By Michael Bergeron
On March 31, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will screen Rushmore (7 pm.) as part of its Movies Houstonians Love series.
Rushmore has never left the public consciousness since it came out in 1998, which although a mere 16 years ago is 86 cat years long.
Back in 1997-98 I had the opportunity to interview Wes Anderson twice, once on the set while the film was being made on location in Houston, and a second time the night the film was screened at the MFAH a couple of weeks before its theatrical release. Below are those two interviews, the former written for alternative newsweekly Public News in 1997 and the second for another publication, Houston’s Other.
On the set
When Wes Anderson’s debut feature Bottle Rocket came out in 1995 the quirky film instantly became a cult fave, both for the independent path its creators took to get their vision to the big screen, as well as its unpredictable characters. Now Anderson, a onetime Houston resident, returns to Space City to make his latest film Rushmore. While Houston holds memories for Anderson, the fact is that Rushmore could just as easily have been shot in New England.
“When we wrote the script it was based on my personal experiences and those of my writing partner,” Anderson said, referring to Owen Wilson. “I went to St. Johns here, and Owen went to St. Marks in Dallas.”
Anderson and Wilson co-wrote Bottle Rocket, with Wes parlaying that gig into various honors including the 1996 MTV Best New Filmmaker Award, and a directing career, while Wilson’s portrayal of control-freak Dignan led to character parts in Cable Guy, Anaconda, and Armageddon. Owen’s brothers Andrew Wilson and Luke Wilson also appeared in Bottle Rocket.
“I always pictured my school when we were writing, but I planned to shoot it in New England,” Anderson told Public News in an exclusive interview from his trailer during a lunch break while filming on location in Memorial Park.
In Rushmore, the protagonist Max Fischer, a student at Rushmore Academy, falls for a teacher (played by Olivia Williams). Max goes to his mentor, business tycoon Bill Murray, for advice. Murray, however, also falls for the teacher.
“We did a big search of all these schools, all over America, all over New England, Canada, and England. And then my mother sent me pictures of St. Johns and I realized that’s basically what I was looking for,” grins Anderson. Maybe it took an alumnus to get back into St. Johns. A couple of years ago, another movie, Cultivating Charlie, was filming there and set one archway on fire. The damage was minimal, but the private Episcopalian school was hardly looking for film crews afterwards.
Rushmore also features a competing high school across the street – Grover Cleveland High – and St. Johns is conveniently across Westheimer from Lamar high school. Kinkaid Academy also appears in the film, doubling for the elementary school part of Rushmore Academy. Other local spots welcoming the Rushmore film crew are Softball Field #1 in Memorial Park, the old U.S. Steel mill by the ship channel, and the Wyndam Warwick on Main Street, as well as a barbershop on 11th Street in The Heights. “Murray gets attacked by bees in his hotel room,” nods Anderson.
Anderson works with practically the same staff as Bottle Rocket. Most of the main crew, cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman, music composer Mark Mothersbaugh, production designer David Wasco, costume designer Karen Patch, and editor David Morit, are back.
Barry Mendell, Anderson’s former agent, now producer on Rushmore, calls it a cross between Harold and Maude and Catcher in the Rye, with elements of The Graduate, and 400 Blows and design elements inspired by The Life and Death of Col. Blimp. Anderson goes one step further. Flirting is one film that Anderson fondly fetches as inspiration.
“There’s the school film,” Anderson explains, “Also, there’s all these school movies, like Dead Poet’s Society or School Daze. They’re great, but different from each other, but with the setting of a boarding school. Rushmore’s more like the boarding school genre,” only Anderson promises, “It’s also kind of weird. At one point it departs pretty severely from that genre.
“I like the idea of old style directors who would take something in any different genre, and deliver on any level. But I find it hard to get excited with other scripts,” says Anderson. “We have enough ideas of our own, and it’s a peculiar little world that Owen and I come up with.” Not surprisingly, Murray, often at his best in offbeat roles, fits right into the vibe of the script as envisioned by Wilson and Anderson.
“At first,” Anderson recalls, “I was scared of him, but he’s turned out to be great. I’d heard stories: There’s one about somebody he threw in a lake. I’ve learned how one person can influence the atmosphere on a set. Murray has this thing about helping the grips carry stuff.”
Anderson sees his next two films already slotted, although neither one is completely written. “For the Western, we have ten pages,” says Anderson. As writing partners, Anderson and Wilson will talk out an idea, and get the best work accomplished while traveling. “Eventually it ends up with the two of us in a room.”
Anderson, dressed casually, and twisting the loose tail of his shirt, gets ready to resume shooting a dolly shot near a softball dugout. The noise from helicopters hovering over an accident on nearby I-10 has subsided, and the lunch hour is over. Today’s talent includes Bottle Rocket thesps Andrew Wilson, Brian Tenenbaum, and Kumar Pallana. Anderson prefers to work oblivious to other films. He hasn’t seen Olivia Williams’ spin in The Postman, or any of the holiday blockbusters.
“When I was making Bottle Rocket, I saw Pulp Fiction during the middle. I though ‘Jeez.’ We don’t have big shoot-outs, and loud music, and I felt like our movie was quiet and small,” nods Anderson. “When I think about it now, I think Bottle Rocket is doing something different than Pulp Fiction.
Whether at his old school or in his hometown Anderson is a persistent worker. Anderson’s more concerned with coordinating a Vietnamese play-within-the-movie, as staged by The Max Fischer Players, than seeing the sinking of the Titanic. Rushmore, shooting around the Houston area for another couple-of-three weeks, is scheduled for theaters this fall.
