Wes Anderson is finally ready to talk about “Isle of Dogs.” The director returned to the Berlin Film Festival, where his latest feature is the first animated film to open the ceremony, and he joined his screenwriters Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura, plus many members of his star-studded voice cast, for the official “Isle of Dogs” press conference. Prior to Berlin, Anderson had been incredibly tight-lipped about his first stop-motion film since “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but now we know a little more about what drove him to make the project.
“Jason, Roman, and I started this project with wanting to do a movie about some dogs abandoned on a garbage dump, a pack of dogs who live on garbage,” Anderson said, admitting that it wasn’t the boldest idea they ever had. “But we had also been talking about wanting to do something in Japan, about Japan, something related to our shared love of Japanese cinema, especially [Akira] Kurosawa. The story couldve taken place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan.”
But Anderson was clear, it all started with the dogs: “We started with the dogs. How do we take this dog story that we already want to tell and find where it’s going to lead us? What do the dogs want to do? When you’re working on a script, you don’t necessarily have the whole thing in mind. You’re gathering things and searching for what the movie is going to be.”
One of Anderson’s early ideas for the movie was to have it be told from the perspective of filmmakers in the 1960s who were envisioning what 2007 would be like for dogs. The plan was scrapped and the screenwriters turned to their love of Japan and decided to set the film way in the future. Japanese actor Nomura was brought on as a fourth screenwriter and helped Anderson and his friends get the atmosphere of Japan just right. The director was also guided by his love for Japanese animation, especially Hayao Miyazaki.
“I really got interested in Japanese animation in the time before I did ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox,'” Anderson said. “It wasn’t like I was a huge animation guy. This one, there are two directors who are our inspirations: Kurosawa and Miyazaki.”
“[Miyazaki] brings the detail and also the silences I think,” he continued. “With Miyazaki you get nature and you get moments of peace, a kind of rhythm that is not in the American animation tradition so much. That inspired us quite a lot. There were times when I worked with [composer] Alexandre Desplat on the score and we found many places where we had to pull back from what we were doing musically because the movie wanted to be quiet. That came from Miyazaki.”
Anderson also assembled what is quite possibly his most star-studded cast to date. The ensemble includes returning Anderson favorites like Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, and Jeff Goldblum mixed with Anderson newcomers like Greta Gerwig and Bryan Cranston. The director credited the fact the film was an animated movie for being the key reason he could get so many of his favorite actors in one movie.
“Most of the actors are people who I either have worked with or who I have loved for years,” Anderson said about casting. “In a way, I feel like this group of people and others is the first list we made of who we would like to have in the movie. One thing about an animated movie, you can’t really say you’re not available. We can do it anytime at all. We can do it at your house, any hour of the day. There’s no excuse. That helped.”
Bill Murray said being a member of this voice cast felt like being a singer in the “We Are the World” music video: “These are some of the great voices of cinema and I’m really happy to be singing even if I get one verse.”
Anderson also touched upon the challenges that happen when you’re making a stop-motion film. He said the biggest challenge on “Isle of Dogs” is the biggest challenge that happens any time he’s making a movie: Can Anderson make a good story? Once the story is complete, the challenges become more fun,
“With animation, there are peculiar problems like, for instance, it turns out this puppet doesn’t really smile,” Anderson said. “”That could be like two-and-a-half years into the process and suddenly your faced with that. There’s many things like that. But here’s always a way around it, always a solution. You have no choice, you figure out a way. You add to the puppet, you modify the puppet, whatever.”
As for the two dog-centric movies Anderson watched most before making “Isle of Dogs”: Martin Rosen’s “The Plague Dogs” and Disney’s “101 Dalmatians.” “Isle of Dogs” opens in select theaters March 23 courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.