The cast of Isle of Dogs on Wes Anderson's new film

Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Bob Balaban and Jeff Goldblum fill us in on life in Wes' World, ahead of the release of Wes Anderson's latest animation Isle of Dogs.

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 20 Feb 2018
  • Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson makes cinema on his terms. Utilising set design, expressive colour, models, precision framing and, increasingly, stop-motion animation, he creates worlds all of his own. Critics of the director like to use phrases like "twee" or “hermetically sealed” to describe this fastidious filmmaking style, but when Anderson's work is at its best these are far from airless places; they’re so inviting you want to step through the screen.

However, you might hesitate to do so with Isle of Dogs, as it's set on an island of rotting rubbish populated by disease-ridden canines. Anderson admits that his initial pitch – “a pack of dogs who live on garbage” – wasn't promising, but then he and his co-writers, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola, struck on the idea to combine this basic doodle with another story they’ve had on the backburner. “We had also been talking for some years about wanting to do something related to our shared love of Japanese cinema, especially Kurosawa,” says Anderson. “So in a way, the story of Isle of Dogs could have taken place anywhere, but the thing that made it come to life for us is the decision to set it in a sort of fantasy version of Japan.”

For previous feature The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson invented a whole new country. He does similar here with the setting of Megasaki, a Japanese city of the retro-future where the dog is no longer man’s best friend. Schwartzman gave us an insight into Anderson’s creative process: “The one thing I’ll say about what I admire so much about working with Wes is having the feeling of hunting the story down and going for it. I’ve never seen anything like it but it’s an inspiring thing.

“In the beginning he says, ‘I’ve got this idea: dogs, garbage’, and he was describing the environment really. And he said, there’s something about this place I want to explore. Who are these dogs?”

Movie royalty, that’s who. Over Anderson’s celebrated career, which began with Bottle Rocket in 1996, he has amassed a huge repertory of wonderful actors upon whom he can call whenever he has a new feature in the works. Many of them turn up here playing the mutts who’ve been exiled, including Bill Murray as former Little League baseball mascot Boss, Jeff Goldblum as the pampered Duke, and Bob Balaban as former dog food commercial star King.

There are some Anderson newbies lending their voices to the four-legged ensemble too: Bryan Cranston plays alpha-dog Chief – a mangy stray who has to prepare the more mollycoddled in his pack for the realities of life without a master – and Liev Schreiber as Spots, the guard-dog of Atari (Koyu Rankin), the 12-year-old orphan who kicks off the action by flying to the island of the title on a rescue mission to find his beloved pet.

“Most of the actors here are people who I have either worked with before or have loved for years,” says Anderson introducing his cast at Isle of Dogs' world premiere at Berlin Film Festival. He jokes that he made his actors an offer they couldn't refuse: “One good thing about an animated movie is [the actors] can’t really say 'not available'. We can [record their performances] any time. We can do it at any hour of the day. There’s just no excuse.”

“I always say yes to Wes. I say yes before I even read it” – Bill Murray

Not that many people ever say no to Wes Anderson. Even Murray, who’s turned down everyone from Scorsese to Pixar, isn’t immune to Anderson’s charms. “I always say yes to Wes,” Murray tells us the following day. “I say yes before I even read it. He says I’ve got a part for you and I say ‘OK, great.’” Murray wasn’t always so amenable. Back in 1998, Anderson had to work a bit harder to cast him in Rushmore, his second feature. "The agents wanted me to work on that one," recalls Murray, "so I started receiving video cassettes of Bottle Rocket, his first film. And they were relentless. I have the largest collection of video cassettes of Bottle Rocket in the world." (We asked: he still hasn’t seen it.)

It turned out all the up-and-coming filmmaker needed to do to get Murray on board was have him read his words: Anderson tracked down Murray’s address and sent him the script direct. "After that the agents tried to set up a meeting with me and Wes, and I said, ‘That’s not necessary’," explains Murray. "They’d say, 'Well, he’s really interested in you doing the movie,' and I told them, 'I know, I’m going to do it.'" What convinced him? "Because when I read the script I knew this was a guy who knew exactly what he wanted to do."

Murray has appeared in every one of Anderson’s films since, but he reveals it could have been a full house. “You know what the funny thing is,” he says, “Wes told me later, ‘I was begging your agents to get you in Bottle Rocket, and they would never call you because I was a nobody.’” Incidentally, Murray fired his agents two years after his performance in Rushmore, replacing them with an 1-800 number. Coincidence? He doesn’t say. But one thing is clear, this famously hangdog actor perks up in current company.

“I’m all cranked up on chocolate and a little bit of champagne right now,” Murray exclaims at the press conference, “but I’m going to say that being a voice with this group is a bit like being in the We Are the World video. I think these are some of the great voices of cinema and I’m very happy to be singing, even if I get just one verse.”

Bryan Cranston and Bob Balaban on working with Wes Anderson

The quality of those assembled voices is hard to argue with, as we catch up with some of them on their breakneck visit to Berlin for the film's world premiere. We ask Bryan Cranston about his first time in an Anderson ensemble. “I’m happy with the way you phrased that,” the Breaking Bad star says. “This is ‘my first’, and I hope it’s not my last.” Like Murray, Cranston didn’t need to be asked twice. “He’s a wonderful filmmaker, and honestly, when my agent said, ‘Wes Anderson would like…’ I was like, ‘YES!’”

What’s the attraction for an actor? “He's just so different,” says Cranston without missing a beat. “What I learned about myself working with Wes is that when I write my own material, whether it’s television or film, I stay within what I know. Every screenwriting workshop and book tells you: write what you know, so that you can be an authority on that. And that makes sense.

