"Life Aquatic" Director on Cousteau, Sea Life

Michael Benoist
National Geographic Adventure
December 22, 2004
Like many young men born in the 1960s, Wes Anderson has a mild Jacques
Cousteau fixation. So it's no surprise that Anderson's latest film,
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, centers around a
Cousteau-inspired character. Played by Bill Murray, the neoprene-clad
hero is an underwater filmmaker whose renowned love of sea life is
tempered somewhat by his team's latest and "most ambitious adventure to
date": to find, and kill, the shark that ate his former partner.

We caught up with Anderson to talk about his new film, which opens in theaters across the United States on December 25.

Characters in your films have excavated ancient sites and traveled the world aboard tramp steamers. Steve Zissou and his crew roam the world in search of marine life. Do you always get your ideas from the world of exploration?

The inspiration for this one is Jacques Cousteau and his films. I've always been curious about and fascinated by Cousteau. He had the kind of mind that allowed him to invent all kinds of things that, before he came along, people had never dreamed of. He helped invent scuba and developed some of the first submersibles.

I remember watching an old National Geographic [TV] special on Cousteau narrated by Orson Welles. I was fascinated. To me Cousteau, his crew, and their adventures seemed an idea for a movie as much as they seemed like an actual group of explorers.

Are you one of those people who brag about the massive collection of National Geographic issues in his garage?

No, but my mom had a pretty good collection.

You're famous for obsessing over details in your films. How did you go about getting the dive locations and craft in The Life Aquatic just right?

I wrote the movie for locations I had seen while on a trip to Italy. I envisioned the cast and crew eating good food in beautiful places. But the filming turned out to be extremely difficult. First we had to get a boat that looked similar to Cousteau's Calypso. We finally found a good pair of ships in South Africa that we sailed up. We broke one apart and used it as a set. The other, we outfitted like a research vessel.

How did you know what to put in it?

Well there's stuff I already knew from being interested in Cousteau. But our goal was to invent an entire world, even the undersea life. Often we'd make up a sea creature then later find out that it—or at least something very similar—already existed.

Was life at sea just like a Cousteau documentary?

The first day of filming, we went out to an island and were stranded there for three days because of high seas. Everybody got sick. It was an insane way to begin, but it turned out to be good. It was a beautiful, amazing place, and we were able to improvise some good material.

Did Any Lord of the Flies stuff go on? Was there a conch shell?

No, there was a megaphone. And I had the megaphone.

Were the actors comfortable filming underwater?

Willem Dafoe was the only one with diving experience. But since we filmed the underwater scenes last, everyone else was able to train throughout the six months of shooting. Also those scenes all took place in a tank where we'd constructed an undersea forest. So there wasn't any open-water filming.

There's a lot of underwater animation in this movie.

Whenever you make a film, you never know how it is going to turn out at the end. You just take a lot of different elements and shake them together and see what results. Our animator used an old stop-motion technique that we were pretty excited about. And it turned out great.

Some explorers look at the ocean as the last frontier. Others go skyward. Should we look for Bill Murray in a space suit?

That's a funny image, but no. I think I'll do something in India next. But I'm still not sure what.

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