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What do the Wilsons have over the brothers Coen, Hughes,
Hudlin and Zucker? Well, one sibling more, for a start.

MOVIES : Make Way for the Next Brother Act

February 04, 1996|David Kronke | David Kronke is a frequent contributor to Calendar

They were words that got Luke Wilson, as green as a Hollywood novice could get, a little jittery: "You gotta deliver the romance!"

Luke, 24, stars with his brothers Owen, 27, and Andrew, 31, in "Bottle Rocket," a deadpan comedy opening Feb. 23 about some aspiring career thieves whose careers tend more toward bungling than burgeoning. After a semi-daring, semi-competent robbery of a bookstore nets the crew a few hundred dollars, they high-tail it out of town and hole up at a roadside motel, where Luke's character, Anthony, falls for a hotel maid (Lumi Cavazos of "Like Water for Chocolate").

Now, the brothers Wilson are living one of those typically amazing Hollywood success stories, bringing along their pal Wes Anderson, 26, who directed the movie and co-wrote it with Owen, and their buddy Bob Musgrave, who co-stars as the getaway driver (his character is the only one among them who has a car).

Not long ago, the five were living together in a cramped Dallas apartment scraping together money and shooting a short version of "Bottle Rocket," which played at the Sundance Film Festival.

Producer Polly Platt caught up with the film and showed it to James L. Brooks, who was struck by its quirky, Jim Jarmusch-makes-a-teen-flick sensibility and the dialogue's Mamet-as-slacker rhythms.

Which brings us back to Luke's order to--well, let him tell it. "I'm suddenly hearing these murmurs: 'You gotta deliver the romance!' Owen sat me down, he talked to me about true love, and Wes had a talk about it, and I heard Polly Platt ask Wes, 'Has he even ever had a girlfriend?' Polly thinks I'm, like, 15. I kept hearing, 'Deliver the romance!' I had the flu at the time and I can hear Polly outside my room on the cellular phone: 'I don't know, he seems really out of it.' And I have to go out that night and Deliver the Romance.

"My brother [Owen] actually sat me down, which he had never done before, to talk to me about true love. I'd never heard 'Deliver the romance'--I mean, I've heard it from girlfriends, but not from studio executives."

So, just how does one deliver the romance?

"Lean forward," Luke explains, with guileless simplicity. "Whenever you say anything or she says anything, be sure to lean forward. And keep your eyes really big."

Owen met Anderson in college, where they began writing the screenplay. Owen's character, Dignan, is the leader of the gang by default, with ambition far outweighing his talent for the art of the scam. With his blustery talk of "crews," his fretting over minutiae that his cohorts deem irrelevant and a 75-year prospectus for his career, Dignan has clearly seen "Heat" too many times.

Says Owen: "Wes and I started out trying to write a real gritty, 'Mean Streets'-type edgy thing. And the stuff we came up with was just so"--he pauses to give the upcoming word the appropriate amount of weight--"wrong. It rang so false."

Adds Anderson: "We were constantly ragging on movies, saying, 'This guy grew up in Southern California, he thinks he can write about the streets.' Meanwhile, we're not from the mean streets, either."

Hence, the story became a parody, and film stock for the short came from Andrew, the oldest brother, who worked for a video production company and was making an infomercial intended to bring out the "human" side of then-presidential candidate Ross Perot. Andrew hired Anderson as an assistant just so he could learn the ropes regarding production.

Brooks visited Dallas to meet the guys after seeing the short. Recalls Andrew: "He came down to Dallas to get some of the local color; he came to our apartment and was shocked at our living conditions. He must've thought if he didn't help us, who would? If we didn't make this movie, what would become of these guys?"

Owen adds: "He couldn't wait to get out of the apartment--he had too much local color."

"They were all living in this same one room," Brooks says. "Everyone who walked in was either working on it or in the cast. I loved the way they were living together. You want guys living together like that to do a movie together. It was amazing to find all this new talent in this one room, in this one movie."

The guys were eager to get to work, Brooks remembers: "Bring up any subject and all Wes would say was, 'Are we doing this movie?' It never occurred to them there would be stuff to do. Whenever I brought up something or asked for something new, I was the bearer of bad tidings."

For one thing, the script required, shall we say, a little bit of work.

"We had a reading of the script, and it was about 275 pages long," Owen explains. "It's very talky, and about 2 1/2 hours later, we're only halfway through and Jim looks like he's been hit by a stun gun. Luke's just dripping with sweat, and I realize we're not even halfway through, and I'm feeling like we blew it."

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