Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou looks, at first, as though it’s the inevitable final entry in what you might call Anderson’s Great-Search-for-a-Father-Figure Trilogy. It’s of a piece with previous Anderson movies like Rushmore (1998) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), in that it features a selfish bastard (Bill Murray in the first; Gene Hackman in the second) who, in crumbling middle age, decides it’s important to impart some of his wisdom, or at least his hard-won cynical savvy, to a young man who views him as a father figure, if not an actual father. What’s with the dad thing, Wes?
“I finally realized it’s just the opposite of what I really grew up with, and for me there’s something exotic about it,” says the 35-year-old Houston-born filmmaker, who wrote Aquatic with his friend Noah Baumbach. “I’m drawn to those father-figure characters that are larger-than-life people, and I’ve sought out mentors who are like that, so I relate to them. But they’re not my father.”
In Life Aquatic, Murray stars as the bearded, red-beret’d Steve Zissou—half- oceanographer, half–hack filmmaker; a schlock Jacques Cousteau—facing the waning popularity of the undersea documentaries that once made him rich and famous. He’s surrounded himself with a band of now-not-so-merry men, a doughty crew that includes a hotheaded, melancholy Teutonic fellow played by Willem Dafoe and—until his demise in the teeth of a watery beast Zissou dubs the “jaguar shark”—a fellow named Esteban du Plantier, played by Anderson favorite (and before that, John Cassavetes stock player) Seymour Cassel. Preparing a voyage to avenge Esteban’s death and film one more exploration that will cap his career with glory and money—“the last adventure I’ve got in me,” he says with mock hubris—Zissou encounters surprises: Owen Wilson as Ned Plimpton, his long-lost son; Cate Blanchett as a grouchily pregnant journalist intent on determining whether Zissou is a fraud or a hero; a run-in with his arch-nemesis, a more commercial oceanographer played by Jeff Goldblum; and a large number of hostile “Filipino pirates.”
I tell Anderson this is probably a stupid question, but it was hard for me to pin down when this movie was supposed to take place—its mixture of old-fashioned seafaring equipment, of oddly shaped guns and tools, left me perplexed.
“Not a stupid question, and almost impossible to answer,” he replies. “From the first movie I did [1994’s Bottle Rocket], I almost unconsciously decided to not specify where [my movies] were taking place, and to fill them with details that were not of any particular time period. With this movie, I think the props and gadgets are coming from the seventies, the sixties, and even the fifties. It’s just by chance, because I’m drawn to old analog gear, which sets any movie into a Blue Velvet–type unknown period. I like that feeling of displacement.”
The Life Aquatic reportedly cost about as much as The Royal Tenenbaums grossed at the box office—more than $50 million—and the director has told the New York Times that the burden of this budget meant the film “needs to be broader.” Did he mean reaching a broader audience than his usual adoring cult following, or reaching for much broader humor?
“A little of both, I guess. You don’t want things to get too broad, but a lot of times, I couldn’t do the sort of controlling I like to have on this project … I mean, just dealing with being on the water—I couldn’t control things the way I usually want to, and I think some of that spills over into what you shoot.”
What Anderson has shot is at once his most ambitious, emotionally varied, and wobbly movie to date. At times, this most “outdoorsy” of his major releases feels a little hemmed in by his stylized approach: the beautifully composed shots of people staring straight into the camera, and the long, risibly uncomfortable silences at which Anderson excels (sometimes it seems he’d be happiest directing a Buster Keaton silent film, all deadpan rigor). You get the feeling Anderson may be struggling to break free of the “controlling” instinct he refers to, and the struggle itself becomes interesting, if kinda distracting. Anderson says he ultimately found Aquatic’s technical challenges “much more freeing” than he’d expected. As for Murray, the actor has his own agenda: He’s intent on further perfecting the clean-slate stare he deployed so effectively in Lost in Translation, and therefore doesn’t communicate the full frustration, anguish, and ambivalence that Steve Zissou is experiencing at this point in his life. But he’s also game for a startling amount of goofy slapstick—you don’t hand Bill Murray a gun and a deck full of rifle-toting pirates and not get a swarmingly silly spectacle.
“I think you can walk the edge between the corny thing and the thing that moves you: That’s what you hope for.”
“Hey, that’s pretty good—that gets at a lot of things!” says Anderson. He laughs, and we jokingly agree that I’ll write that he said that stuff. “Yeah,” he says softly, his Texas twang suddenly becoming more pronounced. “I’m really tired.”
“That’s what I mean about the water—that scene was a nightmare to shoot,” says Anderson. “You’d get all these pirates on one ship, and then get the main actors in place, and a boat positioned behind them so the viewer could get some perspective on the scale we were working with, and the boats are heaving back and forth, and by the time you get everything all set up, the sun is gone.”
So it was a rough shoot, as Murray has suggested in some comments.“Oh, Bill likes to play up how tough things are, how much he had to work. It wasn’t like Lawrence of Arabia or anything. That’s Bill’s idea of making an interview funny.”
And so, it would seem, are lines from Murray that, if not improvised, are brilliantly attuned to his dead-eyed, shrugged-off manner. “This gizmo’s outta juice,” he mutters, tossing a spent weapon aside. He also suggests to Wilson’s Ned that, rather than call him Dad, he refer to him as “Steve-sy.” And defending a young crew member, Murray snaps, “Don’t point that gun at him—he’s an unpaid intern!” Any of this ad-libbed? “No!” says Anderson proudly. “I mean, Bill improvises in the way he’ll say a line, but everything you just cited was in the script.”
The climax of the movie, it’s not revealing too much to say, involves a scene in which Zissou, after his final film premieres, hoists a little boy onto his shoulders and marches down a row of stone steps. It’s the sort of quiet, atypical moment—for Murray and for Anderson—that could have been corny, don’t you think? “To have the hero putting an adorable boy on his shoulders? Sure! That has very little to do with directing, if that comes off. It has everything to do with Bill and the little boy. There’s some kind of weird metaphor that we were striving for, that we didn’t want to shy away from. I think you can walk the edge between the corny thing and the thing that moves you: That’s what you hope for.”
And what is the weird metaphor?
“I feel like there’s something about the sea; there are these characters who die, and there’s this whole mission that Bill and his gang are on. It’s some kind of family they’re trying to become. And there’s some ocean metaphor, this thing that they’re all missing that they want to connect with.”
Almost like the ocean is the amniotic fluid that Cate Blanchett’s baby’s in, that they’re all floating in, looking for comfort?