“Whenever one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”—Jacques Yves Cousteau
- Diving for Sunken Treasure (As inscribed by the late Edward Appleby in Rushmore)
Rhinestone Blue Fin, “Life on Mars,” Lord Mandrake, Viet Cong Man O’ Wars, “Rebel, Rebel,” Air Kentucky, Sugar Crabs, Campari Liquor, “Changes,” Daydream Johnny, Jack Whales, Belafonte and the elusive Jaguar Shark. This is what I read on my notepad when the lights come up in the closet-sized Disney screening room on 59th and Park. With synapses firing in overdrive, I scan the 10 other people in attendance as they wiggle out, dilated eyes blinking like overstimulated tadpoles released from the captivity of Wes Anderson’s newest cinematic laboratory, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.
The only discernable utterance from the murmuring gaggle emerges from the clearly internal monologue of a head-scratching flack: “Simply twisted.” I counter with, “Deliciously warped.” Still absorbed, he absently nods in my direction before being engulfed by the Manhattan night.
Careening 40 blocks downtown in a cab, I dissect my surroundings for an indication that reality still exists as it did before I entered the screening. This is what Anderson’s films do to minds ensnared in quotidian monotony—they are watercolor invitations to see the world afresh and askew. Like a freelance casting agent on the prowl, I note the pizza delivery guy riding a unicycle, the woman walking a cat on a leash, and my incessantly whistling cab driver of unknown ethnic origin, and wonder if they could exist in an Anderson production.
Later, while dining with a group of New York’s jaded creative class I finally begin to digest what I’ve seen and heard. My dinner acquaintances have pointed issues with the filmmaker. Complaints of megalomania, anal retentiveness and compulsive repetition mingle with the disappointment of Yankees fans at the bar. It’s a chorus many critics may echo because they exhausted their quiver of superlatives and laudable blurbs after Anderson’s first three films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums—just the nature of the business. We can’t like all his movies, can we? Once is a fluke; twice, he’s on to something; three times a charm, but what is four … in a row? It’s like adding the fourth Stooge or Musketeer to a holy trinity. It’s always a letdown.
Whatever the media is prepared for, ultimately the audience will decide. But, unlike the chalk demarcation drawn by Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou aboard the Belafonte, to separate the mutinous from the believers, the choice is not always so clear. Anderson is now fully engrained into cinema’s fabric; he’s no longer the secret you can whisper to your friends. Yet, with the increasing industry clout and expanding budgets comes a choice for every director—expand your audience and scope by going mainstream like Ang Lee (Ice Storm to Hulk) and Doug Liman (Swingers to Bourne Identity) or maintain a singular vision and voice, hoping the mainstream will flow your way. After I saw The Life Aquatic and spent the subsequent afternoon with the director, it was clear Anderson is still plotting his own course through uncharted—or as Team Zissou would say—“unprotected” waters.
Looking like his own Richie Tenenbaum in a tan corduroy suit and long hair (sans headband), Anderson exudes geek chic as he settles at the table and orders water from the server who’s obviously waited on him many times before. He chose this outdoor café in the West Village, and looking around, it dawns on me that we could be on one of his sets; everything seems immaculately calculated-from the waiters’ various accents and the exuberant dog walker across the street to the autumn foliage and friscalating slant-light, pouring through the prism base of the salt shaker onto the pink stucco walls. I suddenly feel like Owen Wilson’s Eli Cash to Anderson’s Tenenbaum. To stop myself from tumbling further into character, I admit to Anderson that in my personal and professional life, I’m surrounded by “quoters” who wield their ability to converse solely in lines from his films as a badge of honor. He nods understandingly. “Ah, ‘quoters.’ I’m a movie quoter as well, so I know the type. Quoters try to engage me on the street all the time, but most of the time I don’t even know what the quote is, even though I wrote it. Especially if it’s from early on like Bottle Rocket. Who knows, maybe they’re not even quoting?” Knowing the lengths to which his audience will go with each offering, I ask him what master he’s ultimately trying to serve with his newest emprise—his fanatical constituency, broader appeal or simply himself.
