'Isle of Dogs' Cast and Creators on Bringing the World of Canines to Life

Wes Anderson and his collaborators provide insight into the way they brought 'Isle of Dogs' to life.

Isle Of Dogs Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Courtney B. Vance, Kunichi Nomura, Jeff Goldblum, Liev Schreiber, Koyu Rankin, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban discuss the themes and making of the adorable stop-motion animation at a New York press conference.

Dog lovers everywhere, rejoice! There is so much plain-old cuteness to gush over in Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animation after Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), set for its stateside theatrical release this Friday. Arguably among the filmmaker’s most visually ambitious and emotionally accessible work to date, Isle of Dogs is as Anderson-ian as you can take: fanciful, quirky and infused with a deadpan sense of humor throughout.

Set 20 years into the future, the tale of Isle of Dogs is politically charged (here, Anderson tries his hand on dissecting oppressive governments tactically spreading fear—sounds familiar?), but at its core, as uncomplicated as a person’s unconditional love for their dog. We follow five no-nonsense dogs—Chief (Bryan Cranston), King (Bob Balaban), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Boss (Bill Murray)—in a dystopian Japanese land called ‘Trash Island’ while they guide a young boy named Atari (Koyu Rankin) in his search for his dog Spots (Live Schreiber). Atari is the fearless, resilient nephew of Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the evil mayor of the fictional city Megasaki, who had exiled all dogs to the distant, bleak locale on the irrational grounds of canine flu. It would be eventually up to this gang of outcasts and a resistance-leading exchange student named Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), to expose the truth and reunite loyal pooches with their loving masters.

Cat lovers, sincere apologies, but this one might just rub you the wrong way. We hope you’ll let us have this and still enjoy the below musings from the cast and creators of Isle of Dogs with us. Here are the highlights from a New York press conference, attended by Anderson, Balaban, Goldblum, Murray, Schreiber, Rankin, as well as Jason Schwartzman (co-writer), Courtney B. Vance (narrator), Kunichi Nomura (co-writer & Kobayashi) and Tilda Swinton (Oracle).

Anderson on developing the story and his creative influences

The filmmaker recalled that the starting point for Isle of Dogs was just a simple idea based on five dogs named Chief, King, Rex, Duke and Boss, stranded on a garbage dump. “That was literally the entire beginning of the movie. It was meant to be animated; and when we combined that little idea with wanting to make a movie in Japan, the story sort of took off.”

Anderson said who the main character of the story is evolved over time. “In the beginning, it was about dogs. At a certain point, this boy [flew] on an airplane into our writing room. We brought him in unexpectedly; it wasn’t something we had waiting in the wings. And that became the hero of the movie, this person. And then we found Koyu Rankin, who brought that character to life. That transformed what we were doing. Sometimes you sort of feel like it’s not really in your control; it just kind of reveals itself.

Then further ideas started entering the picture, including the Hayao Miyazaki influence. “One of the things we love in Miyazaki was the silences, and the [special] way nature is portrayed in his films,” Anderson said. “There’s music in Miyazaki films, but there is a wonderful kind of quietness, [too]. [A lot of] My Neighbor Totoro, for a story that’s about a giant, openly friendly monster living in the woods, is about grass. Or cleaning the new house and meeting the neighbors. It’s reserved, very personal and realistic, for something that’s about spirits and monsters.” Further breaking down his influences, Anderson also mentioned Akira Kurosawa. “We actually recreated actors from Kurosawa’s films. You may have noticed [Toshiro] Mifune, [Takashi] Shimura and [Tatsuya] Nakadai. His urban movies were an inspiration to us. They were what we wanted our movie to look like, which it doesn’t. But, that’s okay. Sometimes the inspiration is very different from what it inspires you to do. Those were our masters when we were writing it.”

When asked about the politics of Isle of Dogs, Anderson reiterated it all grew out of their original basic idea. “Our first thing was, who did this to [the dogs]? Who put them out here and why? That quickly led us to a government. It sort of all grew out of that. And I never had a movie where we need to imagine a government, but when you do, you look to history. And while we were making the movie, it sort seemed like history was repeating itself.”

Anderson on casting and why he likes working with the same people

The director affirmed that his instincts usually inform his casting choices, adding that each character’s voice, personality, and performance was somehow embodied in the puppets. “[The puppets] are established as them. Spending months and years in the cutting room with these scenes, I saw Jeff and Bill, and Bob, and Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston in these dogs, whether they were talking or not. And it’s a little bit of an alchemical experience. That’s not using that term properly, but you get the idea.” Goldblum added, “I just saw that virtual reality version of an improvised thing we did, and I was amazed. And how [the animators] did it and got everybody’s thinking and feeling between the lines… Unbelievable.”

“[There are some people] at this table I haven’t worked with before,” Anderson noted. But now that we’ve worked together, they’re people that I would want to have back on another movie. To me, it’s almost the default, which I want to bring people back. Now, I have everybody’s direct email addresses. “[I promise] to go straight to them with no middlemen whatsoever. Make my pitch and have a good chance.”

