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

"I can see how people might think Jimmy is a little strange," Owen Wilson said later that day. "But he's a great guy when you get to know him."

Caan was in town for two short weeks. During that time, he would be treated like the legend he was. People were present to ensure that his personal space was disturbed only when absolutely necessary.

When Caan wasn't on the set with the other actors, he was ensconced in his trailer, working through his lines, practicing martial-arts routines with Tak, or just taking it easy.

The rehab seemed to have stuck. Sometimes at night Caan went out with Polly Platt and the Bottle Rocket boys and spun long, colorful, sometimes raunchy yarns about his film career, talking about work with Pacino, Duvall, and Brando on The Godfather. On the set, Caan usually looked chipper and relaxed--when he wasn't doing surreal calisthenics, anyway.

But he was under just as much pressure as Wes Anderson, the Wilsons, and Bob Musgrave--pressure of a different kind.

This shoot was very important to him, Platt explained, because it represented his first paid gig since finishing drug and alcohol rehab.

"Everybody's watching to see what happens," Platt said. "Jimmy says he's changed, and everybody out here believes he's changed. But there are a lot of people out there who think he hasn't changed. What Jimmy has done is accept a very small part in a small movie to prove he's a professional who can get through a shoot without getting into trouble."

Owen talked about a night when he ate with Caan in his trailer. "Jimmy looked around it and said to me, 'See this, kid? This represents 30 years of work.' And he meant it. He was proud to have been in movies that long."

But the hard living had taken its toll. Caan looked older than his 55 years. Now that he was finally sober, he had plenty of quiet time to reflect on the bad old days. The situation sometimes made him melancholy.

"He said that when he looks back at the movies he's done, some of them are difficult to watch because of his condition in them," Owen said. "Sometimes he got kind of sad talking about that."

There were only a few days left in the shoot. The cast and crew had been all over Dallas, filming scenes on location at Taylors Bookstore at NorthPark, Goff's Hamburgers, and the Hinckley Cold Storage building in Deep Ellum.

And now, in a West End warehouse serving as Mr. Henry's headquarters, about 40 flashily dressed extras were milling around in specifically marked areas of a party set and talking without making any noise; their murmuring voices would be dubbed in during postproduction.

Luke Wilson was playing a scene in which Anthony takes time out from one of Mr. Henry's parties to phone the Hillsboro motel and talk to the great love of his life, Inez, played by Lumi Cavazos.

In the background of the shot, James Caan made inaudible small talk with another character, then exited the frame. Caan's getup for this scene looked like something Siegfried or Roy might reject as too flashy: a kimono, Birkenstocks with white athletic socks, and on his shoulder, a stuffed ocelot with bared fangs.

Between takes, Caan kept the great cat perched on his shoulder. He carried on conversations with it. Sometimes he demanded that anybody who talked to him also address the ocelot.

It was time to change camera positions, which would take half an hour. Onscreen, the scene lasted perhaps five minutes. It would require about 10 hours to shoot.

"I'm feeling pretty exhausted," Luke said. He looked it. He was in almost every scene of Bottle Rocket. The constant pressure was getting to him.

He shook the hand of a passing extra, smiling warmly. Then he stuffed his hands in his pants pockets and looked at his shoes.

"I hope this works," Luke said, to nobody in particular.
Standing over near a picture window, James Caan lit a Marlboro and talked about Bottle Rocket.

"Wanna hear my theory about the script?" he asked. "OK. Here goes. You ready? Follow me on this: everybody wants to be something they aren't. They all want something they don't have. Anthony wants true love. Bob wants to feel like he's part of something. Dignan wants to be a criminal. Mr. Henry wants to fleece these kids, but he also wants to be taken seriously as this big-shot master thief, even though when you sit down and actually look at the guy, he's completely full of bullshit.

"So what happens to them? Anthony gets a girlfriend, the maid, so he gets what he wanted. Bob gets to be part of a group of guys, which is what he wanted. Dignan ends up in prison, which is where he secretly wanted to be all along. Mr. Henry gets to have these kids around him who think he's really hot shit. So everybody gets what they want, but not in the way they expected.

"Think about the title. I first saw it--Bottle Rocket--and I thought, what kind of fuckin' title is this? And then I got it. It made sense. It was beautiful, man, just beautiful, like poetry. What's a bottle rocket? It's a firecracker that only goes so far. A bottle rocket ain't a stick of dynamite that's gonna blow everything to kingdom come and get a lot of attention, see what I'm saying? A bottle rocket is just a little fuckin' thing, right? You light it, and whoosh--it goes up maybe to the second or third floor, then it burns out and falls. It doesn't go up to the 17th floor or the 29th floor.

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