A Monday night preview screening of Rushmore at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has the Brown Auditorium fully packed. Before the S.R.O. crowd has even arrived, writer/director Wes Anderson shows up in a contingent with producer Barry Mendel and lead actor Jason Schwartzman.
Anderson, a Houston native, is currently the talk of the town of L.A., his new home where he shares a house with actors Luke and Owen Wilson. Anderson had expected, on his triumphant return home, to be interviewed by, among others, Public News [which shuttered in June of 1998], but is more than happy to talk to Houston’s Other.
In early ’98 when he was shooting Rushmore on location at St. John’s on Westheimer, and various places around Houston, Anderson had spoken to us from his trailer during lunch. The Wes Anderson of that interview seemed distant and pre-occupied, and indeed had his hands full with the film he was directing. In contrast, the Wes Anderson of this November night has a firm grip on his surrounding, and is amazingly animated. Retiring behind glass doors to an office reception area, we speak about the path that led him to Rushmore.
“Help me come up with what I’m going to say to introduce the film,” says Anderson. A second later he excuses himself to say hello to his father, who’s just walked in the lobby of the MFA. “Hang on, I’m going to say hello to my dad.”
The thing about Rushmore is its clear and unmistakable sense of love-of-the-movies in the way the plot unfolds. The dialogue is funny and affecting. Scenes resonate with an homage to everything from The Graduate, as in a scene where tycoon Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) holds his breath underwater in the family pool, to Harold and Maude, with its obsessed teen character, Max Fischer (Schwartzman).
But Rushmore isn’t just a pastiche of great scenes from other films. This is a film about not being able to get what you want, even when everything else goes your way. This is a film about being in love and having your heart broken. Rushmore defies greater category, even as it garners praise and awards. Premiere magazine called Rushmore the best film of 1998. Hefty praise indeed.
With just his second film, Anderson shows a concern for developing his own universe of characters, and telling stories that ultimately resonate with the fire of human warmth. Put simply, his films are cool, witty, and clever, and the city ought to consider giving Anderson the key. After all, Peter Masterson or Eagle Pennell aside, Anderson’s the only person from Houston whose directed two really great films, and seems guaranteed of a prosperous future in Hollywood. Disney/Touchstone, the company distributing Rushmore, recently cut a deal with Anderson for his next film.
Among the unique traits that appear in Rushmore are Anderson’s love of British Invasion-era rock and hip editing style. Anderson returns to the interview and explains his method for choosing certain songs. For instance, there was no pressure from Disney to put out a hit soundtrack.
“I had the idea of British Invasion,” says Anderson about the origins of Rushmore. They’re kids in blazers and ties, but they also have this angry young man quality. That music has a rage, it’s real rock music, but it also has a genteel, school boy feeling,” comments Anderson, adding, “I listened to a ton of British Invasion music for a couple of years, and then I chose my favorite songs.”
Mr. Blume and Max go to war over a woman that Max is too old for and Max is too young for. In one hilarious scene after another these former friends go at it, trying to destroy each other’s will. In quick succession Mr. Blume runs over Max’s bike with his Bentley; Max puts bees in Mr. Blume’s hotel room, and then cuts the brakes in his car. “That was written, made for that music,” Anderson points out about the use of The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away.” Anderson, at one point, played a portion of the song over and over and over as he formulated the scene.
Anderson co-writes his scripts with Owen Wilson, and their next film revolves around a family of stupid geniuses in New York, “like a Salinger ‘Glass family story,” Anderson notes.
Anderson and Wilson, who played Dignan in Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, have another nearly completed script that’s a Western. Anderson intends to stick with what he does best and doesn’t consider scripts by other writers. A phone rings in the background as Anderson talks about Bill Murray.
“He’s is great, I like a lot of movies that he’s done that aren’t broad comedies,” says Anderson. “He’s great in Tootsie, he’s great in Mad Dog and Glory, and he’s great in Ed Wood.” The phone rings again. We discuss another great actor, Brian Cox, who plays Rushmore’s stuffy headmaster. Cox, a noted Brit thesp, played Hannibal Lechter in Manhunter, his first American film. “What do you think would happen if I answered the phone,” wonders Anderson.
Anderson takes another break to say hello to his mother and brother. The crowd is getting bigger, but Wes returns anxious to answer any and all questions. But we’re not hooked on Owen Wilson and Sheryl Crow or Luke Wilson and Drew Barrymore – we’re hooked on that great jump cut when Bill Murray hops over the school fence on his way to spy on the first grade teacher. It’s the only real jump cut in the movie states Anderson.
“If you plan your jump cuts, they don’t look like jump cuts,” allows Anderson. Standing up, Anderson gives me an example. “If you have a wide shot, where the guy walks over here, and in the wide shot he puts down the book, and you hear the noise of the book.” Anderson picks up a book and drops it on a table. “Right on the noise of the book going, you cut to a tighter shot of him entering the frame. You may’ve just jumped him across the room, but there are two things. First, a noise on a cut, and an entrance on the b-side of the cut makes a jump disappear. Somebody else might edit where you exit the shot, and then cut, they enter with a new shot. The way I do it, we’re about here,” Anderson, a few feet away, says. “Not quite out, and then, cut, they’re here and already coming into the frame,” Anderson says leaning in.
Rushmore is the kind of film that only gets better on each viewing and the Monday night engagement at the MFAH is bound to be full with those who’ve seen it and those about the experience it for the first time.