from friends and family, Bob went through rehab, got clean, and settled down into a considerably less chaotic life. When Wes Anderson and the Wilsons arrived, befriended him, and got him involved with "Bottle Rocket," Bob finally figured out exactly who he was.

He was an actor.
"I didn't know if the things I was trying to do in the short were gonna come off for sure," he says. "But I had good people behind me. I always felt like Wes was picking up on the things I was trying to do. I always trusted him to hone it at the right places."

The result was an indelible character; if Dignan was the brains of the crew and Anthony was the soul, Bob was the heart. And the actor playing him inhabited Bob's loyal, drolly funny, hapless psyche with such unfussy confidence that everything he said and did was hilarious. And his baleful eyes were so expressive that what he didn't say and do was even funnier.

No matter what path he eventually takes as an actor, Bob wants to work with Wes and Owen every chance he gets.

By January of 1993, the short film "Bottle Rocket" was ready for Sundance. It ran a compact 13 minutes. Every lyrical image and comic exchange was timed to exquisite perfection.

Best of all, it was scored with Wes and Owen's ideal music--the music the late jazz composer Vince Guaraldi had provided for the beloved 1965 animated TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The familiar score fit into the narrative like a missing puzzle piece, coaxing a striking mix of moods from Anderson's images. Wes decided that whether "Bottle Rocket" got made as a poverty-row indie feature or a big-budget Hollywood project, the Charlie Brown music had to be a part of it.

"Bottle Rocket" got a good response at Sundance, but no solid offers from money men.

So Carson and Hargrave embarked on the next leg of their plan--sending the feature-length script and a dub of the film to a couple of established producer pals in Los Angeles, Barbara Boyle, and Michael Taylor.

Boyle and Taylor loved "Bottle Rocket" and passed it on to their friend, legendary producer Polly Platt, ex-wife of failed '70s genius Peter Bogdanovich. Platt, who had been in semiretirement for years, produced Bogdanovich's early, acclaimed films, including The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. She had a keen eye for identifying and befriending young talent; in certain circles, it was rumored that what critics and audiences enjoyed in Bogdanovich's first few films--their simplicity and emotional directness--could actually be credited to Platt.

Platt loved "Bottle Rocket." Reading it conjured a nostalgic excitement she hadn't felt in a long time. Everything about it felt right: the storyline, the tone, the humor, the unknown filmmakers and actors attached to it--and especially the script's Texas roots. She even told Premiere magazine she thought "Bottle Rocket" was another Last Picture Show.

In March 1993, Platt visited the set of James L. Brooks' latest movie as a writer-director and showed him "Bottle Rocket" over lunch. "Jim sat there and watched," Platt said, "and when it was over, he was quiet for a minute. Then he looked up at me and said, 'We have to make a deal with these guys.'"

On May 1st, 1993--Wes Anderson's 24th birthday--Brooks and Platt came to Dallas.

They made a deal: Platt would produce Bottle Rocket, overseeing the day-to-day minutiae of the shoot. Brooks would executive-produce the movie, helping them hone their screenplay, assemble a cast and crew, and run interference between them and Columbia Pictures.

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