Let’s get the most important thing out of the way first: I absolutely loved Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. As a huge fan of his first stop-motion movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox, I wasn’t sure he could top such a special film — but I’m pleased to report he did. And while I loved everything about Isle of Dogs, I have to give a special shout out to the production design and level of detail in every shot. It’s like Anderson took what he did in Fantastic Mr. Fox and amplified it by ten. Trust me, Isle of Dogs is one of the best stop-motion films I’ve ever seen, and strongly recommend checking it out.
With the film expanding nationwide this weekend (to see where it’s playing in your area click the link), I recently got to participate in a roundtable interview with Bryan Cranston at the Berlin Film Festival. During the wide-ranging conversation he talked about how he got involved in the project, how the minute he heard it was a Wes Anderson project he said yes, the subtext and themes of the story, and a lot more. Plus, he talks about doing Network on stage in London, his process for choosing what project he wants to work on, Twitter, and more. If you’re a fan of Bryan Cranston, it’s one of those really fun interviews that I’m confident you’ll enjoy.
If you’re not familiar with Isle of Dogs, the film takes place in a near-future Japan where, after an outbreak of dog attacks, all dogs have been banished to live on a garbage-filled island—the Isle of Dogs. A young boy ventures to the island in search of his own dog, and with the assistance of a pack of newly-found mongrel friends, he begins an epic journey that will decide the fate and future of the entire region. The film also features the voices of Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, F. Murray Abraham, Tilda Swinton, Kunichi Nomura, Harvey Keitel, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, Koyu Rankin, Yoko Ono, Courtney B. Vance, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Bob Balaban, and Jeff Goldblum.
Check out what Bran Cranston had to say below.
BRYAN CRANSTON: Let me just say… there’s too much fucking laughter at this table.
QUESTION: (laughs) Well, just knowing you and having a reputation and such an appreciation for writing, I imagine that having the opportunity to work with someone like Wes Anderson must have been something that you were kind of anticipating, no?
CRANSTON: Not anticipating.
CRANSTON: But hoping.
Sure. Well, that’s kind of what …
CRANSTON: Yeah. I mean, I think three words came out before I said yes. “Wes Anderson wants-” “Yes.” And I don’t know …
It was probably your car.
CRANSTON: Yeah, aw shit. I read the script. I didn’t even know what character he wanted me to play, but I was kind of hoping it would be Chief because he had …
CRANSTON: Oh yeah. He had the most meat, and he was the most damaged. (laughs) I can relate to that. I seem to play a lot of damaged characters.
So you find out that he’s interested in working with you, and then you get the script?
Can you talk about that initial talking with him? When did he give you the script?
CRANSTON: The script came along with a note saying, “I like your work. I’d love to have you consider this.” And so, oh jeez, God, yeah, let’s do that. In the very, very fortunate position I find myself in, sometimes surprisingly, I’m able to now work with really great auteurs and really wonderful storytellers. It almost doesn’t really matter what he wanted me to do. I’d have done it, because from his film history, we know that we’re going to experience something that is eclectic and unique. The way he opens up to the worlds that we’re not familiar with, I love that.
When I write, even screenplay books say write from what you know. Write what you know. Be an expert within your circle. And that’s great. Yes, okay, that makes sense. But what Wes does, he seems to open that up and write what he imagines. By doing that, he opens up that can of worms. He’s got to go learn that culture, that language, that sensibility. He’s got to pull that in. He creates more work for himself and agonizes over it, as any good writer, I think, does, and has a lot of care and consideration. And he’s a lovely man, just a lovely man who is open and congenial and collaborative. It’s great.
He makes up these worlds that we sort of want to inhabit somehow, even if it’s an animated world.
CRANSTON: You want to live on Trash Island?
Well, you kind of want to be around those guys. There’s some human attachment that you find within that impossible situation. I want to meet your character. I want to meet Spot. I want to hang out with them.
CRANSTON: Do you really?
CRANSTON: I bite. I’m the one who bites. Well, to me, I look at it and I see a lot of sociopolitical interplay here. Here we have five members of different species, well, same species. Different kinds of dogs, and they all get along. They figure it out. Now, perhaps the de facto leader is this guy, who’s so aggressive that the others, like okay. And in that world, might makes right a lot of times. But he’s aggressive because he feels he has to be. He’s a homeless dog. He doesn’t know where he’s going to live. He doesn’t know if he’s going to eat that day. He’s got to be protective and territorial, at least through insecurity or anxiety or all those things. So he becomes the alpha dog. Edward Norton’s character is the beta dog, right? And you see the pecking order, and you see how Edward Norton’s dog steps up when the other dog steps up. It’s the pack mentality.
But they seem to make it work somehow. They accept each other. I think there’s a lot of lessons in there of acceptance. I look at it and I go, wow, there are layers of greed in here, of lessons of greed, of xenophobia, of fearmongering, the immigrants’ situation, casting aside fear, being able to stay ignorant and point the finger at some group out of fear and ignorance. We’re swirling in something.
Let’s face it, man, our country … Are you all Americans? Most of you? A few of us.
CRANSTON: We’re swirling right now. We’re in a downward spiral, I think. Now, it’s not the first time in history and it won’t be the last, I don’t think. But it really feels that way. At some point, hopefully, civility and normalcy and common sense will band together, and that movement will bring us out of that. That’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping that it happens sooner rather than later. But right now we’re in the muck and mire. We’re on Trash Island.
I’m really curious about this, because yesterday at the press conference, it was clear we’d all seen the movie beforehand, and many of us thought that based on seeing it, but when Wes was asked about it, he sort of tried to defer off political themes in the film. Just in your experience with him, I’m curious. Do you think that’s just his nature to not want to go down that road? It was a surprising answer at the press conference. He sort of deflected a little bit.
CRANSTON: I don’t know. I mean, I think if you … It’s so personal. I don’t know. He certainly has … It certainly wasn’t a mistake, the depth of this storytelling. However, I’ll say that they started working on this four years ago. This was way before Brexit and Trump and all that. So he was definitely feeling a sense of something, a movement that was happening, and he’s on the vanguard of it. Boy, that’s really prescient art, when you can be forward thinking in that … I don’t know.
I mean, perhaps in an environment like that, where it’s so big, it could be misconstrued. You don’t have the time to be specific on something, on spelling something out. It also has the tendency to divert the attention away from the opening of the Berlin Film Festival. So you have to be more circumspect and say, “Well, this is more for great to be here. This is lovely.” You have to be thoughtful about that.