If your thing is to watch a vicious arguments, put a few movie critics into a room and bring up Wes Anderson, the idiosyncratic writer/director of eight polarizing oddities, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
I am definitely on the pro side—I consider Anderson to a breath-of-fresh-air outlier whose worst films are more imaginative (and tender) than anything being produced by mainstream American filmmakers these days—so I was eager to see his ninth film, Isle of Dogs. After a couple of weeks of seductive TV ads, his brazen (there is even untranslated Japanese dialogue), visually-stunning animated film opens at the UA East Hampton Cinema 6 on Friday, April 6. If, like me, you are a fan of Anderson’s dark but cheerfully-played satires, you won’t be disappointed.
The Synopsis from the Fox Searchlight Press Notes: “The Japanese Archipelago, twenty years in the future. Canine-Saturation has reached epidemic proportions. An outbreak of Snout-Fever rips through the city of Megasaki. Dog-Flu threatens to cross the species threshold and enter the human disease pool. Mayor Kobayashi [voiced by Kunichi Nomura] of Uni Prefecture calls for a hasty quarantine: the expulsion and containment of all breeds, both stray and domesticated. By official decree, Trash Island becomes an exile colony. The Isle of Dogs. Six months later, a tiny, single-engine, miniature airplane crash lands onto the teeming wasteland. A pack of five starving but fierce abandoned dogs [Edward Norton as Rex, Bill Murray as Boss, Bob Balaban as King, Jeff Goldblum as Duke, Bryan Cranston as Chief] scrambles to the wreckage and discovers a twelve-year-old pilot staggering from the burning fuselage. Atari [Koyu Rankin], orphan-ward to Mayor Kobayashi. With the assistance of his new canine friends, Atari begins to search for his lost dog Spots [Liev Schreiber]—and in the process, exposes a conspiracy that threatens to destroy all the dogs of Megasaki forever.”
Watch the trailer:
Two weeks ago, I attended a lively press conference for the movie at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, prior to its release in the city. Present were: Wes Anderson, his cowriter Jason Schwartzman (whom I referred to as “Jonathan” in one of my less than stellar moments!), Kunichi Nomura, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Courtney B. Vance (the narrator), Tilda Swinton (Oracle), and the Hamptons’ own, Bob Balaban and Liev Schreiber. Below is a slightly-edited version of the moderated proceedings, concluding with the two questions I slipped in.
Moderator: One of the wonderfully mesmerizing things about the film is that the stop-motion animation and the overall visual style that is so ambitious and so precise. Yet the story kind of has its roots in a free-flowing writing process. Wes, talk about the origins of the film and your writing it with Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura.
Wes Anderson: I think maybe we make it sound free flowing, but it’s just as structured as any other scripts that we would write. The point of departure for the movie was as simple as an idea we had of five dogs named Chief, King, Rex, Duke and Boss stranded on a garbage-dump island. That was literally the origin of the movie. I don’t even know why that was something that we thought we wanted to do, but once we had that idea, we spent the next several years working on it. It was always meant to be animated and we combined that premise with another idea that we had, which was that we wanted to make a movie in Japan, ideas started coming to us and the story sort of took over.
M: You have a troupe of loyal actors who have made multiple appearances in your films, including several on this panel.
WA: When you have such talented people as who are here today, it’s almost by default that you bring them back. Everyone sitting here I’d be happy to cast again in future movies. Now I have everybody’s direct email addresses, so I don’t have to use middlemen and make my pitch. [Laughter]
M: Jason, from a story point of view, there were hurdles like the separation of languages and species and the rules governing the film. What were the challenges of finding the right tone and right voices for the characters?
Jason Schwartzman: Well, Wes was the filmmaker and was at the front of the ship, and in the beginning it was about trying to figure out who these dogs are and the rules of this place they’re on. But very quickly it became clear that it wasn’t about dogs. We thought of the dogs as people, and once we all agreed that was our approach, we didn’t really look back. I do have a dog in my real life. So I also felt the responsibility when we were making the film to say we needed to draw the line at times. I’d say, “Stop! Stop! A dog wouldn’t do that!” [Laughter]
M: Wes, the film has references to your inspirations and political messages and two directors who inspired you, Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki.
