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.
Murray: It Was Torturous
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."
Seeing Murray in a diving suit dancing to a buzzy electronica tune playing in his helmet is certainly memorable -- and hilarious.
But Anderson's humor is a peculiar sort. It's quiet and jam-packed with cross-references to pop culture, art and film. Although Anderson and Baumbach wrote the role for him, Murray said he doesn't see himself uniquely equipped to carry off this offbeat comedy. In fact, the "Saturday Night Live" alum doesn't see Anderson's humor as particularly offbeat.
"Your wacky may be my goofy," he said. "Funny is funny."
So was this highbrow humor more difficult than, say, "Caddyshack" or "Stripes"?
"I'm one of those people who says there aren't a lot of people who could pull off 'Meatballs,'" said Murray.
'Not a Movie for Dumb People'
Oscar winner Anjelica Huston plays Zissou's wife, Eleanor. Complicating their relationship is Eleanor's past marriage to Zissou's rival oceanographer, Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum).
Huston said she had such an excellent time working with Anderson and Murray on "The Royal Tannenbaums" that she "almost demanded to be in this movie."
An admirer of Anderson's work, she said, "I like gentle humor. I like plays on words."
And there's quite a bit of that in "The Life Aquatic." Visual jokes and puns are packed into each frame and the dialogue is rife with witty callbacks to earlier Anderson films.
Watching "The Life Aquatic," you feel as though part of your brain is intent on sorting through a rebus. Zissou's ship, The Belafonte, for example, is a reference to Cousteau's legendary vessel Calypso, by way of singer Harry Belafonte, and his groundbreaking 1956 album "Calypso."
"If you don't listen closely, a lot can go by," Huston said. "It's not a movie for dumb people."
Cousteau, Fellini and Wonder
Cousteau and aquatic life were integral to "Rushmore," and in this film Anderson literally immerses his characters in a weirdly wonderful watery world. Henry Selick, the Academy Award-nominated animator of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "James and the Giant Peach," creates fantastical marine oddities with stop-motion animation: from peppermint-striped candy crabs to illuminated electric jellyfish to the Moby-of-them-all -- the glowing jaguar shark.
Selick said Anderson "creates a Fellini-like world of fantasy but maintains an emotional reality." In this film, Selick said, Anderson wanted a low-tech, handmade look. "Even if an idea is cartoonish, he wants it to look real, almost hyper-real," Selick said.
So, what's behind Anderson's fascination with Cousteau? "I grew up watching Cousteau's films, and Jane Goodall's and 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom,' and I loved them," he said. "Cousteau was just a unique, incredible person. He did everything. He was a scientist. He invented things. He made films. He was in the French resistance. He had style and mission, but no sense of environmentalism." Anderson said. In a sense, the environmentalist movement Cousteau helped spark, was incidental to his ocean-faring missions.
Despite its physical differences, Anderson doesn't feel "The Life Aquatic" is a major departure from his earlier films. "The characters in this movie could walk into another movie and be comfortable."
Ultimately, the film resolves with a sense of emotional redemption and release for Zissou and his crew. Lives are saved and lost, and the crew and the jaguar shark confront each other with wide-eyed awe.