OWEN WILSON’S Australian cattle dog, Garcia, is happily curled up around the actor’s feet. Under normal circumstances, such a picture of familial bliss would suggest that all is right with the world. But on this sunny Santa Monica afternoon, Wilson’s feet are firmly planted beneath a table at the Huntley Hotel’s Penthouse restaurant. And, apparently, even movie stars don’t get to take their dogs to lunch.
“You want me to take the dog away?” Wilson’s mother, Laura, a tall, willowy woman in a dark pantsuit, offers to rescue his impending meal with brothers Luke, 35, and Andrew, 42. Luke and Owen, the middle child at 38, are famously close friends and collaborators, but it took added Wilson power to launch Luke’s debut as a triple threat -- writer-director-star -- in “The Wendell Baker Story,” which opens Friday. Andrew co-directed, Owen costarred as an evil nurse at a home for seniors and mother Laura, a professional photographer and former assistant to Richard Avedon, was the still photographer on the set.
That is, until Luke fired her.
Luke explains later that he and his mom locked horns one day when she noticed cast member and fellow Texan Mark Seliger, a successful photographer, snapping pictures on the set.
Andrew chimes in: “My mother was feeling territorial, I think, and she said, ‘Either he goes or I go.’ And Luke said, ‘So you’re quitting?’ ”
Luke: “And I said, ‘That’s a coincidence, because you’re fired.’ ”
Andrew: “I had to go back and rehire her later in the day.”
Such are the complications of filmmaking by the fraternal order of Wilsons, but sometimes the brothers are more than the sum of their parts. Their first collaboration -- along with close friend Wes Anderson -- was “Bottle Rocket” in 1996, a quirky gem that caught the eye of Hollywood, which was followed by the critically lauded “Rushmore” (1998) and “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001). With “The Wendell Baker Story,” they’ve come full circle. Indeed, one of the perks of surfing mainstream success is being able to make small, offbeat comedies with your best buds.
“Or write parts for girls you have crushes on,” Owen says.
Luke wrote the part of Doreen for Eva Mendes. She plays the girlfriend of Luke’s sweet but self-involved con man Wendell, who makes a living selling fake driver’s licenses at the Tex-Mex border with his accomplice Reyes (Jacob Vargas). Despite such business coups as counting Salma Hayek and Jimmy Smits among his satisfied customers, Wendell gets arrested.
While he’s in jail, he decides to go straight and begins studying hotel management. Meanwhile, Doreen has left him for grocery owner Dave (fellow Frat Packer Will Ferrell). When Wendell gets out, he vows to get Doreen back and sets out on a picaresque journey that begins at a retirement home run by the scheming head nurse Neil (Owen Wilson) with his evil associate nurse McTeague (Eddie Griffin). There Wendell recruits three elderly residents (played by Harry Dean Stanton, Seymour Cassel and Kris Kristofferson) to help him win the hand of Doreen.
The film’s loopy charm was praised by Variety’s Joe Leydon when it premiered at the 2005 South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. (The original producer went bankrupt, so the $7-million film took nearly two years to reach theaters. ThinkFilm is releasing it.) Hailing it as “insouciantly laid back and beguilingly loony,” Leydon wrote that “The Wendell Baker Story” compared favorably to Polyester Era dramedies like “Rancho Deluxe.” That was a good call. The Wilsons studied “Harold and Maude” and Hal Ashby’s other idiosyncratic films of the ‘70s for tone, look and structure.
“That’s when we grew up and we got into movies through our dad,” Luke says. “They seemed a little more loose and freewheeling back then.... It seemed more the kind of movie we might be able to make as opposed to the more mainstream Hollywood story.”
That’s in no small part due to the Wilsons’ shared sensibility, a bone-dry sense of humor that’s not for the faint-hearted. Take the day a few years back when Luke strolled by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman dressed as their haggard characters on the set of “Masked and Anonymous.” “I walked by them and I said, ‘Two of young Hollywood’s freshest new faces!’ And they both just kind of stared at me,” Luke says.
He tells the story with a Texas drawl that seems to get thicker in the presence of his brothers, who pepper their conversation with a steady stream of pop-culture references -- “I Spy” and the Onion are among the talking points. The hunky trio dresses casually -- jeans, T-shirts and Western wear, much as it did growing up in Dallas, the scrappy brood of a PBS executive, although these days Owen pairs his ripped T-shirts with gold-framed Cartier sunglasses. Luke and Owen lived together for 10 years, but now all three brothers have their own homes near one another in Santa Monica.
“We have fun,” Luke says. “There’s that cliche that we have a kind of shorthand. We finish each other’s sentences. But I think we definitely all have the same influences, the same sense of humor. It makes it more fun for us when we get to work together.”
Of course, the Wilsons can’t escape the usual sibling birth-order dynamic, so Owen found it more fun to be directed by older brother Andrew, an actor and documentary filmmaker. The fun potential of taking direction from younger brother Luke? Not so much.
Luke also populated his tilted universe with veteran actors who topped his wish list, including Stanton and Cassel. Maybe the grizzled Stanton was just into Method acting, but, at one point, he seemed to take his role as a debonair oldster who appeals to the ladies a bit too seriously.
“We were all at the hotel having a drink at the end of the day,” Luke recalls. “I was walking by Eva and she was looking kind of shellshocked. I asked if she was OK. She said Harry Dean had kissed her. I said, ‘Was it a nice, friendly kiss?’ She said no, he’d really planted one on her.”
Luke hopes to get Martin Lawrence for his next collaboration with Andrew, a buddy picture he’s written called “Electric Avenue.” His evolution into a writer is apparently revealing sides of Luke that are new even to his family.
Owen: “I was really surprised that Wendell does have this real kind of heart to him, I guess from the writer, I guess from Luke.”
Luke: “I think I’ve got a kind heart.”
Owen: “I wouldn’t say he’s that sweet. Maybe because he’s the youngest he felt he had to develop a hard shell because he would get picked on or teased. So Andrew and I aren’t the beneficiaries of the sweetness that’s in this movie.”
Luke looks at his brother and responds with typical Wilsonian understatement. “You should get to know me better,” he says. “That would be my suggestion to you.”