What you didn’t know about Wes Anderson’s first film

Bottle Rocket is twenty years old this week and a piece of work that laid the foundations for Anderson’s signatures – sibling rivalry, symmetrical framing and stylish neckwear

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Luke and Owen Wilson in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket

Envisioning the film landscape without Wes Anderson is a sad and empty glimpse into a simply-not-as-good parallel universe. His signature markers have become so signature that he’s practically next in line for an eponym – Andersonian? Twenty years ago this week, he launched his career with the release of crime caper Bottle Rocket and kickstarted a cottage industry of postgraduate art students scribbling tiny notes as props. Straight out of uni, Anderson paired up with a friend from a screenwriting class at University of Texas at Austin to write the script. The friend? Owen Wilson. The pair wrote the script, developed a short, and secured funding from Columbia Pictures. Here’s what it looks like to get the green light for your first movie:

With the gates now swinging open on Anderson’s nascent career, their production was set. However, it was mired in hiccups and still a long way from being crowned as one of Martin Scorsese’s “favourite films of the 90s”. Here are some things you may not know about Anderson’s career defining movie.

IT WAS BASED OFF OF REAL-LIFE EXPERIENCES

Anderson and Wilson shared an apartment in Austin, Texas, where the windows wouldn’t shut. After several fruitless demands to the landlord to fix it, they decided to stage a heist to capture the landlord’s attention. Over a Christmas break, to make a point that they weren’t going to tolerate the ass-chapping draft seeping through the windows, they broke into their own apartment, nicked a couple of things, and reported it to police. It didn’t work; the landlord laughed them off as amateurs and pegged it as an “inside job”. However, the episode served as inspiration for Bottle Rocket.

OWEN WILSON GOT REVENGE ON THE HIGH SCHOOL HE WAS KICKED OUT OF

Owen Wilson was apparently a little shit at Dallas’ St. Mark’s High School. He was expelled in the 10th grade for copying answers out of his geometry teacher’s textbook for an exam. As an act of sweet revenge for getting the boot, St. Mark’s High School was used as a filming location in Bottle Rocket. Wilson never shelved his mutinous antics either, and his character Dignan has ties to his former life as a rebel rouser. “Dignan is kind of like a little kid,” Wilson explains in the film’s production notes. “I don’t think he does a lot of soul-searching or is very introspective. He is an instinctive person and constantly reacts to things. He is like a 12-year-old; his attention span isn’t very long, so he can become sidetracked or diverted very easily. He is very tightly wound and gets tremendously enthusiastic about an idea. He likes to have everybody marching along towards this goal he's set.”

 

WES ANDERSON THINKS MOMS WERE DISTRACTIONS

As the precursor to his sprawling family epic, The Royal Tenenbaums, it made sense to Anderson to eschew the idea of a family unit. Maybe he was having daddy issues? In the film, there is little introduction to other family members. We only meet Anthony’s sister, Grace, and Bob’s older brother, Futureman. “It was a deliberate thing, not to involve too many of their family members, especially their parents,” Anderson says in the production notes. “Basically, they’ve either been rejected by their families or they’ve rejected them. That allowed us to focus on this little world these guys have invented, without any distractions.”

IT BECAME THE BLUEPRINT FOR ANDERSON’S DEFINING MARKERS

Before film nerds could smugly spout off Anderson motifs ad infinitum (sibling rivalry, symmetrical framing, stylish neckwear), the guy had to create those motifs. Many of them originated in Bottle Rocket, such as his characters breaking the fourth wall, where he has actors look into the camera and then cut to what the character is looking at. The film is also rife with ridiculous one-liners, like when Dignan sticks tape to his nose before they rob a public library and their getaway driver, Bob Mapplethorpe, asks, “What are you putting that tape on your nose for?” “Exactly.”

AT FIRST, EVERYBODY HATED IT

The movie tanked. Owen Wilson was so bummed he thought of joining the Marines. The film scored the worst test screening points in the history of Columbia Pictures at the time. Sundance refused the film on the grounds of it sucking so hard. Anderson, disillusioned but steadfast, reshot the entire beginning and end of the film, taking into account those aforementioned screening notes. This is perhaps why the beginning and end of the film are strong bookends to the soul-searching middle. Lord have mercy it was the 90s, and a micro-budget failure didn’t mark you as a total numpty. Anderson, as we know too well, went on to make such classics as The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and helped to relaunch Bill Murray’s flagging career.

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