“I just love the idea of two species trying to understand each other” – the writing/directing trio reflect on their dystopian shaggy-dog story
Dogs, cats, robot dogs, cannibal dogs, a government conspiracy, taiko drums, an American exchange student, an abandoned theme park, Yoko Ono, a poisonous sushi delivery and an island made entirely of rubbish: Wes Anderson is by now synonymous with doing more with more, and the deeply layered materiality of his new film Isle of Dogs is no exception. But by colliding ideas for two different films – dogs, and Japan – into one, Anderson has made his least kawaii and most quietly subversive film to date, with a radical approach to its setting that feels more like experimental cinema accidentally crash-landed into blockbuster territory.
Taking place in a dystopian future where all dogs have been exiled to a vast garbage-dump island, Isle of Dogs tells the story of 12-year-old Atari Koboyashi and his search for his lost dog, Spots. It’s the director’s first stop-motion film since Fantastic Mr Fox, and this time around Anderson cuts loose with the medium to comfortably outweird not just his last animation, but all his films. With scenes pinging between ‘Megasaki City’ – a kind of Blade Runner-esque Neo-Tokyo – and the oddly beautiful piles of trash on the island, Anderson satisfies his object-obsession through details such as discarded newspapers made out of actual paper, or cotton wool clouds of smoke. The frames are animated more slowly than is usual (12 frames per second, not 24), producing a rough-hewn style that further signposts the manner of its making – it’s like stop-motion unstitched to reveal raw emotional truths. All of this makes for an imperfect atmosphere that has more in common with the unpredictability of Anderson’s earliest works, like Bottle Rocket or Rushmore, than the tightly-controlled worlds in-between. (Much like the elaborate school plays of the latter, Isle of Dogs might be compared to watching a series of controlled explosions). The detonators of this fantasy: not only Anderson, but also his co-writers, Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.
“I love Japanese cinema, Japanese art, Japanese architecture… Japan,” says Anderson, seated alongside his suited collaborators in an ornate hotel room (one glance brings the colourful socks sported by each into view). They’re here for the Berlin Film festival, where Isle of Dogs has just had its world premiere, but the immediate setting feels closer to The Grand Budapest Hotel. As much a collector of collaborators as he is a hoarder of objects, Anderson brought together a familiar coterie of voices for this project: Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Tilda Swinton all make an appearance, as well as newcomers Bryan Cranston and Greta Gerwig. But it’s really via the setting of Japan – or at least, a fantasy version of a Japanese city set 20 years in the future – that the director found his muse. Inspired by the nature and quiet of Hayao Miyazaki as well as the urban malaise of early Kurosawa, Anderson recruited his close friend Kunichi Nomura to help co-write the film and ground it in the characteristics of his country. As such, the fictional prefecture is populated by human characters who speak Japanese – though the dogs all speak English – and the film adopts a playful approach to translation and mistranslation via various interpreters and signs. There are even entire Japanese-language conversations that remain unsubtitled; it’s almost as though Anderson has realised that words can be objects, too…
According to Schwartzman, one of the primary visual inspirations for the film was the director’s newfound love of Japanese woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige. It was Coppola who first gifted him one, and before long his house was full of them. Their Japanese name is ukio-e – literally, ‘pictures of the floating world’. That seems apt: the director’s work is cinema of the floating world, a mirror for genuine politics and human relations that nonetheless exists in an imaginative landscape of its own making. In Isle of Dogs, Anderson’s Japan floats just above what we know, injected with a political ominousness we recognise, but also the childlike imagination we may have forgotten. But isn’t that what cinema is for, anyway? When reality bites, there’s nothing wrong with creating a cinematic vision that makes beauty out of brokenness, and lives a little in the scrunched-up cotton-wool clouds.
There’s a playful approach to translation – and things being lost in translation – in the film. Was this always there from the outset?
Wes Anderson: Really it was less a thing for us to play with and more a thing for how we were going to tell this story. We started thinking we wanted the film to be in Japanese pretty early on, and the more and more we wrote with Kunichi (Nomura), the more and more Japanese was spoken. We were thinking, ‘How are people going to understand this?’
Roman Coppola: It wasn’t just a gag, it was a practical matter – we love Japanese cinema. So it was less of a concept and more a practical thing.
