The Life Aquatic cinematographer on staging one of Wes Anderson's most emotional scenes
It's Wes Anderson week at EW! Ahead of the Oct. 22 release of The French Dispatch, we're celebrating the auteur's singular filmography with a series of throwbacks celebrating his most beloved titles. Here, director of photography Robert Yeoman — one of Anderson's most frequent collaborators — looks back on creating the heartfelt climactic moments of The Life Aquatic.
By the standards of Wes Anderson's career at that point, 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a massive undertaking. His fourth film — following the scrappy debut Bottle Rocket, the modest breakout Rushmore, and the star-studded crossover hit The Royal Tenenbaums — was a major step up in complexity and scale, with a budget more than twice that of Tenenbaums.
"We had ships at sea, and weather, and all kinds of crazy stuff," recalls cinematographer Robert Yeoman, who has shot all of Anderson's live-action movies. "There were no easy days on that film."
But for all that, The Life Aquatic's climax is strikingly intimate — or as much as it can be while involving a submarine and a stop-motion animated shark. The film tells the rambling tale of seafaring documentarian Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and his quest to hunt down and kill the "jaguar shark" that ate his best friend. It all culminates deep in the ocean, as Zissou and his motley crew of companions come upon the creature at last, and Zissou, moved by its beauty, opts not to destroy it after all — and finally makes peace with the loss of his friend.
Much of the scene plays out in a typically Andersonian ensemble shot, featuring about a dozen characters placed just so within the small submarine. The sub was constructed on a soundstage at Rome's legendary Cinecittà studios, where much of The Life Aquatic was filmed.
"It was hard to pack everybody in there, and a bit difficult to light, because everyone was sitting so close together," Yeoman recalls. The crew experimented with the characters' placement before bringing the actors in: "Wes is very particular about blocking, so once [a set] is built we oftentimes will take the same amount of people and try to squeeze them into that space," the cinematographer adds. "We do a lot of prep work so that when the actors arrive, there's no surprises."
Indeed, as one might expect from his fastidious filmmaking style, Anderson prepares extensively for his films, storyboarding or even animating every shot before the cameras roll. "A lot of directors want the freedom to bring the actors in and make it up on the set, but that doesn't happen with Wes," says Yeoman. "By the time we get to shooting, we know pretty much exactly what the shots will be. And it helps everybody — the production designers don't have to come in and dress a whole house, because they know we're only looking in one direction. And I know that that's the only direction I have to light, so I don't have to light the entire house."
This preparation was crucial to The Life Aquatic, which was the first of Anderson's films to feature extensive effects created in post-production. The filmmaker recruited The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick to create various fantastical sea creatures, including the jaguar shark, through stop-motion animation. Nowadays, of course, it's extremely common for key elements of a movie to be added in later through visual effects, but it was uncharted territory for Anderson and his team at the time.
"It was a learning experience for my end as well as his, [for] what we had to get in the camera and what could be put together later," Yeoman recalls. "A lot of the post-production techniques that we take for granted today were newer back then, so everyone was learning at that time." Still, he adds, "Everyone was pretty clear [on] what the shark would look like. There are certain things that you can't anticipate, but we all kind of knew what the creature was going to be. Wes certainly tries to be as clear as he can be with everyone [about] what he's looking for."
One crucial element that could be incorporated in camera, so to speak, was the music. The shark's emergence from the deep is accompanied by the song "Starálfur" by Icelandic art rock band Sigur Rós, which Anderson played on set to "get people in the mood," Yeoman says. "Back then, Wes knew the music tracks very clearly before we started shooting, and we would have a boombox on set and play all the tunes while we were setting up," he recalls. "That particular music was very sad and emotional, so by playing that on the set, everyone could just get into that mind space and emotionally be where that song might take us."
What's more, "over the years, Wes has kept the on-set crew very, very small," Yeoman adds. "A lot of movies I'm on, there'll be hundreds of people all standing around, but that's not the case on Wes' films. There might be five or six people there, and everybody else is somewhere else. He doesn't want any distractions for the actors, particularly in a scene that's emotional like that. We try to do all our work, and then when the actors get there, just try to be in the background."
It all helped cultivate an environment where everyone felt appropriately vulnerable. "I remember that Bill Murray at one point kind of tears up [in the scene], and it was very emotional watching him do that," recalls Yeoman. "We knew it was going to be emotional, but I was so surprised when Bill started tearing up, and I remember feeling the strong emotion of the whole thing myself, and just being very moved by it."
And while The Life Aquatic was not exactly well-received at the time of its release — it was a box-office bomb and Anderson's first film to receive predominately negative reviews, but has built an admiring cult following in the years since — Yeoman remains proud of the work they did on the film, and especially that climactic scene.
"It was very strong, and particularly when all the other actors leaned in and touched Bill on the shoulder, it just had a very strong feeling to it," the cinematographer reflects. "I felt like it was a perfect culmination of all that had happened up to that point."