Welcome to the wondrously warped landscape of Rushmore, a world driven by the whims of Max Fischer, a 15-year-old prep-school student who not only views a sad-sack steel tycoon as his peer but engages in a pitched battle with him for the affections of a widowed schoolteacher.
On paper this might sound hopelessly ludicrous, but director Wes Anderson makes it work by establishing the film's skewed perspective at the get-go, then building a credible world on this strange foundation.
"The premise is odd," says actor Jason Schwartzman, who plays Max. He sums up Anderson's philosophy: "Make it real and it'll be funny."
Unlike so many comedies with a teen-age protagonist, where laughs come at the expense of characters who are nothing but broadly drawn grotesques, "Rushmore" takes a different approach. Here, true eccentrics are presented with matter-of-fact clarity, and the humor grows from how they cope with the often bizarre hurdles placed in their paths.
"They're all like characters from some children's story," explains Anderson. "They're slightly exaggerated, they have weird qualities. But then we made the performances as real as we could possibly make them, combined with the fact that the actual events of their lives are very peculiar and almost unreal."
"When we did each scene," Schwartzman explains, "Wes' main direction was ‘make it like it's a documentary.' That's the way we tried to act it."
Within the context of "Rushmore," Max takes desires that for most adolescents (indeed, for most adults) would only be fantasies and transforms them, through sheer force of will, into reality. But the director and the actor have different ideas of what gives him this ability.
"Max has a ton of imagination," explains Anderson, "and he believes in himself in a super-hero kind of way. He just trusts in his own native talents and charisma and superiority and, in some ways, he's completely overestimating himself. But he does just have this feeling of confidence and drive that lets him carry things through."
"I think the movie is Max's mind," says Schwartzman. "It's told through his eyes, so nothing is impossible, and everything that Max thinks, he does, because he's ambitious. He's got no other way of acting except directly. So if he thinks something, he'll do something, and nothing can stop him. But the movie really is a fable, so everything is fantasy and everything is possible."
The way in which "Rushmore" stems from and so fully expresses the perspective of its central character, combined with Schwartzman's dead-on performance and Max's pursuit of an older woman, have drawn comparisons to director Mike Nichols' 1967 film "The Graduate." Anderson, though, insists that there wasn't any conscious decision to emulate that highly influential film (although a brief swimming-pool scene is a direct homage). He did, though, contact Nichols at one point.
"I talked to Mike Nichols about being in "Rushmore,'" he says. "I wanted him to be the headmaster [of the Rushmore Academy], but he wouldn't do it. Then I showed him the movie later and he really loved it. He helped us with a lot of things and told a lot of people about it."
Anderson, 29, who co-wrote the screenplay for his second film with longtime friend and collaborator Owen Wilson (part of the creative team behind the off-kilter caper comedy "Bottle Rocket"), filmed on location at his own alma mater, St. John's School in Houston, Texas.
"We wanted to do a school movie," says Anderson, "and almost simultaneously, there came the character of the kid who loved the school and was a terrible student."
He cast 18-year-old acting novice Schwartzman (whose mother, Talia Shire, starred in "The Godfather," directed by his uncle, Francis Ford Coppola) in the role of Max because the actor exudes sympathy: "The character does a lot of awful things, and I wanted someone that you're going to stay with in spite of all that."
In the end, Max holds us because he's quirky but understandable. "Max sees himself as an adult who has work to do, but he's a teen-ager, and he's a rebel," says Anderson -- "even though he doesn't want to be."