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Carving Out His Niche

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the director of “Bottle Rocket” and now “Rushmore,” Wes Anderson has quickly emerged as one of the country’s most talented--and original--young directors. But the only person who recognizes him as he makes a tour of various La Brea-area shops and galleries is a local merchant who has used furniture on display, al fresco, in an empty parking lot.

“Hey,” the man bellows with a friendly wave. “It’s the Table Guy!”

It’s only later, when visiting Anderson’s house, that you get the joke. The 29-year-old director’s bedroom is packed with hundreds of books, but no shelves. All his books are precariously stacked on tables spread around the room like traffic cones on an obstacle course.

“I keep meaning to buy shelves,” says Anderson, a soft-spoken guy who’s at least as skinny as Calista Flockhart. “But all I do is buy more books and tables for them, so the stacks just get higher.”

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In many ways, “Rushmore,” which returns to theaters Feb. 5 after a brief Oscar-qualifying run last month, unerringly reflects Anderson’s quirky Table Guy world view. Fresh and unpredictable, it inspired Newsweek to dub it a “deep in left field comedy that is immaculately written, unexpectedly touching and pure of heart.” How hot is Anderson? Well, Disney--which released “Rushmore"--just signed Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson to a deal for their next film.

“Rushmore” stars first-time actor Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer, the geeky boy wonder of Rushmore Academy. A born impresario, Max monitors fellow students by walkie-talkie, heads every imaginable school club, including the beekeeper’s society, all the while staging grandiose plays, including a Vietnam extravaganza complete with miniature helicopters and flash-pot explosions (playgoers find earplugs and safety glasses under their seats).

The story takes the form of a somewhat obsessive love triangle, revolving around Max’s pursuit of a comely young teacher, played by Olivia Williams, and his friendship with the school’s depressed, Bentley-driving benefactor. That part is played by Bill Murray with such hangdog panache that the actor has already racked up an armful of best supporting actor nominations and awards.

After a brief tour of Anderson’s funky mid-Wilshire house, which he shares with University of Texas actor-pals, brothers Owen Wilson (who co-wrote “Rushmore”) and Luke Wilson (who has a small part in the film), it’s tempting to see the film as an autobiographical-tinged fantasy. Wearing red sneakers, baggy corduroys and a rumpled shirt that never stays tucked in, Anderson looks like Max Fischer after a postgrad stay at the Sorbonne. As one Disney executive put it: “Wes is just like you always imagined the young Woody Allen, only if he’d grown up in Houston.”

In “Rushmore,” Max schemes to build a giant aquarium; on the wall over Anderson’s bed is a photo of the young Jacques Cousteau. Another wall is plastered with photos of heroes you could easily imagine Max having: John Huston, Albert Camus and Orson Welles. On his desk, Anderson has a Max-like journal packed with theater ticket stubs, clippings, obituaries and diary entries, all written in tiny block print the size of the credits on the back of a compact disc.

Seymour Cassel, who plays Max’s father in the film, says he teased Anderson about the similarities: “I told him, ‘This guy is you when you were in school. He’s your alter ego.’ ”

So how close is Max to Wes? “I identify with him, but he’s not me,” Anderson says one afternoon over hamburgers and fries at the Fairfax Farmers Market. “But if I had seen this movie when I was 14, I would’ve had a perfect role model for my life. Max has a lot of problems, but he’s really heroic because he has so much energy and such a specific vision of himself.

“When Owen and I wrote the script, we saw Max as someone whose grand ideas could just as easily be grand failures--sort of a cross between Frank Lloyd Wright and Orson Welles.”

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The Playwright Began in School

Still, a host of Max-Wes parallels exist. Anderson shot much of “Rushmore” at his old grade school in Houston. Anderson was also an ardent elementary-school playwright, staging plays “that were like the ones Max puts on, except not as good.”

