At the New York premiere for “Isle of Dogs,” people kept congratulating Jason Schwartzman for his voice work as one of the alpha dogs in Wes Anderson’s animated movie. But here’s the thing: Schwartzman doesn’t voice any characters in Anderson’s latest. Still, as a co-writer, his fingerprints are all over the stop-motion animated offering.
The day after the premiere, the actor and screenwriter was laughing off well-wishers, including one who came up to him, seemingly eager to say congrats but aware that he didn’t know which character Schwartzman had played.
“This guy walks up and goes, ‘Mr. Droll, Mr. Droll,'” Schwartzman recalled. “These are people that are smart, intelligent, movie-going people that just saw this movie and think I’m in it. I don’t know who they think I am, and I don’t know what to say, so I just say, ‘Thank you.'”
Schwartzman might not know who they think he is, but it’s understandable that movie fans would see an Anderson movie, then see Schwartzman standing there, and automatically assume he’s in it. After all, he’s starred in five of them (plus one short). In a sea of Anderson regulars, he still stands out. And while he doesn’t voice anyone (or any dogs) in the film, his impact on the end result is indisputable.
The filmmaker’s frequent partner is one of four credited screenwriters on the film, which imagines a futuristic world where the canine residents of a sprawling Japanese city are exiled to an island garbage dump, thanks to a combination of infectious illness and nefarious political machinations. It’s only the second movie that Schwartzman — primarily known as an actor and sometime musician — has helped write, following his 2008 contributions to Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” but it’s one brimming with Schwartzman’s own movie obsessions, including the cinematic traditions that influenced the movie. Schwartzman has also honed his writing as a co-creator of the Amazon series “Mozart in the Jungle,” with cousin Roman Coppola, another credited writer on “Isle of Dogs.”
But Schwartzman’s artistic connection to Anderson may go even deeper, since the filmmaker discovered the actor for “Rushmore” 20 years ago. These days, Schwartzman looks to Anderson as a teacher, particularly when it comes to writing alongside him. “It’s something I’m trying to learn so much about and especially learning from Wes, and how he writes specifically,” he said. Anderson has always been a big proponent of collaboration, and that seems to be the primary takeaway for Schwartzman when it comes to the experience of writing “Isle of Dogs.”
“Wes is the filmmaker, he’s like the front of the ship,” Schwartzman told IndieWire. “There’s elements of our experiences of writing together – the different times we’ve written together – that are similar, and there are things that are very, very different. Both ‘Darjeeling Limited’ and this, they start out with a notion.”
The premise for “Isle of Dogs” emerged from a trio of notions that Anderson was eager to explore with both Schwartzman and another Anderson mainstay, Schwartzman’s cousin and co-writer Coppola. “Wes said, ‘I’ve got this idea about doing a stop-motion movie, that’s alpha dogs, garbage dump, possibly Japan in some way,'” Schwartzman said. “Those were the three main components. We worked on it for years, and a lot of it is just slowly trying to figure out, almost like walking in a room with the lights off.”
As Anderson explained at a post-premiere press conference for the film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the filmmaker and his collaborators had long been interested in doing something that paid homage to Japanese cinema, and the filmmaker wanted to fit that in alongside his other ideas. “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,” he said at the time. “The story could’ve taken place anywhere, but it came together when we realized it should take place in a fantasy version of Japan.”
Schwartzman was particularly inspired by the films of beloved animator Hayao Miyazaki – he calls the Japanese filmmaker’s oeuvre “obviously, the best” – and the group used them to help spark their imaginations when writing.
“We talked about them a lot, specifically, the sound of those movies,” Schwartzman said. “I love all animated movies, but in a lot of big animated movies, there’s a ton of sound, all the time. What I love about the Miyazaki ones is space sonically. He leaves a lot of room for nature. The Miyazaki sonic space, grass blowing. Those are the things that I really latched onto.”
The group knocked away at the script for years, but their earliest hours were all about collaborating and simply talking it out. “‘Who are these dogs? Why are they here? Where are they? And then all of a sudden, oh, there’s a boy. Who’s the boy?,'” Schwartzman recalled. “And I think it’s almost as if the movie kind of exists, there is a feeling that it might exist. That we’re trying to ask questions to find it.”
Even with all that work, Schwartzman said that the film didn’t really come alive until the first day of shooting, when he could see what they had only talked about before. “Wes sent some screenshots of the first shot, and it was just, ‘Oh, wow.’ It was really exciting,” he said. “We’re reading these scenes for a long time, back and forth, working on them and stuff, and it was like someone pumping air into them. It’s just so beautiful to see each step of the process.”
Schwartzman also made it clear that, to its creators, “Isle of Dogs” – set 20 years in the future in a fictional Japanese city known as Megasaki – is a fantastic take on a world that doesn’t actually exist, and one strongly rooted in cinema over reality.
“In my mind, it was Japan, but it was also this Japan that’s a ‘feeling’ of Japan that I take from these movies that I love,” Schwartzman said. “It’s more an homage to the films of Japan. We have great respect for the country and the culture…It’s like when a lot of French filmmakers were doing American [subjects], everyone’s in Cadillacs and stuff, and they’re gangsters, but it’s a weird American Jean Pierre Melville.”
During the scripting process, Japanese actor Kunichi Nomura (who also voices Mayor Kobayashi in the movie) was brought on as a fourth screenwriter to help Anderson and the rest of the team get the atmosphere of Japan just right. “I wonder what it was like for him,” Schwartzman said with a laugh. “It’d be like if a Japanese person was doing a movie about LA, but it was like ‘LA,’ really more of like another ‘LA,’ and they’re asking me, ‘Would this happen?'”
Like so many of Anderson’s films, “Isle of Dogs” is rooted in fantasy and the power of the cinema, but Schwartzman is clear that those intentions don’t mean they could get lazy with their nods to Japanese culture, down to the smallest detail.
“It’s a made-up world, but we also want to get it right,” Schwartzman said. “They spent eight weeks trying to get the sushi scene right. It’s a sushi scene that would never happen, because it’s happening in a [fantasy] world. I like that kind of tension between – attention and tension – of trying to get something very, very right, in a world that’s slightly askew.”
So, about that nonexistent voice role. “I just never think there’s anything more than what’s in front of me, so when Wes said, ‘Let’s work on this script,’ that’s totally how I go into it,” the actor said. “I don’t think, ‘Which dog am I going to be?'”
Chances are, he could have done just that, but even Schwartzman – a member of bonafide Hollywood royalty, considering all that Coppola blood – didn’t want to push.
“Later, someone asked Wes this question in front of me, and he said, ‘Well, I didn’t want any of the people who were in “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to be voices in this,’ but then we started to name a few people that are also in that movie [and this one], and then he said, ‘Oh, yeah,'” Schwartzman recalled. In that film, he voiced the sullen Ash Fox, son of the eponymous fantastic one.
“Honestly, this is the way it’s supposed to be,” Schwartzman said. “And my voice, I don’t think it would have fit in.”
“Isle of Dogs” opens in select theaters March 23 courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.