Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Wes Anderson’s latest feature (Isle of Dogs) is currently in theaters, and while it’s earning both praise and controversy I thought the time was right to revisit one of his rare underappreciated films. No, not the misfire that is The Darjeeling Limited. I’m talking about his 2004 movie about elusive father figures, adventure on the high sea, and crudely yet beautifully animated sea life.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Commentators: Wes Anderson (director/co-writer), Noah Baumbach (co-writer)
1. They’re recording the commentary at a table in Bar Pitti, a restaurant in New York City where they met each day to work on the film’s screenplay. It’s a nice idea, but the chatter from nearby tables makes it occasionally difficult to hear.
2. Regarding Steve Zissou’s (Bill Murray) documentary films within the film, Anderson says they’re “inspired by [bleep]’s films, more than a little.” Someone’s concerned about a possible lawsuit…
3. The festival director interviewing Zissou on stage is played by Antonio Monda who’s a film professor at NYU who hosts dinners with interesting people. As with almost all of the roles in the film this one was written specifically for him to play.
4. The two relate a story regarding Isabella Blow (who plays Antonia Cook) that is so “Wes Anderson” I will now share it in its entirety.
Baumbach: “I had first come in contact with Isabella when I was at Brasserie Leeds in Paris with my girlfriend, and she walked by and looked at us and said ‘très sexy.'”
Anderson: “Beaucoup de sey.”
Baumbach: “Beaucoup de sex. And I came back and told you I’d seen this very interesting woman, and you said ‘Would this woman be out of place in a matador’s outfit?'”
Anderson: “Yes, because I had seen her previously in a hotel lobby in Paris where she was dressed as a matador.”
Baumbach: “It was amazing that my story was so specific that you knew exactly who it was.”
5. Anderson recalls seeing a movie once with Murray where a kid approached and said hello. “Then when we came out there was a gang of kids who were waiting there with things to sign, and Bill was signing all these things and talked to the kids, and then, um, should I tell this? And then at the end one of the men came up and asked Bill for ten dollars. And Bill said ‘get lost, get out of here,’ and the guy walked away. There’s something about the way Bill handled the situation that’s in Zissou.” During filming Anderson reminded him of the interaction, and he “went into raving hysterics over the idea that it was something that really happened but he had no recollection of it.” Baumbach suggests they cut this from the commentary unless Anderson is able to get permission from Murray to include it.
6. They bought the Belafonte in South Africa and sailed it up the Mediterranean before renovating it for the film’s purposes. “It never ran that well.”
7. Anderson says that Michael Gambon has the longest fingers of anyone he’s ever seen in real life.
8. The idea of longing for a father goes beyond human parental units and into the films that inspired the pair as kids. “Our cinematic idols in some ways were like surrogate fathers for us,” says Baumbach, “movies we loved that sort of took the role of things we looked up to, things we wanted to live vicariously through, and I think Ned (Owen Wilson) sort of stands in for that.”
9. Wilson told Anderson a funny story once about Will Patton from the set of Armageddon, and he did Patton’s southern accent while sharing the story. Anderson asked him to use that voice for his character here. “It was funny, and it gave him a sort of genteel feeling, something a little bit not quite real, and the accent’s certainly not real. The accent hasn’t existed certainly since the Civil War, even if then.”
10. They wanted to use a lot of David Bowie songs which naturally led to them being performed in Portuguese by Seu Jorge.
11. The big cutaway set of the ship showing all of the various rooms was inspired by World Book Encyclopedia and Time-Life books. “It was like shooting a play,” he says of the sequence.
12. The scene in the Explorer’s Club where Steve overhears people talking about him was “lifted wholesale” from a friend who was talking loudly and derogatorily in a cafe about a man nearby he thought resembled “a famous action hero” only to have it turn out that it was the famous action hero.
13. He’s not typically big on stunts like this, but he kept Cate Blanchett away from the rest of the cast until they shot her character’s arrival scene on the beach. She appears for her shot to find them all in their pajamas and surrounded by glowing jellyfish. “It was very strange, but I felt that something might come out of it, and there was this crazy energy to it.”
14. Yes, that little landscape painting visible around 26:28 on two different walls is the same in both shots. “Theoretically there’s two of them,” but they actually just re-used it when dressing each side of the Wilson/Blanchett conversation.
15. Murray improvised the bit from off camera where he pulls and aims his pistol at Jane Winslett-Richardson (Blanchett), and you can see it bump the at 29:06. “Did you just point your gun at the pregnant reporter?” asked Anderson. “It was a nice touch.” They then shot part of his side again to include it.
16. They crashed one of the helicopters and had to replace it, and Anderson recalls noticing a small label on the chopper stating some variation of “This is a home-built helicopter. Not approved for official navigability.” It’s visible at 36:08.
