Interview: Wes Anderson talks about crafting the doggos with the cast of Isle of Dogs

Since his debut feature Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson has defined an artistic style all his own, creating a truly unique aesthetic atop which he has delivered colourful characters and funny, touching and original stories, across films such as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which received 9 Oscar Nominations, including Best Picture.

In 2009, with his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson took his first steps into stop-motion animation, bringing his distinct vision into a new realm. The film was an enormous hit, nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards, and, Anderson notes now, the start of a love affair with the medium that he determined to return to.

It was the convergence of two ideas that brought Anderson to his latest stop-motion animated feature, Isle of Dogs (in Australian cinemas today). “I wanted to do a story about a group of alpha dogs that were living on a garbage dump,” he says. “I brought this to Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, two of my closest friends, as something to write together. We had talked before about wanting to do something set in Japan, and we sort of smashed these two things together.”

The alpha dogs of Anderson’s film are Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray) and King (Bob Balaban), who are amongst the mangy mutts exorcized to a trash island off from the fictional city of Megasaki, Japan, which is ruled with an iron fist by the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura). When the mayor’s nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin) crashes a junior turboprop XJ-750 plane on the island in search of his missing dog Spots (Liev Schreiber) the discarded canines go on a quest to reunite the boy with his best friend.

“It’s the brain child of Wes Anderson,” says Bryan Cranston, making his first appearance in one of the director’s features. “It’s like opening a present and you have no idea what’s inside. You’re surprised, and you’re introduced to a world that you’re not familiar with. It’s just beautiful.”

Anderson sets the film in a “retro-futuristic” vision of Japan; as though it might be a science fiction future vision of a filmmaker from an earlier time period. “At one point we had a particularly complicated set up for it,” Anderson reveals. “The initial opening was the narrator saying, ‘The year is 2007…’ and it portrayed that as the future, and you were supposed to eventually get that the movie is actually made in the early 60s.”

Nevertheless, the film is bathed in imagery lovingly borrowed from the cinema and culture of post-war Japan. “I’ve spent a bit of time there,” Anderson says when speaking of the film’s influences, “but more than my own very limited experiences, really, it’s Japanese movies. Particularly Japanese movies from the ‘50s and 60s. Akira Kurosawa is really our master for this one. Also, there’s Hayao Miyazaki, and then – outside of the movie world — there’s Hokusai and Hiroshige, the ukiyo-e printmakers. Our greatest inspirations are those directors’ movies and those artists’ pictures.”

Jokes Anderson: “We’ve made a film with a Japanese setting without going to Japan. The movie is actually filmed in East London, in a place called Bromley-by-Bow.”

Indeed, production on Isle of Dogs took place at Three Mills Studios, where Anderson had previously made Fantastic Mr. Fox. Many of the talented collaborators specialising in stop-motion, that Anderson had worked with on Fantastic Mr. Fox, return once more. “On Fantastic Mr. Fox we had a puppet-making company called Mackinnon and Saunders,” notes Anderson. “They helped us with the process and we learned a lot from them. Andy Gent is the name of the boss of everything to do with the puppets. With this movie, he supervised from start to finish; from the design of the armature of every puppet, to the surfaces, the eyeballs, and everything. Every aspect of every puppet has so many different options and choices and really you’re trying to figure out what is going to make the whole world of the movie right. Also what you can have fun with.”

For the actors, there is very little to go on when they step into the vocal booth to record their roles. “We have sketches,” says Cranston. “Sketches of your character, and also others, and the world a little bit. You read the script and you use your own imagination to see how it would come together. Even still, as imaginative as you can be, the world of Wes Anderson is another level. With the cumulative factor of the vision and the sound and the language and the culture. It’s like a bouquet of flowers that you receive, and it’s magnificent.”

This might be Cranston’s first experience with Anderson, but many of the cast are part of the director’s roaming ensemble of players that have been with him for several features, including Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and, of course, Bill Murray, who has appeared in most of Anderson’s movies.

Balaban likens the director to Francois Truffaut. “In the quality of the movies, and the humanity of the movies,” he notes. “I love Francois Truffaut. He never did anything that I didn’t love and think was original; they’re all so crazily different, but inside they’re really not. Wes is like that.”

Anderson, Murray notes, has become one of the leading figures in his industry in the time they have been working together. “The problem, once he became a successful director, is that new people working around him are breathless just to be in his presence. But, to his credit, he does not endorse that.”

As if to illustrate his point, new collaborator Liev Schreiber jokes, “I would have done a film about toe fungus for Wes.” Working with the director has been a treat for Schreiber, who has always admired his movies from afar. “I was completely awed by Wes’s vision. He has such an amazing, childlike imagination which is really extraordinary. The tonality and the specificity of all the people who worked on the puppets and the models are really remarkable.”

