Latin lessons for today's America

Sat, Aug 28, 1999, 01:00

`I would say that there are probably not very many American high school comedies that involve as much Latin as this one," muses Wes Anderson when asked where his film, Rushmore, fits in among the tidal wave of teen dramas we've already had this year.

In fact, Rushmore is even more of an oddity than that. It's an offbeat fable with a skewed and highly original sense of humour, which twists and turns in unexpected ways as it unfolds the story of Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzmann), the most enthusiastic, though definitely not the most brilliant, student at the top-notch private school that gives the film its title.

Rushmore is set in Anderson's home state of Texas, although it's a million miles removed from most of our preconceptions of the Lone Star State. "There is a thing that the whole school is kinda surreal," he says. "You don't want it to be too specifically about life at a prep school in Texas, because that's not what it's about. It's a fable about something else, so it shouldn't be connected with something specific. It could have been shot anyplace.

"I had this idea at one stage that we would shoot the private school in England, and when he's forced to go to the public school, we'd shoot it in Detroit, to get the most extreme variation possible. In the same way, it doesn't seem to be 1998 in the movie: there are things that make it seem like a different time, like its own self-contained world, I guess. That has something to do with the character. He wears the school uniform from 40 years ago, and even then it was probably optional.

"He's certainly not a brilliant student or anything. His whole interest in Latin is because he wants to go to a school that understands the importance of Latin. He certainly doesn't know what he's talking about, though."

That out-of-time feeling is also due to the look of the film, its design and cinematography, he agrees. "It's not really the kind of photography that's very fashionable right now. In a way it's less subtle and more graphic, and gives it a sense of immediacy. It's slightly stagey and old-fashioned. There's tons of movies that do it - John Ford and Orson Welles's stuff, obviously - but the one that really influenced me is Polanski. Chinatown has that very distinctive look, shot on a wide lens in widescreen. It makes the movie look slightly unreal and theatrical in a way that suits that sort of fable quality." I mention that I first saw Rush- more as the surprise film at this year's Dublin Film Festival, and that the audience response was interestingly divided, with most enthusiastic but a vocal minority - mostly women - pronouncing that they just didn't get it. "That doesn't surprise me, really. Most of the characters are men, and it's from a mostly male perspective, and Max can sometimes be a little creepy."

Anderson, at 30 years old, looks the typical geek of American high school movie cliche - slight of frame with scarecrow hair, thick glasses and a soft, cautious voice that often tails off as he contemplates a question. So is there anything autobiographical about the character of the driven, ultra-competitive Max Fischer?

The answer is typically hesitant. "Well, I took a lot of Latin. I was kind of . . . I eventually became a bad student, but I started high school as a good student. By the end of it, I was a terrible student. Somehow it all came unravelled somewhere in the middle there.

"I started to enjoy myself more, and that's when I started to do worse. Up to a certain point, every grade was important and stressful, and a lot of my self-image was attached to that. I would be embarrassed if I got a bad grade. Also, my elder brother always got very good grades, and mine were never quite as good, so there was always this thing that I was weaker. Then finally I realised I was always going to be weaker, and started feeling, `Well, I'm still here.'

"There's also that thing that up to a certain point teachers and what they think of you can be terrifying, and then you suddenly start thinking this isn't such a big deal; I can deal with it, they can't hurt me."

He was "very interested" in movies up until the time he went to high school, shooting his own films on Super-8 in his home town of Houston, Texas. "Then I became really, really pretentious for several years, and regarded myself just as a writer, but then I got more interested in telling stories again. I had made some quite good little short films that I'm not ashamed of; about one spy tracking another spy, with a shoot-out at the end, that kind of thing. But in college I made a short about five different philosophers driving around in a car, and that was something I was very embarrassed about, and have made every effort to destroy."

Anderson studied philosophy at the University of Austin, Texas, where he met Owen Wilson, with whom he has collaborated on screenplays ever since (Wilson also has a burgeoning career as a movie star in his own right, with credits on The Cable Guy and Armageddon under his belt). The pair made a 13-minute comedy heist movie called Bottle Rocket, which came to the attention of producer-director James L. Brooks, who persuaded Columbia TriStar to turn it into a $5 million movie.

Bottle Rocket was enthusiastically reviewed in many quarters, but negative audience previews caused Columbia to cancel its cinema release, an action which still rankles with Anderson. "Yeah, it wasn't a great experience. It took years and years and years to make, and finally when we got it finished, they just didn't make an effort to get it out there. Once we got it out on video, it was better because the movie had a life of its own, and we didn't have to deal with the studio any more."

But Rushmore, which is financed by Disney, is hardly a typical piece of studio product either: it's much more the sort of thing that one would associate with quirky independent movie-making.

Clearly, despite his apparent gaucheness, Anderson is well able to punch the right buttons in Hollywood, and has found some powerful mentors; first Brooks and then Disney's chairman, Joe Roth, who had been a fan of Bottle Rocket. "The reason both films were backed by studios is because there were people there who had the enthusiasm to do them," says Anderson. "Also, Rushmore wasn't a big deal for Disney because it wasn't much money for them, so they just left us alone. It was a $10 million movie and it made $17 million in the States, which means it will make a profit, which I think is pretty good. Some people think it should have made $70 million or something, but I don't think it's that kind of movie, no matter how you handle it."

It didn't do any harm that the movie picked up a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars for Bill Murray's performance as Max's sometime father-figure and romantic rival, industrial tycoon Herman Blume. "He was definitely the guy we wanted, from the moment we started writing the script," says Anderson. "But doing something a little sadder and quieter and less mean than he usually does."

In his foreword to the just-published screenplay of Rushmore, Brooks describes Anderson and Wilson as having "no choice but to keep it simple. If they weren't writing their scripts nothing at all like those scripts would exist."

"Well, that's his perspective," Anderson warily acknowledges. "It's certainly a very personal movie, and it's how Owen and myself see things. It's interesting - we met in college, but we don't have any other friends from college, and we haven't stayed in touch with anyone, so we have a sort of similar viewpoint that's sort of different from . . . I don't know, actually . . . there might be something in that, but I just don't know. I know the next three movies I want to make, and they're all scripts that Owen and I will write together, so it's something we want to continue."

He's much happier talking about one of the most noticeable ways in which Rushmore differs from most contemporary movies - its complete absence of modern junk culture references. "That's right, there's basically nothing." Does that reflect his own experiences or tastes? "Probably not. I think everyone's adolescent years at school were loaded with pop culture. But there was a certain point where I felt that movies were just becoming overloaded with pop culture. We wrote a short that has all that kind of stuff, with people talking about Starsky and Hutch and things like that, but it just didn't interest me. "But then you look at someone like James Joyce. That story, The Dead, has many popular culture references of that time, and political references that are very specific, and when you read it now, it doesn't lose anything. So maybe some movie that's loaded now with Starsky and Hutch and all that stuff, for the next ten years will feel dated or something, and then 40 years later it's just of its time . . ."

Rushmore is currently on general release