A quirky, fantastical adventure, helmer-scribe Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” dives into the world of fictional oceanographer/filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) on a journey of self-discovery.
Zissou faces the death of his best friend, a foundering marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) and the unexpected appearance of a man who could be his son (Owen Wilson). An intrepid, pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett) also comes aboard to investigate Zissou’s scientific method.
During his Italian publicity tour for “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson became enamored with Rome’s Cinecitta Studios and decided that’s where he needed to shoot “Life Aquatic.” As the film is ostensibly set on a Mediterraneanlike sea, coastal areas near Rome and the island of Ponza played a part in the $50 million production.
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“Wes’ aesthetic, from my experience, is much more interested in a hand-made quality than anything slick and computerized,” says the film’s production designer, Mark Friedberg, who also handled “Far From Heaven” and “The Ice Storm.”
“I think that was something he was looking for and really got from working in Italy and the way they work,” says Friedberg when reached on the set of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”
Not only did “Life Aquatic” utilize Federico Fellini’s usual soundstage, Teatro 5, at Cinecitta, many former Fellini crew members helped craft the film’s elaborate principal set: a fully detailed, 175-foot-high cross-section cutaway of Zissou’s oceangoing explorer, the Belafonte. The ship is central to the action and serves as a major character, rather than just a set.
Friedberg had two daunting tasks: first, to find an operational World War II-era, wooden-framed minesweeper. He located two identical ships in South Africa. It took six weeks for the journey to Rome, where one was prepped for exterior shots and the other was gutted and used on the soundstage.
Second, Friedberg had to design and build, to actual scale, a cross-section of the entire ship. Murray’s and Wilson’s characters traverse the interior of the ship in one extended sequence. “It’s a moment unto itself in the film,” notes Friedberg, describing the set as a once-in-a-lifetime job. “The night we shot, one of the crew said to me that the spirit of the master was reawakened on the Fellini-like set.”
Seven-time Oscar nominee and two-time winner Milena Canonero (“Barry Lyndon” and “Chariots of Fire”) was the film’s costume designer. She created everything from wetsuits to the crew’s signature red beanies to Eleanor’s couture evening gowns.
“She was of the idea, and I concurred, that Eleanor was a bit of an underwater creature and that my jewelry and everything I wore would some way relate to the sea,” explains Huston.
She credits Canonera’s “most brilliant eye” and was impressed by her approach. “It was Milena’s idea to try streaks of blue hair, because for her, everything works as an organism: the hair, makeup, the costume, a character is a whole entity, not split up by department.”
Huston’s jewelry is exceptional throughout the pic. She wears deep blue, Native American chunky turquoise, and two dramatic necklaces from Rome’s Marta Marzotto: one of paperweight-size emeralds and the other, a strand of horn-shaped coral and diamonds.
A palette of three colors, aquamarine blue, drab green and a pale yellow, dominate the film. They are infused into every visual element. “We had to create a uniformity for Zissou’s world. He was a man that had established this culture around him and his colors needed to be iconic,” Friedberg says. “In writing the story, Wes wrote more than the words characters say, he pretty much wrote the world. And he had an unwavering sense of the way that world would look.”