When it comes to naming Texas film directors, Wes Anderson might not be the first person who comes to mind. He might not be the fifth. After all, the Oscar winner’s last eight movies have been set in far-flung destinations spanning the Northeast United States, India, Japan, below the ocean and throughout most of Europe.
But Anderson’s film roots have always been firmly planted in Houston, having honed his cinematic style with “Rushmore,” the sophomore work filmed across his hometown over 50 days in 1997 and 1998. With it, the director captured the city with scenes in Montrose and River Oaks, where he used his alma mater St. John's School as a stand-in for the titular Rushmore Academy, and the halls of Lamar High across the road after protagonist Max Fischer is expelled from the private school’s campus. Decades later, Houston is littered with stories of local extras, failed auditions and other movie magic.
Today, Anderson is a towering figure in Hollywood, best known as an eccentric auteur filmmaker with a distinct visual elegance now synonymous with his name: It's a dreamy, saturated “doll house” aesthetic reminiscent of Art Nouveau, with a penchant for extreme detail. Anderson's style has been studied in depth since his early days, birthing everything from travel guides to popular Instagram accounts and the fashionable inspiration for designers like F.E. Castleberry.
Anderson's most recent film, ” The French Dispatch ,” broke pandemic-era records at the box office and helped usher in a return to cinemas. The anthology, dubbed “a love letter to journalists ,” revolves around the French foreign bureau of the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun newspaper in a tribute to The New Yorker. Rolling Stone calls the work the “most Wes Anderson-y Wes Anderson movie of all time.”
His is an immediately recognizable aesthetic that feels lived in, even as it leaps off the screen. But its meticulous, tailored appeal is a far cry from the short, tussled hair and haphazard dress Anderson sported in the 1990s while running all over the Bayou city to shoot “Rushmore,” the film many still consider his masterpiece.
While Anderson is now a few decades removed from time spent training his camera on Houston, he's long spoken about how his birthplace and years spent in Texas influenced his career.
“Owen Wilson and I, when we were at the University of Texas, saw a movie being filmed on the street behind a restaurant we used to go, Mad Dog And Beans," Anderson recalls. “It was Richard Linklater’s ‘Slacker.’ We didn’t know anything about it, but we wanted to make movies, so we were lurking, watching. Then we saw ‘Slacker’ at the Dolby cinema on the edge of the campus and we were captivated by it. It was a movie that had been made right here. We could see the scene that we watched them film. It brought it all very close to home.”
One place that notably informed Anderson’s creativity is the Menil Collection , which houses more than 17,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books. Dominique de Menil founded the Montrose museum in the late-1980s based on her and her late husband John's vision of art as a spiritual necessity, according to the Menil website .
John and Dominique de Ménil were born in Paris before immigrating to the U.S. during World War II. Anderson sees comparisons between their journey and mission and those of the characters in his latest film. "It was their interests and their collection and it represented their lives and the people they engaged with," Anderson says. "['The French Dispatch'] is very much about some European voice getting brought to America by somebody who wanted to do that." Houston's Rothko Chapel . Named after Russian-born abstract painter Mark Rothko and again founded by John and Dominique de Ménil, the space serves as a non-denominational cathedral as well as a work of modern art. Anderson remembers being particularly transfixed by an early ’90s exhibition that encompassed all of Rothko's career.
“Only in seeing the entire course of his work did I sort of get it,” Anderson says “I saw something take shape in his thinking that was so interesting to me and that never left my mind.” In order to create the right setting for this meditative space, Rothko Chapel's executive director David Leslie says Rothko and architect Philip Johnson looked at the entire space as one work—so much so that every installation had to be an exact number of inches from the ground and in a precise spot. “There's an exactness,” Leslie said. “It all makes the piece of art. Nothing is happenstance.”
“He certainly cares about the visuals,” says David Wasco, the production designer on “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson's first three films. “It was really kind of a lucky thing to connect with a director that cared so deeply about what the film looked like.”
Anderson's interest in speed extended to real life, too. Between “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” Anderson had “fallen in love with Manhattan,” David says. But because Anderson wasn't exactly keen on flying, he would steer his Honda Accord back and forth between New York and Texas. Sometimes, he made the 1,650-mile trip in two days.
“I remember going around with him in Houston, and he would drive like 100 miles an hour down suburban streets,” David says. “He had a fixation with driving fast and driving dangerously fast.” Anderson needed to be in Houston frequently during this period because, after searching across all of North America for a Gothic prep school or college to fit his aesthetics, he had finally decided to shoot “Rushmore” at his old campus.
“He wanted to be back on home turf where he has family,” David says. Anderson was treated as the “hometown boy that had come home,” he adds, which opened doors for the production. “We had a lot of opportunities to get into and use places that normally would not be offered to an out-of-state filmmaker.”
Now, three decades removed from the release of “Rushmore,” Houstonians are still waiting for Anderson to take another turn behind the camera in his hometown. No local shoots are on the horizon and Anderson's next film, "Asteroid City," due next year, is rumored to have been shot in Madrid. But Anderson's love for the Bayou City remains undiminished.
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