(Written for Virgin Media Shorts)
Whether you like his unique style or not, you can’t deny Wes Anderson knows how to tell a story. He’s a filmmaker both equally loved and hated for his quirky, colourful, and comical family dramas. And with his eighth feature film The Grand Budapest Hotel coming next year, we can expect much of the same.
But there was a time when he was simply enjoyed, when he filmed in black and white, when he made the audience laugh, and his style of film-making was only just being recognised as something quite ingenious. Albeit his least successful films, his short Bottle Rocket and debut feature of the same name undeniably launched an impressive career.
Released in 1994 and serving as his first ever film, Anderson’s thirteen-minute Bottle Rocket short follows two young men, Dignan and Anthony, who plan, stage, and discuss an armed robbery.
The leads are played by Owen and Luke Wilson, real-life brothers and good friends of Anderson’s, who are now regulars in his work, both of whom made their on-screen debuts in the short going on to lead the feature film as well.
This small friendship circle that we can now thank for most of Anderson’s brilliant work all began when Owen and Anderson met during a playwriting course at a university in Austin. The two soon moved in together, and the idea for the short came about when, with their landlord refusing to fix their windows, the two came up with the idea to break into their own house and report the incident to the police. Needless to say, their plan didn’t work, but the idea for Bottle Rocket was shortly after developed out of the many questions their bizarre actions provoked.
Putting together their life savings, Anderson and Owen came up with a $4,000 budget to make what was at first intended to be a full feature film. According to the original press notes, the pair completed a feature-length script but their budget didn’t stretch far enough, leaving them with only thirteen-minutes of footage.
Whilst their miscalculations meant no feature film, this was also the reason as to why the short was so successful, working as a whole story of quick but fully developed scenes rather than a sketchy series of rushed extracts. Shot in black and white, in contrast to his later films which are full of vibrant colours, the short also focuses on its refined character studies rather than the larger family struggles that his more recent films tend to focus on. It has aged incredibly well, but it is still very much a rough cut of the work we know Anderson for today, so it’s great to see where he started off in his career.
Making it into competition at Sundance, the short subsequently won Anderson and Wilson third place and $5 million in financing to make the feature version. Serving as Anderson’s feature debut, the Bottle Rocket feature went into development shortly after and was eventually released in 1996.
Using the same characters, the feature length film follows a similar, comical story line as a trio of friends make an elaborate plan to pull off a simple robbery and go on the run.
Just like the short, the Bottle Rocket feature shows the very early, rough-around-the-edges stages of Anderson’s quirky directorial qualities; it doesn’t have the same feel as his later work, although it does share many similar characteristics, it is definitely his funniest film so far.
Unfortunately, it was also a commercial failure. Despite being a disaster at the box office, however, the feature was enough to draw attention from critics and win Anderson and his collaborators a reputation among the biggest names in Hollywood. Director Martin Scorsese even famously named Bottle Rocket as one of his top-ten favourite movies of the 1990s.
It may have been a failure in its day, but both the short and feature play a huge part in launching Anderson’s career and, for that, it’s hard not to appreciate them for their progressive qualities alone.