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From Megasaki City to NYC: ‘Isle of Dogs’ Takes Manhattan

AWN’s resident “Miscweant” has a dog day afternoon with the voice, writing and directing talent behind the new stop-motion animated feature from Wes Anderson.

‘Isle of Dogs’ directed by Wes Anderson. © 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

In they marched, into a meeting room within a swanky Fifth Avenue Manhattan hotel, the voice, writing and directing talent behind the new Wes Anderson movie, Isle of Dogs: Anderson himself, followed by co-writers Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Koyu Rankin, Bill Murray, Courtney Vance, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban. Sitting down behind an exceptionally long table, the Dog people proceeded to discuss the movie and occasionally cracked wise with the session’s host, NYC film journalist Joe Neumaier. What follows are excerpts from the event:

Wes Anderson: The point of departure for the movie was the idea of five dogs stranded on a garbage dump island -- that was literally the entire beginning of the movie. I don’t know why that was even something we wanted to do, but once we had that we spent several years working on it. It was when we combined that with another idea we had: making a movie set in Japan, that’s when the story took over. We started with the simple image I described. Then, who put them out here and why? We had to imagine a government; it led to local politics and it all grew out of that.

L to R: Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman.

In the process of giving Anderson insight into the film’s 1960s Japan setting, Kunichi Nomura became one of the writers -- and the voice of the dog-hating Mayor Kobayashi: “Wes told me my voice sounded very “evil mayor,” which I wasn’t really happy about.”

Bill Murray was very “Bill Murray” at the event, his wry, dry humor shining through. While Nomura spoke, Murray touched Koyu Rankin, the young actor sitting next to him on the back of his head. (Rankin, who had been daydreaming up to that moment, voiced Atari Kobayashi, the “little pilot” who flies to the isle to rescue his dog Spots.) At the touch Rankin turned to the smiling Murray and returned his grin. Anderson revealed how Atari became the central drive of the film’s narrative:

At the beginning the film was about dogs. At a certain point we had to decide “what happens now?” It was spontaneous: almost literally, a boy in an airplane flew into the writing room. We brought him in unexpectedly, it wasn’t something we had waiting in the wings, and he became the hero of the movie. Sometimes it feels like it’s not really in your control.

Isle of Dogs features many new additions to Anderson’s stock company of regular performers:

Now that I have everyone’s direct email address I can go straight to them to make my pitch [to act in my future movies], no middlemen whatsoever. The next time the cast will be even double this size.

When I’m casting roles like this I’m going totally on instinct. Part of it is I’d like to have [these actors] in the movie: which dog is Jeff, which dog is Bill, will they say yes [to appearing]? I’m just happy to have their personalities in it. They’re not talking that much but they’re onscreen a lot -- their voices, their performances are somehow in those puppets as them. I spent months in the cutting room and saw Jeff, Liev and Bob, Edward Norton and Bryant Cranston in these dogs, whether they were talking or not. It was almost an alchemical…I’m not using that term correctly, but you get the idea. Some stop-motion animators are great at broad action, but there are a few who can really bring human subtlety to the dogs. They have all these palettes and paddles, whatever you call them, that are like the bones and muscles of the puppets’ faces. When [the dogs’] eyes dart back and forth you can feel [the actors’] personalities in those eyes; [the animators] love to have that video reference.

L to R: Kunichi Nomura, Jeff Goldblum and Liev Schreiber.

Schreiber riffed on Anderson’s comment about the animators: “That’s the great thing about working with the same actors all the time -- eventually you won’t need them anymore. The audience knows it’s going to be those guys, and eventually it’ll just be the puppets.” When the reporters laughed at Schreiber’s comment Murray quipped “don’t laugh -- [the reporters’] questions can be generated as well; there’ll be no weekend in New York City [for the cast to enjoy].”

Schreiber voiced Spots, the dog Atari has flown to the island to rescue; tongue-in-cheek, he described his reaction to the script:

I immediately realized it was extremely political, about an oppressive cat regime that has dominated so much of western society for the past 50 years; Spots was an essential part of standing up to that.

I feel so guilty being up here and part of this [press conference]. I feel like I didn’t do anything: I was in a recording session with Wes for two hours about a year and a half ago and it was fun. I’m like a world-class dog voice guy, but it’s not apparent in this movie, because I knew immediately I wouldn’t get to do a “dog’s” voice. What Wes does so beautifully is juxtapose the very human characteristics of the actors he’s working with, with the creatures they’re playing. The idea of George Clooney as a very small fox in a sport coat…I knew I wasn’t going to get to do my funny dog voice. I felt like he mostly wanted me to do “me” either quickly or slowly.

