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 said, “Okay, this was good, but now let’s put ten times as many things in every shot and amplify the level of detail by a factor of ten.”
As I watched Isle of Dogs, I had to pick my jaw up off the ground a number of times because I couldn’t believe the level of detail and depth in every shot. Even though I always prefer the theatrical experience, this is one of those rare films I can’t wait to watch at home when I can pause each frame and study the smallest detail. Trust me, Isle of Dogs is one of the best stop-motion films I’ve ever seen and I strongly recommend checking it out.
With the film now playing in limited release and expanding nationwide in the coming weeks, I recently got to participate in a roundtable interview with Bill Murray and Bob Balaban at the Berlin Film Festival. During the wide-ranging conversation they talked about getting to work with Wes Anderson, what it was like recording their lines, their reactions to the finished film, their thoughts on why Anderson always put an eleven or twelve year old boy in his movies, and so much more. In addition, since we had so much time with them, the conversation veered in a number of other directions and it’s one of those really fun interviews that I’m confident you’ll enjoy.
If you’re not aware of the Isle of Dogs story, 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 Bryan Cranston, Jeff Goldblum, 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, and Liev Schrieber.
Check out what Bill Murray and Bob Balaban had to say below.
So you guys are like the Wes vets.
Bob Balaban: He is. I’m a minor vet.
It counts, it counts. So is there a lot of shorthand there? Did you guys kind of….
Bob Balaban: I don’t think there’s short-hand. I think there’s comfort. There’s comfort, is what I would say.
Bill Murray: Yeah, there’s comfort, and he’s very direct. He kind of gives you a little bit to do… and we were lucky to have the other actors being dogs at the same time.
So you were the only group that was together, right?
Bill Murray: Right.
Bob Balaban: I don’t know. We don’t know anything about the other people.
Bill Murray: We don’t know much to begin with… but we were together. So you got to see this sort of spiral of canine performing. Everyone got a little more doggy as we were going along. It took a little while, and it was fun to watch, and silly to watch, and I think Wes enjoyed watching us dog up like that. The sound was just rolling the whole time.
Bob Balaban: I think we were early in Wes’ process. Do we think that?
Bill Murray: I think so, yeah. We were early.
Bob Balaban: We were the test dogs.
Bill Murray: We were the test dogs.
How so? You mean just when he was just initiating…
Bill Murray: The plot starts with us, I guess, and it gets more complicated once you get into the politics of the movie, and the political structure with that group, the Kobiashis. But our dog thing was, you know, sort of the center of it, you know, the foundational.
Did you do multiple sessions? Did you have to come in as things changed?
Bob Balaban: No. I don’t think so. I don’t even remember. Was it two days or one day?
Bill Murray: It may have been two days, but it wasn’t multiple sessions. It wasn’t like a thing. It may have been one day.
Bob Balaban: It included lunch.
Bill Murray: You’re actually right, because it was brought in. We didn’t go anywhere. That means we’re going to keep going. We’re not going to take a long lunch. We’re going to keep going.
It’s so fascinating, because every animated movie that I’ve covered has the actors reporting for like a year or two doing multiple versions. And all I’m hearing about this is you guys went in once or twice, did the lines, and that was it, done.
Bob Balaban: But it’s different. I was just thinking about other animated movie things. You’ve done…
Bill Murray: I’ve done a couple.
Bob Balaban: And I did one, one time, and I was amazed at how much the director had to keep pumping you up, like everything got bigger and bigger. “No, you’re really afraid, you have to be screaming now!” It was energetic, it was really nice. And I thought that’s the opposite of what we were all doing. And maybe it was good that we didn’t go in and put steroids on it.
But with the dialogue changing. Because sometimes they’ll look at the movie, and then it’s a whole different version that ended up making.
Bill Murray: He didnt direct those movies, and he didn’t write those movies. There’s not a lot of messing around with his dialogue. Obviously Jason and Roman, and… I can’t say his name, but it was Jason and Roman at that point that had written it.
Bob Balaban: Were they there that day? I don’t think so.
Bill Murray: No. But at that point that those lines were written in stone, or pretty much. The stuff was pretty stone. There’s not a whole lot of improvising in Wes’ movies. He knows what he wants. He knows exactly what he wants.
Did you guys get a complete script before you actually started?
Bill Murray: No.
Did he tell you the story line?
Bill Murray: Yeah, he whispered something. I mean I had some idea about what was going to happen. No idea of the complexity of what we saw.
I have a question about Wes Anderson’s movies at large. This is my question that I don’t have the answer to, and you guys have been in these movies. The use of the 12 year-old-boy, and Moonrise Kingdom is led by this 12-year-old boy. Women are obviously there, but why does that 12-year-old boy resonate? Do you have an answer?
Bob Balaban: Well, I kind of assumed he was Wes, is what I think. But I don’t even know that Wes… I don’t know that he would consciously think about it. I guess he, he knows what he’s…
Bill Murray: There’s also the 11-year-old boy in The Life Aquatic.
And there’s a young boy in Budapest.
Bill Murray: And when Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic says, “How old was he? “He’s 11. That was my favorite age.” You have a lot of clues.
You guys can put it together for me! Because I forgot about The Life Aquatic.
Bob Balaban: But Wes is currently 11 as well. He’s many ages, and he contains them all pretty strongly, I think.
So when you get the call to be in a new Wes Anderson film, are you sort of, is your relationship sort of locked in a groove at this point where you kind of know what to expect? Or is every film like a different, complete different experience? I mean obviously this one animated, and it was a shorter lead times, but how does it actually work?
Bill Murray: Well, this is an animated, so it’s not as exciting because we just get to do the voices. But on the job, like when we worked in Newport, Rhode Island, that was that! Living in Newport, Rhode Island.
Bob Balaban: But it was dangerous. The tick situation.
The tick situation? Care to elaborate?
Bill Murray: There were ticks out there, and you had to wear long socks. But we went to a beautiful location every single day. That coastline in Rhode Island is crazy beautiful with islands, small islands, and peninsulas, and we went to a beautiful place every day. And then we would eat a great meal.
Bob Balaban: And you lived in Wes’ house.
Bill Murray: I lived in the house with Wes, and he did this thing there where he said, “OK, I’ve got us a private chef,” which sounds like a great deal. But it also means you can work until 9:30 at night. Private chef will be cooking a meal that serves at 11:30. So I actually could work til 10:00 at night, and then it would be 11:30. And you get there, and you go, “Oh great. We’ve got a great meal coming.” So we would have a glass of wine or whatever, and then the food would come, and the food would be really good. And then you’d go, “That was great. That was really good. Good days. That was a long day’s work, wasn’t it?” And then bam, and you’re out. And then the next day the personal chef has gotten Wes his granola, and all that kind of stuff. You got a great start, and then you do it all over.