Jason Reitman Talks With Luke Wilson About ‘Bottle Rocket’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011.

Jason Reitman completed his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema with a screening of Wes Anderson’s directorial debut, “Bottle Rocket.” This film also marked the movie debuts of Luke and Owen Wilson, the latter who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson. Before seeing this movie, Reitman admitted he was actually scared of becoming a filmmaker especially because he was the son of a famous one (Ivan Reitman). He did see all the great movies of the 1990’s like “Clerks,” “Slacker,” and he checked out all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but he said none of them had the same effect on him as “Bottle Rocket” did. For Reitman, this was the movie which made him want to direct films. And of discovering Anderson, he said, “This is the voice that I am going to follow forever.”

Joining Reitman for this special screening was actor Luke Wilson, and it was nice to see him take a break from all those AT&T Wireless commercials he has been doing endlessly. Ironically, the movie Reitman showed the same evening before it was “Breaking Away,” and Wilson said he is actually good friends with one of that movie’s stars, Dennis Quaid. Quaid was away in Hawaii so he was unable to attend the screening with fellow co-stars Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. This coincidence did, however, allow Wilson to talk about how Randy Quaid told Dennis he already made the family name and suggested he change his. Dennis ended up asking his brother, “How about McQuaid?”

Anyway, Luke told the audience Wes and Owen originally wanted to shoot “Bottle Rocket” guerilla style so they could shoot it cheaply as Richard Linklater had done the same thing with “Slacker.” However, they ended up meeting a producer who told them about the Sundance Film Festival and advised them to start off by making a short film they could take there. So they made the short and got it entered into Sundance, but nothing happened and they didn’t win anything for it. Despite that, they managed luckily to get hooked up with a producer named Polly Platt who had worked on such movies as “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” among others.

The project went on from there as Platt brought the Wilson brothers and Anderson to the attention of famed writer/producer/director James L. Brooks. Anderson ended up getting everyone to do a read thru of the script at some office in Texas during the summer. Turns out the air conditioning there wasn’t working all that well, and they were reading a screenplay which was two hundred pages long. Luke said he ended up sweating profusely throughout the whole read, and this made Owen glare at him as if to say, what the hell are you doing?

Luke also took some time to talk about Brooks who became one of the chief supporters of “Bottle Rocket,” and he described him as being very nice. However, he also said Brooks can immediately “cut to the truth and be painfully funny.” Of course, Brooks was going through problems of his own. While working on “Bottle Rocket,” he was also busy with his film musical “I’ll Do Anything” with Nick Nolte. For those who remember, it ended up getting released without any of the music as the movie tested poorly (and that’s being polite).

Reitman went on to talk about how he related to the voice of the film and how it had a “strange innocence” to it. Luke replied the film’s voice came from Anderson and Owen, but he said he never got the feeling he was working on anything special. Columbia Pictures, which distributed the movie, wanted to make “Bottle Rocket” but with different actors. When it was all shot and in the can, the studio didn’t like or knew what to make of it. Looking back, Luke said bluntly he was “stunned that the movie got made.”

When it finally came to making “Bottle Rocket” as a feature length film, Luke remarked Wes knew exactly how movies were made. He and Owen, on the other hand, did not. They didn’t understand certain jobs the crew on set had like the boom mike guy. Luke said he and Owen wondered out loud, “How can that guy just stand around like that?”

Also, Anderson did not want the actors to watch dallies of the day’s work, but this didn’t matter much because neither Owen nor Luke wanted to watch them anyway. Luke says he still doesn’t understand what compels actors to watch dallies as he feels it will likely mess you up in terms of how you go about developing your character.

The cast and crew also had the fortune of working with James Caan who had a bit role in “Bottle Rocket,” and Luke recalled he was going through a rough patch at the time, but that he did warm up to the rest of the cast during shooting. At one point Luke, Owen and Wes asked Caan what it was like working with the late Marlon Brando on “The Godfather.” To this Caan replied, “It’s like you guys working with me.”

“Bottle Rocket” did go through the rather unnecessary realm of test screenings. For a movie like this, it must have felt like a waste of time because this is not one which just sells itself to mainstream audiences, but the studio executives decreed that Anderson screen the movie for focus groups nonetheless. So, there was a test screening done in Santa Monica, and out of a crowd of 250 people, 75 walked out. The ones who stayed through the whole thing, as Luke remembered it, wrote nothing but shit about the movie. To date, it remains the one movie with the worst test screenings in the history of Columbia Pictures. Luke said he, Owen and Anderson were convinced they would never get to make another movie ever again.

Despite all that, “Bottle Rocket” did get discovered by audiences through cable, video and DVD. Luke says he still sees it on cable every once in a while, and Reitman remarked it became the “touchstone for those who want to make movies.” Martin Scorsese ended up naming it as one of the best movies of the 1990’s. Still, everyone involved with this little film had a hard time getting over it feeling like a failure. But when these guys got around to making the brilliant “Rushmore,” they found themselves re-energized and have since gone on to make one great movie after another.

Jason Reitman Talks With Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern about ‘Breaking Away’

WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011.

Jason Reitman described the last double feature he presented as part of his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema by saying, “Whereas the last few movies I chose were sad in some respects, these two just make you feel good.” After dealing with the downfalls and missed opportunities which were major parts of “Shampoo” and “Boogie Nights,” he finished off his slate of favorites with “Breaking Away” and “Bottle Rocket.”

