Born in 1970 and raised in Texas, filmmaker Wes Anderson has become known after the release of his three movies, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, as the anointed hipster auteur. Yet Anderson eschews any sense of cooler-than-thou pretensions and through his movies, the director exudes what can only be described as the best attributes of the ultimate film geek, a true passion for detail-driven cinema. Leading up to the release of his newest film in New York and LA on Dec. 10, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou starring Bill Murray, Anderson spoke with Gothamist via the telephone about his artistic collaborators, his filmic influences and his favorite place to grab a bowl of pasta on a Wednesday night. His body may have been in Los Angeles during this conversation, but his heart was in NYC.
Anderson: So you’re in New York? Where are you?
Gothamist: I’m in SoHo, at the Lucky Strike. Having a coffee.
Oh, I know exactly where you are.
I want to start with two questions from Life Aquatic — favorite color and favorite food? [Questions suggested as easy openers by Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou to Jane , the journalist played by Cate Blanchett during their interview for a cover story.] Is it “Blue” and “Sardines” like Steve?
There is a lot of aqua blue in this movie. Hmm, that’s interesting, I do like blue, I just hadn’t thought…But sardines, well, I’m not so sure. I did have this great sardine sandwich the last time I was in France.
I wanted to know how you got connected with the screenwriter on this film, Noah Baumbach?
Actually, do you know Toad Hall?
Yes, it’s right next door to the Lucky Strike.
We met at a party at Toad Hall and I was helping him with a movie he was writing about his childhood. If I had waited to work with Owen [Wilson] again [as a writer], it would have taken about five years. He has become so successful as an actor; it’s very difficult to find time to work together.
That makes sense, so you prefer right now with Owen’s career to work with him as an actor, rather than as a writing collaborator? [As Anderson and Wilson did on his previous three movies, even garnering an Oscar nomination for The Royal Tenenbaums.]
Yes, it’s really great to have him involved in this project as an actor [playing Ned Plimpton, possibly Steve Zissou’s son], because I still think he’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
Bill Murray also has a very big part in this film and I don’t know if you know this, but they recently did a big retrospective of his work at BAM. Do you feel that you are in some way responsible for revitalizing his career?
Yes, I remember that series. Well no, because I don’t think his career needed revitalizing. I mean I was enjoying him in movies like Ed Wood and Groundhog Day. Bill is so different. He’s a genius. But he’s been working all of this time, people just may not have been so aware of him as they had been in the ‘80s.
Do you think of yourself as child of the ‘70s? Watching Life Aquatic, I was struck again by how it looks like it should be the ‘70s, but you know its not the ‘70s because I know that you’re clear that it’s not a specific time but…
No, you’re right, it’s not supposed to be the ‘70s, though it can seem like it. I guess those are just visuals that I like to see. And not everything in this movie looks like it is from that era. It just fits with the story, particularly.
It seems more like in this movie that’s because [Team Zissou], they’re this rag tag bunch, whose equipment isn’t up to date.
Right. [Jeff Goldblum’s character, Steve Zissou’s nemesis, Hennessey which leads] Operation Hennessey has LCD monitors and everything brand new.
One of the quotes I really love from Royal Tenenbaums is when Royal says, “I’m not talking about dance lessons. I’m talking about putting a brick through the other guy’s windshield. I’m talking about taking it out and chopping it up.” That to me sounds to me like the running theme of your main characters in your films. They all have this sort of attitude.
I always liked that line as well. Actually, I was working on the film and I got to that part and I was talking with my friend Marla about what I wanted him to say at this point. And I think I said something just like that, “it’s just like I’m talking about putting a brick through the other guy’s windshield. It’s like I’m talking about taking it out and chopping it up,” And she said, “Just say that.” So I put that in the script. But you’re right, they do all seem to have that way about them.
But with that idea of a through-line, is that something that you’re consciously striving for?
Not necessarily. I think that’s just something that’s happened over the course of the movies. I don’t think that’s something I’ve thought about consciously as I was making each film.
So then maybe would say it’s not fair to call you an auteur? Do people, to your face put that label on you?
It’s definitely not something people say to my face. Or rather they say, “He wants to be thought of as an auteur.” It’s a way that I might be described if I’m not in the room.
So, it’s behind your back that people say that kind of thing. Interesting — auteur as veiled insult. Then, what films, if any, have been the most inspirational to you? Which filmmakers?
John Huston, in particular. It’s amazing that he made so many films, along such a long career. Both his first film, The Maltese Falcon (1941), and his last one, The Dead (1987) [with his daughter and Anderson regular, Anjelica Huston] are so wonderful. And Peter Bogdanovich, of course. François Truffaut.
When you were at Cinecittà [the world-renowned Italian film soundstage in Rome] then, did you feel like a bit of a movie tourist shooting this movie?
Cinecittà was great. They talk about [Federico] Fellini every day there. His name is just in the air. He’s been dead all of these years, but to them, he’s still so alive and in the place.
As we are a New York website, I feel I have to segue into the New York questions. Do you have a favorite New York place to go when you’re here?
My girlfriend (Tara Subkoff) and I been going to the opera at the Met lately, which I really love. At Lincoln Center. We saw La Bohème and Madama Butterfly this past season. They were both incredible.
Share a personal (and hopefully interesting) NYC taxi story.
We had this cab driver recently, who was Kenyan and kept talking about selling hot air balloon rides. We couldn’t figure him out. Isn’t that strange, a guy from Kenya who sells hot air balloon rides? Is that a good story?
Sure, that’s a good one. 9 pm, on Wednesday night — what are you doing?
If I’m writing, I’m just leaving Bar Pitti with Noah Baumbach. And if I’m not writing, well, usually I’m writing. But I guess maybe trying to find somewhere to eat. Looking for a table at a restaurant. Definitely eating.
Describe that low, low moment when you thought you might have to give up movies for good.
We’d just done a screening for Bottle Rocket and about half of the audience got up and left. I thought, “That’s it.” We were not going to do anything better than this. Fortunately, things turned out much better for us after all with that movie but I was pretty worried.
And the final question, also taken from Life Aquatic [in a letter from the Ned as a child, to his hero, Steve Zissou] is, “Do you ever wish you could breathe under water?”
Yes. Still. All the time.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou opens in NY and LA this Friday, 12/10. It opens nationwide on 12/25.