WA: Yeah. Certainly, first and foremost, we were inspired by Japanese cinema. And they were the directors we talked about the most. The politics of the movie is an unusual thing. Starting with the very simple image that I described of the dogs in the dump, we asked, “Who did this to them? Who put them there and why?” And that led us to imagine a government with local politics. We looked to history and while we were making the movie, we could see that history really was repeating itself—so it was kind of an unusual experience
M: Kunichi, were you surprised when cowriting the script, Wes said you’d be perfect as the corrupt Mayor Kobayashi of Megasaki City? And how did you approach the role?
Kunichi Nomura: I recorded all five main Japanese characters in the film. Then Wes told me that my voice sounded “very evil mayor.” I wasn’t really happy about that. [Laughter] So I was the mayor. I never acted before, so I’d ask if it was okay what I was doing. I just tried to be accurate. It was really hard working with the first Japanese translation of the script. It was okay but it had lost some of Wes’s regional rhythm. Wes told me to speak faster and more aggressively. Also he always told me to make what I said really short—but I said I didn’t want to make it shorter because it would lose its charm.
M: Jeff, your character Duke really has his ear to the ground in terms of what’s happening. He hears it all. What were some of the keys to him for you?
Jeff Goldblum: Well, that gossip business allows Duke to contribute to the group. I guess I realized that early on, when I read the script and in the way Wes directed me in the recording session. But now having seen the film three times, I’m most struck by the heart of that dog gang and how they are on the same page with each other. And by how heroic they are. Once they have their task presented to them they are unblinkingly committed to put themselves in harm’s way. They are devoted to reuniting the boy with his dog, come hell or high water. It’s about love.
M: Liev, Spots is very important at the beginning, before he is lost, and there is an emotional buildup before we actually get to know him. How did you see him?
Liev Schreiber [tongue-in-cheek]: Unlike a lot of my castmates, I was immediately aware when I read the script that it was extremely political, a geopolitical piece about oppressive cat regimes that have dominated so much of Western society for the past 50 years. I just knew that Spots was an essential part of standing up to that. Spots is…I don’t really know. [Laughter]
I feel so guilty for being up here today for being a part of this movie. I feel like I didn’t do anything. I was in a recording session with Wes for about two hours, about a year and a half ago. It was fun but you know, I’m like a world-class dog-voice guy. I should just say that because it’s not apparent in this movie, because I knew immediately when Wes cast me that I wouldn’t get to do a dog voice. What he does so beautifully is juxtapose the very human characteristics of his actors with the creatures they are playing. And that’s what makes it so interesting.
For me the success of Fantastic Mr. Fox was the idea of George Clooney being a very small fox in a sports coat. I knew, “Shit, I’m not going to get to do my funny dog voice. But it really clicked because I felt Wes mostly wanted me to do me, either quicker or slower. That’s what we did. I love the movie and I was thrilled to be able to do it.
WA: Liev is very earnest in his performance, and you really feel that his dog cares. Everybody’s performance in an animated movie happens very quickly. When I work with actors and they get to create these performances, it’s really just a few hours of rehearsal over a few days that we record and we put together the movie from that. They can try anything. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, Jason played a very big role in the movie but we recorded his entire part essentially at the first recording session we did.
We had a very important dinner that night that we didn’t want to miss. It was just us at the dinner, but we didn’t want him to miss it. [Laughter] We were delayed arriving to the recording studio so we had to do his whole part in about one hour. I remember Jason was just throwing the pages up in the air as he read his lines. It had so much energy. We went back in the recording studio at later dates, but as I said almost his entire performance came from that one hour because it had just so much life and spontaneity to it. Then we went to dinner.
M: Bob Balaban told me earlier that he, Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and maybe a few others had a riff session that you recorded. And some of that was used in the film.
WA: That was the movie! We never had them all together again. They’d do a couple of things two or three times, and that was it except if we decided to add a line later. Liev, did we ever add anything else?
LS: We did a couple of things twice, maybe three times. I was actually terrified when I left because I thought I’d messed it up. As I said I didn’t think I did anything. I warned my kids that I was probably in the film for 20 seconds at best, so they shouldn’t get their hopes up for anything. Then we see the film and Spots is like a hero dog! I didn’t remember saying all of those lines.
M: Koyu, you do such a great job in your very first film role. Atari represents all of us who would do anything for our dogs. What did you like most about him?
Koyu Rankin: When I saw the film in Berlin, I found Atari to be very generous. He really wants to find his dog Spots and is very determined. He crashes lands on the island and gets all these bruises and is really hurt but he doesn’t give up looking for his dog until the end. I find that to be very generous.
M: Do you think Spots is Atari’s connection to being a normal boy?
KR: I do.
