Twenty years ago, Texas filmmaker Wes Anderson joined college buddies Luke and Owen Wilson to shop their short caper “Bottle Rocket” in the hope of turning it into a feature.
Meanwhile, fellow Texan Richard Linklater had just released the drama “Before Sunrise,” his third low-budget cult flick that made little dent at the box office but continued to cement his reputation as a new breed of independent filmmaker.
Flash-forward 20 years, and these do-it-yourself artists are now contenders at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
Anderson’s whimsical period comedy “The Grand Budapest Hotel” received the most nominations — nine — including picture and director. Linklater’s “Boyhood” earned six nominations and stands as the main competition against front-runner Alejandro Inarritu’s “Birdman.”
Even those who consider themselves longtime fans of the indie auteurs are surprised at how the two have gone from hipster outsiders to mainstream successes, all while maintaining the artistic qualities that defined their early work.
These men have hardly sold out to Hollywood. Instead, the industry and audiences have made the adjustment to embrace their unique creative sensibilities.
“Boyhood” represents one of cinema’s most dedicated undertakings — a masterpiece of both scale and intimacy. The drama reveals scenes in the life of a Texas kid (Ellar Coltrane) beginning in grade school and ending when he enters college.
Linklater shot it as a series of short vignettes over a dozen years. The assembled result allows viewers to watch the boy actually mature, along with seeing the effects time has on the lives of his divorced parents (Oscar nominees Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette).
“‘Boyhood’ is a very special cinematic experiment, almost along the lines of something French New Wave godhead Jean-Luc Godard might have come up with,” says Marc Savlov, who has been covering film for The Austin Chronicle since 1991.
“It’s so remarkable, given the nature of its production, that it really had to be at the very least acknowledged by academy voters. The majority of the general public, on the other hand, probably hasn’t seen it yet. If it wins best pic, they might, but it’s still a cultural long shot insofar as ‘weekend moviegoers’ are concerned.”
Linklater first dabbled with this time-jumping concept in “Before Sunrise,” which follows the romantic relationship of a couple (“Boyhood” star Hawke and Julie Delpy) who reunite in nine-year intervals. He even earned Academy Award nominations for adapted screenplay for 2005’s “Before Sunset” and last year’s “Before Midnight.” But that was the extent of his Oscar aspirations prior to the accolades that “Boyhood” began piling up.
Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” provides a supersized version of the meticulously shot efforts that characterize his distinctive style, and he is widely expected to win the original screenplay award.
Ralph Fiennes portrays an eminent concierge at a majestic hotel in prewar Europe. Tony Revolori plays the apprentice lobby boy who learns his trade secrets amid the peril of invading armies and rich heirs attempting to secure a family fortune. The film unites all of the Anderson hallmarks: an ensemble cast of acclaimed regulars, an eccentric soundtrack, colorful sets and a roving camera that obsessively favors centralized framing a la Stanley Kubrick.
Savlov first interviewed Anderson and the Wilson brothers in 1996 when “Bottle Rocket” was gaining traction at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin.
“All three struck me as wholly original and gifted talents,” he says. “Anderson’s films have gone in a totally different stylistic and tonal direction since then. Almost all of his films since 1996 have ended up on my year-end Top 10 lists.”
However, critical accolades and Oscar nominations don’t necessarily entice theatergoers to pay to see the flicks.
Fortunately, word of mouth (and recent award victories for “Boyhood”) helped bolster the features. “Boyhood” cost $4 million and has so far grossed $25 million domestically. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” cost $26 million and ended up with $59 million in theatrical revenues. But except for “American Sniper,” which made more than $300 million at the box office, none of the best picture nominees topped $100 million.
It’s worth noting that the 54-year-old Linklater alternates between art projects such as the three-character ensemble piece “Tape” and oddball rotoscoped productions “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly” with far more accessible multiplex works such as the Jack Black musical “School of Rock” and a remake of the Little League classic “The Bad News Bears.”
The 45-year-old Anderson, on the other hand, has never once flirted with a conventional studio picture, despite his ability to recruit marquee acting talent such as George Clooney, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller and Bruce Willis.
Lawrence-based author Mathew Klickstein, whose recent book “Slimed” details the influence of TV’s Nickelodeon, says Anderson and Linklater are emblematic of a growing cultural shift.
“Over the last decade, geek culture has become profoundly pervasive. Not only in pop culture but in other media,” says Klickstein, whose upcoming book (a 2016 release for Penguin Random House) looks at the ascendency of nerds/geeks/outsiders in the eyes of pop culture and mainstream media.
“Aside from the obvious image of Anderson as a prototypical glasses-wearing nerd himself, he and Linklater have long been proponents of the outsider, the goofball, the misfit — those who are best exemplified by nerd culture today,” he says.
Anderson tends to feature loners operating in their own insular world (“Moonrise Kingdom,” “Rushmore,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”). Linklater leans toward loners aiming for mass acceptance (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused”).
Klickstein notes that audiences are more likely to empathize with geek culture today than they were two decades ago. Back then, those nerdy qualities were associated primarily with pencil-pushing computer programmers who attended “Star Trek” conventions.
Now everyone is something of a tech expert, thanks to constant exposure to this era’s necessities: computers, smartphones, etc. Thus nerds are more accepted and revered. And they’re now more interchangeable with those considered hipsters — a merging of the outsider with the insider.
“These filmmakers are able to bring together a quirky, unique sensibility in a way that is also very commercial,” Klickstein says. “They’ve learned from the blockbusters they grew up on.”
Even with their reputations for independent tactics, he says Anderson and Linklater — and other indie directors often lumped in with them — may have always had their sights on eventual mainstream recognition.
“Why is it that hipster filmmakers, like Kevin Smith for example, are constantly espousing their love for these really big-deal moviemakers: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and so forth? Why aren’t they aspiring to be the smaller-guy filmmakers: Hal Ashby, Woody Allen, Rainer Fassbinder?” he asks. “It’s like the nerdy kid sitting on a bench and wishing he was the football player instead of the president of the chess club.”
Sunday, Anderson and Linklater will enjoy their shot at reaching the biggest (and most traditional) audience of their careers when attending the 87th Academy Awards, an event that drew 43 million TV viewers last year. There’s no concrete way of knowing whether this exposure will affect the moviemaking approaches of the pair. But given their long and headstrong track record, it’s a safe bet they’ll continue to do things their own way.
As Owen Wilson says in “Bottle Rocket”: “Everybody wants to know what’s next. May I enjoy this moment?”
The 87th Academy Awards are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. ABC’s pre-ceremony coverage begins at 6 p.m.
▪ A complete list of nominees, D6
▪ Our picks to win the night’s biggest awards, D7