Bolstered by the support of veteran director James L. Brooks and producer Polly Platt, Wes Anderson attained a status in the late 1990s that most young filmmakers only dream of achieving -- he proved that he could work within the Hollywood studio system and still create distinctive, willfully quirky films infused with an independent sensibility. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Anderson was interested in filmmaking and performance from a young age, shooting crude Super-8 movies and staging elaborate school plays (including a hand-puppet adaptation of the 1980 Kenny Rogers vehicle The Gambler).
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As a philosophy student at the University of Texas at Austin, Anderson found a kindred spirit in classmate Owen Wilson, who shared the director's passion for playwriting and watching classic films of the '70s. The two became roommates and lingered at UT -- even after they had completed their degree requirements -- as Anderson honed his skills at a local public access television station and Wilson performed in local stage productions. The duo then set out to shoot a full-length script they wrote, titled Bottle Rocket, recruiting two of Wilson's brothers, Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson, to perform. Despite Andrew's production connections in Austin, however, the team eventually ran out of film stock and funds, and they had to edit their footage into a 13-minute short. The black-and-white production eventually found its way to fellow Texan filmmaker L.M. Kit Carson, a family friend of the Wilsons who was so impressed with the work that he sent a copy to his colleague Platt and convinced Anderson to enter the film in the Sundance Film Festival. Before long, the film had also garnered the attention of Platt's partner, Brooks, and he orchestrated a deal for Anderson to shoot the full-length feature with Columbia Pictures.
Billed as a botched-heist comedy, Bottle Rocket also made room for its characters' romantic neuroses and aimless slacker ennui. Though critics responded to such a mix -- likening the coming-of-age tale to everything from Easy Rider to Saturday Night Fever -- Columbia barely promoted the picture's early-1996 release, and it was quickly swept out of theaters. Luckily, positive word-of-mouth gave it a healthy life on video, and Anderson remained a noteworthy young talent, winning the Best New Filmmaker award at the MTV Movie Awards later that year. The director began to shop his second script around town with little success, until Disney chairman and Rocket fan Joe Roth signed on to Anderson's project, vowing to give him low-budget, hands-off support.
The resulting film, Rushmore, was completed in 1998. Instead of test-marketing the film with focus groups (as had been done with Rocket), Roth and Anderson opted instead to take the feature to festivals. Critics gave the film an overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception: by the time it opened in wide release in February, 1999, Premiere magazine had called Rushmore the best film of the year, and co-star Bill Murray had already been named Best Supporting Actor by both the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics Associations, as well as the National Film Critics Society. A bittersweet coming-of-age tale about an underachieving but ambitious-to-a-fault teen, played with gusto by the unknown Jason Schwartzman, the film scored points for its wry, deadpan sense of humor and inventive visuals. Anderson drew from sources as disparate as Murmur of the Heart, Charles Schultz's Peanuts cartoons, and Meatballs, giving the proceedings a giddy absurdity without ever losing genuine compassion for his characters. Despite the orgy of positive reviews and Touchstone studios' aggressive marketing campaign, however, the director's second feature failed to resonate with audiences who may have been expecting a laugh-a-minute Murray vehicle. Worse yet, when Academy Awards nominations were announced in mid-February, Murray was passed over in favor of actors in more traditionally high-minded roles.
Still, Anderson's ardent fans -- including director Martin Scorsese, who listed Rocket as one of his 10 favorite movies of the 1990s -- eagerly awaited his 2001 effort. Titled The Royal Tenenbaums, the J.D. Salinger-inspired tale revolved around a loose-knit, oddly-dressed, super-intellectual Manhattan family, and reunited some of the cast of Rushmore with a new phalanx of stars including Danny Glover, Anjelica Huston, and Gene Hackman. Given a careful platform release by Touchstone, the film garnered enough critical praise and positive word-of-mouth to rally over $50 million dollars in box office receipts -- more than three times that of Rushmore -- proving perhaps that the public had finally come around to Anderson's uniquely skewed worldview. At the very least, the members of the Academy had: In February, 2002, Anderson and Wilson garnered a Best Original Screenplay nomination for their multi-character tragicomedy.
Anderson's worldview didn't serve him quite as well on his next feature, 2004's curiously titled seafaring opus The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Pairing again with Bill Murray on the heels of the actor's acclaimed turn in Lost in Translation, Anderson crafted a paean to another arrested adolescent, this time a sort of slacker Jacques Cousteau. Co-writing the screenplay with Kicking and Screaming auteur Noah Baumbach -- thereby freeing up his usual scribe-mate Wilson for a prominent supporting role as Zissou's purported son -- Anderson crafted an absurdist adventure as whimsical as it was sprawling. Bolstered by an omnipresent promotional campaign, The Life Aquatic attracted hordes of Anderson-philes to the theaters, at least in its first couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the film was greeted with what must've been a first for the young filmmaker: critical indifference. Despite its candy-colored visual scheme, The Life Aquatic didn't attract half the audience of Tenenbaums, and was ignored in year-end awards races.
Regrouping for a project that was at once more ambitious and less far-flung, Anderson collaborated with Rushmore star Schwartzman and friend Roman Coppola on the script for 2007's India-set The Darjeeling Limited. Exploring a similar dynamic to Bottle Rocket, the film set three fractious brothers -- Schwartzman, Wilson and Adrien Brody -- on a life-changing journey through the subcontinent. Toning down the whimsy and amping up the drama, the Fox Searchlight release found mixed reviews and a mostly appreciative, if small, audience.
Anderson returned two-years later with a stop-motion animation adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film. He returned to live action in 2012 with Moonrise Kingdom, a romantic comedy about two kids who fall in love while at camp that reunited him with regular collaborators Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman. ~ Michael Hastings, Rovi