‘LIFE’ IS IN THE DETAILS
“We’re still finishing the movie,” director Wes Anderson says offhandedly, on the phone from his hotel room. “Just some last-minute stuff. Titles and things. Simple stuff.” Simple? Don’t bet on it. The 35-year-old director of “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” is famous – and beloved by his fans – for obsessing about every last detail. And his new movie, “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” offers a much bigger scope of things to obsess about.
The $50 million seafaring adventure stars Bill Murray as Zissou, a past-his-prime, Jacques Cousteau-type oceanographer on a quest to kill the shark who ate his best friend.
The crew – “Team Zissou” – includes quirky Anderson regulars Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston and (briefly) Seymour Cassel, as well as Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchett and Noah Taylor.
Unlike Anderson’s previous indie movies, this one also boasts big-budget features: pirate attacks, dynamite explosions and bizarre animated sea creatures such as back-flipping frogs, sugar crabs and jaguar sharks.
These strange undersea things exist only in the Wes Anderson universe, brought to life by veteran stop-motion animator Henry Selick, director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach.”
“I recommend seeing the movie twice if you want to catch it all,” says Selick, explaining that the creatures are sprinkled sparingly throughout the movie “like a spice.”
Keep your eyes peeled for fleeting glimpses of the “Hermes eel” – an eel patterned like an Hermes scarf – and Selick’s favorite, the seahorse-like “crayon pony fish.”
“People tell me it must have been CG [computer generated]. But every little ripply bit of its seaweeded mane is hand animated,” Selick says proudly.
There was one fish that ended up on the cutting-room floor, to Selick’s disappointment: the “hydronicus inverticus.”
“It’s this animal that can turn itself inside out,” says Anderson. “It’s based on something I saw in a documentary, but when we made it, it just seemed too unreal. Sounds crazy in this context, I know – but it seemed like something out of ‘Men in Black.'”
“That’s the one that hurts a little bit,” admits Selick. “It took so long to do.” But he says working with Anderson is worth the sacrifices.
“He’s a very, very particular guy,” Selick says. “He needs to see a lot of things, make a lot of changes.
“But it’s not based on some crazy ego trip, trying to work people to death – he really has something in mind he’s going for. That extreme.”
The extreme, of course, is what’s earned Anderson his cult following.
In each film, the Texas-born director creates a highly stylized fictional world – like the heavily stylized version of New York City in “Royal Tenenbaums,” or the eccentric student’s prep school in “Rushmore.”
In “The Life Aquatic,” that world exists primarily on Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte – for which a 50-year-old minesweeper vessel was purchased and towed from South Africa to Rome for filming.
There, the crew painstakingly built another half-ship, creating a cross-sectional view of its rooms – all filled with the dollhouse-like detail at which Anderson excels.
Drawing on the colorful, clunky look of retro sci-fi films like 1961’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” Anderson outfitted the ship with equipment that emphasized Zissou’s fading glory.
“There’s this one ’60s prop I really like,” he says. “I don’t know when anyone ever had a speaker-phone where you put the receiver on top of it, but Bill Murray’s is like that. His computer stuff is [old] like that too – while Jeff Goldblum has a flat-screen monitor.”
Goldblum plays Hennessey, Zissou’s foppish, wealthy and slightly ridiculous nemesis. He’s the owner of a state-of-the-art ship – and, to Zissou’s constant annoyance, the ex-husband of Eleanor.
A longtime fan of Anderson’s, Goldblum says he found the director’s attention to detail contagious. “Early on, we got together at the Chateau Marmont to talk about what I might wear,” he says. “[Wes] had very specific ideas about it.”
Despite the aesthetic similarities to Anderson’s other work, there’s one major difference: Owen Wilson didn’t co-write the script.
For his three previous films, college friends Anderson and Wilson have shared the writing credit, but not this time.
Instead, Anderson collaborated with screenwriter Noah Baumbach, another long-time friend. “Noah and I got to work together every day until we got the script done,” Anderson says. “That hasn’t been possible with Owen for a while, since he’s a big actor.”
Still, there doesn’t appear to be bad blood between the two: Anderson cast Wilson in a lead role as Ned Plimpton, an old-fashioned Southern gentleman who just may be Zissou’s son.
What’s more, Wilson still managed to get his two cents in on the script, as animator Selick observed. “When Owen showed up a week or two before shooting, he clearly went in and tweaked a few lines for his character,” he says. “And, well, things just got a little funnier.”
As for the film’s minor characters, there’s a story behind almost every one of them, too. Anderson tends to rely on the same character actors, and enjoys giving parts to non-actor friends and acquaintances who simply seem right.
This time around, there’s Matthew Gubler, the most prominent of the Team Zissou interns – all of whom work slavishly for no pay aboard the Belafonte.
The striking 24-year-old got the job by being Anderson’s actual intern, and has said that he was mostly in the office “for comic relief.”
“The whole concept of having interns is such an odd thing,” muses Anderson. “I feel like somebody like Zissou would really exploit the whole intern thing.”
Both major and minor cast members seem to be in agreement that being part of an Anderson film is a life-changing experience.
“You feel like you’re working for somebody really special,” says Huston. “He’s one of those people where you’re really determined to make their vision come true.”
‘LIFE’ IS IN THE DETAILS