M: Bill, your character, Boss, is a former sports mascot. He always has the others’ backs and we feel he’s a team player. What was essential for you to bring out Boss’s personality?
Bill Murray [tongue-in-cheek?]: Clarity.
M: Do you think he really was the sports mascot he thinks he was?
BM: Could you rephrase? [Laughter]
M: Was Boss really a sports mascot or did he just think he was a sports mascot because he was always around when everybody was playing sports? But he really was a sports mascot, right? That really is his background, right?
BM: I don’t want to crush your dreams. [Laughter]
M: Wes, Jeff’s first appearance with you was in The Life Aquatic and Bill’s was in Rushmore. What is it about them that makes them perfect for your types of characters? Why did you think of them for Duke and Boss?
WA: Casting roles like this, I’m going totally on instinct. Part of it is that I want to have them in my movie. Then I ask, “Which dog is Jeff? And which dog is Bill?” Then, do they say yes? I’m just happy to have their personalities in this. Jeff’s dog has a few scenes where he tells the other dogs about different things he’s heard on the street, gossip. Boss says his favorite food is yakitori and that he may have been the mascot of the Nagasaki Dragons. But they’re not talking much although they are on screen a lot.
A strange thing happens with these puppets. I think that somehow Jeff and Bill’s voices are in those puppets. They establish themselves as them. When spending years in the cutting room, I saw Jeff and Bill and Bob and Edward Norton and Bryan Cranston in these dogs, whether they are talking or not. You see their personalities in the dogs they’re playing. There are few animators who can really bring a human subtlety to these dogs. So if we have a video of an actor doing something, they use every bit of it when animating the dog the actor is playing. They loved having that reference.
LS [joking]: The great thing about working with the same actors all the time is that eventually you won’t need them anymore and just use their puppets.
M: Courtney, you have one of the most important roles in the film, the narrator. What was your approach?
Courtney B. Vance: Actually, I didn’t quite know what to do. We had a tough time finding the right tone. Do you remember, Wes?
WA: The narrator is a key role in the movie. It is the voice of the movie. This voice has no puppet to go with it.
CBV: I wanted a puppet. [Laughter]
WA: Yes, I should have made a narrator puppet that only works off-screen. [Laughter] The main thing was really Courtney’s voice. I do think, Courtney, you gave your lines more careful diction, which was required as the narrator.
CBV: We played with that quite a bit because you had an idea of what the narration should sound like and there needed to be something extra. We had to go back and do the first half again.
BM: You must have gone through hell. [Laughter]
WA: It always goes that way. The great thing about working with voices is that you can play with it quite a bit. Even on my life-action movies, I tend to do a lot of takes. Very, very quickly. When I work with someone for the first time, I’m already their fan. I’ve long been a fan of Courtney but this is the first film I’ve worked on with him. We’d never worked together before except for many, many years ago when before I made Bottle Rocket we did a script reading and Courtney read one of the characters. I’ve wanted to work with him again for many years.
CBV: I’m with you now, you can’t get rid of me.
M: Wes, there’s a lot going on with the narration isn’t there?
WA: That’s true. There’s drumming and music and sometimes his role is just giving us the view of the story, telling us the past or the future. And also sometimes he’s a translator because characters are speaking Japanese and we need to know what’s going on. So he has several roles.
M: Tilda, you play Oracle, the pug with the visions. A little like Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner, she’s always watching TV and getting visions. What was the key to her?
Tilda Swinton: That words are overestimated when it comes to communication. Particularly anybody who has the privilege to have a deep relationship with a dog knows that. It’s all about the eyes. I liked the idea of playing a pug. Tilda, pug? I’m in. When we made The Grand Budapest Hotel and Wes asked me to a play a 90-year-old, I did ask for a cloud of pugs in the sky. I was privileged to take a photograph with a pug and its parents told me that a collection of pugs is called a grumble. I asked for a grumble of pugs but Wes said, “No, not this time, I’m very sorry.” So I’m very honored, Wes, that you’ve now made me a pug. I’m not going to ask you why you thought of me as a pug, but I’ll accept it.
M: Bob, there’s a satirical element to King. He was the spokesdog for Doggy Chop and he never forgets that he was a TV celebrity.
Bob Balaban: I actually think of King as a very modest celebrity. I didn’t really have to work that hard to understand King because we have many things in common. I used to do commercials, though never for dog food, and I saw King as an “I’ll-be-there-but-I-won’t-stand-out-too-much” type. That was easy for me.
