Director Wes Anderson on the journey of The Life Aquatic

If you didn't know any better, and you spotted him in a coffee shop, you would never guess that this guy is Wes Anderson. With his long brown hair, soft voice, and sensitive demeanor, you might expect to see this guy at a poetry reading. But not on the red carpet.

He might look like he's just 25 years old (he's 35, actually), but Anderson has unleashed three consecutive critical darlings: Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums. Now with his fourth film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, starring Bill Murray, he attempts an adventure/comedy/drama that is far more ambitious than his earlier, smaller, character-driven stories. He spoke to the press about his latest film.

So Wes, why do you see so much sadness in Bill Murray?

Wes Anderson: Because it's there. If you just look into his eyes, you can't really escape it. The way he comes off in Lost in Translation, and Rushmore, also—I didn't see it before we were working together, really. But when I met him, and then when I looked at the dailies in Rushmore, I just felt like there was something tragic in him.

You must have known that it was somewhat there beforehand...

Wes Anderson: To cast him? Yeah. You know, I'll tell you the movies of his that really grabbed me. I loved him in Ghostbusters and Stripes and all those, but Mad Dog and Glory, Ed Wood, The Razor's Edge, and Tootsie—those movies were really why I really wanted him to be in Rushmore. And Mad Dog and Glory, he's great in that movie. He's definitely got that sadness in that one, too. He's got so much anger in that one, that [the melancholy] is kind of offset, but it's there.

Well anyone that loves The Razor's Edge I'm sure would be a friend for him forever . . .

Wes Anderson: But he's great in it. I think that he was kind of slaughtered for that movie—

He was slaughtered.

Wes Anderson: Maybe the movie's not a great movie—the movie doesn't quite gel—but he's very appealing in it. And he's doing this thing where he's a comic actor, and he's suddenly taking a dramatic role, but he's funny in it.

But no one wanted to take him seriously at that point.

Wes Anderson: That's right.

This movie [Life Aquatic] seems to bear a lot of resemblance to the John Huston's shaggy dog movie Beat the Devil. Was that a direct influence, in having Anjelica here?

Wes Anderson: No it wasn't, but I know what you mean. That's a movie that I had to see like three times before I quite got it, but then I really loved it. But I think you're right. I think you're right. And we shot in the same place...We shot at Gore Vidal's house in that town.

Did you think that William Defoe was doing the Peter Lorre part?

Wes Anderson: [Laughs.] That's a good idea. I like that. I'll use that.

The Jaguar-Shark seems to be a Moby Dick like character. Do you think that if Zissou was permitted to kill the shark, he would have?

Wes Anderson: No. He's not really a hunter, in the end. He's not a scientist, either. I think he's a just a filmmaker, or at least a storyteller, and that's what he wants to do.

Can you talk a little bit about Cate Blanchett, and why you chose her for the role?

Wes Anderson: Well she was pregnant, for one thing, which was lucky. Because halfway through the film we got to get rid of the fake stomach and we could show her real stomach. I cast her because I was a fan, and wanted to work with her. She is easily the most prepared actor I've ever worked with. She arrives with a few questions, which you would only have if you've been rehearsing yourself extensively. And she's got everything completely worked out.

Which is quite different from people like Bill or Owen. You're very likely to see them getting wired for sound, but also running their lines with each other. And I'm like, "Weren't you guys just in the trailer for three hours?" Watching pay-per-view. But that's their approach. Everything for them is about spontaneity. And Owen and Bill are two of the best guys I've ever met when it comes to improvising right on camera. I never did this, and I should have, but there are no two better people to just give the idea of the scene, and then just step back and watch them come up with. But I think that for somebody like Cate, who's so prepared, it can be a little intimidating for guys like that. Which is good, because both of those characters are somewhat intimidated by her character anyways.

So you think she was intimidating to the guys on set?

Wes Anderson: A little bit. With her professionalism.

You wrote this short story back in college. Can you talk about how the story has changed over time?

Wes Anderson: The story I wrote in college—it's only a paragraph. All there is in that short story, is that there's this guy Steve Zissou—actually he's Steve Coctou in the story—his wife Eleanor, and then his ship, the Belafonte. And he's making a show for Italian television, which isn't exactly the same in the movie.

So was Anjelica Huston lying to us when she said that you didn't allow improvise?

Wes Anderson: Well, no, I was saying that those guys didn't improvise. They're great at it, but I didn't really give them that venue to do it. But there's a place in the movie where Bill Murray points a gun at the pregnant reporter, and that was improvised.