"What Wes does is break that circle. He goes out and writes what he imagines. That’s why when we all go and see a Wes Anderson movie, we don’t really know what we’re about to see. It’s the way art should be. It opens you up to new worlds, new adventures, new experiences. That’s Wes Anderson, so hopefully I’ll be doing more.”

An older hand in Wes World is Bob Balaban, who’s appeared in Anderson’s last three films, most memorably as the wind-blasted narrator of adolescent romance Moonlight Kingdom. The 72-year-old actor and filmmaker suggests that Anderson’s work feels so rich because of the tender relationships at the heart of all his movies. “I love the fact that he’s really about families,” says Balaban, “whether they’re officially families or not, his films are filled with them. It’s a subject that’s so deep and with so many shades that he could live to be 300 and every movie would still be different.”

Balaban also points to the tension between Anderson’s tidy filmmaking and the messy emotions within: “I love the formality of everything and the fact that inside of the characters they’re so alive and so nuts, they’re not regimented. I think Wes thrives on these opposites. Look at all the actors he uses. We’re all very, very different. I think that’s what makes his movie landscapes so rich.”

Liev Schreiber and Jeff Goldblum on Isle of Dogs

We’re seeing exactly what Balaban means on this Berlinale press junket. The next Isle of Dogs cast member we speak to is Liev Schreiber, a brooding bruiser in the Robert Mitchum mould. “I’ve being doing dog since I’ve been old enough to speak,” he says in his trademark baritone growl.

He recalls the panic he felt before laying down his vocals for his role of Spots. “[Anderson] set the appointment for the recording and I thought, 'Fuck, what am I going to do?'” Schreiber soon came to the epiphany that his formative dog impersonations were going to be no use to him. “It occured to me after thinking about Fantastic Mr Fox: I wouldn’t get to do a dog. I think Wes is a kind of curator when it comes to casting, and I think he picks very carefully the personalities and the human characteristics he wants to attribute to the animals. And unfortunately – because I think it’s every actor’s worst nightmare – he just wanted me to do me.”

Let’s test Schreiber’s theory. The most flamboyant of the dog characters is Duke, described in the press kit as a “bohemian mountain-dog with a slender face, sleek ears, and a ballet-dancer’s overly-nimble gait.” In the film, Duke says the thing he misses most about life with his master is his twice-weekly grooming, and he also proves to be a total gossip. Remind you of anyone? Duke is voiced by Jeff Goldblum, who, as ever, is looking ridiculously dapper in a blue polo shirt and slacks.

Like Balaban, this is Goldblum’s third film with Anderson. “He’s entirely unique,” Goldblum enthuses in his distinctive, quizzical drawl. “He’s a real artist who’s devoted himself to this life of creative endeavors.” Goldblum also points to Anderson’s devotion to the history of film, as expressed in Isle of Dogs through its homage to Akira Kurosawa. “On Grand Budapest Hotel he had a stack in his room of movies that were the inspiration for, or had something a little bit to do with, Grand Budapest Hotel. I take the course when I can and I saw things that I hadn’t seen before, Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, Bergman’s The Silence, lots of things.”

Like all the actors we speak to today, Goldblum is clearly a fan. He even got a bit teary-eyed while watching film for the first time at the Berlinale premiere, although not from anything in the story. “Seeing it last night was overwhelming,” he says. “Besides laughing through it and being enchanted by it, it was knowing that Wes had worked on it for four years and feeling that it was the result of this gorgeous effort, I got weepy, choked up.”

We’ll leave the last words to Murray, the longest-serving of Anderson’s muses. “I don’t use this word very often, but there’s something that’s just so droll about Wes,” says Murray, who’s perhaps the drollest human on the planet. “There’s nothing I like better than a good kids’ joke, a joke that makes kids laugh. When you hear a really good one, there’s just no arguing with it. And Wes rolls his jokes out like they’re good kids’ jokes at times, real simple, straightforward. You don’t see it coming and it makes you laugh. There’s no smoke and mirrors, it’s not like dazzling, it’s just a scene will be going along, and then boom, it happens.”

Of course, Anderson isn’t simply just trying to create a laugh riot. Any sweetness always lands with a dash of sour; it’s not for nothing critics have dubbed his films melanchomedies. Murray’s recollections of the making of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou perfectly sums this up. He explains that “The Life Aquatic was the funniest movie ever shot”, but Anderson decided to sacrifice the LOLs. “Wes would edit every single scene we shot at night while we ate dinner,” Murray recalls. “We would just go and he would be editing, we would be watching, and every single scene was funny. It was. But in order to make the movie work, he had to remove the punchline from every single scene, so that it just kept moving, it never stopped to get the laugh. And the result was it all paid off in this one big emotional moment.

“It could have been the biggest laugh movie I’ve ever been in – by far – but he said, ‘no, no, that’s not what I’m making here.’ He took all the laughs out of it like a Brechtian kind of thing, and just made it bounce.”

Anderson plays a similar trick with the joyous, inventive, gorgeously put-together Isle of Dogs. Trash has never looked so appealing.


Isle of Dogs was the opening film of this year's Berlinale, and also opens the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival: Wed 21 Feb, GFT, 7pm | Thu 22 Feb, GFT 3.25pm
Released in the UK on 30 Mar by 20th Century Fox

Read more about Glasgow Film Festival in The CineSkinny – in print at Glasgow Film Theatre and the CCA, and online at theskinny.co.uk/film/cineskinny