When making an animated film, it’s traditional for the actors to record their parts in isolation from one another, at different times. Schedules necessitate this, but for Anderson, assembling the group of alpha dogs to record their roles at the same time was important, and for the most part he succeeded. In one session, he gathered Cranston, Balaban, Murray and Norton. “Jeff Goldblum, who is very anti-social, would not be a part of this group,” laughs Cranston. “No, I’m busting his chops; he just wasn’t available.”

“It wasn’t my fault, it was the scheduling,” insists Goldblum. “I didn’t see anybody involved with the movie until I came to Berlin for the premiere. I’d never spent as much time with Bryan, and what a delightful guy he is. I think we’ve kind of hit it off in a way. I admire him very much, and what a consummate actor he is.”

For Murray, the opportunity to gather many of the principal cast for a combined session was a treat. On animated films, “You can be in your own booth and it feels a little lonely,” he notes. “But when you have the actual rhythm and tempo of other actors, it comes alive and you change your performance in direct relation to someone else. You’ve got somebody else to work with; you’ve got a sounding board.”

It was an opportunity, too, for Anderson, who particularly enjoys the creativity that can come out of a vocal session, where even rehearsals can be used in the finished film providing they are recorded. From there, the animators start creating the visuals of a film, a laborious process that starts with creating the characters and the sets, and continues through frame-by-frame animation that can take days to deliver a single second of film.

Imagining the Trash Island world against which much of the film is set took a special kind of care, notes Anderson with some humour. “The one thing we did learn early on was that, when you’re making a movie on a garbage dump, don’t throw everything into the first shot. We quickly decided we needed to organize the rubbish. So, basically everywhere we are on the island, there’s only one kind of trash. When you go to the next scene you’re in a new trash environment. That was the trick, and that’s my advice to people who wish to work in a garbage dump type environment, for a long form story.”

At the story’s heart is the 12-year-old protagonist Atari, voiced, in Japanese, by newcomer Koyu Rankin. “There’s the Atari we wrote and then there’s the Atari puppet,” Anderson explains. “The Atari we wrote, we had an idea for a boy who was extremely determined; defiant but soft spoken and slightly losing his mind. He’d been in a plane crash, he’s been through trauma that I think in an animated movie, in a movie like ours, his trauma can be treated a bit lightly. But then we found Koyu Rankin.”

Rankin was just eight when he was cast in the film, while the character of Atari is 12 in the script. “It would be like casting a 20-year-old to play a 40-year-old, almost” notes Anderson. “The years make such a difference at that age.” But his voice was too perfect not to give him the role. “The puppet we ended up designing is, I think, inspired by his performance really. It’s inspired by the way he played the character. His voice affected every step of what we did, from the moment we recorded him.”

Atari is a character of great poise and pride. “But it’s not the sin of pride,” Anderson insists. “He has self-esteem, or a belief in what he thinks is right. He has a good moral compass in a place that has lost its moral compass.”

In the end, it’s through Atari that the story’s themes emerge. Says Cranston: “ Isle of Dogs is addressing socio-political conditions we’re facing, not just in our particular country but everywhere in the world. Basically, it’s about love, it’s about placement and it’s about identity.”

Goldblum agrees. “This movie turns out to be particularly ripped from the headlines now. We might hope that a story like this, so beautifully and entertainingly told, can move the ball forward in our real world.”

It’s also, at heart, a story about our relationship with our furry friends. It was a theme that struck Schreiber hard, especially since adopting Woody, an eight-month old terrier mix rescued from Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

He was particularly drawn to the outcast mutts featured in Anderson’s film. “I’ve always been a dog owner,” he notes. “There’s something really special about rescue dogs, I think, because it’s almost as if they can sense they’ve been rescued, and they have this very special kind of nature.”

Since he was a little boy, Schreiber says, he has been imitating dogs and putting on animal voices. “In many respects, I have been waiting my entire career for this role,” he laughs. “Unfortunately, all that work is for nothing, because having watched Fantastic Mr. Fox, I realised that probably what Wes was going to want was the idiosyncratic, human character of my own voice that he would then attribute to a dog. After spending 40 years learning how to imitate dogs, I had to be me.”

Cranston agrees. “We’ve always transferred our own human experiences and personalities onto our pets. This was no different. A dog is capable of love and anger and fear and all those things humans can feel.”

He concludes: “Whatever note you bring, the other actors bring other notes. Then, it’s up to Wes Anderson to be the conductor of this orchestra, and bring all those notes together to create a symphony.”

Isle of Dogs is in cinemas today.

Photos and content provided by 20th Century Fox and used with permission.