“I don’t think I would know how to deliberately broaden my audience. I mean this movie is a bigger movie than any of the others, for it has the whole adventure element with the gunfights and pirate attacks, but it is definitely a weird movie. But, during the process of writing and making it, I never really think about how to reach out to a bigger audience, I just think about how we do the best with just this movie and this story. What am I going to think is funny? What am I going to be excited about? I do think about the audience in terms of clarity. Can they follow the story? Do they stay into the story? Are they engaged in the characters? … I don’t think about the audience in terms of what interests them in life and what kind of movie are they interested in seeing because I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Basically, I already have these ideas about this movie and I can explore that with the actors, and I can work with Noah [Baumbach, director/writer of Mr. Jealousy and Kicking and Screaming—another “quoter” favorite], who co-wrote the script … but in the end we are just going to follow the movie where it takes us.”
The Life Aquatic takes us deep into the puckish world of misfits, zealots and seekers aboard the marine research vessel Belafonte, helmed by Anderson’s archetype of the beautiful loser, Steve Zissou—a down-and-out adventurer, captain, husband and underwater filmmaker. Although billed as an action comedy, this is a relative term in the world of Anderson, for while the movie employs more physicality and exotic locales than his previous films, it shares their common themes of disenchantment, redemption and atonement. Based on a short story he wrote 14 years ago and countless hours of research on Jacques Cousteau, Anderson once again traveled to extreme lengths to authenticate his vision.
“This movie had big stuff, like the ship. We bought it in South Africa, brought it up to Italy, made it into a real research vessel. Then we built a full-scale half section model of it. Then we reconstructed and detailed the whole compound on the island [Zissou] lives on. We built the gardens, little houses, pool/tank, dormitory, laboratory, towers, etc. We had to find those great helicopters. We actually crashed one. They were very cheap, two-man ’70s helicopters modeled on Cousteau’s stuff, but they were so dangerous they wouldn’t even let me go up in them. They even had a little badge on the dashboard that said something like, ‘This is a home-built helicopter not suitable for any type of navigability,’ which basically meant, ‘We do not endorse our product in any way.’ Luckily nobody was hurt.”
Beside the overt danger and spot-on references to the underwater action icon, the film’s pageantry falls somewhere between Disney World’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride, gaudy fish tank furnishings, and The Incredible Mr. Limpet (starring Don Knotts), which seemed to play every Sunday morning on UHF in the late ’70s. When asked if any of this triangulation rings true, Anderson replies, “I know The Incredible Mr. Limpet because my friend, Rick Rubin, the music producer, sent me a tape in Italy. He was trying to advise me about different underwater worlds. He is a real movie buff and he knew about a lot of different ones, which was important, because my biggest concern was always how the underwater stuff was going to work. All the fish in the movie are stop motion, and I was always worried about how that was going to play against the rest of the film; I mean, we have people on a real boat, really at sea; we’re not doing this on a studio set and you know, in the end, I think if it’s interesting you go with it.”
While a phantasmagorical send up of Das Boot meets Jaws emerging from the depths of Anderson’s fertile mind seems plausible, it’s still a stretch for a guy who usually writes from experience. Although highly fictionalized, both Bottle Rocket and Rushmore stem from Anderson’s youth in Texas, and The Royal Tenenbaums came after his move to New York City. So it’s curious that Anderson chose to write a European adventure film about a bygone marine explorer.
He explains, “I was interested in Cousteau as a kid and even more so 14 years ago when I wrote my little story. Mostly because Cousteau as a person relates to Max in Rushmore; he was a person who had unbelievable energy, enthusiasm and ideas. He was just an amazing man. I mean this guy was in the French Resistance; he invented S.C.U.B.A. and other various submersibles; not to mention he was also an artist and a filmmaker. It makes for an incredible character—fascinating stuž—especially since he was an international superstar. Dealing with fame can carry a whole other set of interesting adventures in itself.”
It’s an interesting point, since too often fame is equated to real genius. As with The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic explores the pressures of both, and the inevitable downturn that follows when the limelight fades. I ask Anderson what he thinks of the word that’s been attached to him more than once by fervent fans and film buffs.
