They chose a well-worn corner of Güero’s Taco Bar on South Congress Avenue for the chat.
Luke Wilson and Steve Eckelman are familiar with the menu and the staff. Austin resident Eckelman employs the eatery as “an office away from the office,” while frequent visitor Wilson has long enjoyed its South Congress vibe.
“I’ve known Steve since I was 9,” says the youngest of Hollywood’s Wilson brothers, who grew up in Dallas. “He was in school with my brother Andrew and was one of those guys who didn’t know that a senior in high school is not usually friends with somebody in fifth grade.”
Eckelman — thin, fair, precise — has worked as a personal assistant on various Wilson-related movies. He produced with Wilson — stolid, funny, a bit shaggy today — “Satellite Beach,” a short that follows the Endeavour space shuttle on its last journey through the streets of Los Angeles to the California Science Center and the transfer of the Atlantis space shuttle to the Kennedy Space Center. It screened last week at Spider House.
Before that, Wilson was emcee at the Texas Film Awards at Austin Studios on Thursday.
The longtime friends are also working on “Juarez 9,” a Wilson-penned action comedy set in Mexico, and then “Tower,” a documentary based on the Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas in 1966, inspired by Pam Colloff’s article in Texas Monthly.
Wilson got the idea for “Satellite Beach” from an article in the Los Angeles Times about how the Endeavor would piggyback on a 747, land at LAX, then travel very slowly 11 or 12 miles through the urban streets to the science center. Eight hundred trees were removed to make way for the behemoth.
“I saw this guy who ran it,” Wilson says of shuttle manager Warren Flowers. “The perfect guy for the perfect job. He went to bed thinking about it. Woke up thinking about it. Drove the route every day.”
During the movie, as Flowers, Wilson yells out commands, directs traffic, asks people to move out of the way.
“You find out at the end, he’s not in charge,” Wilson says. “He shows up for a party afterward and nobody is there.”
According to the original sketch — there is no script, Wilson improvised it all — Flowers shows up at the after-party and is not able to get in. The shuttle transfer, however, took longer than expected, so the real party was canceled or postponed.
“We understood that we wouldn’t be able to get within two blocks of the route,” Eckelman says. “In the end, though, the police let people up close.”
Some of the police recognized Wilson, but let the filming continue with what looked like a still camera and an expert cinematographer. The crew rented a van and just took off from there.
“We went to Sears for Luke’s wardrobe,” Eckelman says. “And he carried around this silver clipboard. We had this million-dollar production design in the form of the shuttle.”
Midway through the California shoot, Wilson started to wear out.
“I started feeling like the crazy guy,” he says. “I can’t go up to anyone else. Some people turned on us.”
At one point, the crew realized that, across the continent, the Atlantis shuttle would be moved in Florida, so they headed to the Kennedy Space Center, where they were given total access.
“They kept asking us what it was about,” Eckelman says. “It’s about a crazy guy. But they kept coming up with even crazier ideas.”
Wilson, who had been watching the shuttle launches since childhood, was sad to see the NASA workers tearing down the launchpad and retiring the shuttle.
“People were crying,” he says. “People who had worked on it for years.”
The producers hope to release the 27-minute film in some digital format like iTunes, but also would like to see it shown at NASA facilities. Before that, it is riding through the standard festival circuit. Since “Satellite Beach” won at Santa Barbara, it will be eligible for an Oscar nomination next year.
“The long-form feature is dead!” Wilson jokes. “It’s become a bloated reflection of everything that’s wrong with movies.”
Of late, Wilson hasn’t been as visible in movies as he was in the past.
“I have a lot of ideas that I don’t get around to,” he says. Wilson was tired, too, of pitching stories to executives, who shared notes, but never made the movies. “I was beat down. We didn’t want notes, except from the people working on it. We wanted to do it our way.”
Eckelman and Wilson are headed back to Tabasco, Mexico, to work on “Juarez 9,” a movie about a Triple A baseball player from San Antonio who is recruited to play for a Mexican team owned by a crooked politician. Their Mexican production company is somewhat bemused by the anxiety evident among the Americans.
“You get so wound up hearing that it’s dangerous down there,” Wilson says. “If you landed in L.A. and somebody said there was a shooting downtown, you don’t get scared to go to L.A.”
For the relaxed Güero’s chat, Wilson took time out from prepping for the Texas Film Awards.
“I’m hosting, which lets you know they are really going through the Texas entertainers,” Wilson says with a smile. “They are really nice people. They’ve been trying to give Owen and me lifetime achievement awards. That’s kind of you, but, hopefully, we still have another decade or so in us.”