Wes: (takes deep breath) So. We start with a scene where there is a narrator, and we know that while (a certain) character is speaking Japanese the narrator is going to tell us everything we need to know; we’re going to listen to a bit of Japanese and then the narrator will speak. But the movie just kept becoming more and more Japanese, so we introduced an interpreter (voiced by Frances McDormand). And she is translating for who? I have no idea! But we cut to her so she can translate, and then we said, ‘Well, now maybe we can have these students, and one of them can be a foreign exchange student’ (Greta Gerwig’s character, Tracy, a pro-dog activist). So she’s going to speak English, which will help. Eventually, there’s a scene where there’s a secret meeting and there would be no translation for anybody listening because, well, it’s secret, and there are only Japanese characters who are all speaking Japanese! And so what are we going to do? And that’s when we ended up with a machine that is translating, but I have no idea why there is a machine translating their conversation and a man typing and the machine talking. I can only say that that was for you!
Jason Schwartzman: I found the scenes between Atari and the dogs very moving because they were not translated – that idea of communication without understanding exactly what someone is saying is very moving to me. I remember when that decision was made I was like, ‘That’s great.’ I just love the idea of two different species trying to understand each other.
Wes: Yes. It did become a thing where we could enjoy the translation, and the thing of playing with it really became part of the movie.
Won’t Japanese viewers lose something, because they will understand everything?
Wes: Well, in Japan it’s different. There’ll be two versions – one that will be subtitled in Japanese, and a wider release that will be dubbed, so the dogs will speak Japanese as well. But they’re still figuring out how to do it.
Jason: We could’ve had a Charlie Brown garble, take what’s already there and process it.
Wes: (laughs) Right. One version of the movie we contemplated for Japan was that people who currently speak Japanese in the movie would speak gibberish. And everything in English would be in Japanese. We created a complicated puzzle for ourselves!
The use of colour in the film is so beautiful – even when these scenes are filled with trash objects there are some very serene colourways. How did you approach that?
Wes: With this one we found the colour as we went along. It wasn’t a very planned approach. When we did Fantastic Mr Fox, we had this chart of colours for the movie, a pallette we wanted to work with. For this one we had some ideas about what the city was gonna be like beforehand. But the colours came in when we started working on (individual scenes). There are a lot of scenes where the setting is just more garbage – rubbish! – so we decided there’d be different kinds of garbage, and they’d all stay together. It’s quite neatly segmented. If you happen to be paper refuse…
Jason: …we’ll crash a plane on you! (When Atari flies to Trash Island in his mini-plane, he lands on piles of newspaper with a little puff of stop-motion cotton wool smoke.)
Wes: … then you go to this part of the island.
Roman Coppola: Green bottles tend to collect together…
Wes: Yes. Like it’s somebody’s job just to organise it all.
“I found the scenes between Atari and the dogs very moving because they were not translated… I just love the idea of two species trying to understand each other” – Jason Schwartzman
Well, that’s your job!
Jason: The dogs themselves are all mutts, so they (come in) many colours. When we were talking about them they were never purebreds. Well, Nutmeg (a show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson) looks to be one colour.
Roman: There’s the woodblock influence, too.
Wes: Yes, those Hokusai and Hiroshige woodblock prints. Jason just gave me a box of them for my daughter, these cards show some of them. (He produces a miniature box of Hokusai prints that look like they were purchased in a souvenir shop.)
It’s funny – these ancient Japanese prints are somehow ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ in 2018.
Jason: What is that?
Wes: It’s where people see something that they think could have been in one of my movies. It’s architecture, mostly – pastels. There’s an emphasis on North Korea or Bulgaria, that wonderfully fascist strain of architecture… (laughs nervously) It’s like they’re location scouting. But The Grand Budapest Hotel was about a place where this guy is making everything just so, whereas this one is about a big, powerful change. I guess they have some similar concepts, but this one is more about something out of control in society. It definitely has a different look.
Roman: It’s set 20 years in the future, and that becomes another flavour in there.
Wes: That’s right. It’s pastels in the making.
It struck me how in many ways your aesthetic interests already chime with aspects of Japanese culture and aesthetics.
