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

"But that's OK. See what I'm saying? Because that's what a bottle rocket is built to do. These guys, see, Anthony and Dignan and Bob, they're bottle rockets. They go a certain distance, then they stop. And that's OK, because they're happy."

It was March 1995, and Bob Musgrave was driving around Los Angeles with a journalist from Dallas.

"The women out here, man," he said, pointing out a slender woman in a sports bra and tights, jogging in place as she waited for a red light to change. "It's such a cliché, I know. You always hear people say Los Angeles has the most beautiful women in the world. I kind of wondered if it was bullshit, too. But then you move out here, and you find out it's the truth."

He laughed self-consciously, realizing how that probably sounded.
Bob had officially moved out from Dallas a couple of weeks before. He was sharing a small house in Beverly Hills with Wes, Owen, and Andrew. He was hanging out with Polly Platt, who was considering casting Bob in the next movie she produced. He was going to auditions.

And at the request of Wes and the Wilson brothers, he was trying very hard to quit smoking. They had a bet: if Bob gave in and smoked one cigarette, he would strip completely naked and run through the streets of their neighborhood at night shrieking at the top of his lungs. It was tough. Bob was wearing several nicotine patches, but he still felt the craving.

"You can't smoke out here," he said. "This is Los Angeles. They're all health nuts out here. They'll hang you. It's been really tough, man."

Bob, Owen, and Andrew were still keeping tabs on Bottle Rocket now that it had finished shooting. But for the most part, they were out of the loop.

Wes, however, was still stuck inside it. He spent several hours a day in a West Los Angeles editing room, often working six days a week.

It was one of the more popular editing facilities in the city. Walking through its halls, you'd see placards emblazoned with the names of upcoming summer blockbusters affixed to doors with tape. The costliness of an upcoming movie seemed to have something to do with how many editing suites it got. Crimson Tide, for instance, had nine suites. Judge Dredd had 12.

Bottle Rocket had only one. It was a cramped, two-room setup packed with high-tech digital equipment. Wes was working with two experienced editors. All the raw footage collected during the filming had been digitally scanned, logged, and stored on laserdisc.

This was the least glamorous part of filmmaking. For a director, it amounted to the ultimate confrontation with the harsh truth. It's in the editing that you see each piece of film for what it is: a component that either works or doesn't.

So far, Wes thought the film was working. He called up the first two reels of Bottle Rocket and watched them again.

The timing of the gags was amazingly precise. And while the changes Brooks insisted on were obvious--more declarations of motivation, more explanations of what just happened in the movie and why--the film felt remarkably similar in tone to the black-and-white short that inspired it.

During a scene in which the young thieves buy handguns from a Bubbafied arms dealer and fire them off in a remote Texas field, Wes began smiling--not at the images, but at the music. It was the "Snowflake" theme from "A Charlie Brown Christmas Special." It still worked like a charm, turning a drolly funny sequence into something slightly dreamy.

A week earlier, Wes had shown a rough cut of Bottle Rocket to Brooks, Platt, and a few other people. They liked it a lot.

But did Wes like it? Was it what he envisioned? Was it good? Could he even tell anymore?

Wes said he thought so, but wasn't sure. He'd been living with Bottle Rocket so long that he'd lost a lot of his critical distance. He was staring at it very closely now, working on each scene, each cut, each music cue, each pause. After he finished this cut, there would be another screening, then he'd put together another cut.

Each time, the movie would emerge looking different. Some scenes that were cut would be put back in; other scenes that had been put back in would be excised.

At some point down the road, the movie would be shown to audiences at a test screening somewhere in the Los Angeles area. Viewers would fill out response cards. Studio people would read them. And there would be more changes.

Despite the general aura of flux, the studio seemed to be high on the picture. Originally, they'd talked of trying out Bottle Rocket at festivals, then letting the response it got there determine how they marketed and released it.

But now, some of Wes' bosses were considering a wide release during the height of summer; they hoped this strategy would create a surprise youth-culture hit.

This plan was a long shot. But thinking about it still got Wes excited.
"Whatever happens to it, I'm proud of it," he said. "I like it a lot. But I really don't know. It's kind of a weird little movie. I hope people get it."

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