Bottle Rocket: a case study on the term ‘independent’

A scene from Wes Anderson's First Feature: Bottle Rocket

A scene from Wes Anderson’s first feature: Bottle Rocket

A few of my peers have written some great posts on the question, “What does independent mean?” I honestly don’t have an answer for that question. It sure seems to me that the term ‘independent film’ is always stuck between trying to define itself as a way of production or as a film style. Furthering this, The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry spends a lot of its first chapter discussing how independent film was conglomerated into major studios. According to Tom Schatz, “The acquisition of successful independents like Miramax and New Line was one of the two key strategies deployed by Conglomerate Hollywood to commandeer the indie movement. The other was to launch indie divisions of their own…autonomous production-distribution operations that specialized in low-budget, “indie style,” targeted-marketed films” (29). This change in the system really begs the question, ‘what is independent?’

For this I post I wanted to do case study on the modern master of offbeat, Wes Anderson’s, first movie, Bottle Rocket. There’s two reasons for my choice of Bottle Rocket, the first is that it is a fantastic movie, especially for anyone interested in following the growth of a filmmaker. You can really see how Anderson hadn’t totally figured out his own personal style, but you can see hints of it throughout the movie. Second, the film really brings up questions of what constitutes an indie film.

It’s not entirely easy to explain bottle rocket, but let’s go with this: it’s a story about three friends who decide to become robbers…it kind of works for them.

The film is full of independent spirit. The script was written was written by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson at a time where they, along with Wilson’s brothers, Luke and Andrew, were all living in one room in an apartment in Austin (this caused problems such as the whole group getting a nasty case of pink eye). The film stars Luke and Owen along with their friend Bob Musgrave. Originally the plan was to shoot the film independently using money from their parents. However, after they ran out of cash with about 13 minutes of usable film, they decided to submit the piece to Sundance as a short.

Now here’s where the indie DIY part ends. The film attracted the eyes of a few Hollywood producers at Sundance. Gracie films, James L. Brooks’ company (veteran producer of the Simpson’s as well as the Mary Tyler Moore Show) got attached to the script and Columbia optioned the picture.

Instead of the 30,000 budget, they got something along the lines of 5 million for their feature. According to Anderson “Our dream was to come up with a couple of hundred thousand if we could, otherwise we’d keep going for $30,000. Suddenly, it was about $5 million because if there’s a studio involved, that’s the lowest they go. So the scale of it kind of changed for us…” (Launching Bottle Rocket) The studio also helped them to bring in a star in James Caan (of The Godfather and Brian’s Song fame) to play Mr. Henry. According to Anderson, Caan wasn’t their first choice but rather the studio’s suggestion. Columbia also helped to bring in Robert Yeoman, who has worked on every Wes Anderson film since (with the exception of The Fantastic Mr. Fox). The film also got a quite a few studio directed rewrites before it was finally released in 1996, two years later.

The reason I think there’s a question here about indie-ness isn’t really just because it got studio funding, but consider how much work went into crafting the film once a producer came aboard. Bottle Rocket is certainly indie in a lot of ways and it’s roots are in DIY and indie film, but it also is a studio aided and produced piece. In the Tom Schatz section of McDonald and Wasko’s edited anthology, The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry, there’s a quote by writer-director Alexander Payne that claims that, “Cinema is independent only to the degree that it reflects the voice of one person, the director (in conjunction with his or her hand-picked creative team)” (32). By this definition, Bottle Rocket is an independent film, even if technically it’s a studio picture. So people, what are your thoughts? What constitutes an independent film?

Things to check out:

The Making of Bottle Rocket Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

The original short

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