The feature-length animated film by American Wes Anderson Isle of Dogs shows Japan of the near future. Mayor of the fictitious city of Megasaki is obsessed with hatred of dogs, whom he, on the pretext of an epidemic of dog-flu (also provoked by himself), banishes to an island that has become a huge trash dump. The 12-year-old nephew of the mayor lands in this sad reservation having hijacked a plane, he is looking for his dog and brings about a revolution.
The film’s good characters are teens, scientists, and dogs, while its bad characters are government officials and mafiosis, who advocate the interests of cats in such a murderous way. Of course, the forces of good ultimately prevail. Humans speak Japanese (sometimes without translation, but very clearly) and English, dogs speak English alone, and of a quite refined variety. It touches on the topics of ecology and corruption, as well as government conspiracy, there are other adult-targeted moments as well, but in content, it is a simple fairy tale for middle-schoolers. One feels true respect when thinking about the tremendous work embedded in puppets and in scenery, and is delighted by diligently executed details – up to fleas that move in dogs’ fur. In many ways, the film’s success with the audience was created by puppet-makers and scenery designers (one of them being our compatriot, Ilona Vovchyk from Dnipro, see an interview with her in Den of June 26, 2016), as well as a star voice actor team, including, in particular, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, and Bryan Cranston.
Whether Isle of Dogs is a good model of art house cinema, worthy of the awards of such a major festival, is debatable. But, of course, it will enter the history of puppet animation.
Immediately after the world premiere in Berlin, Anderson met with the press.
How did you come up with this story?
“I often think, in the beginning it was Tom Stoppard [a Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter. – Author]. I met and had an interview with Mike Nichols [an American film and theatre director, producer, actor, and comedian (1931-2014). – Author] quoting Tom Stoppard as saying that when he starts a play, he starts it when he not only has an idea for a play but when he has two different ideas that he mixes together. They crash into each other, and then he has got something to work with. That is what I feel like I tend to do. I mean, it doesn’t sound as a great pitch, probably, but it was to do a movie about some dogs abandoned on a garbage dump. But we had also been talking for some years about wanting to do something in Japan, or about something related to our shared love of Japanese cinema, especially Kurosawa. So, in a way, the story could have taken place anywhere, but the thing that made it come to life for us was that we said it should be a sort of fantasy version of Japan.”
How did you assemble such a great group for the voices?
“Most of the actors here are people I have worked with before or loved for years. And one thing about an animated movie is that you can’t really say, ‘I’m not available.’ We can do it at your house, we can do it at any hour, any day. There is just no excuse. And so that helps.”
What problems did you encounter in this work?
“Most of the challenges are sort of fun challenges. I mean, the big challenge is can we make a good story, can we make a good script, can we make a sort of we feel like it works. With animation, there is a peculiar quality which is not present in other forms, it’s like, for instance, it turns out that the puppet doesn’t really smile. That could be like, two and half years into the process, and then you face with that. Not smiling can be a big deal, if it’s important for the film. And there are many little things like that. But there is always a way around it.”
All of your films have been about finding new family, sometimes even beyond one’s own species, as in the case of Isle of Dogs. This is your most overtly political film, there is this undertone of Europe of the 1930s. In this film I feel like you are going about family, community, and communicate a very strong political aspect to this one.
“Yes, with this one actually, early in the process, we said: ‘we need to invent the politics of this city.’ We knew we had a mayor, we knew there was something happening politically… It’s all, you know, a fantasy of politics in this made-up place in Japan. We’ve been working on this movie for a long time and the world began to change the movie. So there were maybe tiny places along the way where we were getting new inspirations from real life that were finding their way into the movie. But it was a story that we sort of we felt could happen anywhere, and it could happen any time.”
Could you please tell a few words about your connection with Japanese animation, especially Hayao Miyazaki [a living classic of Japanese and world animation. – Author]?
“I really got interested in Japanese animation in the time I was making my earlier animated movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox. And with this one, there are two directors who are our inspirations, they are Kurosawa and Miyazaki. We even have Mari Natsuki, who is in Spirited Away [animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, got Golden Bear at the 52nd Berlin International Film Festival in 2002 and Oscar as Best Animated Feature in 2003. – Author], and she did a wonderful voice for us in that movie. So that’s the detail and the silences, I mean, Miyazaki, you get nature, and you get moments of this a kind of rhythm that is not in the American, for instance, animation tradition so much. There were times when I worked with Alexandre Desplat on the score, and we found many places where we really had to pull back from what we were doing musically, because the movie sort of wanted to be quiet, and I think that comes from Miyazaki.”
