Wes Anderson and his co-story writer Jason Schwartzman discuss the dystopic eccentricity of ‘Isle of Dogs,’ the multiple references to influential Japanese films, and a bizarre explanation about what a group of pugs is called.
Wes Anderson has long been heralded as one of the most quintessential American filmmakers of our generation. For the past two decades, Anderson has managed to carve out a profilmic niche that has slowly grown to mainstream success and adoration. Few directors have been able to imitate Anderson’s style, making him a prized visionary whose work is consistently idiosyncratic and highly personalized, all while maintaining an air of charming rigidity. From his perfectly symmetrical set designs and shots to his earth-toned color palettes, Anderson’s auteurist style has inspired numerous imitations and video essay odes that work to no end in trying to recreate the magic and vivacity of his timeless films.
Anderson’s newest film Isle of Dogs returns the lauded filmmaker to his penchant for stop-motion animation, a style he first explored in his acclaimed George Clooney-starring masterpiece, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now nearly ten years later, it seems that Anderson has caught the animator-bug yet again, this time focusing his attention on the personality-driven characterization of man’s best friend. With yet another star-studded cast, typical sharp dialogue, and eccentrically detailed visual presentation, Isle of Dogs is yet another Anderson film that fits nicely into his highly personalized cinematic repertoire. Anderson and his co-story writer Jason Schwartzman took the time out of their day to talk about the inspiration for the story, unpacking their love of Japanese films into a pastiche-oriented way, and always coming back to the work with the same people. Check out what they had to say below.
A Writer’s Room Approach
When most filmmakers begin writing a screenplay, they do so either in partnership with someone else or in complete solitude. It seems that most screenwriters presume that having too many voices weigh into the script may invoke the “too many cooks in the kitchen” rule, making it a muddled, directionless mess. But that never seemed to be the case for Wes Anderson who has always written with one other person or several partners, save for Grand Budapest Hotel. And while Anderson penned the screenplay himself, it seems that his penchant for writing with others has is still as intense as ever, with his latest feature boasting four-story partners.
Anderson explains that “I think maybe we make it sound free flowing,” referring to the easy-going manner in which the story was envisioned. “The movie was as simple as an idea of five dogs named Chief, King, Rex, Duke and Boss stranded on a garbage dump island,” continued Anderson. The Academy Award-winning director noted that his collaborations are a seamless part of his filmmaking, saying “to me, my default is always that I want to bring people back.”
An Ode to Japan and its Cinema
Modern filmmakers owe a great deal to the traditions set by Japanese cinema. Whether it’s the manipulating perspectives and showcasing the fragility of memory in Rashomon or the expertly framed wide angle shots in High and Low, a great deal of Anderson’s toolbox seems to borrow from the playbook of Japanese cinema. But it appears that Isle of Dogs is his most obvious homage to the cinematic language from the land of the rising sun.
Asked what were the heaviest influences for the film’s aesthetic, dialogue and characterizations, the director answered, “we were certainly inspired by Japanese cinema. That may be first and foremost.” Anderson went on to muse that, “Kurosawa and Miyazaki are the ones that we really talked about the most.” Jason Schwartzman seemed to be the one to inject the most influential aspect of Miyazaki’s films which is the role of sound. “Jason kind of pointed this out to me while we were working that one of the things we were loving in Miyazaki is the silences and the way nature is portrayed in his films in a kind of special way. There’s music in Miyazaki films, but there are wonderful kind of silences and there’s just a quietness,” said Anderson.
But the director paid notice to Japan’s godfather of cinema, Akira Kurosawa who he noted was the inspiration for most of his characterization in the film. “We actually recreated actors from Kurosawa’s films,” said Anderson. “You may have noticed Mifune, Shimura, Nakadai and then also just his urban movies were always an inspiration to us. They were kind of what we wanted our movie to look like, which it doesn’t,” laughed the director. “But that’s kind of okay. Sometimes the inspiration is very different from what it inspires you to do. Those were our masters when we were writing it and I think all through the making of the film.”
The Fidelity of Dogs and Owning Them
Most of the individuals involved in the film are avid dog lovers. From Bill Murray to Jeff Goldblum, the myriad of talented cast members all noted their adoration for the furry balls of fun. But it seemed that of the four people on the writing team, only Jason Schwartzman actually owned a dog. It seemed that it gave Schwartzman a leg up on the authenticity of showcasing dog life and their companionship to dogs—that is, in demonstrating that they have very real and tangible personalities.
“In the beginning, it was trying to figure out who are these dogs and what are the rules of this place, but very quickly it became clear that it wasn’t about dogs, really,” reflected Schwartzman. “We thought of them as people,” continued Schwartzman. “And I think that’s how we always felt about them. Once that decision was made or once we all kind of agreed that was the approach, we didn’t really look back,” noted the writer-actor. “But, I do have a dog in my real life. I’m the only guy with a dog, so I also felt a responsibility when we were making the film to draw the line sometimes when certain ideas were suggested,” joked Schwartzman. When asked whether that really was true, Schwartzman coyly said, I’d say, stop, stop, you would never do that if you knew what I knew,” before modestly adding “I’m only joking.” And the Anderson-inspired jokes never truly stopped for Schwartzman who wryly added after discovering the name for a group of pugs, “that should be at least a chapter in somebody’s memoir, a grumble of pugs.” Perhaps we can look forward to a future Wes Anderson film that has just that as one of intertitles signaling a new act. One can only dream.
Isle of Dogs hit theaters Friday, March 23 before it goes to wide release on April 6.