“Rocket ” Men: Close Ties Light a Fire Under Young Filmmakers

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
February 18, 1996

It wasn’t until recently that the five young actor/filmmakers who made the clever and hilarious “Bottle Rocket” learned that their producer, James L. Brooks, hated their first presentation to him.

“I asked Jim, `So, what did you think of that reading we gave?’ ” said co-writer and co-star Owen Wilson, 27, one of three brothers involved in the project. “He said, `It was the worst one I ever heard in my whole life.’ ”

Still, Brooks (“Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News”) saw enough raw talent in the group that he agreed to help them make the film.

“Bottle Rocket” (opening Wednesday at the Pipers Alley) centers on the friendship between a group of men in their mid-20s who, in a state of arrested development, decide to become criminals. They are Anthony (Luke Wilson), who has just been released from a mental hospital; Dignan (Owen Wilson), a Dennis Hopper look-alike who probably should be institutionalized; Bob (Robert Musgrave), their rich pal whose primary reason for inclusion in the gang is that he has a car, and Futureman (Andrew Wilson), Bob’s tormentor and older brother.  It’s no coincidence that the most mature character in the film is Anthony’s adolescent sister Grace, who lies to her friends that her brother is a jet pilot.

Familiarity proved to be a bonus for the three brothers and their two pals during the 40-day shoot, although there were a few misunderstandings, especially among the Wilsons.

“When Luke and I went out to Los Angeles to meet James Caan (who plays a sleazy thief in the comedy), we went to the beach to play football,” said Owen Wilson. “We got into an argument about interference, and the next thing I know, Luke is throwing a punch at me when I’m not looking. So we went into this meeting and I had this shiner and this cut down my face, and it was really funny.”

“We did have a fight,” acknowledged Luke Wilson, 24. “But that’s not quite how it happened. Sometimes really small things could escalate into bigger things, but for the most part it was really fun. It was great that you could look to each of your friends for advice.”

Though Andrew Wilson, 31, joked that “this could very well be the last time we act together,” things were less chaotic on the set than they would have you believe. That the five got along well during the making of the film isn’t surprising, considering how close they are in real life. Literally. Before their move to Los Angeles two years ago, the Wilsons, along with director and co-writer Wes Anderson, 26, and Musgrave, lived together in a one-bedroom “pit” in Dallas.  It was a battle of the fittest, and Andrew, who is the tallest, had a bed. The other four took turns sleeping on three sofa beds.

“On particularly cold nights, everybody wanted to get near Andrew ’cause he had such body heat,” Luke said, laughing.
Their living arrangements are much more civilized these days.  Anderson and the two younger brothers live together in Los Angeles. Andrew and his girlfriend live nearby in the same Hancock Park neighborhood, as does  Musgrave.

Judging from their good-natured bantering as they sipped chocolate milk shakes and munched on finger food at Planet Hollywood here, the five men hardly seemed serious enough to make the charming “Bottle Rocket.”

They take their newfound celebrity status as it comes, barely blinking an eye when they’re featured in a New York Times story, a full-page spread in Interview or when a critic compares co-writers Owen Wilson and Anderson to Edward Burns and Kevin Smith, who also hit it big with their respective first-time efforts, “The Brothers McMullen” and “Clerks.”

“When we first wrote the script, the story was more serious, like `Heat,’ ” said Anderson. “But by the time we made the film short, we knew it worked better as a comedy.”

“We kept the crime element in it, but the characters became more like oddballs than real criminals,” added Owen Wilson. “These characters aspire to be like the guys in `Heat.’ ”

Mind you, “Bottle Rocket” was written well before “Heat” hit the screens this winter. Lacking funds to make a feature-length movie, the filmmakers did a 13-minute, black-and-white short, relying on film stock and equipment Andrew Wilson “borrowed” from his day job at his father’s communication company.

“I’ve seen the film progress from the days when the boys shot it in Super 8 format,” said the brothers’ father, Bob Wilson.  “They were bursting with pride, and I liked it, but it wasn’t what it is now.  When they asked me what I thought, I remember saying, `Good isn’t the word.’  And they were satisfied with that.  But they knew  what they wanted to do and just kept improving it.”

A more sophisticated version of the short was shown at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, where it attracted the attention of producers Brooks and Platt (“The Last Picture Show,” “Paper Moon”).

“It’s ironic because we couldn’t get anyone to help us with the movie originally, which is why we did a short,” Anderson said. “But the minute Jim Brooks said he wanted to produce this movie, we had $5 million in about 15 seconds.”

“It was nice because at this point I was less involved with stealing film stock than I was just acting,” Andrew Wilson said. “It was a relief.”

Sitting next to each other, the brothers bear no resemblance to each other or their on-screen doppelgangers. Andrew and Owen, who wore their hair closely cropped in the film, are sporting chin-length bobs and are wearing flannel shirts. Luke (whose character refused to cut his luxurious locks after a botched robbery) has chopped most of his hair off and wears a jogging suit, not unlike the one he wore when he was a high school track star.

“It’s just the three of us, no sisters, and we’re really tight,” Owen said. “My mom deserves a special place in heaven for putting up with us.”

Laura Wilson, a photojournalist, couldn’t be more proud of her sons, although she admitted she had some reservations about her children’s aspirations at one point.

“I remember when Owen was in college, he didn’t pass Spanish class one semester, and I asked, `How could you not pass?’ ” Wilson said, laughing.  “He said, `I was busy writing a screenplay.’  And I said, `What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’  I didn’t realize how serious he was then about being a filmmaker.”

Although the screenwriters are quietly enjoying the praise for their work, Wilson and Anderson said they were unconcerned about suffering from any sophomore slump, like the one that befell Smith when he followed “Clerks” with the not-funny “Mallrats.” Currently working on three scripts – a comedy set in a boys school, a romantic comedy and a Western – they said they plan to reunite the five friends for the Western, which they hope to complete by next year.

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