Labor of love
Uninspired by many of the roles Hollywood filmmakers were tossing his way, actor Luke Wilson decided to take matters into his own hands and pick up a pen.The result: “The Wendell Baker Story,” an original screenplay, in which Luke recruited brother Andrew to co-direct and brother Owen to act.”I think Owen kind of suggested I do it, like, eight years ago. I was kind of complaining about the jobs I wasn’t getting, stuff I didn’t feel connected to. I think he was really trying to get me to shut up,” Luke said. “People say, ‘Why don’t you do more films like Wes Anderson’s big Hollywood movies?’ And the truth is that stuff doesn’t come around very often.”The film is exactly what one would expect from a Wilson brothers’ collaboration, reminiscent of the zany, lackadaisical, offbeat comedies complete with smooth-talking protagonists and a groovy soundtrack that they not only are known for working on (“Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tenenbaums.”) but are nostalgic for.”I love this movie ‘Used Cars.’ I always loved that movie as a kid. I guess the only goal I had was I like ’70s comedies. I like the way the movies looked. They didn’t look like they were wearing the makeup they didn’t look like they were getting their hair touched up,” Luke said. “And I’m not a big fan of stuff that you can expect what’s going to happen next. I like episodic stuff that goes from one scene to another. Episodic is more like-life.””We watched a lot of movies from the ’70s like ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Harold and Maude.’ We wanted it to look realistic like that. Luke always mentions ‘Used Cars.’ I was alive during that decade. I just think those movies are some of our favorite movies,” Andrew said.
In the film, Luke plays Wendell Baker, a good-hearted con man whose latest scheme lands him in the slammer for selling fake IDs to illegal aliens crossing the border to the United States from Mexico. The latest incarceration takes a toll on his relationship with girlfriend Doreen (Eva Mendes), and the optimistic Wendell vows to turn his life around.When he’d released, the only place Wendell can find employment is the Shady Grove retirement home, where he befriends senior citizen Boyd (Seymor Cassel), Skip (Harry Dean Stanton) and Nasher (Kris Kristofferson) who help Wendell win back Doreen.Wendell unites with his new-found friends to take down the retirement home’s evil head nurse, Neil King (Owen Wilson), and accomplice McTeague (Eddie Griffin) and Wendell faces a true test of his character.”It’s a comedy, but we have other themes running through it. It’s also a story of romance and friendship,” Andrew said.Luke got the idea one day while driving between his native Dallas and Austin.”I was thinking, ‘What would I have fun working on and what would I have fun acting in?’ and I thought it would be fun to do a con-man, a fast-talking hustler type guy. Someone completely different from who I am. It’s definitely a character I like from Tom Sawyer to Jeff Spicoli from ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High.'” Luke bought a notebook and carried it with him all the time, writing whenever inspiration struck, setting it down for six months at a time.
“I had this bad idea: I’d only work when the spirit moves me. Instead of sitting from 9-11 in the morning and making myself write, which is probably the way to do it,” he said.Four years later he had 245 pages worth of screenplay written out in long hand. He took it to a woman to type and received a bill for hundreds of dollars.”Not only was it too long, it cost me an arm and a leg.” Luke said. “Some of the stuff I feel, some of the stuff I don’t feel, and some of the stuff I see on the street. It’s so many emotions cooked up into one.” All Luke wanted to do was write it and act in it, but after meeting with various producers in their mid-20s who were trying to rewrite the film he realized the only way he would be satisfied is if he directed it himself.”I never thought of directing it. But I thought, ‘Man I don’t want to spend all my time on the set telling some guy how everything’s supposed to be,'” Luke said. “I thought I could never do that on my own. And the idea of Andrew came along and I thought he’d be really good at it, and he was good at it.””I read the script and I told him, ‘I wouldn’t change a word’ and he said, ‘You might be just the person to help me direct this,'” Andrew said. “We got along better working together working on the movie than we do on the golf course. There were a couple of times when Luke would yell action and I would yell cut at the exact same time, but most of the time that didn’t happen.”Andrew directed while Luke acted and smoothed the editing process when Luke got overwhelmed. Luke’s vision was steadfast. They had similar ideas for the movie, but if they did clash the brothers usually diverted to Luke’s original ideas.
Content with the script, Luke and Owen knew exactly how they wanted the film to look and feel. When working with such pros as Owen, an admitted ad-libber, and Harry Dean Stanton, the directors found themselves somewhat challenged.Harry Dean Stanton referred to Luke and Owen as Lothar and Schmidt on the set, because they reminded him of a couple of German Shepards barking at him whenever he would try to ad-lib.During one scene when Stanton and Cassel encounter some younger girls who they are supposed to be falling in love with, Stanton looked at one of them (Azura Skye) and he began to tear up. Luke asked Stanton what he was doing and told him the film is supposed to be a comedy.”He blew up at Luke and said, ‘I was feeling it, man. I was feeling it and I was falling in love with her on the set. I’m a highly trained professional actor, man. That’s why I work all the time. That’s why I’ve been in 156 movies and this is your first movie. Just remember that.’ And he was right.” It didn’t take long for the first-time directors to realize that sometimes they had to let the actors go.”Telling Owen to stop ad-libbing is a little like telling a locomotive to make a right turn. We were really lucky to have Owen. It’s kind of an amazing thing that my brother is the funniest guy I know. He’s incredibly smart. He’s got incredible timing,” Andrew said. “There’s a scene when we first see Owen and he’s with Eddie Griffin. They’re stealing from the old people at the retirement home and when Luke comes to work there Eddie asked Owen if working with Luke will be a problem and Owen says, ‘Oh no. He’s an ex-con. We won’t have to worry about him.’ Owen looks off into the distance and starts singing ‘Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls.’ Eddie Griffen starts singing with him and it’s a capella. This is the kind of stuff Owen just comes up with on the spot and it ends up being one of the funniest parts of the movie. A lot of time I think his improv is born out of necessity, but because the script was so good I think Owen did a little less improv on this movie.”
“I’m always a fan of improv if someone’s got a good idea,” Luke said. “People that are really good at improv are usually really funny people.”The hardest part of making the film was staying on schedule during filming and cutting out the fat once they had 500,000 feet of film. “It doesn’t sound real exotic but the most important thing we had to do was just finish the day and not getting behind the 8 ball, and since it was our first film we knew we would have a lot of scrutiny. We have entire days that we shot that weren’t in the movie and when you have a tight budget and a tight schedule, that’s painful,” Andrew said. “That’s sort of a classic rookie mistake. We just shot the shit out of it. The real lesson I learned was you just have to get the script tight. We thought it was tight. It was a blessing in disguise that we didn’t have a distributor waiting for it because it just wasn’t ready.”They got through it and now the brothers are negotiating with distributors and close to singing a deal.”This has been the very definition of labor of love. I really don’t even think about the money. The dirty little secret is that I would have paid to do it. We got to do it the way we wanted to. We didn’t have people looking over our shoulder. We’ve gotten to make the movie exactly how we wanted. We really just made the movie for ourselves. There’s a good chance we’ll never have this much freedom again even if we have a little more money and a little more time.” They’ll soon find out. Andrew and Luke are in the process of writing a budding comedy, which will star Luke and Martin Lawrence.”It’s another one of those experiences that’s uncharted territory,” Luke said. “I really do look forward to doing it again.”
So do we.Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 619, or firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado