While being fitted for her pregnancy prosthetic, which involved being wrapped in a full body cast, Cate Blanchett fainted. She was rather surprised by this, as she had never fainted before, and learned in the next few days that she actually was pregnant.
Cate Blanchett never rehearsed with the crew and hadn't even met most of them before filming the nighttime electric jellyfish scene in which she first appears in the movie to add spontaneity to the scene.
The film is dedicated to Jacques-Yves Cousteau; Cousteau's ship was the Calypso. Zissou's ship is called the Belafonte; Harry Belafonte became famous singing commercialized calypso songs. In the beginning sequence, when Zissou is first introduced to the Italian audience, the model of the Belafonte on his desk is actually a model of the Calypso, painted blue instead of black.
Co-Writers Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson named several of the places and crew members in the film spontaneously after things and people they saw around them at the Italian restaurant where they held many of their meetings about the film. Pescespada Island, for instance, was named for one of the dishes on the menu. Some of the characters' names are named after waiters and patrons at the restaurant.
Wes Anderson watched many films set on the ocean to see how the sea movement was simulated. He found that in The Black Stallion (1979) there was only one scene set in a hallway that had the camera rocking, and so he decided to have just one rocking hallway scene in this movie.
Matthew Gray Gubler (Intern Number One) sprained his ankle while filming a scene where the interns are exercising (the take where he falls made it into the final cut of the film). Gubler always wears mismatched socks and attributes his bad luck to having worn matching socks that particular day for the first time in several years.
Bill Murray would serenade the cast and crew in moments of downtime to stave off boredom. Murray, however, is not noted for his musical abilities, so Owen Wilson bought a football table to keep everyone entertained.
When Steve Zissou stumbles on the kidnappers playing cards, one of the kidnappers can be seen wearing a hat featuring the Longhorn logo of the University of Texas. Wes Anderson graduated from the University of Texas at Austin.
When Steve (Bill Murray) discovers the pirates playing cards, Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) wears a t-shirt with "I'm a Pepper" written on it. This is the same t-shirt worn by the gun seller in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket (1994).
As a pilot, early in the film, Ned Plimpton wears a Rolex GMT Master. This watch is popular with airline pilots for calculating time zones. By the end of the film, he has given up the GMT and chosen a Rolex Submariner, for obvious reasons.
DIRECTOR TRADEMARK (Wes Anderson): (mid shot speed change): When Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) smokes a joint alone at the bow of the ship after first meeting Ned (Owen Wilson), the film shifts from normal speed to slow-motion.
The shot of Steve Zissou feeding a fish to a killer whale, which appears during a montage on Zissou's island, was also in the script for Wes Anderson's earlier film Rushmore (1998) (where it was written into a montage when Bill Murray's character is looking at fish specimens for his new aquarium).
Though most initial reviews were negative, critics can't seem to agree on this movie. Even Rotten Tomatoes' "Critics Consensus" doesn't reach a consensus: "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is getting soaked by many critics, who call it smug, ironic, and artificial (as if that were an insult instead of a plot point). Still, others have praised the movie's sheer uniqueness, eccentricity, and whimsy." Critic Matt Zoller Seitz explained this by calling the movie "as immense, yet clearly personal as Jacques Tati's "Playtime", Steven Spielberg's "1941", Martin Scorsese's "New York, New York", and Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart", all box-office flops whose reputations grew with time."
During filming, the Chicago Cubs made a deep run into the Major League playoffs, mounting a 3-1 lead in the NLCS. Bill Murray, a native of the Chicago area, had it written in to his contract that he receive a live feed of all the Cubs' games. The Cubs eventually lost the series to the Florida Marlins, prolonging their World Series drought to ninety-five years.
In Wes Anderson's earlier film, Rushmore (1998), there is a shot of Max Fisher on his go-kart, which is a direct homage to a Jacques Henri Lartigue photograph. The man in this photo, as well as others taken by Lartigue, is named Zissou.
Matthew Gray Gubler really twisted his ankle, and it made it into the final cut. He states that it is one of the things he either laughs about, or despairs, depending on his mood. He blames it on the fact he wore matching socks, as he superstitiously believes odd socks are good luck, after his grandmother told him matching ones were bad luck. Every day before and after he wore odd socks, and that was the only time something like that went wrong, when he wore matching ones.
(At around one hour and six minutes) There is a direct Star Wars reference as the Belafonte comes into Port Au Patois. The seaman on the crows nest is looking through a white pair of binoculars which look very similar to the macrobinoculars that Luke Skywalker used on Hoth in Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980). The following cut shows the view of Willem Dafoe through these binoculars as he is yelling "Port Au Patois" to the crew. This shot, seen from the POV of these binoculars, is almost identical to the look of Luke's macrobinoculars in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) as he views the Tusken Raiders from the cliff top. So really, two Star Wars references.
When Ned is piloting the whirly bird towards the end of the movie, there is a label on his helmet with the name "J. Vincenzo". This could be in reference to Jan-Michael Vincent, who starred in Airwolf (1984), in which he piloted a helicopter.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Seymour Cassel has a brief role as Esteban, the friend of Steve Zissou who is eaten by the Jaguar shark. According to Roger Ebert, Cassel once told him in an interview many years previously that he had always wanted to be eaten by a shark in a movie.
When Bill Ubell (Bud Cort) is kidnapped by pirates, Cort felt that his character should lose fifty pounds, a decision that made Wes Anderson nervous. Cort proceeded to go through with it, and despite getting ill during the process, he lost fifty pounds.