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The Life Melodic

If this were a scene in a Wes Anderson movie, the lanky 35-year-old director would not be striding into this interview to the grating tweedle of his ringing cell phone. No, he'd be walking in to the chugging guitar riffs of the Creation, like Jason Schwartzman does in Rushmore. Or to the creepy warblings of Nico, as does Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums. Or better yet, since we're meeting just a few days before the premiere of his latest movie, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, a David Bowie tune — performed in Portuguese — might just fit the bill. In Life Aquatic, the Jacques Cousteau-inspired spoof about a dysfunctional family of underwater explorers (starring Bill Murray and Anjelica Huston, among others), Anderson once again features an eclectic collection of achingly cool tunes.

Which is why he has earned a rep as cinema's hippest DJ. (Look for a four-CD anthology of his soundtracks when the Life Aquatic DVD is released.) ''Wes has this innate attraction to B sides, and he operates on the assumption that his audience does too,'' says Mark Mothersbaugh, the Devo frontman-turned-composer who has worked with Anderson on all his films. ''Finding that perfect track is crucial to him.''

So crucial, in fact, that Anderson probably couldn't make a movie without them. Unlike most directors, this one reverses the scoring process, often choosing music before he writes a word of dialogue. ''A lot of times, music helps inspire an idea,'' he says. ''I may not even have the script yet; I just know I want to use a song, and I'll write a scene around the song.'' So forget the filmography: Here comes Anderson with an aural history of his films.

BOTTLE ROCKET, 1996

THE PLOT Owen Wilson and brother Luke play inept criminals on the lam. THE SONGS ''Half the audience — almost 100 people — walked out [of the first test screening],'' recalls Anderson. ''It was terrible.'' Executive producer James L. Brooks hired Mothersbaugh and music supervisor Randall Poster to give the picture some soundtrack CPR. (Poster, like Mothersbaugh, has stuck with Anderson, working on all of his subsequent films.) Anderson made a point of using the Rolling Stones' ''2000 Man'' and the Proclaimers' ''Over and Done With'' for two standout scenes. ''I had [those songs] in my mind for years, back when Owen and I were writing the script in college. Those scenes are written for those songs.'' Ultimately, the soundtrack didn't help — the movie still tanked — but it taught him a lesson: ''I saw how a story and characters can be supported through music. We always try to do that.''

RUSHMORE, 1998

THE PLOT A Rushmore Academy misfit (Jason Schwartzman) and a middle-aged steel tycoon (Bill Murray) become best friends, then bitter rivals, as they compete for the affections of a first-grade teacher. THE SONGS ''At first I wanted it all to be Kinks songs, the whole movie,'' Anderson says. ''Then I broadened it out to a whole Brit Invasion soundtrack. It's funny that I only wound up using one Kinks song ['Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' 'Bout That Girl'].'' He also used the Who's ''A Quick One While He's Away'' to score a brilliant montage in which Murray and Schwartzman attempt to sabotage each other's lives. ''I was listening to that Who song in my car and kind of planned the scene out, editing it all in my head. I was like, 'Okay, you have twelve seconds to come down the steps, get your shoelaces, and walk through here.' It was all choreographed to the music. That one was hard.'' Anderson couldn't figure out how to end the film until he heard the right song: the Faces' ''Ooh La La.'' ''Randy Poster called me and played it. I thought, It's perfect! I hung up the phone and wrote the last scene with the song still playing in my head.'' Max and his unrequited love, Miss Cross, wind up dancing to the tune, giving the movie its classic, heart-wrenching ending.

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