Wes Anderson

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Interviewed by Stella Papamichael

“There is something sort of heroic about Bill... ”

Marrying an offbeat sense of humour with poignant drama, Wes Anderson has carved a niche for himself in Hollywood with films like Rushmore, starring Bill Murray, and The Royal Tenenbaums, which featured Anjelica Huston. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Anderson teams Huston and Murray in a seafaring adventure about a washed-up oceanographer.

What finally sparked the making of this movie after 14 years of it staying in your head?

I wrote a little short story when I was in college. It wasn't even a short story, it was like one paragraph that was just a description of this one character and Anjelica's character and the ship, The Belafonte, and just the setting. So, I had that but I didn't mean for it to be a movie. I was just trying to write a story and it never really got any further. It was actually Owen Wilson who kept bringing it up from time-to-time over the years and kept reminding me about it and got me into thinking about it some more. I remember one day on The Royal Tenenbaums seeing Anjelica and Bill Murray on the set together. All they had together was about 30 seconds but I felt there was a great rapport between the two of them that would be worth exploring.

The film is dedicated to Jacques Cousteau. Have you always been an admirer of his work?

I love Jacques Cousteau. I've always loved Jacques Cousteau. I love his whole persona and his films. I dedicated the film to him, because, well, I won't go into the details. Actually I wanted to dedicate the film to Cousteau but we ultimately, legally, had to make this disclaimer. It says: "We dedicate this film to Jacques Cousteau and the Cousteau Society who were not involved with this production." The emphasis for them [the studio] was the latter part.

What about Bill Murray - why is he so compelling even when he's not doing anything?

He's a powerful force and you will feel it, whatever his mood is. There is something sort of heroic about him too. He can sweep everyone up and that's part of what makes him a star. I remember going to a Sheryl Crowe concert in Central Park and Bill Murray introduced it and afterwards I was walking with him to the parking garage and we walked across Fifth Avenue and about five or six people followed and then I saw more people gathering as we were walking down. Every street we crossed everyone jaywalked diagonally and, by the time we got to the parking garage, there were like 40 people walking with Bill Murray. I've never seen anything like it in my life. He was talking a little bit to each one of them, but mainly they were just following and then they all waited while the guy got the car and drove it down and then he waved as we drove off. You know, the secret to his thing is whatever that is.

Did shooting in the studios at Cinecittà in Rome live up to your expectations as a Fellini fan?

The place is steeped in Fellini still. People talk about him every day there and our stage that we built our big cross-section set on, everybody calls it Fellini's stage and it was amazing. It's also absolutely unlike working on an American movie. It's a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes it's frustrating for an American crew because you can't understand why certain things aren't getting done and why you can't get certain things organised. But at the same time, we might make some wild request that is almost unfillable and suddenly they've figured out a way to do it. The scenic work and the creation of the sets is very detailed and very careful - they do really amazing work. And the lunches are great!

You have a troubadour singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese throughout the movie. Is Bowie flattered by this?

I don't know. I've never spoken to him. A friend of mine heard him on the radio being interviewed some time ago about this special project that he was working on and it was very secret and that his songs were going to be sung in Portuguese, but there was no more he could say about it. I heard that and then [during the making of the movie] someone asked for my mobile phone number and said David Bowie is going to call you today. But then I never got the call.

Is it true Bud Cort learned Indonesian for his role as the bond company stooge but then you used Filipinos to play the pirates, so it was pointless?

Bud studied Indonesian, but there's a very weak community of Indonesians available in Rome - a tiny pool. But there's a lot of Filipinos so we went with them and... Bud was very upset about that. The thing is, he took it upon himself. I would have recommended a phonetic memorisation of the key lines, but he wanted to develop a working knowledge of the language. What we ended up doing was having a Filipino helper on the set who held cue cards, but you can't really have cue cards at sea. First of all you have to look at the person you're talking to and then, of course, you're on a boat and you're going over waves and cue cards are not very effective. But hey, I feel like all that goes into his character. It feels like he really used those things to give us the fear and anxiety of his bond company stooge.

You always do a great job with casting. Who else would you love to work with long-term?

I have a number of people that I can think of, but none that I particularly want to say. I would have loved to have worked with Marlon Brando. I can think of a lot of things he'd have been great for. Other names that I would give you are of people who I already have in mind for roles and I don't want to say because I don't want to screw it up. Although, there is a part for Anjelica in this thing we're working on [The Fantastic Mr. Fox] and a part for Jason Schwartzman and about three others. Can't say the others though. Sorry!

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou is released in London's West End on Friday 18th February and in UK cinemas nationwide on Friday 25th February 2005.