An Interview With Wes Anderson’s Indestructible Alpha-Dogs

Isle of DogsCourtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bryan Cranston and Liev Schreiber discuss their canine capers for the filmmaker’s latest offering

Wes Anderson fans around the world have been waiting for this day for a very long time: the unleashing of the inimitable storyteller’s newest offering, stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs, upon the worldSet in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, in the near-distant future, it is the story of a 12-year-old orphan named Atari Kobayashi, who charters a miniature plane and flies to Trash Island, a desolate, garbage-strewn wasteland, in search of his lost dog Spots.

The film boasts many of the trademarks with which the American auteur has become synonymous: an extraordinary level of detail (in fact Isle of Dogs set is so jam-packed with intricately crafted minutiae that it makes you want to skulk in the shadows of the cinema and watch it all over again); a cast of idiosyncratic characters with their own endearing attributes and catchphrases; an excellent soundtrack (Alexandre Desplat delivers one of his most rousing scores to date, propelled by the booming sound of the taiko drums) and the power to transport you to a whole new world, which only Anderson could ever conjure. 

But Isle of Dogs is also unlike anything that Anderson’s given us before. First, it’s an all-out homage to Japan, drawing heavily on the work of iconic filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, borrowing elements from Studio Ghibli master Hayao Miyazaki, and comprising sumptuous scenes inspired by classical woodcuts and the beloved Japanese painter Hokusai – all viewed through an Andersonian lens, of course. It’s also the filmmaker’s most political work to date, centring around a totalitarian regime led by a bigoted mayor – which, in these unsettling times, also makes it his most poignant.

Mayor Kobayashi of Uni Prefecture is the reason that Spots (played with husky charm by Liev Schreiber) is on Trash Island in the first place: all canines, both domestic and stray, have been exiled to the rubbish dump following an outbreak of incurable Dog Flu, which the corrupt ruler declares an imminent danger to mankind. When his devastated ward lands there to look for his doting “bodyguard-dog”, he is instead met by a pack of five fierce, hunger-stricken muts – or, to quote their designated leader Rex (Edward Norton), “scary, indestructible alpha-dogs” – who pledge to help him on his mission. Inevitable adventures ensue. The rest of the flea-ridden hounds are played to perfection by Anderson favourites Bill Murray (as Boss, former mascot to the Megasaki Dragons Little League baseball team), Bob Balaban (as King, one-time spokesdog for a doggie treat brand) and Jeff Goldblum (as the pack gossip, Duke), plus Bryan Cranston (as the grouchy stray, Chief) in his first Anderson role. 

The day after the film’s world premiere at the Berlinale, AnOther had the chance to catch up with Murray, Balaban, Goldblum and Cranston, as well as Schreiber, to talk all things dog and the sheer brilliance of Anderson, from his childlike imagination to this, his immaculately realised plea for compassion and respect in an increasingly hateful world.

Liev Schreiber on playing a dog...
“Since I was a little boy I have been imitating dogs and putting voices on animals so I have, in many respects, been waiting my entire career for this role. Unfortunately all of that work was for nothing because, after watching Fantastic Mr Fox, I realised that what Wes was probably going to want was the idiosyncratic, humanist characteristic of my own voice that he would then attribute to an animal, which is part of what makes his stuff so good. So after spending 40 years working out how to imitate dogs, I had to be me.”

Bryan Cranston on developing his character, Chief…
“You do realise that it’s just your voice that needs to convey the emotion that’s necessary [in preparing for an animation role], but I don’t approach it any differently. I looked at this character and I thought, ‘Homeless, aggressive, assertive, territorial’ – this dog doesn’t know where it’s going to sleep or if it’s going to eat – and possessed of a resentment to other dogs that have it better. We’ve been transferring human personalities onto our pets for eons, so here was an opportunity to do just that.”

Jeff Goldblum on Anderson’s casting capabilities...
“Whatever process he goes through in casting, however he arrives at that, it’s awful good. For someone to understand and appreciate you in a different way is quite rare. It hasn’t happened to me all that often that I’ve been so interestingly used. Am I a gossip like Duke? I try to stay away from it but I can’t say that I always succeed. Sometimes it’s a little too tempting.”

Bryan Cranston on Anderson’s conductor-like approach...
“When Wes was in the room with Bill and Bob and Edward Norton and me recording, he had his eyes closed a lot, and you know he’s imagining how he would arrange the puppets to shoot. He’s like a conductor of an orchestra; each one of us is playing an instrument and he’s [waves arms like a conductor], ‘A little bit more of this, and a bit less of that, and there you go’. We are looking at the parts and he’s looking at the whole.”

Bill Murray on recording as a pack…
“I’ve recorded things for the theatre or for a record before when you’re in your own booth and it feels a little lonely, but when you’ve got the rhythm and tempo of other actors to bounce off, you change your performance in direct relation to someone else’s and it becomes alive.”

Liev Schreiber on Anderson’s childlike imagination...
“Wes hardly gave me any direction at all during our short recording session. I thought, ‘What is an honest version of what a bodyguard-dog would sound like? Because that’s probably what Wes wants.’ It’s a very serious kind of childlike roleplay: ‘You’re going to be the bodyguard-dog, and you’re going to be the boy who flies in on the plane. OK let’s go.’ And if you get too hokey or silly with it, you’re not taking it seriously. Even a kid would go, ‘That’s not real, you’re going for laughs’. Wes has a remarkable mind; very few people maintain that childlike facility of imagination.”

Bill Murray on his long working relationship with Anderson, and how it’s evolved…
“There was one of his movies that I almost wasn’t in, and then he called me and said, ‘I thought I was going to do one without you but I’m not!’ There are some things that I ignore now, which I didn’t at the start. He used to insist that the cuffs of my pants be four-and-a-half to five inches too short, for example. I don’t do that anymore! He does that to everybody: tries to change the length of your clothes and everything else [laughs].”

Jeff Goldblum on the magic of the Wes Anderson experience…
“Every experience with Wes is like a special nugget. For Life Aquatic we shot at Cinecittà and then we went down to Gore Vidal’s villa in the south of Italy to shoot there – Wes is attracted to interesting people and they’re attracted to him. And then all through the making of Grand Budapest Hotel we stayed in one hotel and we had a chef who would come cook us dinners every night. It’s something! Working with him and his cream-peachy family over the years has been a dream come true.”

Bob Balaban on watching Anderson develop as an auteur...
“He reminds me of Truffaut in a sense, in the quality of the movies and in their humanity. When I saw Moonrise Kingdom I went, ‘It’s a Truffaut movie!’ Except that Truffaut had a different vision, a different palette. But watching somebody work away with the same themes and the same emotional issues, in different ways, it’s a well that does not dry up. And you know that they’re only going to get deeper. So it’s a great pleasure to watch.”

Bill Murray and Bob Balaban on their favourite canine characteristics…
BM: “Loyalty I suppose would be number one. The desire to protect would be another. Friendly companionship and non-judgemental friendship...”

BB: “A great urge to catch running objects.”

Liev Schreiber on Isle of Dogs’ most potent takeaway...
“I think what I came away with, what I was most moved by was the profundity of that relationship between people and dogs. Dogs’ capacity for compassion, loyalty and love, without sharing language or culture with us, without sharing much at all, and how, even as a dog lover myself, I’ve undervalued that relationship. If dogs are capable of all that as a supposedly lesser-evolved species, should we not, as a more evolved species, be capable of that with each other?”

Isle of Dogs is out in the UK from today.

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