I was actually terrified when I left [his session recording Spots’ voice]. I thought I messed that up, I didn’t do anything. I took my kids to a screening and warned them beforehand, “I’m probably in this for twenty seconds at best.” Then we saw the film and sure enough, Spots is this big-time hero dog; you hear him a lot -- and I don’t remember saying all of that.

Andserson described his Fantastic Mr. Fox recording session with Jason Schwartzman voicing “Ash” and his own love of fast-paced dialog:

It went very quickly, like a rehearsal. We had an important dinner later -- it was just us, but we didn’t want to miss it. We recorded the whole thing in one hour, Jason was tossing pages over one after the other. We did the lines over and over again very quickly.

Almost all his lines came from that one hour because it had so much life and spontaneity in it…and then we went to dinner.

L to R: Koyu Rankin and Bill Murray.

As mentioned above, Bill Murray was very much his laconic self. When interviewer Neumaier asked what he brought to his character Boss, a baseball team’s mascot, Murray’s one-word answer was “clarity.” Neumaier followed up by speculating as to whether Boss was truly the team’s mascot or just assumed to be such; again, Murray: “I don’t want to crush any of your dreams.” But the actor later turned serious when the subject turned to his own relationship with the canine world:

[As an actor voicing a dog in the movie] I had to think about what do I want to say about how I feel about dogs. Your relationship with a dog isn’t a problem of thinking things, it’s an emotional thing; you have to get yourself together to perceive those emotions, to feel those feelings. I’ve had some very emotional moments with my own dog Timber. He was attacked and left for dead by a coyote, but he survived. He was the one I chose from his mother’s litter because I thought he was the smartest one -- and he was. He’s also a very good companion, easy to be with. A friend said, “he’s so chill,” but he’s way beyond chill.

The other performers spoke about their roles as well; Courtney B. Vance who narrated the film wanted a puppet too, leading Anderson to wonder out loud about “a narrator puppet that’s always offscreen.” Tilda Swinton, who voiced the “mystical” pug Oracle said as far as her character was concerned “words are pretty overrated. It’s all about the eyes; if they’re off in another direction then she sees more ‘things,’ obviously…I’m very, very honored that you made me a pug.”

When Neumaier observed there was a “great satirical feeling” to Bob Balaban’s character King, a former dog food mascot, Balaban commented, “I actually think of King as a very modest celebrity. I didn’t have to work that hard to think about him. [King and I] have many things in common. I do commercials, but never for dog food. King’s an all-round ‘I’ll be there” person, but I won’t stand out too much.”

There was only time for a handful of questions from the audience, for the most part directed to Anderson. The first: what was the hardest part of making the movie?

L to R: Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban.

The whole movie was bigger than we anticipated, there were so many shots, so many sets but our whole Fantastic Mr. Fox team was on board, so we were able to handle it. In a movie like this so many things are going on, so many units are shooting simultaneously [as opposed to a live-action film]. When you’re shooting a live-action movie you’re never faced with “what’s a tree going to look like, what does the sky look like? Here you don’t have anything and you have to make all the choices. It’s the sort of situation where everything eventually reveals itself to you. There’s a certain amount of trial and error and waiting for inspiration, waiting for a “mistake” that turns out to be the answer.

Did the actors get to pick their roles?

We don’t do it that way, it’s not a democracy. The roles were offered, and the actors had the choice to say no. I’ve been always happy with the casts I end up with but usually there’s a process of rejection until you achieve the good cast you end up with -- but this time everybody said yes because you can’t say “I’m not available” for an hour [to record their part]. The only alternative is to say, “I don’t wish to be in your film,” to which Murray quipped, “or, ‘I don’t like dogs.’”

Were you influenced by any particular Japanese filmmakers?

Jason [Schwartzman] pointed out one of the things we love in Miyazaki’s films are his silences, their quietness and the way nature is portrayed in his films. Even though Totoro is about a friendly monster, the movie is about moving into a new home, cleaning the house, meeting neighbors…very reserved and realistic.

You may have noticed we recreated actors like Mifune, Shimura and Nakadai from Kurosawa’s films [in the puppets’ likenesses]. His urban movies like Dodes’ka-den or The Bad Sleep Well were always an inspiration to us. We wanted Isle of Dogs to look like his films…but it doesn’t. But that’s okay -- sometimes inspiration is very different from what it inspires you to do.

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.