The first movie shown was “Breaking Away” which was directed by Peter Yates, the same man who made the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt.” For years it has been considered one of the best sports movies ever made, and it’s also a movie where several young actors got their start together like in “Taps” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Among those actors were Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. We even got to see a teenage Jackie Earle Haley in it, and he has since gone from career oblivion to critical acclaim for his performances in “Little Children” and “Watchmen.”

Reitman asked how many people in the audience were seeing this film for the first time, and many hands, including mine, immediately went up. To this he replied, “I am so jealous!”

On “Breaking Away,” Reitman described it as a movie you associate with watching with your father, and one which captures the lives of twenty somethings very well in the indecisions of where to go from high school; unsure of what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s also a great story about class wars in society; of those who have everything and those who never have enough. Upon looking for trivia about “Breaking Away,” Reitman found the film was originally two screenplays. One was called “The Cutters” which became the name of the people from the working-class environment, and the other one was about the bike race the characters train for.

Joining Reitman for this screening were Dennis Christopher who played the endlessly obsessive bike rider Dave Stoller, and Daniel Stern who played Cyril. Reitman usually had his guests hidden from sight before introducing them, but they were already in the theater giving autographs and posing for pictures which got posted on Facebook. Both Quaid and Stern also said they were so envious of those who were seeing this for the first time.

Reitman started off by asking them if they knew they were working on something very special. Stern was the first to reply:

That was my first movie,” Stern said. “I had never been in a movie before, and so I thought they were all like that. There is a wonderful simplicity to the movie, to the script, to the way the movie was made and the way it comes across. It does have a lot of depth to it too. I look back at it thinking, that was just an incredibly unique experience. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know where the camera was, and I didn’t know anything about that!”

Christopher, on the other hand, had worked in movies before with acclaimed directors like Robert Altman and Federico Fellini, so he knew a bit about being on big sets. The experience of making “Breaking Away” proved to be a bit different though.

“The thing that really made it special was because after that horrible first day of being a big Italian impersonator, because they made me all dark and I had my hair slicked back, black shirt, a tight waistline, etc. He was supposed to look like a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ guy,” Christopher said. “He (Yates) wanted him to be that kind of Italian. And I thought, why the fuck did they hire me? I looked like Lily Tomlin would when dressed up like men! That’s exactly what I looked like! I was waiting for them to glue hair on my chest!”

“I was so shaken, and the next day I came onto the set and I just burst into tears,” Christopher continued. “I told Peter that I just can’t do this and he said I KNOW, I KNOW! And we had a big talk with Steven (Tisch, who won an Oscar for his screenplay) and Peter, and then the character evolved; the way he looked and the way he was. So for me that was the special thing of collaborating with a director who cared about what you thought. So, for me I thought whoa, this is amazing!”

Reitman then spoke for those who had this on their minds after Christopher spoke:

“So what you’re saying is that Robert Altman really doesn’t care…”

This got a big laugh from the audience.

After making all the changes with Christopher’s character and making it more like him, they reshot everything and had to wait three weeks to see how it all looked. For those who have seen this movie, you have to agree this was one of the smartest choices Yates made. If Christopher was forced to do an Italian impersonation, it probably would have wrecked the movie.

Reitman also asked Christopher and Stern what kind of bike riding they did before production began. Christopher replied he did the “regular kind” and was never involved in any bike competitions like his character. Stern, on the other hand, said he was not a bike rider which turned out to be perfect for his character.

This led Stern to tell everyone he didn’t even audition for “Breaking Away.” He came into the office to read for Yates, and he was on a phone call nearby and saw him. Once he got off the phone, Yates handed Stern a script and was asked to be on set in a short time.

Unlike a lot of the big productions he had previously been involved in, Christopher said this film was almost completely the opposite of them. They had a very small crew working on it, and there was no overabundance of trailers parked on every street corner.

Barbara Barrie played Dave Stoller’s mother, Evelyn, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, it turns out she was a little peeved when she read the script and found there was no big scene for her. Christopher even recalled her telling Yates quite loudly, “WHERE IS MY BIG SCENE?!” So Barrie, Tisch and Yates worked together and did an improvisation which led to that wonderful moment where Evelyn talks about getting her passport and how she always keeps it handy.

People did not expect much from “Breaking Away” while it was being made, but it turned out to be a surprising success which won many awards, and it even spawned a prequel television series in which Haley and Barrie reprised their roles for. Of course, like many movies adapted to television, it lasted only one season. Stern called it “the little engine that could kind of movie,” and he even came to this screening wearing his white “Cutters” t-shirt. Christopher said this and “My Bodyguard” were the first movies for kids which were taken seriously by adults, and he and Stern said people’s overall reaction to it today is still quite powerful.

Christopher also told the audience about when he took his dad, whom he was estranged from at the time, to see “Breaking Away” when it was first released. After it was over, he said his dad came out of it “ruined” and looked quite frail. His dad could not believe how great the movie was, and when people outside the theater asked Christopher for his autograph, he got in line with the others. His dad even acted as his security chief in getting people in the line to move along.

The Q&A ended with both actors asking Reitman, “Is this a good print of the movie we’re showing tonight?”

“We’ll see,”Reitman replied.

Reitman said he had previously seen “Breaking Away” on VHS and laserdisc, but seeing it with an audience was something else. The nearly sold out crowd at New Beverly Cinema really got into the proceedings and cheered loudly throughout. You came out of the theater agreeing with Reitman that “Breaking Away” was as good as reputation has long since suggested.