Wes: I don’t ever think about my aesthetic. I have always loved Japanese cinema, Japanese art, Japanese architecture… Japan. Which I think is exactly what you’re saying. There’s a moment in the movie where we are gonna have this guy poison somebody, and we take rather a long time to prepare the ingredients – the guy puts the sushi into the bento box, and the bento box in the sleeve, and the sleeve in the bag and the bag in the box, and then he wraps it up. Which is what happens when you buy a pair of sunglasses or something in Japan. It will have, like, five layers around it – each one exactly, perfectly done by someone who will say, ‘That’s not very neatly rolled up, the way you just did it.’ I like that. I’m reluctant to speak for a nation or a culture, but there are definitely many Japanese styles that we drew influence from.
Jason: You collected so many woodblock prints in your house over the years that it took to make this film. And when we were doing The Darjeeling Limited, there were Indian postcards and objects everywhere. So you’ve always had things like that surrounding you in some way or another, but not to this extent.
Wes: These prints have been the greatest, though. Those are not a temporary thing, they’re staying.
Jason: Yes, they are lovely. Wes was saying yesterday it was actually Roman who gave him his first woodblock print. As people we just love to share things with each other; it’s funny how these things just become a part of your life in a way. It becomes part of what you appreciate.
“When you buy something in Japan, it will have, like, five layers around it – each one exactly, perfectly done by someone who will say, ‘That’s not very neat, the way you did it.’ I like that” – Wes Anderson
You seem to collect favourite actors in the same way, with this film featuring a familiarsounding gang of voices. How does that recording process work?
Wes: We began (when) Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban and I all got together in a studio in New York and recorded (their lines) over a couple of days. That’s not a lot of time to do a movie, but it’s plenty of time to record voices. With Scarlett Johansson, we were in the studio together for maybe an hour and a half. But then people would record certain parts on their iPhones and send them to me. For the Japanese-language performances, our friend Kun (Kunichi Nomura) came and joined us. He helped me to record and direct those, and even wrote parts during the recording session. Some Kun just did completely on his own, without my presence at all. He’d say, ‘Use take five, it’s better,’ and I’d say, ‘But I thought…’, and he’d be like, ‘Use five.’ (laughs) So it’s a whole range of things. I didn’t videotape it because one of the great things about doing it this way is the actors are totally free – really what you’re recording is rehearsal. Because you can use anything; you can use any bit of any sentence.
Jason: Scarlett Johansson in an hour and a half seems like a short time, but I did my work in under 30 minutes.
Wes: (laughs) Jason played one of the main characters in Fantastic Mr Fox, but the main recording session we did…
Jason: Weren’t we out somewhere?
Wes: We were doing something and we wanted to make it to dinner at a certain hour, so we decided we could do this – ‘Let’s try and get through the whole thing and still make it to dinner.’ So Jason did the whole movie! At the end there were pages (from the script) all over the studio. Jason’s performance in the movie is easily 90 per cent from that 45-minute recording session; there was such energy and spontaneity he could do the line 15 times very, very quickly. We had six months to figure out which bits to use later, but we got so many good things from that one moment.
Jason, you’ve worked with Wes on many of his non-animated projects, including your first acting role when you were 17, in Rushmore.
Jason: I remember when we were making that film there was this scene with go-karts (in the famous ‘Yearbook’ montage listing our protagonist’s extracurricular activities). I looked over and (Wes) was sitting in a go-kart. He was like, ‘C’mon, let’s go!’ So I jumped in one and took off outside the school. While we were riding around I thought, ‘He is doing this because he loves it, and he wants the experience to be wonderful even if there is no movie!’
Wes: I haven’t thought about those go-karts in so long! We were filming in my old school. We drove around the neighbourhood and when we came back the whole crew was like (pulls po-face, crosses arms). For them, it was not amusing at all. John (Cameron, the film’s co-producer) wanted to shoot me. Like, ‘Do you understand the insurance implications of this? This will have to go on the report to the bond company, and to the studio: director took actor, minor, off set in go-kart, with no licence, no police escort.’
Jason: That enthusiasm is still there in all of (Wes’s) movies, and such great lengths are taken to try and keep people together in one environment, (having) dinner together. That’s so rare now, because everyone just disappears and they’re on their phones. On most animated movies, when there is a press junket, the actors are meeting for the first time! It’s so nice that, if you look at Isle of Dogs, all the people know each other already, and that’s because Wes made it that way.
Isle of Dogs is out in UK cinemas now