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.
Isle of Dogs is so packed with details that it’s jaw-dropping. Even though I always prefer the theatrical experience, this is one of those rare films I can’t wait to watch at home so I can pause each frame and study the layers of what Anderson has included. 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 now playing in limited release and expanding nationwide this weekend, I recently got to participate in a roundtable interview with Liev Schreiber at the Berlin Film Festival. During the wide-ranging conversation he talked about his initial meetinng with Wes Anderson, how he was going for something more emotional with Isle of Dogs, how he pays attention to every detail, his reaction to the finished film, and so much more. In addition, since we had so much time with him, we also got update on the next season of Ray Donovan, why he’s excited to be part of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, his love of dogs, and so much more. If you’re a fan of Liev Schreiber 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 Bryan Cranston, 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 Liev Schreiber had to say below.
I would imagine that a lot of people want to work with Wes Anderson, and it’s a very desirable gig. He’s a cool filmmaker. What did it cost you to be part of his universe now?
LIEV SCHREIBER: It didn’t cost me anything. He called me and I was very excited; I was very surprised. I felt like I was ideally suited. I spent my whole life imitating dogs. I do great dog voices and then Wes calls me and said, “I want you to be a bodyguard dog in my movie about dogs who get banished to a trash island.” I thought, “Shit, I’m screwed, I don’t know what to do,” (laughs) because I’d seen Fantastic Mr. Fox and I knew that Wes wasn’t looking for cartoon-y voices- that’s not what he does- and the kind of more idiosyncratic and humanist, and characteristic. You hear Bob Balaban’s voice, you hear Jeff Goldblum’s voice, you hear Bill Murray’s voice- they’re very distinct voices and there’s no effort to mask who they are. I thought, that’s an actors worst nightmare. You’re you. I was like, oh shit.
Is that specifically what he requested?
SCHREIBER: No he didn’t say that at all. That was my gamble. I literally had about an hour and a half with him so it was like-
Did you have other voices that you tried?
SCHREIBER: No, I didn’t. I gambled on that, with Wes that would be the right choice. I walked out of there convinced I was wrong.
What does that feel like?
SCHREIBER: Horrible. (laughs)
Tell us more.
SCHREIBER: Really horrible. I just felt like I didn’t know- I had gambled that what he wanted was the kind of human characteristics of my voice, what’s unique about my voice and who I am. I think that’s conceptually the exercise, is to give the animals real human attributes, and there’s an irony implicit in that. There’s also a slightly political idea at play there.
Can you extrapolate on that?
SCHREIBER: Can I extrapolate on that? (laughs)
Can you talk more about that?
SCHREIBER: I can talk more and I can extrapolate. Let’s see.
You’ve been doing yoga, if you can do both things.
SCHREIBER: Well I’ll tell you. The most is- I’m a dog lover. I have loved dogs my whole life. I’ve seen the movie twice now. The first time I saw it I took my kids to a color timing screening with Wes. I was just overwhelmed, personally, by the tone, the detail, the production design, the puppets, the models. I was like, this is amazing work! He’s really a tremendous curator. It’s all put into this kind of playful narrative; this sort of childlike narrative. There’s always very complex ideas playing in the film. That was my first experience of it; I was very happy.
Then I saw it last night and my experience was much more emotional. I noticed that Wes, who is a tremendously talented comedic director and writer, had pulled back on a lot of opportunities for gags and jokes. He was going for something more emotional and intimate, and I was surprised by that. I didn’t feel like, and I’m a great student of Wes so I know his movies, I was sort of surprised by how emotional he was going- particularly with my character. The first time he hears his master’s voice, he makes tears in the dog’s eyes. The sound of, I can hear you, how excited the dog- the effect on me last night was the profundity of that relationship to dogs. How perhaps I’ve undervalued that, even as a dog lover. I’ve always had dogs. There’s this animal that- we don’t share language with, we don’t share culture with, we don’t spend probably more than 20% of our day with, if that, and yet they have this tremendous capacity for loyalty, compassion, love, patience, acceptance, and if they’re supposedly less evolved species..if they can do it, shouldn’t we also be able to do it? That kind of got me last night. I thought well that is a very sophisticated, narrative thread to do that, and not do it too self consciously.
Do you think there’s a time and place to watch a film? Do you think watching it in a different time and place has an effect on the film? Do you think also being here and-
SCHREIBER: It depends on the film. A bad film can be made better. (laughs). But a good film- last night that was endless- that stage show. (laughs). Was anyone there?
We’ve seen it before.
SCHREIBER: Oh, for fuck sakes! On top of that I’m wearing a watch that somebody gave me because you wear things that people give you to take photographs. (laughs) The watch was set two hours ahead. So, I’m sitting there going, “Oh fuck, it’s midnight, the movie hasn’t started.” That could have made the movie very, very bad. So, by the time the movie started I was in a right panic. I’m not going to stay awake for this, and there’s a dinner after that, and a party after that. I talked to- I’m going to be screwed! It’s midnight! I turned to Tilda, I’m like, “This is outrageous.” Tilda’s sitting right next to me and she’s like, “Yes, yes it is.” She’s not as alarmed as me. I’m really upset. I’m looking around- the mayor of Berlin is next to me, he’s like [imitates laugh]. It’s fucking midnight and the movie hasn’t started. I eventually found out, after the movie- and my point being that as soon as the movie started I was in. I was game. I was exhausted and sleepy but the movie is that good, in my opinion, that as soon as it started I was game. It was my second viewing.
It’s that good
SCHREIBER: I thinks so. Then when it was over I was like, I’m fine, and then somebody told me it was actually only 10 o’clock. (laughs) I was like, “Oh that’s why I’m fine! The movie’s crap.”
Did your kids like it? What did your kids think?
SCHREIBER: My kids loved it. Mostly they loved it because it was PG-13, and they knew it was PG-13. They were excited that they were getting to see a PG-13 movie. (laughs). They were like, it’s animated but it’s PG-13! There’s one point at which Bryan’s dog calls my dog a son of a bitch, and my son turns to me, smiling, and he’s like, “Well, that’s okay, because he is a son of a bitch.” (laughs) I was like, good shit Kai.
So is this the first thing your kids have ever seen you in?