Wild Wes

Wes Anderson's painstakingly realized films have found a devoted audience -- and "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" won't disappoint.

Published December 7, 2004 6:17PM (EST)

Wes Anderson has the kind of indie cred other directors would kill for. What else could explain his getting a green light for a movie that follows a Jacques Cousteau-like lead character on a quest that's one part ocean adventure, two parts schizophrenic romp? Anderson enjoys the kind of leeway to indulge strange impulses and thwart audience expectations that other filmmakers can only dream of. From his first film, "Bottle Rocket," to the acclaimed "Rushmore," to his sharp but scattered "The Royal Tenenbaums," Anderson's vision is offbeat enough to ensure that not everyone is going to understand or enjoy the quirky details and stylized interactions of his signature world. But, of course, it's exactly his willfully odd tone and his grasp of a very specific type of postmodern ennui that make Anderson so beloved and embraced by his loyal fans.

But even die-hard fans will find themselves in stranger territory than ever before with "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou," from the wildly unpredictable story to the seriously strange little baby-blue short shorts worn by Willem Dafoe. As we follow Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) on a nonlinear adventure to find the mythical jaguar shark, it's clear that all of the usual Anderson elements are here: the perfect ironic retro fashions; the disaffected, borderline flat acting; the unexpected splashes of bright color; the infectious soundtrack. Throw in a bizarre, stagey boat set and some fantastical animated fish, and you've got enough of the standard Anderson charms to distract you from some of the movie's shortcomings (a jagged story arc, a vague premise) but that will surely test his ability to draw a larger audience beyond his loyal following.

What's truly odd, given his stubbornly unique vision, is that Anderson actually seems to care whether we get it or not. Despite some predictions that his film might be the sleeper hit of the holiday season, Anderson sounded both anxious and somewhat realistic about the difficulty of finding a broader audience for his work when he spoke to us from his hotel room in Los Angeles.

I just went to a press screening last night ...

Oh, it was a press screening? Not a regular screening?

No. And press screenings are always a little weird, because everyone seems to be analyzing a little too much instead of just enjoying the ride.

I'm glad I wasn't there. I don't want to be standing there and hear people walking by me saying, "Tedious!"

Is that the word you fear the most?

I heard somebody say that at a screening of somebody else's movie the other day. Somebody walked by me, and I just heard him mutter, "Tedious." And I was a few feet away from somebody who was involved with the movie.

That's terrible. But you've been pretty brave in the past, like when you screened "Rushmore" for Pauline Kael. What did you take from that experience?

What was great was, I loved meeting her. And it was funny, because she gave me a very mixed review of the movie. But I had a great time with her. I was a little bit nervous because I wanted to impress her. But she was very engaging. And then, when I was driving home from it, I told a friend all about it in detail, and he told me to write it down. And eventually I did write it down to be used as the introduction to our screenplay. So I wrote it [a version ran in the New York Times, and as the introduction to the published screenplay] and then I sent it to [Kael]. She edited it, and gave me the funniest edits. "My house is not clapboard, it is stone and shingle. The lock on the front door is not broken, it is simply stuck."

Do reviews affect you just as much as they ever have?

Yeah. I would kill for a good review in the New York Times, just once, because I always get something pretty mixed. Or, in the case of "The Royal Tenenbaums," terrible. But, you know, the reality is that everybody's right, and there are a hundred different ways to look at any movie. A lot of a critic's reaction has to do with who that person is. When I see a movie, I bring so much of myself to it. The thing that's gonna make you cry is the fact that your father was actually like that, or something like that.

In "The Life Aquatic," it seems like you were comfortable with thwarting the audience's expectations of how the story should develop.

Definitely the kind of movies I've been doing are movies where, with good luck, there are people who it'll really connect with. And for the same reasons it'll really connect with some of the people, there's a big part of the audience that'll just totally reject it. And I think that with really big studio movies, the idea is to not do that.

Right. You want people to show up, and go for a ride, and who cares if they connect with it or not.

Or if everyone really connects and everyone gets onboard, except for the small group of fringe characters who were the ones who actually liked my movie.

Do you ever worry, though, that you might be too stubbornly attached to your own personal vision, as your lead characters often are?

Well, do I worry about it? Not so much. But is it true? I would say yes.

Is that the only path for an artist?

No. I don't make a conscious choice about that. Basically, so far, I've been able to just kind of write whatever is in my imagination and try to work on it to make it work dramatically in all the ways that I think are best. I want to do a lot of work, it's not like it's some kind of stream-of-consciousness thing. We put a lot of work into these things to try to make them work for an audience the way we want them to work for ourselves, but I've never been in a position where I've had a lot of pressure on me to do things to the stories or to the casting or to anyone else that is against my instincts.

Do you second-guess it when you get reviews that say, "Oh, this is crazy! This is self-indulgent!"?

Yeah, I second-guess everything at that point.

I was thinking while I was watching the movie last night that maybe your concept of what a movie should be, from the painstaking art direction to the soundtrack, is pretty far removed from what other directors are doing, and so it confounds expectations in that way. Do you feel like your approach is different from that of most directors? I know I'm kind of asking you to be pretentious, here.

