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A Tour of the Belafonte
In Wes Anderson's and Noah Baumbach's screenplay for THE LIFE AQUATIC with Steve Zissou, Steve Zissou's boat, The Belafonte, becomes essentially another character in the film. From its colorful laboratory and decked-out kitchen to its research library, editing room and dreamlike "observation bubble,” the boat seems to reflect the offbeat spirit of the entire journey.

The production began by searching for a ship with a unique shape and style. "It was almost like casting,” says production designer Mark Friedberg. "The search for the boat itself was quite a ride. Wes was very particular about what type of boat he wanted—that it needed to be of World War II vintage, that it needed to be a minesweeper, that it had to be about 50 meters and, to some degree, that it would be reminiscent of Cousteau's Calypso.”

After months of scouring the seas, the production turned up a 50-year-old minesweeper in South Africa, which they limped from Capetown to Rome for the production. That ship was kept intact for many of the outdoor sequences but re-outfitted to become a oceanographic research ship, complete with towers, an observation deck and brightly colored paint.

Meanwhile, a second, similar ship was purchased in order to be dismantled for set dressing. "When it came to the interior of the boat, we wanted it to reflect Zissou, a man unsure of where he is going in life right now, so everything in this world is sort of jerry-rigged, pieced together,” says Friedberg. "As we began, the question was, is this story about a real man facing his son or is it a fable or is it a tongue-in-cheek comedy—and the answer was that it's all of these, and that had to be reflected in the design. We wanted an intimacy but also a breadth.”

From the beginning, Anderson knew that he wanted audiences to see The Belafonte for the first time in a kind of cross-sectional, model view, cut open to reveal the entire inner workings. So the design team built a half-boat lengthwise so that the camera and crew could move in a linear line from room to room.

"Being as the actual ship is made of aluminum, we couldn't easily move walls, so we pretty much rebuilt what we saw inside the boat on a stage,” explains Friedberg. "Wes wanted to be able to shoot the entire boat just by moving a crane around the room for that first scene that introduces the boat. He wanted to use only practical sets and very little in the way of digital compositing or effects. There's a great comic sense and fluidity to it, and Wes had it all planned out very precisely.”

"Shooting that scene was a lot of fun,” says Anderson. "We had all the actors kind of walking around in this ant colony and the lights are changing and the cameras moving, and it was really exciting because none of us had ever done anything like this before. The set itself was more like a museum piece than a movie set—people kept coming by to see it.”

That half-Belafonte set—some three stories tall—was built, like most of the sets, on the backlot at Italy's legendary Cinecitta Studios, with its famed craftsmen and artisans. "We chose Italy because it had everything we were looking for—it's on the water, it has Cinecitta where all the Fellini films were made, and it's the Mediterranean, so it has some of that island sensibility,” says Friedberg.

Adds Barry Mendel: "There's a very specific flavor to shooting Italy, and I think some of that European sensibility of handmade craftsmanship has really become a part of the unique fabric of the film.”

The sets were one thing, but the actual boat used as The Belafonte took a lot of getting used to for cast and crew. For many, their introduction came on a day trip during which Wes Anderson hoped to shoot some of Team Zissou's documentary footage. "We set out for this little volcanic island, and it was very rough seas and nearly every

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