M: You mentioned to me earlier that he’s the only dog with a job.
BB: It is true. I would say they all have the standard dog job of being there when they have to be, but King was the only employed dog. It didn’t change my approach but it was nice to know.
WA: Bill’s dog Boss believes he was employed as a mascot. But maybe that’s volunteer work.
BM: It begins as volunteer work, but if you prove yourself there’s always hope for advancement. [Laughter]
M: Let’s take questions from reporters:
Reporter 1: Wes, on a technical level, I was blown away by the film’s creativity. What was the hardest thing to achieve with the look of the film while dealing with puppets and special effects and so on?
WA: It was just hard to get the whole thing done because there were just so many shots, so many sets….The whole movie was bigger than we anticipated. But we prepared carefully. I had made a previous a stop-motion animated movie and our whole team from that was on board for this, so we were kind of able to handle everything. Every set in the movie brought on a whole new set of, not challenges, but the need to invent a new space. We had to bring a little world to life for each scene.
Also, there was so much happening simultaneously, with many, many units going at it at the same time and with everything being designed at once. So it was more just about the accumulation of things that were happening, rather than one specific thing being a real problem. There were things that took us a long time to figure out. For instance late in the process, I didn’t really know what the sky would be like. It’s an odd thing because when you’re doing a live-action movie you’re never faced with what the sky or the trees are going to be like.
But on an animated film, if you don’t have answers you don’t have anything. You’ve got to make choices. Also, everything eventually reveals itself to you and there’s a certain amount of trial and error and waiting for inspiration. And often with an animated movie, actually any movie, you’ll have something in mind but you make decisions and discoveries, and then you do the shot and almost invariably the end result is something unlike what you ever expected. I’ve learned to expect that it’s not going to be what I expected. It’s kind of a great thing where you end up saying, “Ah, so this is what we’re doing.
Reporter 2: Bill, did making Isle of Dogs make you think about your own relationship with a dog over the years?
BM: Your relationship with dogs isn’t too often a thinking thing. It’s an emotional thing. You have to allow yourself to feel and then to perceive your feelings, if you are going to be completely connected. I’ve had some very emotional moments, feeling moments, with my own dogs. My current dog was attacked and left for dead by coyotes. He survived. And he’s the one that I chose from his mother’s litter. I thought he was the smartest one, and he was. And he’s also the best companion. Very good, easy to be with. All my friends say chill but Timmy Murray is way beyond that entry level. All the actors in this film asked themselves how they wanted to say how they feel about dogs. It wasn’t thinking, we had to try to get to the emotional…sort of catapult. And that’s what we were able to do together.
Reporter 3: We people of Japan will love this movie. Wes, you have said Hayao Miyazaki influenced you to not use too much music. How did Kurosawa influenced your films?
WA: Jason pointed out to me that two things we love about Miyazaki are his silences and the special way nature is portrayed in his films. There is music in his films but there are also wonderful silences and a quietness. My Neighbor Totoro is about an ultimately friendly monster living in the woods, but it is very reserved and personal and, considering it’s about sprites and monsters, realistic.
In regard to Kurosawa, we actually recreated his actors. You may have noticed our characters look like Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura, and Tatsuya Nakadai. Also his urban movies were an inspiration to us. They were kind of what we wanted our movie to look like, which it doesn’t, but that’s OK because sometimes the inspiration is very different from what it inspires you to do. Those two were our masters when we were writing it and I think all through the making of the film.
Danny Peary: Did any of you actors get to choose the dogs you played?
DP: Nobody picked their roles?
BM: It wasn’t a democracy. [Laughter]
WA: The roles were offered. They had a choice to say no. I’ve always been happy with the cast I have ended up with. Usually, there’s some rejection, but on this one everyone said yes because they couldn’t say they were unavailable to work for about an hour over two years. [Laughter] The only way they could pass was by saying, “I don’t wish to be in your film!”
LS: Or “I don’t like you and I don’t like dogs!” [Laughter]
DP: From between the time you started writing and editing the film, did you change your mind about who your main character is?
WA: It did change a little. At the beginning, for Jason, Roman and me, the film was about dogs. But at a certain point while we were in the writing room working on the script, we said what happens now? And suddenly we had this boy fly onto the island in an airplane in search of his dog. We brought him in unexpectedly.
And this person then became the hero of the movie. And we found Koyu Rankin and he brought that character to life and that transformed what we were doing. Sometimes you feel like the story you’re telling isn’t really under your control, it just reveals itself.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.