“Genius … I don’t know about the word. It’s so subjective that it just ends up being nothing. … I mean, is genius when more people like it? No. Is genius when more discriminating people like it? Well, what is discriminating? Maybe in the course of time someone has had a huge influence and we still look at their stuff and it still has a freshness and it’s still captivating. Other than that it’s just impossible to define. But, you know that song “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed? Well, I was just listening to that song last night, and I was thinking, you know, what a genius. In other words, I bet your definition of genius is really just the same as mine—you know it when you hear it and you know it when you feel it.”
Unsurprisingly, Anderson usually has the entire film soundtrack mapped out long before the cameras start rolling. In fact, Anderson has infused music into his productions so deftly that one seems naked without the other, sometimes to the point where once experienced in conjunction, it’s nearly impossible to extricate the pairing. Love’s “7 and 7 Is” adding adrenaline to the “insider” job where Anthony adjusts his toy soldier; The Who’s “Quick One, While He’s Away” bolstering Max’s apiary vengeance; The Stones’ “She Smiled Sweetly” into “Ruby Tuesday” crackling from a Fisher-Price record player as Richie and Margot share their first and last kiss under the glow of the tent. All these songs underscore the sincerity of the scene without ever poking fun at the absurdity of the moment.
But Anderson’s choices aren’t only mined from obscure ’60s and ’70s nuggets from the likes of Lennon, Cat Stevens, Nico and The Velvet Underground. His music ranges from Vince Guaraldi’s theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas to Yves Montand’s “Rue St. Vicent” and Rene Touzet’s “Mambo Guajiro.” What makes these eclectic tracks hold together are Mark Mothersbaugh’s scores, their spacious themes cradling the poignancy and complexity of each scene while melodious notes skip in the forefront like a well-rehearsed elementary school band conducted by Leonard Berstein. In The Life Aquatic Mothersbaugh once again displays his imagination—especially since he’s confined to the tonal spectrum of some mid-range Casio keyboards, which must hold their own against a crew with a penchant for Bowie tunes. The length to which he succeeds is perfectly captured by Murray’s seemingly unscripted hip gyrations in his silver-blue wetsuit.
As the afternoon passes, the more we talk about the new film, the more animated we both become. Hand gestures, sped-up voices and references to old National Geographics mark the reversion of two guys in their mid-30s back to our preteens. I mention that my wife frequently notes she peaked at 12. Her imagination and fearlessness were at their height, and the corruption of the adult world had not trampled on her childish wonder. I bring it up because in all his films Anderson has kept one foot firmly planted in childhood’s inner circle, while the other searches for a foothold in adulthood’s harsh reality. In The Life Aquatic, when Murray gently touches a pregnant Cate Blanchett’s belly in a moment of quiet reflection, her character says, “In 12 years, he’ll be 11 and a half.” To which Zissou simply replies, “That was my favorite age.” I ask Anderson about the moment and his reverence of the ideal.
“Well I feel like … what is it? ... It’s the end of being an innocent. But, I feel like this character’s whole mission in life has a basic innocence about it. Like exploration and education—it’s just not a corrupt ideal. He is more about the wonder of it. It is a theme, for in both Bill’s and Owen’s characters, there is something pure and naïve, but in Bill’s case there is also someone who is a very corrupt person in his own way; he’s really a mess.”
Since this dichotomy of wonderment and disillusionment seeps into every scene—through a hand gesture, an arched eyebrow or a carefully crafted line almost lost in the calamity of the moment—it seems vital that Anderson capitalize on his past relationship with his cadre of actors. I sometimes wonder, however, if Anderson’s penchant for using the same talent pool is beneficial to his films or merely a crutch. Either way it was worth noting the absence of the only person to appear in all three previous films, Kumar Pallana.
“You know with Kumar, it was like there was no role for him, so I was trying to decide whether or not to just put him into one scene. And I felt like that’s not really right, because I don’t see Kumar as a gimmick. He’s a person and an actor, and if I don’t have something real to bring him in on and be part of the team, then I don’t want to have him just barely appear. … At one point I thought maybe having a cook, but in the end we didn’t need one. But this is my third time with Bill, second time with Anjelica and, of course, there’s Owen. You know I just trust these people.”
