Sometimes my friend Laura Donovan will call me out of the blue and just say these two words: “Macaw! Macaw!” Circa 1997, Laura told me about a small “independent” film called Bottle Rocket (An “independent” film? Fascinating. Do go on.) The film (which gained recognition almost entirely by word of mouth after its Columbia Pictures release in 1996), directed by a then lesser-known Wes Anderson, and written by Anderson with his friend, a perhaps even lesser-known Owen Wilson, is a pre-Napoleon Dynamite, and-by-geeky-I-mean-hip, somewhat dark, Holden Caulfield-esque comedic caper. It stars Owen as Dignan, along with his younger brother, Luke as Anthony, and in a smaller role, their older brother, Andrew as John Mapplethorpe (Future Man).
Bottle Rocket was, for my generation, an introduction of sorts to independent filmmaking as we know it today (or the best of it anyway)—the story and writing were clever, original, and smart and made you feel like an insider for getting it. And even better than independent filmmaking as we know it today, it wasn’t just about watching white people. I mean, sure, the bulk of the cast was white, but at the center of the film is a love story between Anthony and a beautiful Mexican maid (here I urge you to put images of Maid in Manhattan out of your mind) named Inez (Lumi Cavazos)—not because she’s exotic and different and poor and needs saving, but because that’s just whom Anthony falls in love with.
In the nearly 10 years since, the native Texan Wilson brothers have worked together on various film projects, but none that they can call their own. The Wendell Baker Story, which opened Austin’s SXSW Film Festival in March, is written by Luke, co-directed by Luke and Andrew, and stars Luke and Owen. I was at the film’s premiere and I’m happy to say that, in the best ways, Wendell Baker shares quite a bit of overlap with Bottle Rocket. Following the premiere I had a chance to sit down and talk with Luke about the making of the film.
Rebecca Carroll: I happened to be sitting right behind you last night at the premiere, and it just occurred to me how wild it must be and how different to see a film that you have made and that is so personal to you.
Luke Wilson: Yeah, well you could probably smell me. I was pretty wet with perspiration.
RC: But how different that must be from going to a premiere of, say, Charlie’s Angels?
LW: Yeah, it’s not, “Hey, great hotel! I’m at the premiere!” It’s much more like, “Okay, let’s see what happens.” My brother Owen was making fun of me saying: “Finally the iceman shows some emotion—gosh, you weren’t like this at the Legally Blonde 2 premiere, were you?”
RC: And why is that?
LW: For me, it’s mainly the writing of it. It’s not so much that we directed it, but just for me it’s the feeling of having written it, and knowing that any line that somebody doesn’t like they can attribute to me.
RC: Yeah, that’s sort of what writing is all about.
LW: So I just started fixating on that in the last couple of days.
RC: Less so than your own performance in the film?
LW: Yeah, definitely. I’m thinking more about each character and what they’re saying and how it flows and whether people connect with it.
RC: So you’re pretty OK with watching yourself on film?
LW: I mean there are certain performances I like more than others of course, but I actually like the character of Wendell. So I kind of have fun watching him, to tell you the truth.
RC: One of my all-time favorite movies, I kid you not, is Bottle Rocket—I’ve seen it many times and have turned a lot of people on to it. Is this the first time you have all worked together on a feature since Bottle Rocket?
LW: We were all in The Royal Tenenbaums, and then Owen wrote Rushmore with Wes Anderson, and we all had small parts in that too. So we’ve done films where we’ve all been on the same set since Bottle Rocket, but this is definitely the biggest collaboration since then and definitely the biggest of all, in terms of just us three guys.
RC: I felt sort of nostalgic for Bottle Rocket while I was watching The Wendell Baker Story just because it has that same quirky, good-home, bizarre sort of feeling. I also happen to notice—and I don’t know if other people do—but there are people of color in both, fairly prominently. Often, with independent films and the independent film world, you almost never see people of color. Were you conscious of that when you were writing Wendell?