Cast and creators, on loving and connecting with dogs

Murray indicated that they all had to think about how they would articulate their feelings about dogs. “[We] had to try to get to an emotional sort of catapult, and that’s what we were able to do together.” Asserting that our relationship with dogs isn’t often a conscious thing; but rather, an emotional thing, he continued, “You have to sort of get yourself together to correctly perceive those emotions. I’ve had some very emotional moments with my own dogs. My current dog, Timber Murray, was attacked and left for dead by a coyote. He survived. And he’s the one I chose from his mother’s litter. I thought he was the smartest one, and he was. But he’s also the best companion. All my friends say, ‘Your dog is so chill.’ He is way beyond chill. Chill is like entry-level to what he is.”

Wes was the filmmaker and the front of the ship. In the beginning, [we were] trying to figure out who these dogs and what the rules of this place [were],” co-writer Schwartzman said. “But very quickly, it became clear that it wasn’t about dogs—we thought of them as people. That’s how we always felt about them. Once that decision was made, we didn’t look back.” Schwartzman jokingly added that he was “the guy with a dog” among the team of writers, which made him assume a special kind of responsibility. “I had to draw the lines sometimes when certain [decisions] were suggested. ‘Stop, you would never do that if you knew what I knew.’”

“Words are pretty overestimated when it comes to communication,” Swinton remarked. “Anybody that has the privilege to have a deep relationship with a dog with no lips [knows this]. It’s all about the eyes. And if the eyes are going off in different directions, then it’s even more seen and relayed. I’m very, very honored that [Wes] made me a pug at last. I’m not going to ask why [he] thought of me as a pug, but I’m going to take it.” 

Cast on entering into the worlds of the characters

“When I saw the movie in Berlin, I think I found Atari very generous,” Rankin reflected about his fearless character. “He really wanted to find his dog Spots, and he was very determined. He crash-lands on this ‘Trash Island’, he gets really hurt, but he still wants to find his dog. That’s very generous of him to do that.”

Also a co-writer, Nomura was initially cast to record all of the five main Japanese characters. But then his voice ended up being a fit for the Evil Mayor Kobayashi. “I wasn’t really happy about that,” he joked. “I just tried to be accurate. Wes asked me to speak faster and more aggressive; I checked all the Japanese politicians’ speeches, and I just made it. “[Japanese translation] was really hard, because it lost Wes’ regional rhythm,” Nomura continued, within regards to translating the script into his native language as necessary while trying to keep the charm in tact. “Japanese tend to be much longer, and when we wanted to put the subtitle, we had to make it really short.”

“Now that I’ve seen it three times, I’m more struck by the heart of that group, of the dog gang,” Goldblum remarked, when asked about his gossipy character that habitually spreads rumors. “Once they have their task presented to them, they are so immediately, unblinkingly committed and are ready to put themselves in harm’s way, and die for it. Their deep, mysterious love and commitment to being devoted as they are…it’s about love and there’s no question about it.”

“I was immediately aware, when I read this script, that it was extremely political,” Schreiber said. “It’s a geopolitical piece about oppressive regimes. I just knew that Spots was an essential part of standing up to that. I feel guilty for being up here, I feel like I didn’t do anything, I feel that I was in a recording session with Wes for about two hours about a year and a half ago, and it was fun. You know, I’m like a world-class dog voice guy. But I knew immediately when Wes cast me that I wouldn’t get to do a dog voice. And I knew that because what he does so beautifully is kind of juxtapose the very human characteristics of the actors that he’s working with, with the creatures they’re playing. I love the movie; thrilled that I was able to do it.”

We had a tough time trying to find the tone of the narrator,” Vance recalled. “We played with [voice and diction] quite a bit, because [Wes] had a very specific idea of what it should sound like. I didn’t know, and so the clip-ness of if, and the gravitas of it all, was Wes knowing that it had to be a little extra.

Balaban said he didn’t have to work that hard to think about his character King, as they had many things in common. “I used to do commercials [too]; never for dog food. I just felt King was your all-around be their person that won’t stand out too much. And that was easy.”

Anderson on unique technical challenges and triumphs

“I made a previous stop-motion animated movie, and our whole team from that were on board for this,” Anderson explained. “We [had] to invent a new space, bring a little world to life for each scene. There’s so much happening simultaneously in a movie like this; there are many, many units going at once. I don’t think anything felt insurmountable. But there were things that took us a long time to figure out. For instance, late in the process, I didn’t really know what the sky would be like. When you’re doing a live-action movie, you never are faced with things like, ‘what are the trees going to be like? What is the sky going to be like?’ With an animated movie, with any movie, whenever you have something in mind, you have a whole bunch of decisions that you’ve made. And then you do the shot, and almost invariably the result is something unlike what you anticipated. But it’s a kind of great thing. You say, ‘Ah, so THIS is what we’re doing. Okay, okay, well let’s keep going.’”

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.