It's difficult to pinpoint the root of Rushmore's offbeat sensibility, but the movie's visual style has something to do with it. A comedy directed by Wes Anderson and co-written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, Rushmore is distinguished by its anamorphic format and use of wide-angle lenses, as well as by Bill Murray and newcomer Jason Schwartzman's droll performances. Anderson laid a few obstacles in DP Robert Yeoman's path: He wanted the film to be widescreen, but he also wanted depth of field. That meant lots of light, most of which had to be crammed into practical locations.
"We liked the widescreen because we could get more characters within the frame," says Yeoman, who also shot Anderson and Wilson's debut feature collaboration, Bottle Rocket. "It allowed us to do more interesting compositions, and sometimes use the blocking of the actors as opposed to making more cuts." During the film's closing sequence at a school dance, for example, Yeoman manages to encompass seven or eight main characters in one frame. "You couldn't do that in 1:1.85 effectively," he says.
The wide lenses, which give the actors' faces a slight, comical bulge in closeup, are a personal quirk of Anderson's. "He just likes the look," says Yeoman. "We used a 40mm anamorphic lens, which is like a 20mm spherical lens, most of the time. On the closeups of [female lead] Olivia Williams, sometimes we put up a longer lens, just to be more flattering."
Rushmore is the story of Max Fischer (Schwartzman), a 15-year-old scholarship enrollee at the titular private academy. Max, a mediocre student but extracurricular overachiever, suffers many tribulations: He befriends a local steel tycoon (Murray) who falls in love with the first-grade teacher (Williams) for whom Max pines, and he is kicked out of Rushmore and must attend public school.
Yeoman and Anderson chose a warm look, with quarter-CTO on the lights, for Rushmore Academy, which was represented onscreen by the director's high school alma mater, St. John's in Houston. The public school, shot at another Houston location, was given a "much cooler, flatter lighting style," says the DP. Everywhere, a large amount of light was needed for depth of field. "We were shooting interiors at f5.6 or 8. At the public school, we doubled the overhead fluorescents, changing them out to have Kino Flo daylight globes. We were using 12k HMIs, and for tungsten lights, we were using Mole-Richardson Maxi Brutes and 10ks. It was tough--when you start bringing lights into a room, the room gets very small very quickly."
Highlights of the film include a couple of student plays written by, directed by, and starring Max. One is a literally explosive Vietnam War extravaganza: "Wes wanted it to be like Apocalypse Now," says Yeoman, whose other credits include Drugstore Cowboy, Permanent Midnight, and the upcoming Kevin Smith film Dogma. "It was all tungsten lighting, with color gels, very dramatic." Another, Max's version of the Serpico story, "was more student-y, and much less grand in the lighting. But the kids in it were St. John's kids. I think the school looked at it as a chance for them to have a different experience."
Rushmore, one of the hits of the 1998 New York Film Festival, was released last month by Touchstone Pictures.