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Message in a Bottle (Rocket) – Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson

Bottle Rocket is one of those rare films that truly seems to defy placement in a genre. Part comedy, part romance, part drama, and part crime story, the studio’s hit-or-miss promotion strategy (with ad placements on MTV, Seinfeld, and at art theatres) belies the convoluted origins of the movie.

I had the opportunity to sit down with director/co-writer Wes Anderson and star/co-writer Owen Wilson, where we discussed the intriguing tale of how Bottle Rocket came to be made and the madness that seems to follow these guys wherever they go.

The hilarious story of a trio of friends who are trying to make it as hardened criminals really started out as something completely different. As Wes says, ‘We wrote this really serious movie: A guy coming around a corner just a second too late and this other guy’s dead, and he’s screaming, ‘NO!!!’ It was a movie we were going to make ourselves [with Owen and his two brothers, Luke and Andrew], so as we started reading through it together, it just became quickly apparent that we were out of our element.’

Owen, in addition to co-writing the script, stars as the show-stealing Dignan, an obsessive and questionably stable young man who epitomizes the term, ‘bad influence.’ In fact, Owen himself was kicked out of Austin’s St. Mark’s High School and is reminiscent of a young Jack Nicholson. He describes the transformation of the film: ‘The stuff that got us excited was the funny stuff.’ For example, under the ‘serious’ movie, a daring bookstore robbery was written in. Owen recalls the inanity of the scene, saying, ‘You can’t rob a bookstore; that’s idiotic!’ And so the scene stayed.

The birth of Bottle Rocket didn’t occur in film school or through anything you might remotely conceive of as traditional. Wes sheepishly describes his college years, saying, ‘I was in, uh…philosophy?’ And while he first met Owen in school at UT-Austin, even that was unconventional. ‘We were doing a playwriting class together: this thing where everybody, about nine of us, sat around a table and discussed plays. And I always sat in one corner, not really at the table, and Owen always sat in another corner, not really at the table, and we never spoke the whole semester. I never even met him.’ Later they randomly bumped into each other in a hallway, and friendship and collaboration were born.

Owen’s brother Andrew (who stars as the overbearing Future Man in the film) had been working on film projects, including documentaries for Ross Perot, and became part of the impetus to create Bottle Rocket as a short film. The short was a big hit, and followed yet another unlikely path to becoming a feature.

The short was shown to Kit Carson, who recommended it be taken to the Sundance Film Festival. It was, and Barbara Boyle (producer of Phenomenon) saw the film, took it to Polly Platt (Broadcast News), who got James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) to look at it. Brooks had a deal with Columbia Pictures, liked the short, and signed up the crew to produce a feature-length version. All-in-all, 9 producers worked on Bottle Rocket, with each adding another $200,000 to a budget which ultimately reached $5 million. When shooting began, the guys went home to Dallas to make the film, travelling to nearby Hillsboro for the rural scenes.

Essentially making an independent-size film under the auspices of a big studio like Columbia, the group had to deal with big studio issues despite having no budget to do so. For example, Wes says, ‘We paid the same amount for offices that Terminator 2 paid for offices.’ Obviously, it was worth every penny.

The feature was legitimized when veteran actor James Caan read the script and agreed to play a small role as Mr. Henry, the thief/ringleader who Dignan worships. ‘Jimmy really validated the movie,’ says Owen, and having such a celebrity on the set led to more insanity.

The original Mr. Henry was conceived as a guy with ‘animal teeth [around his neck], no shirt,’ as Wes puts it, and it evolved into a role as an egomaniac who was physically-obsessed and menacing…kind of like James Caan.

Says Wes, ‘He liked the character. He’s that kind of guy. I mean, he’s totally into karate, and he kind of liked the idea of being someone who everyone on the set would look up to. For one thing, he’s really scary; he’s a violent person.’

One scene prominently features Caan’s karate practice and his real-life sensei, Takayuki Kubota, training Mr. Henry in his warehouse, only Tak’s wearing nothing but briefs. At Wes’s behest, Tak shed his traditional robes, much to Caan’s disgrace. ‘He said, ‘What the fuck is this? This guy’s a holy man! You got him in his briefs? You can’t do this to a holy man!’ I said, ‘Well Jimmy, it’s going to be funny.” And apparently Caan had never been clear on this whole comedy thing to begin with, saying, ”Funny? You’re gonna start now with the funny?”

Wes continues, ‘We had our own way of doing things’ which Caan didn’t particularly agree with, especially the practice of shooting the entire film with a single, 27mm lens. ‘When he arrived on a scene I said, ‘Okay Jimmy, this is going to be your mark, right here.” Wes indicates a point for me to look at that’s about 18 inches from my nose. Caan’s response is classic Caan: ”What is this? I’m gonna look at this guy over here.” Are you going to argue with the man?

And this just about says it all: when inquiring about working with Marlon Brando on the set of The Godfather, Caan responded, ”We idolized him. Kinda like you guys with me.’ But,’ Wes adds, just to be on the safe side, ‘he said it in a nice way.’

More errata: watch closely and you’ll discover that the film’s music was composed by Devo co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh. While gaudy yellow jumpsuits (a Devo signature) had already been written into the film, the coincidence is almost unbelievable.

What’s up next for these talented filmmakers? Besides contending with the call they just received about a $700 water bill in their L.A. home, Anderson and the Wilsons are working on a couple of collaborative projects about, as they put it, ‘serious things.’ But knowing these characters, I somehow doubt the films will end up that way.

See also: Our 2007 interview with Wes Anderson.

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