How Producer Kit Carson's Protege Wes Anderson Got Drugged His First Night in Hollywood
THR film reporter Tim Appelo remembers how the late producer launched the filmmaker's career by championing 'Bottle Rocket'
L.M. Kit Carson, the pioneer indie film producer/director/actor/USA film festival founder who died Oct. 20 at 73, was a crucial early mentor and inspiration to Roman Coppola, but he's best known for launching Wes Anderson, Owen, Luke and Andrew Wilson, and their debut film Bottle Rocket (1994). As Anderson told critic Matt Zoller Seitz, "Kit was the one who got [Bottle Rocket] to this person and that person. He had a sense of what happens next." But when Carson took Anderson to meet me on his first night in Hollywood in November 1993, Anderson's career nearly blew up on the launchpad.
I sat down with Carson, Anderson, and one of his Texas friends at the celebrity-infested restaurant Babylon. I wanted to be the first journalist to make the unknown Anderson as famous as Christian Slater at the next table. Unfortunately, I was doing a magazine article about Hollywood nightlife after River Phoenix's Viper Room OD death, and my lead-footed chauffeur and nightlife tour guide was Oscar-winning producer and druggie Julia Phillips, who got Martin Scorsese to cast Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and wanted to accelerate the rise of Anderson's star, too. She told me, "That kid reminds me of what Steven Spielberg used to be like." Phillips no longer had the cocaine addiction immortalized in her bestseller You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again and Juliann Garey's recent Hollywood roman a clef Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See, but she had just invented what she hoped would be the latest drug craze, Ecstasy soaked into a joint in a microwave oven. Still annoyed and amused that Spielberg had been so pot-averse at her Malibu beach parties in their youth, she was determined to take another youngster on a magic carpet ride. I refused to smoke her concoction, so she took Anderson and his fellow callow Texas friend outside.
Phillips pranced back into Babylon alone, delightedly clapping her hands, exclaiming, "I was a naughty girl! I made the boys throw up!" I fumed in silent fury, and Carson looked aghast. “It was worse than that,” Anderson told me years later. “One of us collapsed into the dirt, just like River Phoenix.” I wrote up the incident without anyone's names, but a friend faxed the article with sarcastic comments to Anderson's home office at his mom's place in Texas, and his mom gave the hung-over auteur a tongue-lashing for falling in with the wrong crowd. “We really liked Julia, though,” Anderson told me.
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Anderson failed to follow Phoenix's footsteps to oblivion, and Carson kept promoting him relentlessly. "Kit knew Barbara Boyle, Barbara Boyle knew Polly Platt, and Polly Platt knew Jim Brooks, Anderson told Seitz. "When that path was complete, the future of [Bottle Rocket] was decided. The one guy who was actually in a position to say, 'Yes, this is going to happen' — well, that guy saw it and read it. And his name was Jim."
"Kit got left behind, like Broadway Danny Rose," says one screenwriter who wishes Carson had attained greater fame and a payday closer to the $3.3 billion the Bottle Rocket kids' movies grossed. But maybe it was inevitable. Carson was a one-of-a-kind dynamo, talent detector and career-starter, but he was stubbornly, inspiringly against the grain. He was way more mainstream than the gun-running revolutionary he played in the River Phoenix film Running on Empty, but like him he seemed like an underground guy, dazzlingly quirky, putting his own stamp on film culture, and trying to raise the bar for everybody, especially the young rebels coming up. James L. Brooks was a bit like that too, as he proved Oct. 1 in his video interview in THR's The Hollywood Masters series at LMU.
Seitz got Anderson and Owen Wilson to give this final tribute to Kit Carson:
"We met Kit twenty years ago. He and his wife Cynthia Hargrave had come back to Texas to put Kit's actual, biological son Hunter through school there, and we submitted ourselves to be the adopted ones: hoping to become his latest discoveries. (We weren't the first. He was a natural guru.) He was the only person we had ever met who actually worked in the movie business, and we had never come across someone who so automatically and instinctively turned any idea or experience or suggestion into a story -- a pitch. Sometimes it was only at the end of the story that you realized: this has a purpose. He's advising us. These are 'notes.' He gave us a one-on-one tutorial in script-writing and short-film-editing (and, also, a lesson in how to hustle a project into its existence)....He introduced us to the rest of our lives. We drifted apart over the years, but we've missed him, and we'll keep missing him. He was a good guru."