Wes Anderson’s movies can be polarizing. There’s no doubt that for every fawning critic who raved over Grand Budapest Hotel, there’s a hater still ripping on Rushmore 16 years later. There’s no denying, though, that his body of work has been hugely influential over the last decade and inspired dozens of filmmakers. Movies like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine might not have ever seen the light of day if there hadn’t been a Wes Anderson out there paving the way with The Royal Tenenbaums or Bottle Rocket.
Among Wes Anderson’s fans, his first movie, Bottle Rocket, isn’t often the go-to for “favorite movie,” which isn’t necessary a knock on the movie. Most people lean toward Taxi Driver or Goodfellas over Who’s That Knocking at My Door for Scorsese, or would pick Inception over Following for Christopher Nolan. With that said, the seeds that would grow to be the director’s trademark style are evident in Bottle Rocket, but it lacks aspects found in nearly every one of Anderson’s films since, mostly a lack of single slow-motion sequences and Bill Murray.
Bringing Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson’s story from script to short to full-length movie was a four-year process that was almost derailed, partially due to the budding filmmakers’ slacker attitude. “I remember one time Jim [one of the producers] said, ‘I think it’s kind of amazing nobody takes any notes in these meetings.’ That kind of surprised us, so, after that, we always came in with a notebook,” Wilson said.
The earliest beginnings of Anderson and Wilson’s story about a group of inept robbers can be traced back to a playwriting class at UT Austin in the early 1990s. The two never had much interaction together in the class, but when Anderson took one of his plays to production the following semester, he reached out to Wilson to play a part. The two students quickly bonded over their love of the same movies and music and quickly formed a close friendship, becoming roommates and writing partners for their final year of college. The idea that would develop into the 13-minute short film came about after an attempt to get their lazy landlord to fix a broken apartment window that wouldn’t close. The harebrained solution to this dilemma was to break into their own apartment, steal some of their stuff and file a police report. While their plan backfired and didn’t go over well with their landlord, it did spawn the idea for a short film.
Screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, a family friend, saw Anderson’s unique voice and submitted his short to the mecca of indie film, the Sundance Film Festival. Indie films were having a golden moment at the time with movies like Clerks and Reservoir Dogs drawing serious attention from studios, and Bottle Rocket managed to draw some attention of its own. Anderson and Wilson got the break that aspiring filmmakers dream of when Bottle Rocket caught the attention of Barbara Boyle (producer of Phenomenon). She took it to Polly Platt, who then passed it onto James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, The Simpsons). As ecstatic as they were about the buzz around their short, Wilson joked in an interview with the Austin Chronicle that he thinks Brooks really just felt he needed to help them with their living conditions.
“Jim Brooks wanted to sort of give the film a feel for local color and came by our apartment to see how we were living and was shocked at our living conditions. I think Jim was thinking, ‘If I don’t make this movie, what’s gonna happen to these guys? What will become of them? They just seem to be hanging by a thread here.'”
Brooks had a deal with Columbia Pictures and got the greenlight to develop his short into a feature-length movie. With each of the nine producers pitching around $200k, the film secured a $5 million budget, and shooting began in Dallas and Hillsboro.
To add even more juice to the project, the young filmmakers lucked out when they learned that veteran actor James Caan was interested in a part just days before shooting began. Oddly enough, he wasn’t even their first choice — they were hoping for Donald Sutherland — but having a celebrity of his stature on the project gave the movie validation. As Anderson said in an interview with AMC, the actor perfectly embodied what they were looking for.
“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.”
Working with an actor who had already been around for 30 years and worked on iconic films like The Godfather didn’t always come easy, though. The actor wasn’t especially fond of Anderson’s unconventional choice to shoot the entire movie with a 27 mm lens. Anderson also told the A.V. Club that it wasn’t until halfway through shooting the movie that it dawned on Caan that he was shooting a comedy. The director recalled how Caan walked onto the set one day in a scene where Rowboat was doing karate in his briefs and asked, “This isn’t supposed to be a comedy, is it?”
While the film was largely a disappointment at the box office, only pulling in $560,000, it introduced Wes Anderson as a new voice in filmmaking and set him up to create a trademark style with his next movie, Rushmore.