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

Brooks hoped the studio would kick in a $4-$6 million budget. The money was pocket change in Hollywood terms. But by the standards of guys trained to keep rolling when somebody flubbed a line, it sounded like a king's ransom.

Then came the amazing part: Brooks and Platt wanted most of the major players involved in the short to work on the feature.

Wes would direct, and cowrite with his old buddy Owen Wilson, who would play Dignan. Luke Wilson would play Anthony. Bob would play Bob, of course. Andrew Wilson would get an associate producer's credit, and would also play Bob's pumped-up, buzz-cut older brother, a post-adolescent bully who makes the meek wheel man's life a living hell.

They would cast a big-name actor as Mr. Henry--an old pro with grace and charisma and high style. They'd hire a bunch of first-rate professionals to design, shoot, edit, and score the picture.

Wes would be given a budget of several hundred thousand dollars just to buy the rights to his favorite pop songs for the soundtrack. And yes, the boys could film Bottle Rocket in their hometown; Brooks wouldn't want it any other way.

It was a miracle. James L. Brooks wanted to make their dreams come true.
But first, Brooks told them, they had to make a few changes in the script.
What was needed, he explained, was more warmth, more human interest, and more explication. The characters in a low-budget independent film could be oddball ciphers, but the characters in a Hollywood feature had to be oddball people--otherwise the average moviegoer wouldn't get their jokes, and wouldn't care what happened to them.

Following a staged reading, Brooks suggested very specific changes.
The first entailed reworking a key subplot--a sweet affair between Anthony and a beautiful Cuban housekeeper that blossoms after a botched heist, when the crew is holed up at a tiny motel in the country. Brooks wanted the romance beefed up, presumably so audiences that didn't get the humor would at least have a love story to latch onto.

The next order of business was for Wes and Owen to create clearly defined backgrounds for Dignan, Bob, and Anthony--anecdotes clearly explaining what they want from life and why they are friends. Anthony, for example, now had a kid sister on whom he doted. It was hoped this would elicit audience sympathy.

On one hand, the filmmakers figured Brooks knew what he was talking about. His tube track record, which stretched from "Mary Tyler Moore" and "The Bob Newhart Show" up through "The Simpsons," proved he understood how to make smart entertainment for a wide audience. His work as a writer-director--Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News--garnered enough Oscar nominations to anchor a zeppelin, and made money, too.

But the filmmakers harbored some doubts. To them, what made Bottle Rocket special was its air of innocent mystery. Brooks was asking them to trade some of that mystery for warmth and accessibility. He was asking them to transform an art-house film into a crowd-pleaser with art-house qualities.

During the last half of 1993, through the spring of 1994, Wes and Owen rewrote and rewrote and rewrote their screenplay. Digressions were whittled down or excised. The love story was expanded, and the nationality of the motel housekeeper, Inez, was changed to Mexican because Lumi Cavazos, the delicately beautiful star of Like Water for Chocolate, had been cast for the part.

Bottle Rocket had been tentatively set to film in Dallas in spring 1994. But Brooks had run into trouble with his latest movie as writer-director, I'll Do Anything.

Produced for somewhere around $40 million, the picture was a musical about the personal frustrations and career conundrums of a group of film industry professionals. For reasons understood only by Brooks himself, it had been cast with people who could not sing or dance, including Nick Nolte, Julie Kavner, Natasha Richardson, and Albert Brooks. Following disastrous previews, the director was faced with an ugly predicament: he had to cut out all the expensive musical numbers he had spent so many months filming, and turn the movie into a straightforward comedy.

Meanwhile, Polly Platt and assorted studio executives busied themselves with preproduction work on Bottle Rocket--assembling a cast and crew. Brooks pitched in as often as he could--quite often, considering the career nightmare that had unexpectedly entangled him.

The process was slow, but everything was falling into place.
Only one obvious piece was missing: Mr. Henry. It was a small part, but crucial. They had to find just the right guy.

The great James Caan expressed interest. He set up a meeting to talk about the movie and the part with Brooks, Wes, and Owen.

"He was dressed like a big kid," Owen remembers: an oversized surf T-shirt, faded jeans, and cowboy boots. "When he came in the office, everybody was trying to put him at ease and make him feel comfortable. It turned out the thing he felt most comfortable talking about was karate and kicking people's asses."

Caan had been studying martial arts for some time with a smallish middle-aged Asian man named Tak, who accompanies Caan all over the country to film shoots. Tak is a martial-arts expert who acted as technical advisor on a number of chopsocky movies; he carried around a wallet full of pictures of himself posed beside various second-rung action celebrities, including Christopher Lambert. He was Caan's physical trainer, spiritual advisor, and close personal friend. "Jimmy calls Tak his master," Wes explains.

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