For Wes Anderson and “The Life Aquatic,” there was only ever one Steve Zissou .

“It was all about Bill,” says Anderson, the 35-year-old writer-director who has featured Bill Murray in all three of the films he has made since his feature debut, 1996’s “Bottle Rocket.” Murray was the disenchanted steel tycoon-benefactor to the private school of the title in 1998’s “Rushmore” and the remote, intellectual husband of Gwyneth Paltrow in 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

In “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” Murray is given the wheel of the ship as the title character, a jaded version of oceanographer-adventurer Jacques Cousteau, complete with wool cap and Speedo briefs. Though Anderson claims Cousteau was a childhood hero and that he was a big fan of Cousteau’s undersea specials, that didn’t stop him from writing the role of Zissou for Murray, who he says has been one of his greatest influences as a film lover and filmmaker.

“He’s created this very distinctive persona for himself, in everything from flat-out farce like ‘Ghostbusters’ to less definable things like ‘Mad Dog & Glory.’ Growing up, I just found him to be the definition of this odd kind of cool that I was attracted to.”

That odd kind of cool could also define Anderson’s films, which one writer recently claimed are the vanguard of a style he called the New Quirky: Joining Anderson in this school are David O. Russell, whose recent existentialist comedy “I (Heart) Huckabees” deeply and neatly divided audiences into those who got it and those who didn’t; Spike Jonze, whose mirror-bursting “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” force the audience to become part of the dramatic puzzle; and Jonze’s ex-wife, Sofia Coppola, whose languid “Lost in Translation” also took advantage of Murray’s hip ennui.

Fortunately for Anderson, he has formed a bond of sorts with Murray, a notoriously prickly and elusive actor. (Coppola has said she basically had to stalk Murray to get him to commit to “Lost in Translation,” a role for which he was nominated for an Oscar.) Anderson describes their relationship as being a bit like the one between the movie’s Zissou and Ned Plimpton, an airline pilot played by Owen Wilson who shows up for Zissou’s latest project-a search for the rare jaguar shark he says ate his partner-and suggests he may be Zissou’s son.

“I think he (Murray) knows I look up to him, but he would probably never acknowledge it,” says Anderson. “He knew I was writing this for him, and it was always pretty much understood he would do it. But I’m sure if he thought the script was crappy he would have walked away. Fortunately for me, he liked it.”

Anderson’s respect for actors has resulted in the sort of stock company that Woody Allen once took from film to film.

Along with Murray’s and Wilson’s roles, he wrote the role of Zissou’s estranged heiress wife for Anjelica Huston, who played the matriarch in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and the part of Zissou’s doomed partner, Esteban du Plantier, for veteran character actor Seymour Cassel, who appeared in “Rushmore” and “Tenenbaums.”

The one future project looming for Anderson is “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” an adaptation of a Roald Dahl children’s book that he and Baumbach have already written.

The film will blend live action with animation, the latter provided by Tim Burton protege Henry Selick, who created the cleverly animated and completely invented sea creatures in “The Life Aquatic” and who previously directed a stop-motion animated film of Dahl’s book “James and the Giant Peach.”

As to exactly how this collaboration will work, Anderson remains uncertain.

“It will be an adventure; that’s all I know. And adventures are supposed to be scary and exciting. I’ve got the scary part working now, but I’m hoping exciting will follow.”

(c) 2004, Detroit Free Press.

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Wes Anderson

AP-NY-12-23-04 1359EST

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