Suited up in Neoprene and a knitted red cap, Bill Murray has teamed up again with indie filmmaker Wes Anderson, this time playing the Jacques Cousteau-inspired character Steve Zissou, a renowned oceanographer and documentary filmmaker whose sails have been clipped by age and loss.
"This is a movie I've been thinking about for 14 years," said Anderson, who joined with writer Noah Baumbach for his fourth and most technically ambitious film yet, "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." Baumbach and Anderson used an Italian restaurant in Soho as a rent-free office to work on the screenplay. A photo of Florence and the restaurant menu both proved inspiration for the film.
"It's a terrible title," he admitted, but Anderson seems as content as ever to cast aside commercial concerns and pursue his personal vision with hyper specificity.
"I've always been fascinated by this strange and amazing character who creates a kind of eccentric family at sea," Anderson said.
A high-seas adventure aboard a limping minesweeper -- with confectionery animated sea creatures, a bare-breasted mermaid of a script girl and a chase scene with Filipino pirates -- seems a bit adrenaline-charged for a Wes Anderson film. But for all its explosive machismo, "The Life Aquatic" is built around a familiar Anderson theme -- an arrogant blowhard nudged into the role of reluctant father figure.
Anderson said he and Baumbach essentially wrote the role for Bill Murray. With Murray in mind, Baumbach said, "We knew we could push the character very far. He's so innately sympathetic as an actor."
With his fortunes sagging and colleagues questioning whether he'll regain his former stature, Zissou sets out to pursue a mysterious deep-sea behemoth that devoured his friend and crewmate, Esteban de Plantier, on their last ocean voyage.
Before embarking on his Ahab-like quest, Zissou is confronted by a young admirer, Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a genteel Kentuckian who may or may not be his son.
The push and pull of the father-son dynamic gets an extra shot of Freudian tension with the entry of a potential love interest, radiant -- and pregnant -- journalist Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett).
Plimpton gets snared in some comical sibling-type rivalry with crew member Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), who envies the attention Zissou showers on Plimpton. Dafoe, dressed in powder-blue shorts throughout the film, said he enjoyed "exposing the myth of German efficiency" with his weepy, sensitive Klaus.
Filming "The Life Aquatic" wasn't exactly a comfortable experience for Murray. Shooting on location in Italy and off the Amalfi Coast, the crew weathered some rough seas.
"It was dangerous," Murray, wearing a black Blues Brothers T-shirt and looking a bit rough around the edges, told reporters in New York earlier this week. "It was cold -- bone cold."
While others in the crew were able to enjoy some shore leave, Murray, who appears in nearly every scene, was at sea for most of the filming. "It was a torturous experience to be away from my family. I was so lonely. I imagine that's what being in prison must be like."
Murray may have been playing up the hardship a bit for dramatic effect. He described the film as brilliant. And Murray, who won critical raves for his work in "Lost in Translation," said, "I think I've done a type of acting I've never done before."