Sometimes it’s hard to tell simply because Anderson’s fastidious attention to detail and dialogue don’t seem to leave any wiggle room for actors. He seems to have such a firm, meticulous grasp on every beat that it feels like he’s more puppeteer than director. True or not, it really doesn’t matter. The overall effect is still unified and mesmerizing. From yellow jumpsuits and blue blazers to signature Adidas warm-ups; from attendance pins to four-color pens and green monopoly houses at the end of light strings, Anderson packs every inch of the frame with a stylized color palette and enough intricate eye candy to make the French masters proud. The difference is that, even with the weight of the visual density, it’s astonishing how little fat ends up on the screen. Every piece has a story and every piece has a purpose.
“My whole thing with colors in this film was—it was only going to be aqua marine blue, yellow and this pale green, just those colors and the red caps being the only red in the movie. For example, throughout the shoot every once in awhile there are these little yellow plastic men. You see what happened was we went to this island called Palmarola, which is this tiny island off the coast of Italy near Ponza. We were in this lagoon, scouting locations and just seeing what our options for filming were, when I see floating in the water in the lagoon this little diver, like this little plastic army man in SCUBA gear. First I said to our production designer, ‘look at that?’ He said ‘let’s grab it”, and I said, ‘We can’t reach it; it’s too far out.’ After some back and forth he said, ‘NO. We are getting it because if you don’t get it, then I know you are going to tell me later to make some, and I won’t have a model for it.’ He’s right. I guess they know me so well that they are thinking a few steps ahead. Plus, it was also a good omen.”
With Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Alexander Payne, Michel Gondry, Mark Romanek, Noah Baumbach, David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson all flexing their cinematic muscles over the last few years, a new gang of filmmakers are clearly in town—and Anderson is a certified member. As a fan and friend of many of these auteurs, Anderson acknowledges that their collective oeuvre has tapped into a vein of celluloid and silver, which has re-energized the blockbuster-bloated art of film. They’ve done so by following their intuition in creating movies where audiences are not merely placated by sitting down, but instead must bring their emotional luggage and meet the filmmaker halfway to get their money’s worth. Those who make the commitment are rewarded with a far better payoff, for these films stay with you long after you’ve thrown away the popcorn bucket. And these films give the critics something different to write about.
As I put my pen away and pick up the tab, Anderson and I revisit Murray’s character in The Royal Tenenbaums, Raleigh St. Clair, who’s based on Oliver Sacks, primarily known for writing the book Awakenings. Like Sacks, St. Clair’s job is to research and study “abnormal” people. The irony is that the byproduct of his research begins to bring into question the definition of “normal.” More important—where’s the line of demarcation? Do we have a choice? Since truth is stranger than fiction, it seems like some of the critics—including my jaded dinner companions have it all wrong when they say Anderson is merely creating his own warped, quirky little worlds in megalomaniacal fashion. The truth is that Anderson goes above and beyond in creating a dialogue with details and nuances, allowing us to slip into worlds that parallel our own. For all their coruscating inflection, these are not just mythical, magical places on soundstages. They are real houses, real boats, real islands, real motels, real schools and real cafés. People do attempt suicide and do ride unicycles in the streets of NYC; people do have falcons on their rooftops and do walk their cats on a leash; people do speak in film verse and do search for undiscovered sea life. You just have to be willing to look deeply to find something extraordinary.
As Anderson says, “In the case of this movie; it’s modeled on a real guy. I mean, people do get attacked by pirates—all our information is based on real reports. It is a comedy; it is distorted in its comedic way, but basically a seahorse is still a seahorse, and a shark is still a shark; it’s the details we try to invent. Strangely, with everything we tried to make fantastical in the story, any time we would make something up, eventually someone would say, ‘Oh, look at this, this is a lot like thing you made up.’ That would happen all the time. But there is something in the presentation of the details, even just the way the characters are dressed, the way the rooms look, the way the ship looks, and the way the animals look. There is something askew, filtered and different. And that’s what makes it all worth it.”