LW: I just thought about it in terms of the story being about people coming across the border from Mexico—that was the thing. But the character of Doreen wasn’t supposed to be Latina, it just ended up working out with the actress Eva Mendes. I guess maybe differences between people can make for humor or the opportunity to learn about each other.
RC: What’s with the prison theme—in both Wendell Baker and Bottle Rocket? And the jumpsuits? Did you guys wear jumpsuits when you were kids?
LW: (Laughs) Are there any jumpsuits in this?
RC: Of course there are. I mean—the white orderly uniforms.
LW: We all grew up wearing uniforms, so maybe that’s it. We went to this school in Dallas where you had to wear gray slacks and a white shirt. One of my favorite stories is about when Owen was at UT, he ran into this kid [we went to school with], and the guy had just kept wearing his uniform from the school, but un-tucked. He just kept wearing the pants and the short sleeved white shirt, just walking across the UT campus. Which I kind of like—you know, the idea of wearing uniforms every day. But I don’t know about the prison theme.
LW: Yeah, capers. I don’t know—maybe it’s just more fun to write stuff like that, or I guess probably easier than trying to write something like Schindler’s List.
RC:Wendell Baker is definitely a feel-good story.
LW: Some little old woman asked me today, “So Wendell goes to prison, and he seems to have a good time.” And it’s like, obviously, it’s not real. You know, if I were to get sent to prison I’d have a number of things I’d be worried about. But this guy Wendell’s story is more like a fable or a joke.
RC: It’s fiction.
LW: Yeah, it’s fiction. It’s like a guy going to college—jumps into it, has a great time, plays sports, meets nice people.
RC: I think that we’re at a weird time with movies insofar as what’s fiction and what’s not, especially since documentaries are on the rise, and a lot of narrative films are taking on the task of conveying reality perhaps in an effort to compete. A film critic and co-panelist with me on a press panel here said to me that he was really concerned that your film advocated stalking—and I know he was at your press conference. Did he say anything about that?
LW: I think if that guy wants to see a movie about stalking, he should watch Star 80. But yes, he said he was offended, very offended by the stalking. I didn’t notice the stalking. I thought that’s what you do when you’re in love—you know, you kinda follow a girl for a while…In the beginning, doesn’t it always start as stalking?
RC: More importantly, it’s a work of fiction. It’s an imagined story. But did you feel personally attacked or offended by his concern?
LW: It was just such a lame-ass
question. I just didn’t get it. And he couldn’t have been more wrong. On his last try with Doreen, Wendell says, “She listened to what I had to say, and you know, I was lucky enough to have even met her.” I mean, sure, he follows her around the grocery store, but I mean…
RC: Again, I would say that we’re at a difficult point particularly with independent film, as it sort of gains on the cusp of mainstream, in understanding what exactly is the responsibility of writing for film. How about just a good, old-fashioned story?
LW: I don’t think there is any responsibility. I don’t think you need to have any, I mean. I think it’s like a song.
RC: To be put out in the world.
LW: Yeah, you know, it’s just different characters. That’s like saying that it’s dangerous to have the character in The Woodsman, you know, a pedophile, exist in a movie. But I think it does a service just to show things like that—to get
RC: So you do think it does a service?
LW: Yeah, I do.
RC: And what about on the other side—with a film like Schindler’s List or Hotel Rwanda. Do those films have a responsibility?
LW: I’d say they have a responsibility to get the story right.
RC: And how can you though?
LW: What you’re saying is an interesting idea, but with something like Wendell Baker, I mean, he’s a guy who wears a seersucker suit.
RC: And looks really good in it.
RC: Are you going to write and direct some more?
LW: My brothers and I are going to try to do this thing together.
RC: Like a company?
LW: I don’t know about setting up a company. Those always seem to end up with empty offices.
RC: You’ll pay for the films yourself?
LW: No, we won’t. We’ll find somebody else to pay for them. That’d be great though, too—do a Passion of the Christ, roll of the dice.
RC: I don’t know if we need another one of those.
LW: I just like the idea of cutting out the middleman.