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

Caan decided to strut his stuff. "Some of the moves Tak taught Jimmy were pretty amazing," Owen says. "The rest seemed kind of strange. I wasn't sure why he was so proud of them."

First Caan demonstrated one of the amazing ones--something he called a "submission hold." He grasped one of Owen's arms, then jerked it in an odd direction. To everyone's shock, Owen's arm popped right out of its socket. "Everybody freaked out," Owen says. "Then my shoulder popped right back in, and I told everybody, 'I'm okay! It's all right! I'm okay, see?'"

Then Caan demonstrated a technique he claimed would immobilize any opponent with just one touch. He stood before Owen and poked him in the chest with one knobby index finger. "It kind of hurt, I guess," Owen says. "But I wanted Jimmy to feel good, so I pretended it really, really hurt."

"Ow! That hurt!" Owen cried. Then, perhaps hoping to deflect Caan's attention, he said, "Show Jim!"

James L. Brooks stood up from the couch he'd been sitting on. As Caan walked over to him, he kept repeating, in the melodramatically panicked tones of a victim in a teen slasher film, "No. No. No. No. No."

Caan poked Brooks in the chest. Brooks hurled himself backward onto the couch, crying out in exaggerated agony.

"Holy shit!" Brooks yelled, touching his chest in mock astonishment. "Holy shit! You gotta teach me that, Jimmy!"

Caan smiled. He was very happy.
Enter Mr. Henry.

In the spring of 1994, I'll Do Anything flopped.
Suddenly, Bottle Rocket wasn't a side project to Brooks anymore. It was his chance to rebound from disaster--to prove to Hollywood he still had the magic touch.

Wes and Owen showed him their various drafts. To their relief, Brooks seemed to like what he saw.

Sometimes, though, Wes wondered if the rewritten scripts explained too much. But he didn't obsess over it. The shoot was drawing near. Come November of 1994, Bottle Rocket would finally take off.

But first there was the matter of the Mentor Wars.
L.M. "Kit" Carson and Cynthia Hargrave were embroiled in a minor power struggle with Brooks and Platt. Carson and Hargrave, whose sensibilities were grittier, were urging Owen and Wes to fight any attempts to turn Bottle Rocket into a more obviously commercial project.

"What drew me to the story was the combination of innocence and irony," Carson says. "If I'd been involved, the irony would have been a lot stronger."

He had many other suggestions as well, involving everything from characterization to pacing. "Cynthia and I were like parents," he says.

But things had obviously changed. Carson realized that as the rewrite process dragged on, Wes and Owen were increasingly inclined to side with Platt and Brooks when disagreements arose.

Finally, just a couple of weeks before Bottle Rocket began shooting in Dallas, Carson got a phone call from Wes. He asked Carson not to come to the set.

Carson was taken aback. He explained, somewhat peevishly, that he'd visited the sets of a lot of very influential filmmakers. But if Wes Anderson wanted him to stay away, he'd do so. "He had two more parent figures now than when this whole thing started--Jim and Polly," Carson says. "He felt like it was time to cut the other ones loose."

Platt and Brooks supported Wes' decision completely. Carson and Hargrave collected the money Columbia had agreed to pay them up front in exchange for their involvement with the movie. Since that day, they've had no formal input in Bottle Rocket.

If Carson is bitter, he won't admit it publicly. The Bottle Rocket group is similarly circumspect.

"One thing was pretty clear to everybody after that episode," says Bob Musgrave. "Wes might be a real quiet guy, but he's also tough. A lot of people underestimate him at first. But when he makes up his mind what he wants to do, it doesn't matter whether you're Jim Brooks or Kit Carson. The guy is gonna stand his ground."

Cut to a chilly weekend in November 1994. The Bottle Rocket crew was shooting scenes with James Caan at the Brookhaven Country Club in Farmers Branch. In the parking lot was a row of trailers where the filmmakers and actors retreated to grab a little privacy.

The largest--a behemoth that looked like a metal silverfish--belonged to Caan. He was standing in front of it, talking to Polly Platt, a small, slender, sixtyish woman with close-cropped grey hair.

Platt left. Caan stood alone in front of his trailer. He squinted up into the sky as if looking for UFOs.

Suddenly he whirled around. He slapped the trailer with the flats of his hands. WHUM! WHUM! WHUM! WHUM! WHUM! WHUM! Then he dropped to the pavement and did 10 push-ups in rapid succession. He sprang to his feet, swung his arms down into a pincer shape, and flexed his torso muscles. "HNNnnggh!" he grunted, with the mortal agony of someone passing a kidney stone.

Caan dropped his arms. He rolled his head on his neck, popping cartilage. Then he shut his eyes and took a series of deep, slow breaths. For a moment, his distinctive face, deeply lined from age and drink, looked serene. Then he climbed up into his trailer and shut the door.

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