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Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary

Wes Anderson's signature film was a landmark in many ways.

Buena Vista Pictures

Wes Anderson has always been an auteur. Before he became the world-famous filmmaker he is today, Anderson was a kid making movies in his hometown of Houston, Texas. He wasn't athletic, or popular, but he knew what he wanted to do with his future. Meanwhile, up north in Dallas, Owen Wilson was athletic and popular, and he had no idea what to do with his own future after being expelled for cheating in high school. The two would meet in Austin, at the University of Texas in 1987.

Like most of us, Anderson and Wilson's friendship was based chiefly around their shared sense of humor. A film buff and writer, Anderson recruited Wilson to help write his first feature in the early '90s. That script would become Bottle Rocket and, although the movie flopped, critics saw promise in the fledgling director and first-time actor. (Wilson reluctantly starred in the film despite never having a desire to act.) So the two friends didn't give up. Using more of their own lives in their next story, Anderson and Wilson set out to create a funny, nostalgic look at high school that would feel like a storybook. They called it Rushmore.

Rushmore would represent a significant creative leap for Anderson as a filmmaker, but it was written in the same spirit as Bottle Rocket. The movie is foremost a representation of things Anderson and Wilson liked or thought were funny at the time. Wilson's contributions to the script came by and large from his own life (we'll get to that), and Anderson had a hand in everything, from casting to costume design. He also managed to convince Bill Murray to star. Anderson and Wilson's script is highly original, but Rushmore is very much a pastiche. Anderson was a student of the movies from a young age and he borrows plenty from film history. Critics would swarm Rushmore upon its debut on December 11, 1998. Anderson and Wilson's careers were set.

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures

Twenty years later, Rushmore is as vibrant and funny as ever. Wilson is an established commodity and Anderson is a six-time Academy Award nominee. Bottle Rocket has become a cult favorite, but Rushmore was the movie that made them. Its success should give every young filmmaker hope they can achieve the same... and having Bill Murray helps. Here's a look back at Rushmore, via fun facts about the production revealed in cast and crew interviews, DVD commentary, and articles far and wide.

1. Both writers attended private high schools. Wilson went to St. Mark's in Dallas, but was expelled as a junior for cheating in geometry and refusing to rat on his friends (at first). Anderson attended St. John's in Houston which is where Rushmore is mostly filmed. 

2. The character of Herman Blume is based on a few different people. His look is an ode to captains of industry with mustaches like Ted Turner and Howard Hughes. But his character is very much based on Robert Wilson, Owen's father. Blume's speech to the Rushmore student body contains direct quotes. ("Get 'em in the crosshairs and take them down.") Mr. Wilson is also the source of the line, "Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd have sons like these." Owen and his two brothers (Andrew and Luke, who both appear in Rushmore) terrorized their parents growing up with their wild antics. 

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures

3. Owen Wilson does actually appear in Rushmore. He plays Edward Appleby, Miss Cross's saintly deceased husband, in photographs.

4. Rushmore established Anderson's storybook directing style. The film exists in a timeless, nameless place because the director wanted to give everything a dream-like quality. Reality was never the goal. Anderson cast actors from all different sizes, shapes, ages, and ethnicities. He transitions from month to month with curtain openings, and he uses slow-motion and music to elevate what's onscreen. 

5. The curtain openings were accomplished with an actual mini-curtain that would be opened in front of the camera. Month names were projected right onto the fabric. Anderson has explained his aversion to doubling negatives, which is why he does stuff like this instead of adding a special effect later. Adding effects dupes the negative and dulls the original film.

6. Speaking of casting. Jason Schwartzman won the lead role of Max Fischer after an extensive search of over 1,000 candidates. Ironically, Schwartzman, Talia Shire's son and a member of the Coppola clan, was found in Hollywood. He wore a prep school blazer with a Rushmore school patch he made himself to the audition, but it was his understanding of the humor that won Anderson over. He and Wilson had imagined Max as a Wes surrogate, skinny and awkward. (Noah Taylor was considered.) But Schwartzman made them reenvision the character as more of a Dustin Hoffman-type. 

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures

7. Olivia Williams was cast as much for her British accent as anything else. Anderson and Wilson wanted a dream woman for the role of Rosemary Cross and Williams checked all their boxes.