What I think is, there's the one way where you get hired, and there's the other way where you show up with your gang, and say, "Do you want us?" And I'm in the second category.

That's fortunate for you! Every shot is always so perfectly framed, like a painting. How important are aesthetics to you and what role does that play in advancing the story?

I guess I like to try to fill the frame with a lot of things -- I like to fill it with jokes, and I like to fill it with ideas, and just kind of get as many things in there [as possible]. Because what happens to me is I end up accumulating a lot of ideas over the years of working on it, because I take a lot of time to prepare these things -- I work slowly, slowly. I'm just really trying to get as much in there to make it as interesting as possible, I guess.

Creating a little world and making it as rich as you can for the audience is really important to you.

Yes. That's exactly what it is. I feel like I want these movies to be in some setting that you've never experienced before. I mean, hopefully something that's new in the broad ways and also in all the details. And if there are enough details, maybe that becomes part of the broad ways.

Modern audiences may be so used to encountering movies that are more like a high-speed ride, and they may not be good at slowing down enough to actually pay attention to the world they're entering.

And for some people, the world I create isn't going to work for them. So I steel myself for that. [Laughs]

At some point in the movie, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) says something about 11 being his favorite age.

Oh yeah. Cate Blanchett's character says, about her baby that's going to be born in a few months, "In 12 years, he'll be 11 and a half." And Bill Murray says, "That was my favorite age."

It seems like all of your movies capture some essential energy from around that age.

Definitely this movie is like that. [Zissou's] whole mission is not exactly the most grown-up one.

What is it that you want to re-create about the experience of being that age? Why are you so interested in that imaginative, childish experience of the world?

Um, I think that is ... Hmm, that's a good question.

That's a tough one, I guess.

Yeah, I almost feel like we'd have to start at the shrink's.

Yes! What trauma occurred to you at age 11? But I like the fact that you're not afraid of those cute details, like Cody the three-legged dog in "The Life Aquatic," or the little crayon-drawn flight plan that Max's crush has for her miniature plane in "Rushmore." American directors don't typically embrace sweet, absurd details as much as European directors -- Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet comes to mind.

Yeah, Jeunet and those guys wouldn't shy away from that. And also Michel Gondry, I think.

Are you influenced by those two?

Well, those guys I would say no, but I bet I'm influenced by a lot of the same directors that they're influenced by. I can't speak for them, but some of my favorite filmmakers are French, in particular Truffaut, but also Renoir and Melville. You know, who else you could relate to that is Cocteau, to both of those filmmakers, and to the kind of details you're talking about.

You never went to film school, right?

No, I never went to film school. I wanted to, but it never happened. When I was in college, I started to write "Bottle Rocket" with Owen Wilson, and when we got out, we started trying to figure out how to make it.

There are a lot of disaffected wealthy people in your movies. How familiar are you with these kinds of people -- did you grow up around them?

I didn't grow up around that too much. It's a little bit of a romanticized thing. I've known enough people who are somewhere in that area, but I've read about a lot of people in that area, or seen movies about people like that. So it's more of a fantasy almost. Salinger or Gatsby. I like Louis Malle's movies, and there's a certain aspect of that in his movies.

Does the alienation in your films, by chance, come from experiences growing up in Texas?

Probably so. I mean, I know that one of the movies we thought about a lot when we were making this film was "L'Avventura," the Antonioni movie. There's a degree to which our movie is really about these friendships and these familial kinds of relationships. But there are a lot of people not connecting, and Antonioni is almost entirely about not connecting. And so we definitely talked about it. We didn't talk about that as a theme, but we always were thinking about that movie.

Do you consider Bill Murray your muse? How has your relationship with him changed since "Rushmore"?

Well, I don't know if I consider him my muse, but he's one of my favorite actors in the world. He's one of my favorite actors of all time. For me, Bill is like -- there are a lot of great actors in this movie. There's Owen, who I have a relationship with that goes much further back. Owen and I grew up together. So we're connected in a different way. But there are all these favorite actors of mine: Anjelica Huston, and Goldblum, and Willem Dafoe, and Michael Gambon, Bud Cort. All these great actors. Cate Blanchett. Bill is one of those ones who's, to me, and maybe a lot of people might disagree with this, but for me, he's kind of a Brando kind of actor, which is where I put people like Pacino and De Niro and Gene Hackman and people like that. I feel like he's one of those. That's a special thing -- it's the kind of actor where, as great as somebody else might be in a part, one of these guys brings something that takes it to another level. So we wrote the movie for him, because he's this special kind of creature. And my relationship has changed because, well, when we were making "Rushmore," I was just getting to know him. Then we became friends after that, and then when we did "Tenenbaums," he was just there and we'd have little visits, we'd have Bill Murray for a day or two.

But this was the first time -- certainly the first time since "Rushmore" -- but the first time, as somebody who knew him well, that we did a whole movie together and he was there every day. So the process was different -- it was just a different experience than I've had with him because of the intensity of it. But the thing with him is that he's one of these people who can walk into a room and just own everything. There's something just heroic about him in that way. People just get swept up by him. I've never met anybody else like him.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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