17. Baumbach cameos at 34:46 as Oseary Drakoulias’ (Gambon) assistant.
18. Drakoulias’ glasses are modeled on Sergio Leone’s.
19. He discussed with Henry Selick the possibility of collaborating on a feature adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and those conversations led to him doing the stop-motion animated sea-life here. The feature project ended up going forward without Selick as he was busy on Coraline at that time.
20. Anderson’s earlier films were co-written with Wilson, but as the latter became more in demand as an actor his time for writing dwindled. Baumbach entered the equation after showing Anderson his script for The Squid and the Whale.
21. Jane’s notebooks are designed after the exact ones in which Anderson writes his films.
22. The scene where Steve fires on the fleeing pirates before tossing his emptied gun into the ocean involved a quick sleight of hand as they weren’t legally allowed to throw real guns into the sea. A prop guy hands hima rubber gun right as Murray’s hand drops below frame. They learned this lesson the hard way as an earlier moment with the pirates saw one of them hit his head, go unconscious, and fall into the water — dropping his gun in the process. They had to halt filming while police choppers buzzed overhead and special divers searched for the weapon on the sea bed.
23. He auditioned a handful of three-legged dogs and had them run around in the yard of his rented home in Rome before filming. Leica won the role of Cody because he’s a fantastic runner.
24. Moonrise Kingdom co-writer Roman Coppola offered to shoot second unit for the film, but Anderson had never had it before and had no idea what to ask him to do. Coppola eventually just showed up anyway and began shooting various things like boats at sea, helicopter POV shots, and more that Anderson ended up using in the film. The shot of the feet in the helicopter cockpit as it plunges into the ocean is one of his too.
25. Blanchett discovered she was pregnant shortly before filming began, so for the first half of the shoot she’s wearing a fake pregnancy belly. She was able to go without it for the second half as she began showing on her own.
26. Even though Eleanor Zissou (Anjelica Huston) tells Jane that Steve “shoots blanks” and therefore couldn’t actually be Ned’s father neither Anderson nor Baumbach ever felt convinced that it’s the truth.
27. Baumbach referred to the film as “Godard-ian” at a party and was laughed at, but he still feels it to be true. “That’s probably what set us back at the box-office,” adds Anderson.
28. He refers to Steve’s trip and fall down the hotel stairs as “perhaps one of the most awkward and least convincing stunt sequences ever.”
29. The “I’m a Pepper” shirt that Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) is wearing while a captive is a nod to the stunt man who helped out on the production Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” short film.
30. They note poor Cody being left behind after the rescue but make no effort to explain why they made that cold-hearted choice.
31. Peter Bogdonovich was one of the script’s early readers, and he was very upset that they killed off Ned.
32. The three Kentucky Air pilots at Ned’s burial at sea are played by Anderson’s brother Eric, Wilson’s father Bob, and Bob’s college roommate.
33. Anderson points out something that’s become something of an admitted formula with his endings. “At the end of the movie, get everyone together in whatever some sad thing that’s going on, and have them kind of reconnect with each other.”
34. He’s gotten more compliments and remakrs on the “I’m part gay… supposedly everyone is” line than any other.
35. “I had a conversation with Mario Batali,” says Anderson explaining that it was an inspiration of sorts for the exchange between Steve and Jane after Ned’s funeral. Batali had just had a profile written, and he said basically the same thing about how he was embarrassed at first before realizing that it captures him as he truly is.
36. The red carpet sequence at the end was filmed at the back entrance of the president’s palace in Rome. He came across it accidentally and then spent three months trying to convince the authorities to let them film there.
37. They had discussed and planned for the end-credits walk with all the actors before Goldblum had been cast, but yeah, it was still pretty much inspired by/stolen from Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. “In some ways Jeff playing it makes it seem less of a steal and more of an homage, but it’s pretty much just a steal.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“[Bleep] was always an interesting figure to us because as kids we idealized him and watched his shows.”
“It’s a world where there are such things as hip documentaries.”
“Steve Zissou is obviously and clearly partly inspired by [bleep], but just as much of an inspiration for him is Bill Murray.”
“You do have a lot of painting in your movies.”
“I always feel very uncomfortable talking about people’s costumes and wallpaper and things.”
“I hesitate to discuss Proust at all in a commentary, but…”
“You like montages. You use a lot of montages in your movies.”
“I’ve never been 100% sure that people know what’s going on.”
“I’m not a professional action-sequence director.”
“You like very composed shots a lot of the time.”
Buy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou on Criterion Blu-ray from Amazon.
This remains a fantastic movie with emotional beats that come through effectively even as the co-writers talk over them. The commentary sees Anderson and Baumbach offering plenty of interesting tidbits regarding both their intentions and execution. Recording the track in a busy restaurant setting is for shit though.
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