Wes Anderson spent months searching for the perfect private prep school for the filming of his second feature film, Rushmore. "Then my mother sent pictures of my own school," he says, "and I realized that's what I was trying to find all along."
The fledgling filmmaker's alma mater is St. John's School in Houston. At first, its administration wasn't particularly excited about the school's selection -- a recent student film left St. John's with lots of burned ivy -- but Anderson promised to be careful with the foliage. And the prescreening of his effort, at the Museum of Fine Arts last November, was a success; St. John's teachers, staff, students, alumni and parents applauded for every recognizable extra and every glimpse of a River Oaks home. (The movie met similar critical acclaim when it was released in California and New York just before the end of the year, in time to be considered for this year's Oscars.)
Anderson started making movies with his brother at the age of nine, after his dad gave him a Super 8 camera: "We did spy movies, murder stories, a bunch of Indiana Jones movies, James Bond -- basically everything was sort of plagiarized."
At St. John's -- much like the extracurricularly ambitious bad student in Rushmore -- Anderson moved his movie ideas to the stage. "I had this teacher who made a deal with me that every two weeks that I could keep it together and not be a disciplinary problem, she would let me put on a play," he said. "We did one called The Five Mazeratis that was set on the autobahn. And we did one on the battle of the Alamo, and I played Davy Crockett. And we did a King Kong play...."
Anderson met his writing partner, Owen Wilson, at the University of Texas (where Anderson received an F and had to withdraw from his only film class). They came up with a short version of Bottle Rocket, in which Wilson played Dignan, a slacker and would-be criminal. They sent that sample of their work to producer Jim Brooks and went to L.A. as "writers" -- leaps and bounds beyond the titles like Second Second Assistant Director that newcomers usually have to plow through.
Bottle Rocket was eventually released in theaters, and though critics liked it, hardly anyone else saw it. Anderson's publicity tour revealed the ugly truth about his station in the movie business. "When we were in San Francisco," he remembers, "the publicity people told us that right before us they had dealt with this movie called Dunstan Checks In, which is about a monkey. They kept Dunstan at the Ritz-Carlton, and they had us at this terrible thing, Quality Hotel."
But with his second movie, the world looks much different. This time, he's working for Touchstone, a major studio. And he's directing bona fide comedic superstar Bill Murray. Was it intimidating? "No, not really," he says. "I know the script better than anybody else."
Two college buddies/writing partners haven't seen such a meteoric rise since, well, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. "They became movie stars and that was it," says Anderson. "They don't have to pick up a pen anymore. That's the worry about Owen. Owen gets cast in movies. We could lose him to the movie star machine."
But what about Anderson, the guy who saved the lead roles for himself in his early plays? He recounts a recent casting call: "I was supposed to be in Armageddon. There was a character described in the script as the smartest man in the world." He shakes his head. "I read for it ... but it was really awkward."
Rushmore opens Friday, February 5, in theaters across town. In conjunction, Landmark's River Oaks Theatre will sponsor a "Guess Who This Is from Rushmore?" contest; moviegoers can try to pair the essays by the film's extras with the writer's identity.