Tuesday, May 15, 2007

At long last: 'The Wendell Baker Story'

Two years after I reviewed this engagingly offbeat comedy-drama for Variety at SXSW, The Wendell Baker Story opens Friday in limited release. Go. Enjoy. And savor how funny the Wilson brothers -- Luke, Owen and Andrew -- can be when they're channeling the '70s.

To repeat a Q&A from SXSW '05:

Q: The Wendell Baker Story certainly is family affair. Luke, you wrote it and play the title role, and you co-directed it with your brother Andrew. And you cast your brother Owen as the villain of the piece.

LUKE: Well, he always has me playing nut cases in things he’s written. Or guys who have to go into the hospital for exhaustion. But, really, I just thought Owen could do a good, funny job with that guy. It was one of those characters that could have been a little too broad. But the way Owen did it, it turned out pretty well.

OWEN: [Laughs] Actually, I was surprised by the way the movie turned out. Because the way it was pitched to me was, I was kind of the hero of the movie. And I was a little disappointed, because I didn’t feel I really had the audience on my side.

Q: Luke and Andrew, how did you divide the directing duties?

LUKE: We never really sat down and talked about it. I always thought, well, I like talking to actors, and Andrew's got a good visual sense.

ANDREW: At first, Luke was going to direct it by himself. But the idea of him being in almost every scene and then having to try to direct it – well, it seemed a little bit daunting, and he might need some help… Over time, he just realized it was maybe best to kind of keep it within the family.

OWEN: Actually, I sort of felt like both Luke and Andrew were directing me. Although Andrew was probably talking to me more about my character, I noticed that Luke would be sort of whispering stuff to him. Like, criticism.Q: Owen, how would you compare Andrew and Luke as directors?

OWEN: Andrew seems like he’s more easygoing, whereas Luke can be sort of tightly wound. But Andrew can snap. At one point, I think because of the pressure of making the movie, he did kind of lose it a little bit. It was scary.

LUKE: [Laughs] Yeah, Harry Dean Stanton was looking at Andrew sleeping while we were coming down here on the plane yesterday. And he said, “You know, if he wasn’t so physically powerful, I’d kick his ass.”

Q: Stanton, Kris Kristofferson and Seymour Cassel play residents of the retirement home where Wendell Baker lands a job when he’s released from prison.

ANDREW: It was kind of a nice connection to the movies we liked from the 1970s -- people like Seymour and Harry Dean and Kristofferson were in a lot of those movies that we admire. It was incredible to work with those guys and get to see Harry Dean and Kris Kristofferson in a scene together when they have been in scenes together in some of my favorite movies of all time.

Q: Wendell Baker starts out as a con man, selling fake I.D. cards to illegal aliens. But even when he tries to go straight, he gets into trouble because Neil King, the owner of the retirement home, is scamming money from the old folks -- and trying to implicate Wendell.

LUKE: I always wrote the part of Neil King for Owen without ever really telling him until late in the game. I wrote it simply, because I knew Owen could take it and make it more. And he did just that -- made it a lot more.

OWEN: Actually, I sort of modeled Neil after the way Andrew was on the set.

Q: When you’re shooting a movie in your home state of Texas – specifically, Austin – do you sense a different vibe than you do in Hollywood?

LUKE: One of the big differences you find when you make a movie down here is, you have really tight-knit crews. People don’t seem to be just punching the clock and going through the motions. I mean, it seems like everybody on the crew actually bothers to read the script ahead of time. That’s kind of unusual. And it’s a smaller community, so they all seem to know each other.

OWEN: You always see those T-shirts that say “Keep Austin Weird.” And I think there really is a kind of better appreciation here for eccentric characters. Like the very eccentric characters in this movie.

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