INT: Wes Anderson
Wes Anderson may have just a few films under his belt, but he has managed to distinguish himself as a marvelously talented and offbeat filmmaker. From the moment the opening credits pop up on the screen, you immediately recognize you are watching one of his movies. In an era of remakes, sequels, and an overall drought of artistic originality, he consistently knocks out highly bizarre stories with deeply relatable underbellies, that aren’t quite comparable to anything we’ve seen before. While they may not suit every moviegoer’s tastes, there is no denying he brings something new to the table.
We can thank his pleasantly deranged and one-of-a-kind mind for bringing us such cinematic treats as RUSHMORE, BOTTLE ROCKET, ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and now THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU. In his latest offering, he details the tale of a famous oceanographer (Bill Murray) who greets the sea with his peculiar crew, in a desperate hunt for a shark that he believes killed his partner during the filming of their ocean-exploratory documentary. He is of course, not allowed by law to kill the shark, and some of the people accompanying him may or may not be who they claim to be. We are left guessing and contemplating what is real. Whoever said marine biology and philosophy don’t mesh?
*** Interview contains minor spoilers ***
Is it true that you wrote THE LIFE AQUATIC as a short story, back in college?
Yes, but the story I wrote in college is only a paragraph. All there is in that short story, is this guy Steve Zissou—actually he’s Steve Cocteau in the story—his wife Eleanor, and then his ship, the Belefonte. He’s making a show for Italian television, which isn’t exactly the same in the movie.
How does Steve Zissou change from the beginning to the end of the movie?
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. To me, it is more interesting, and more sympathetic.
Did he come to any sort of peace or resolution at the end?
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.
The Jaguar Shark seems to be a similar character to Moby Dick. Do you think that Zissou would have killed the shark if he were granted permission to do so?
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.
I heard that part of your reason for casting Bill Murray, was because of his melancholy nature. Why do you detect sadness in him?
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 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.
How difficult was it to get Bill for RUSHMORE?
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 RUSHMORE, somehow, somebody handed him the script, his agent at the time. And he read it, and then I got a call ten days later, not knowing if I would hear anything. He called me up in Donald DeLine’s office—I don’t know how he knew that I was even in the office—and he said he would do it.
Anjelica Huston signed on to perform in the film, before even reading the script. Does it amaze you that actors of that status will take such a leap of faith on your projects?
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. 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. 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 project, and then a $25 million project, and it was all on a bigger scale. It was just luck--the good fortune of having Jim Brooks get involved with the first movie.
Did you encourage improvisation during this movie?
Well, no, 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.
Even the scene where Bill comes up with the dog’s name, Cody—that wasn’t improvised?
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.”
Can you talk a little bit about Cate Blanchett, and why you chose her for the role?
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. 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. 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 something. 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?
A little bit. With her professionalism.
Your films are very popular with a certain type of audience. Were you surprised to find that people connect so intimately with your work?
I was never more confident than when we made BOTTLE ROCKET. I felt like, “Just wait ‘til they see this! This is going to be great!” And I had people warning me; they said that this was an odd movie. But I was like, “No, no, you guys don’t understand.” 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, we thought, but we started re-writing it. We wrote a new opening, and we filled in all kinds of gaps, and re-shot things. We had James L. Brooks producing it, so 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.