Entertainment Magazine

THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou


“We’re being led on a suicide mission by a selfish maniac.” — Anne-Marie Sakowitz

At the heart of any Wes Anderson movie are the characters and—even with the emphasis on fast-moving adventure and comedy in THE LIFE AQUATIC—the characters remain the engine that drives the film.

Starting with Steve Zissou—who wears his own oversized ego like a crown yet faces moments where he pleads to his crew, “Don’t you guys like me anymore?”— and continuing down through his entire ragtag crew and assorted enemies, each person has his or her own human complexities that emerge when the going gets tough.

The characters include: Steve Zissou From the very start of writing THE LIFE AQUATIC, Wes Anderson knew that Academy Award ®nominee Bill Murray would be Steve Zissou.

“Not only is Bill one of my favorite actors, but I know from experience he is someone who allows you to do things differently,” explains Anderson.

“He’s somebody who has the advantage of being totally uninhibited and at the same time can get everybody around him caught up in his mood. I knew it would be really interesting to see Bill throw himself into playing somebody who is not only energetic and funny but also tormented, angry and very agitated.”

Producer Barry Mendel adds, “Having worked with Bill in ‘Rushmore’and ‘The Royal Tenenbaums,’I think it was always Wes’s hope to write a movie for Bill that would really showcase a lot of what he believes Bill can do—and I think they both became very excited about the role of Steve Zissou for exactly that reason.

Bill has always had a natural affinity for Wes’s dialogue, but here he gives such a naturalistic and honest performance that he provides the audience with the illusion that it comes easily.”

Coming off the acclaim and Best Actor Oscar ® nomination he received for “Lost in Translation,” Murray was drawn in by taking on a very different kind of leading role than anything he had ever done—a literal “man of action,” a bold adventurer, filmmaker and hero, albeit one forced to come face-to-face with his own growing powerlessness.

In playing Steve Zissou, Murray knew he would have to approach an oceanic force of a man—with emotions that swing from the ecstatically funny to the profoundly sad, but also linger in the vast zone in between. Murray was further intrigued by the screenplay’s wide-ranging ambitions.

“This thing really screams,” sums up Murray about the screenplay. “There’s just an enormous amount of material in THE LIFE AQUATIC—dialogue, action, visuals, humor and emotion that all come at you in quick bursts. It’s also the biggest movie I’ve ever done in terms of production scope, much bigger than ‘Ghostbusters,’even. And it really creates its own view of a world at sea.”

Adding to the comedy-inflected pathos of Murray’s performance as Steve Zissou was the fact that in order to play the role, Murray had to spend months in Italy for the shoot, away from his family.

“For me, that was a big part of the journey—I was like this lonely sailor at sea,” he notes, “and it fit with the mood of the story.” Murray felt there was no way to play Steve Zissou but as honestly as possible, flaws forward.

“Steve is obviously deeply flawed, a guy driven by his desires, continually blind to people around him, almost infantile in a sense,” he says.

“But more than that, Steve is someone who doesn’t put on a mask to disguise who he is. He simply lets fly. And you come to realize that there is also something else about him that allows him to be leading this odyssey, to have held this crew together in the middle of chaos. He has a real strong feeling of mission, and kind of childish sense of wonder that has never gone away. At the same time, he’s also the most vulnerable guy in the world, because he’s driven by these feelings that he’s incapable of really expressing to anyone.”

Murray continues, “Right now, as the film begins, Steve is in the darkest hours before the dawn. He’s sort of sliding off the continental shelf, into the depths. Unfortunately, he’s never been very good at self-examination, so it’s really unknown territory.”

Riding Zissou’s wild emotional waves was a large part of Murray’s challenge.

“He has major mood swings—sometimes within a single paragraph,” the actor observes. “He goes this way and then that way and the idea was that these emotions come up in him for fleeting moments but he just keeps barreling along. He makes a fool of himself all the time, but he doesn’t stop and react to it. The beauty of Steve Zissou is that he doesn’t ever lose his momentum.”

“For me, this was a very different kind of performance,” summarizes Murray, “because you’re not stopping and selling every moment as you would in an ordinary comedy. It’s more about showing up in the moment. Zissou is like a guy who’s fighting the waves, and yet, no matter what, he keeps going full speed ahead. He knows he’s going to get knocked around, that it’s going to be tough, but he’s convinced he’s going to get somewhere.”

Another unique aspect of playing Steve Zissou was exploring a most unusual father-son relationship with Owen Wilson, playing Ned Plimpton, who may — or may not — be Steve’s son. For Murray, a key turning point in their relationship comes when Steve brings Ned to the beach in his pajamas to witness a multi-chromatic flood of electric jellyfish.

“That’s the moment when Steve sees something in Ned,” he points out. “When Ned sees the jellyfish, he starts to realize that maybe there’s more to this guy than he ever imagined, and of course, there turns out to be much more than almost anyone could imagine. What he and Steve hope is going to be an amazing adventure also turns out to be an emotional adventure for them.”

Yet Murray believes that Zissou does have a family, even before Ned shows up, if an alternative one, in the rough-and-tumble crew of misfits he has gathered around him. On the set, Murray found that this makeshift family gelled for him in unexpected ways.

“One of the things that was so beautiful about this film is all the love that went into it, from Wes, and also from all the actors on the boat,” he says. “I think the audience will also really feel it because when this group was together, when the team was all together working, the connection was so...I don’t want to say warm because it’s different than that. There was something like a heat, a connection that was like blood between us, almost.”

Meet the Zissou Team

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