In college, he did a play called “A Night in Tunisia” (“it was terrible--a bad rip-off of ‘True West’ ”) that had Owen Wilson in a leading role. But Anderson was already gravitating toward film, writing and directing cable-access movies and documentaries. His most successful effort: a documentary about his apartment landlord, who had a falling out with Anderson and Owen Wilson after he refused to repair their apartment window locks.

“It escalated to the point where we staged a break-in and reported it to the police,” Anderson recalls. “Our landlord thought it looked like an inside job. Then we stopped paying our rent and moved out in the middle of the night and he hired a private eye to find us.”

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As a gesture of conciliation, Anderson proposed making a film about the landlord to publicize his holdings. “I guess he hated it, because he stopped talking to me after he saw it.”

The film inspired Anderson and Owen Wilson to make “Bottle Rocket,” a 15-minute short about an overzealous amateur thief, played by Wilson. With the encouragement of producers James Brooks and Polly Platt, the duo turned the short into a full-length feature.

Released in 1996 by Columbia Pictures, the film earned rave reviews but it tested so poorly that the studio never got behind the film. “They definitely dropped the ball, but it’s such a weird movie that maybe it would’ve never done well,” Anderson admits.

Anderson and Wilson initially wrote “Rushmore” for New Line. But when Anderson couldn’t agree with the studio on a budget, he took the project to Disney, where studio Chairman Joe Roth gave him $10 million to make the film. Anderson was impressed by Roth’s enthusiasm: “I figured if we had the support of the guy who runs the place, we had a shot at doing well.”

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Anderson had wanted to cast Murray in “Bottle Rocket” but could never get the script to him. With “Rushmore,” Anderson had more buzz, and Murray signed on as soon as he read the script. After auditioning hundreds of possible Maxes, Anderson cast Schwartzman, who was untrained as an actor but had Max-style ingenuity, showing up for his audition wearing a blazer with a homemade Rushmore Academy patch he’d made the night before.

A great comic actor, Murray has a reputation for driving directors crazy. Anderson had heard all the stories, especially the ones about Murray’s wild-man antics on “What About Bob?” where he feuded with co-star Richard Dreyfuss and threw producer Laura Ziskin in a lake. But Anderson had no problem tapping into Murray’s twisted comic wavelength. Just before the actor did a scene where he drives over Max’s bicycle, Anderson slipped into the car and taped a glossy photo of Dreyfuss onto the steering wheel of his Bentley.

“When Bill saw it, he laughed,” Anderson recalls. “And I said, ‘Don’t laugh. Just be angry.’ ”

Anderson says Murray was unfailingly supportive. When Anderson needed extra money for a helicopter shot, Murray gave him a blank check. When the film was behind schedule, the actor hefted sandbags and carried dolly tracks. “It made everyone feel that if he was that involved, everyone was involved,” Anderson says. “He’d ask me how the morale was on the set and if I said, ‘I don’t know,’ he’d go off and take a poll. He wanted things to go right.”

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John Cassavetes Comes to Mind

Cassel says he was impressed by Anderson’s self-confidence. “He’s a shy guy, the kind of guy who never dances, but when it came to the movie, he was tenacious. It reminded me a lot of working with John Cassavetes. They’re both directors that get actors to trust them. That’s why Wes got such good performances from Jason, who’d never acted before, and Murray, who usually wants to be the only funny guy on the set, but was really restrained for this part.”

Anderson is already at work on a new film with Wilson, which will be set in New York City. He’s still adjusting to the media glare, in particular a snarky New York Observer piece that depicted him as a dilettante who stayed for weeks on end in a pricey New York hotel on Disney’s dime. “I thought it was really exaggerated,” he says.

He’s less defensive about the fashion spreads he and Wilson did recently for GQ and Rolling Stone. “Hey, we worked for free, so it’s not like we’re professional models yet,” he explains. “We didn’t even get to keep the clothes.”

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Really? “Well,” Anderson says with a grin, “GQ did give me some penny loafers.”

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“Wes is just like you always imagined the young Woody Allen, only if he’d grown up in Houston.” A Disney executive


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