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

It was mid-summer by now. Wes was very worried. He'd turned in a couple of different cuts of the movie to his bosses, and the response had been less encouraging than he hoped.

Some people at the studio seemed disappointed by Bottle Rocket. Or perhaps they weren't quite sure what to make of it.

There had been two test screenings of the film for audiences. The first was a disaster; the comment cards indicated viewers had no idea what they were watching or how they were supposed to respond to it. The second screening went a bit better, but not well enough to quell the studio's suspicions--that Bottle Rocket had severely limited commercial potential.

The film had structural problems that were obvious to everyone--especially the section at the Hillsboro motel, the love story subplot, which brought the film to a screeching halt. Wes wasn't too worried, though. He thought he could shape the sequence into something tighter and more interesting.

But other complaints were about things that, at this late date, really couldn't be fixed.

The studio feedback Wes got made him worry that the movie might get treated the way small, offbeat studio films often get treated: it would receive a very restricted release, then go to video.

This possibility made Wes very frustrated. Columbia, he believed, knew exactly what they were getting into when they gave $6 million to a bunch of first-timers from Texas.

The result was a more expensive version of the short film--a sweet, meandering, somewhat dreamy fable, with a brand of humor that can only appeal to a small group of people.

There was mounting pressure on Wes to drastically re-cut the picture again--to make it as short, as flashy, and as obvious as possible. There was talk of substantial reshooting and more test screenings.

In three days, Wes was supposed to meet with a roomful of bosses to discuss the fate of Bottle Rocket. He had to offer suggestions on how to promote it. He had to explain what sort of people might like it, and how those people could be reached.

Wes had delivered more or less the film the studio always claimed they'd expected. So how could they act bewildered or disappointed? He decided to be absolutely straight with them. He would tell them, in no uncertain terms, that Bottle Rocket was what it was.

"This is the kind of movie where either you get it or you don't," Wes said. "If somebody doesn't get it, there's nothing any of us can do that will make them get it."

Wes went to Columbia and made his pitch. To his relief, the studio thought it made sense.

At press time, Bottle Rocket, originally scheduled for a nationwide fall release, had been pushed back to February 2, 1996. The plan now is the same as it had been two years ago. Columbia would premiere the film at Sundance in January 1996, see how viewers responded to it, and determine a release pattern from there.

What would probably happen, Wes speculated, was a stint on the festival circuit followed by a brief run in a few key cities. If it did well, the studio would open it wider.

Looking back, he says he has no regrets. Why should he?
"We made the kind of film we wanted to make," Wes said. "We had the most supportive people we could ever meet--Jim and Polly. The time I spent on that set was the best time I've ever had in my life doing anything."

He has only one major regret: he was unable to get the Charlie Brown music for Bottle Rocket. Wes wrote a "big, huge" letter to Charles Schulz, but never actually made contact with the cartoonist. All his communication was with Lee Mendelssohn, the cartoon producer who'd overseen most of the Charlie Brown TV specials.

"I went to a lot of trouble to explain exactly why we wanted the music and what it would mean to the movie, how it would romanticize certain scenes and help explain to the audience exactly what the film was about, but Lee Mendelssohn pretty much blocked my letter from ever getting to Charles Schulz," Wes says.

"I confronted the issue in a series of faxes to him. They got quite heated. His job, obviously, is to protect Charles Schulz and protect the Peanuts characters, and he said that he absolutely did not want that music used in any movie that contained four-letter words. I questioned whether or not it was more noble for him to approve the use of Peanuts characters in Dolly Madison commercials and commercials for Met Life, as opposed to this little movie about these characters who really love the Charlie Brown music, a movie where that music actually means something personal. That made him pretty mad."

He and Owen are working on a couple of new scripts, but he'd rather not say what they're about till they're finished.

Owen, Bob, and Andrew are auditioning for roles in other people's movies, trying to build independent acting careers in Los Angeles. No matter what happens, they intend to continue working together.

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