What about the scene where Bill comes up with the dog's name, Cody? That look improvised.

Wes Anderson: That's what he's playing. He's supposed to be thinking it up right there, and that's how convincing he is, because you thought that he was just making it up right there. But it was shot out of sequence, because we probably already shot the scene where he said, "Goodbye, Cody."

Your films are very popular with a certain type of audience. Your films are so personal. Were you surprised to find people that connect so much with your movies?

Wes Anderson: I was never more confident than when we made Bottle Rocket. I felt like, "Just wait ‘till they see this! This is going to be great!" And I had people warning me; they said that this was an odd movie. And I was like, "No, no, you guys don't understand." And then we had our first test screening, and that was when my confidence was brought down to its current level, where it stayed. Because we had 85 people walk out of the 250-seat room. And we started re-writing the movie. We had already shot it and finished editing it. But we started re-writing it. We wrote a new opening, and we filled in all kinds of gaps. And re-shot things. Because we had James L. Brooks producing it, he could get us more money. He basically gave us money of his own, and said, "Let's fix it." From then on, I'm always surprised and pleased to find any audience.

Is there a $150 million Wes Anderson film?

Wes Anderson: Yeah, that would scare me. The $50 million [budget for Life Aquatic] scares me enough.

But you must have changed in some way. I read the thing in Premiere that people come up to you with the name of characters tattooed on their arms. That you have this huge following. How has that changed you?

Wes Anderson: Well, that's really weird. The tattoo thing, that doesn't happen every day.

So you want to see more tattoos?

Wes Anderson: I do. I'm eager to see that. [Joking] The kids these days, they're going to do tattoos. They're tattooing something. So I'm just glad to get a few of those slots.

But you can call up on the phone and get one of the best actresses in the world to come into your film, without even showing a script. I mean, the power that you've got, the ability to make the film in your final cut . . .

Wes Anderson: Yes, yes. Just incredible luck. For me, it's because the first movie we did, well we wrote it to be for $25,000 or something. And if we had gotten the $25,000, then maybe for the next million we would get $1 million. But what actually happened is that we couldn't get the $25,000. We spent three years searching around. And then suddenly this guy appeared, and he said, "Okay, I can do it, but it's got to cost $6 million, because my deal doesn't allow anything less." So I had a $6 million, and then a $25 million, and it was all on a bigger scale. Which was just luck. And the good fortune of having Jim Brooks get involved with the first movie.


Can you talk about what Steve Zissou kind of learns and goes through, in terms of how he's different at the end than he was at the beginning?

Wes Anderson: I think that he's somebody who's very caught up in his own sense of failure. All his anger, everything that's unpleasant about him, I think is a result of how unhappy he is about how he's slipped. He doesn't even quite express it—even to himself—until about two thirds into the movie, when it all comes crashing down and he just can't avoid it. But I feel that in all the movies that I've done, the idea of failure has been a little bit more appealing than the idea of success, anyways. More interesting. And more sympathetic to me.

Did he come to any sort of peace or resolution at the end of the film?

Wes Anderson: Maybe he has some feeling of redemption, but he also loses somebody. He was kind of reaching for redemption with this one person that he'd just come into contact with, somebody that he had abandoned before he even met. The fact that he goes through that gives him some kind of redemption, but it ends badly for him.

How difficult was it to get Bill for Rushmore?

Wes Anderson: It wasn't difficult. It was just a fluke. It was easier to get him for Rushmore than it was for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. With Rushmore, somehow, somebody handed him the script. His agent at the time. And he read it, and then I got a call ten days after sending it into the ether, not knowing if I would here anything. He called me up...and he said he would do it.

What do you think about the state of Independent Film today? Your films are getting bigger and bigger—it's almost like a Renaissance in that respect—was it hard to make this movie with this kind of money and elaborate sets, given your background?

Wes Anderson: Well, it was just a matter of somebody supporting the movie, or wanting to do it, who has the resources. In this case it was Nina Jacobsen and Dick Cook and Touchtone. For them, this is a low-budget movie; it's a third of the cost of a Pirates of the Caribbean. Probably an eighth of the gross, if we're lucky.

Can you talk about casting Bud Cort?

Wes Anderson: I was friends with Bud, so I wrote it for him. I wanted to write a part for Bud, so we came up with the bond company stooge.

Are you surprised by the success of Owen Wilson?

Wes Anderson: No. Step by step, it seemed to keep making sense. Owen's very smart and very funny and very charismatic. It never surprised me. I mean, the end result is surprising, but incrementally, I was never too surprised.

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Dont't forget to also check out: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou