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Pop Pilgrims 2012: Houston: The Rushmore School

The A.V. Club
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June 10, 2012 AT 8:00 PM
The world of Houston prep schools is small. Students who attend one of them are familiar with the others, and at some point, probably spend some time at them. As a student of Strake Jesuit College Preparatory, I spent some miserable nights running track and field's worst races—the 800; 1,600; and 3,200—on the cushy track of St. John's School. That's why, when I saw Wes Anderson's delightful 1998 film Rushmore, I recognized exactly where it had been filmed.Rushmore was St. John's. Grover Cleveland, the school Max Fischer attends once Rushmore expels him, was Lamar High, the public school across the street from St. John's. The stadium parking lot where Max and Dirk fly kites was about 10 minutes from my house. I knew the hotel where Mr. Blume stays, and I had a pretty good idea where the house Ms. Cross lived in was. Houston didn't have many film credits—I loathed Urban Cowboy as a kid, Robocop 2 was no Robocop, and I mostly knew Terms Of Endearment because it made my mom and sisters cry—so I was thrilled by Rushmore, made by a guy who, like me, grew up in Houston and attended a hoity-toity prep school.When we filmed the first season of Pop Pilgrims last year, we selected cities and picked three locations from each. I couldn't make much of a case for Houston, and anyway, we had a great Wes Anderson location in New York with the Royal Tenenbaums house. This year, we let the locations, not the city, guide us, and considering what big fans we are of Wes Anderson here at The A.V. Club, it was easy to pick Houston and St. John's. (I still haven't received a citation from the city for bringing in literally dozens of production dollars.)Wes Anderson never intended to shoot his second film at his old school. He looked for locations in the United Kingdom and even considered a run-down high school in Detroit to stand in for Grover Cleveland. As he recently told St. John's student newspaper, The Review, it wasn't until he saw some photos of St. John's that he realized the places he had been imagining were the ones he knew from going to school there.That wasn't the only serendipitous part of Rushmore's production. The crew distributed flyers at homes in the West University neighborhood, looking for a location for Rosemary Cross' house. One of the people who responded, and the house Anderson ended up using, happened to be one he'd been in before, because it belonged to his classmate Josh Pesikoff. Anderson ended up shooting a bunch of scenes at the house—which Pesikoff's parents still live in today—including the underwater shots from the birthday-party scene. (Fans will notice the pool Bill Murray jumps into—wearing his amazing Budweiser trunks—has a sickly green color, which precluded Anderson from shooting underwater.) Rushmore shot in the winter of 1997-1998, and even though Houston has mild winters, the production had to spring for a new pool heater to shoot at the Pesikoff house, because theirs was broken.Mrs. Pesikoff has a great scrapbook with photos from the production, an invitation to the Houston première, and articles about the film, and she has plenty of stories about hanging out with the cast and crew. Bill Murray was a joy. Jason Schwartzman played songs on her piano. Olivia Williams was kind. Wes Anderson and his crew were friendly and respectful—the complete opposite of what her neighbors told her to expect from Hollywood people. They had told her the house would be in shambles when it was all over, but that wasn't the case.For St. John's, it was the school's moment in the sun. Anderson avoided disrupting its normal routines, shooting on the weekends and during winter break, aside from the clandestine casting sessions he and friend/classmate/St. John's teacher Mike Maggart held in Maggart's classroom. It's the one that opens the film, with Max solving an impossibly difficult geometry problem (in reality, a fairly routine one involving ellipses). Maggart, whom Anderson suggested to us as a guest for this segment, also had a speaking part in the film as the clerk who checks Mr. Blume into his hotel. Although terrified to be working in a scene opposite Bill Murray, Maggart quickly relaxed when Murray confessed he didn't know any of his lines. Maggart remains friends with Anderson—and even shot a commercial with him—though he left St. John's a few years ago to start his own company. Shooting Pop Pilgrims was his first time back at the school since he left, and he was treated as a bit of a rock star. Here was a guy who was not only around when Rushmore shot at the school, he's pals with Wes Anderson! Iman Charania, a reporter from the school paper, interviewed him (and us), which also led to an interview with Anderson himself—the holy grail of the student newspaper for 15 years. (You can download a .PDF of it.)When we visited the University Of Oregon last year to shoot at the Animal House cafeteria, former university president Dave Frohnmayer told us about the school's traditional ambivalence toward the film: Some years they liked it, and other years they didn't think it was the most appropriate primer on university life. But three decades later, Frohnmayer had settled into liking it.There's no such ambivalence at St. John's, as headmaster Mark Desjardins told us. He's an enthusiastic fan of Rushmore. He told us it fits well with the advice he gives to students: "Don't peak in high school." Many members of the faculty enjoy it as well: One teacher has a poster of it in his classroom, and he came running up to us in the library to talk about what he loves about the film. Another described how it dawned on him when he visited the place for the first time that it was the school from Rushmore. Another said that he could see how the school informed Anderson's style. While we were shooting, a couple staff members found an old Styrofoam "Rushmore Academy" sign that had been used during shooting. All of them are psyched to be a part of Rushmore's legacy, as Maggart reiterates to us in the video. It's always fun to go to these places and see how they embrace their peculiar kind of fame. And doubly so at St. John's, which has a stronger connection to Rushmore than a lot of Pop Pilgrims destinations have to their films and shows, because this film came from one of their own. It felt that way to me, even though I primarily knew St. John's from dry-heaving on its track. But hey, at least I'll have something to talk to Wes Anderson about if I ever get the chance.