8. Bill Murray didn't have to be convinced to star in Rushmore. He loved the script immediately, although he had never seen Bottle Rocket. His casting would prove to be a coup. Murray was a respected comedic actor in 1998, of course, but he had never really done a movie like Rushmore. His performance changed his career. He was touted as an Oscar nominee for the first time and he started getting offers for more diverse roles. 

9. Anderson and Wilson liked Brian Cox's performance as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter so much they cast him as Dr. Guggenheim. 

10. Ronny and Donny Blume (Ronnie and Keith McCawley) were first-time actors whom a producer found arguing in a video store. Murray did not like the boys while filming and he is actually pissed off in some of their scenes together. Wilson has talked about knowing kids who would swear at their dad, like the Blumes, and he always thought it was scary... but also hilarious.

11. One thing Murray really enjoyed was blocking shots against little kids during the basketball scene. He told Anderson his kids once practiced with Hakeem Olajuwon and Hakeem did the same, dominating them. 

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures

12. Like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore is full of weird names (Mr. Littlejeans, Rowboat, Applejack) that reflect the writers' shared sense of humor.

13. Death and glory are twin themes of the film punctuated by the spiritual presence of Max's mother, who dies before the story starts. Max and his dad (Seymour Cassel) live next to a graveyard, and they visit her near the end. Mrs. Fischer's epitaph reads: "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." It's a line from "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray. Max also likes to say "Sic transit gloria" or "Glory fades."

14. Anderson found most of Rushmore's soundtrack on a CD collection of British Invasion hits. He also considered scoring the entire movie with songs by The Kinks.

15. The line that always killed at test screenings was Max's "O.R. they?" response to Luke Wilson's character saying he's wearing O.R. scrubs. The line was also Luke's contribution to the script.

16. Like Max, Owen Wilson was expelled from his private school and, like Max, he had to "make a go of it" at a public school he was unfamiliar with. 

17. Anderson was reluctant to cast Mason Gamble, who played Dennis the Menace, as Dirk Calloway simply because he was known for the high-profile role. But Gamble impressed Anderson by making adjustments "instantly and perfectly." Anderson called him a virtual "acting computer."

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures

18. An early draft of the script featured Max going to war with Dr. Guggenheim, not Herman Blume.

19. Rushmore marks the first film for Jason Schwartzman, and also, for actress Alexis Bledel, who doesn't have lines but appears in a couple scenes. She's in the Grover Cleveland classroom when Max introduces herself, and she's in the audience of "Heaven and Hell" at the end.

20. Some movie references in Rushmore

-The Godfather - Max's line, "Can you let me skate by for old time's sake?" is a direct quote. Tessio (Abe Vigoda) says it before getting whacked.

Talia Shire in 'Rocky.' (MGM)
Talia Shire in 'Rocky.' (MGM)

-Rocky - Max takes Margaret Yang's glasses off to see her without them. This is a common move in romances, but more importantly, one used in both Rocky and The Godfather. Schwartzman's mother, Talia Shire, is in both films.

-High School - Max makes a hall monitor wait for him while talking on the phone at public school just like a student in the Frederick Wiseman documentary.

-Hell Is for Heroes - Dirk and his flamethrower in slow-motion is an homage to James Coburn in the Don Siegel classic. 

-Barry Lyndon - During intermission of "Heaven and Hell," Anderson borrows two exact shots from Stanley Kubrick's film as Miss Cross approaches Herman outside.

-Bananas - Max's green corduroy suit matches Woody Allen's in the goofball 1971 comedy.

-The Graduate - Anderson shoots Blume floating underwater after diving into a pool. 

-Heat - Max buys dynamite and carries it out on his shoulder almost exactly like Val Kilmer in the 1995 heist film.

-Jacques Henri Lartigue - Not a movie reference, but a photo reference — Max sitting on his go-kart during the activities montage is an ode to child prodigy Lartigue's own 1909 photo. (Anderson and Wilson are driving two of the karts in the background.) Several of Lartigue's photos appear in the movie as well.

Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures/Everett Collection
Revealing The Secrets Of 'Rushmore' On Its 20th Anniversary
Buena Vista Pictures
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