Assuming that the film has always been a mirror to its time, why did you choose dogs to build that mirror?
“We didn’t start with the mirror, I think. We started with the dogs. What do the dogs want to do? When you are working on a script, for my experience, you don’t necessarily have the whole thing in mind. You are kind of gathering things, searching for what this movie can be. The mirror kind of comes as it’s all assembled together.”
You use models in your films, and all the other directors use special effects. Why do you still use these all handicraft skills?
“When we do it, stop motion is all about using models rather than more sophisticated modern digital techniques, and with the stop motion movie, there is a certain part of it that’s going to be models. It’s old-fashioned technique in the first place. If you’re going to do it that way, you are embracing old methods. But we try to do everything we can in the camera. There are things that are combined in the digital process but there always elements that demand old-fashioned technique. Sometimes we build something that needs to be so big in scale to the puppets, we find a way, and we stay within the limits of our resources and still do it. On the other hand, in the movies like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Moonrise Kingdom I just loved models, and I just respond with some kind of charm. I mean, usually when I want to do a model, I first do work on the model, I do it because it is a model, but then in the movie I have to convince people that it’s not a model, and you can tell it instantly, you can’t fool everybody. But it’s something that I associate with sort of cinema history, and I like cinema model on the screen, and a Hitchcock movie, it’s part of the traditional movies I love.”
When you were making Isle of Dogs, did you also have the Japanese audience on your mind? And will the film still work in a Japanese theatrical version, when humans and dogs suddenly speak the same language?
“It’s a good question, and complicated, because a significant part of the movie is spent translating. You know, the Japanese actors who speak Japanese, they will stay Japanese in every country. The English-speaking cast? Most of them are revoiced in France, Italy, different actors portray them in different countries... As for me, I always knew we were making our own concoction, and the three of us writers are not Japanese, but we had Kunichi Nomura who joined us early on in the process. He was not just helping us with the story, and with translating and casting. We wanted to get certain things right about Japan, which he helped us do. When it is shown in Japan, at one point we were thinking it would be only a subtitled version. Then I figured out a way to deal with other translation issues, and so it became a Japanese film – all-Japanese, really. But it’s sort of a distributor in Japan who is in charge. So I was answering the question probably too surely.”
Do you have any favorite dog movies?
“Two movies in particular that I would like to mention. There’s a movie called The Plague Dogs [a 1982 British-American animated adventure film directed by Martin Rosen. – Author], which I’m almost reluctant to mention, because it’s a very bleak movie. Ours is a much more cheerful kind of story, not that cheerful, but it’s much more cheerful than that. I have a little daughter, I try not to have her looking at screens and things, but she spends her entire life so far. She’s seen me sitting at my computer for 16 hours a day for the last two years, and she knows every detail of this movie [Isle of Dogs] better than anybody. We watched a bit of 101 Dalmatians, which is quite amazing, I like it. It’s one of my favorites of the Disney ones, I think.”
Do you have a dog yourself, or did you ever have one?
“The dog that Bryan Cranston is playing, called Chief, that was the name of our dog, we had a Labrador Retriever that belonged to my older brother. Actually, our family friends have a lot of dogs, and one of their dogs was called Chief, so we just stole that straight away. It’s not good, stealing other people’s dog names, but they were an interesting family, so we got to do that. Right now we don’t have a dog, but we do have a pygmy goat.”
The Day’s FACT FILE
Wesley Mortimer Wales “Wes” Anderson is an American film director, screenwriter, actor, and producer. He was born in Houston, Texas on May 1, 1969. His father, Melver Anderson, was the owner of an advertising company, while mother, Texas Anderson, worked as an archaeologist, and subsequently became a realtor. Wes’s debut film Bottle Rocket (1996) was well reviewed but performed poorly at the box office. Anderson was twice nominated for an Oscar in the Best Original Screenplay category: in 2001 for The Royal Tenenbaums and in 2012 for Moonrise Kingdom. His animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature category. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) won the jury’s Grand Prix, and Isle of Dogs won the Silver Bear for directing at the Berlin Festival.