He’s the leader of the pack: Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs looks to be a contender for award season

Wes Anderson has enlisted such longterm chums as Bill Murray and Frances McDormand to provide the voices for

He’s the leader of the pack: Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs looks to be a contender for award season

Wes Anderson has enlisted such longterm chums as Bill Murray and Frances McDormand to provide the voices for

Isle of Dogs, writes Helen Barlow

NOW that the Oscars are done and dusted, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is already emerging as a prime contender in the animation stakes for the 2019 event.

His previous film, The Grand Budapest Hotel in 2014, where Saoirse Ronan made such an impression, became his biggest commercial success ever. In the intervening years, he has returned to stop-motion animation, the painstaking art form he used on his 2009 Roald Dahl adaptation, Fantastic Mr Fox, starring the biggest grey-haired fox of them all, George Clooney.

Everyone wants to work with Anderson and he makes voicing his furry friends — this time dogs — surprisingly easy.

“One thing about an animated movie is you can’t really say you’re unavailable,” Anderson quips. “We can do it anytime. We can do it at your house! There is just no excuse.”

A boyish 48-year-old, Anderson is one of a kind. Old-fashioned in his demeanor, he invariably wears a tweed suit for public appearances and resides in Paris, the stronghold of auteur cinema of which he is definitely a member. He lives together with his partner (Lebanese writer Juman Malouf) and daughter in Montparnasse.

Isle of Dogs is set in Japan. While Anderson unashamedly draws on the work of Japanese directors Akira Kurosawa (who himself made the 1949 crime drama Stray Dog) and animation maestro Hayao Miyazaki, he also wanted to tell the story of a pack of dogs abandoned on a garbage dump, seemingly a parable on the refugee crisis. Though Anderson says the story could be set anywhere.

“It’s probably more true to Texas,” the Houston native notes.

“The thing that made it come to life for us was when we decided it should be a fantasy version of Japan. One thing I like to do, or that I just find interesting when I make a movie, is to try to devise a world for the movie to take place in, some setting for the characters that we can create that you can’t just walk outside and find.”

Ultimately the action takes place 20 years in the future in the fictional city of Megasaki where the evil cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has banished the dogs to an island used as a garbage dump. (Such an island exists in Japan.) Local boy Atari (Koyu Rankin) embarks on a rescue mission to track down his beloved pet Spots (Liev Schreiber) with the help of the island’s furry occupants headed by Chief (Bryan Cranston).

Anderson loves using puppets to bring his creatures to life. “We’re embracing old methods but we pushed that,” he says. “I love using models, there’s just some kind of charm, but there are things that we combined in the digital process.”

He explains that his new film is far more complex than Fantastic Mr Fox even if he had to make it with the same amount of money.

“Isle of Dogs has three times as many characters and twice as many sets — it’s just bigger. Making the movie was a totally instinctive thing. My hope is that whatever we’re finding is making the experience more interesting. The process is to mix simplicity with shots that are jammed with stuff. We learned so much making Fantastic Mr Fox about how to be efficient and economical.”

He wrote the screenplay over four years with the Coppola clan cousins, Roman and Jason (Schwartzmann), his collaborators on The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. To consolidate the Asian theme he enlisted the advice of Nomura, who had appeared in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson voice dogs here) and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Interestingly he met early in the piece with the actors who voice what he calls the “the group hero pack” of dogs, his old buddies Bill Murray, Ed Norton and Bob Balaban and newcomer Cranston. “It was great, a fun way to start.”

Even if Cranston’s Chief is the nominal head of the pack, there’s no doubting that Murray took the lead when promoting the film in Berlin.

“I have a little gang of people and Bill is one of the central people in that,” Anderson notes. “But Owen Wilson and Luke Wilson and their brother Andrew are the ones I really started making films with. Together with Jason and Roman it’s a group that’s grown over the years.”

Anderson explains how Owen Wilson, his college friend with whom he wrote Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, was always more oriented towards America, while Murray, especially during his career resurgence after Lost in Translation, has been more a man of the world, expressing his love of Japan and Europe. So he is more in tune with Anderson’s current inclinations.

As Isle of Dogs opened the Berlin Film festival, Murray — a keen musician — took to the taiko drums as he joined the Japanese drummers playing the kind of music that thunders throughout the film. The far more timid Anderson briefly joined in. Murray also did the honours in accepting the best director award for Anderson who could not attend the ceremony.

“I never thought I’d go to work as a dog and come home with a bear,” Murray quipped. “I’m very grateful to have been able to spend time here again. Ich bin ein Berliner Hund.”

French composer Alexandre Desplat, who has won two Oscars for best original score, this year for The Shape of Water and in 2015 for The Grand Budapest Hotel, is another Anderson regular. They started out on 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom and Desplat’s score for Isle of Dogs will no doubt be up for awards in 2019.

“I loved Alexandre’s music for Birth,” Anderson says, noting the 2004 film starring Nicole Kidman. “I found out he lived two blocks away from me, so at that point I knew I had to work with him.”

It probably also helped that Scarlett Johansson lived in Paris as he was writing the Isle of Dogs screenplay, while Greta Gerwig, the Oscar-nominated director of Lady Bird (starring Saoirse Ronan) and partner of Anderson’s other co-writer Noah Baumbach (Fantastic Mr Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) was happy to be part of the voice cast too. Anderson regular Tilda Swinton, Oscar winner Frances McDormand and even Yoko Ono also provide voices.

It remains to be seen whether Anderson’s young daughter, who was born while he was preparing the film and is named after a character in the 1940 movie The Mortal Storm, becomes part of his ensemble.

“She’s seen me sitting at the computer and knows every detail of this movie. She knows this movie better than anybody.” It seems that becoming part of her father’s gang just might be inevitable.

Isle of Dogs opens in Irish cinemas on March 30

Wes Anderson has enlisted such longterm chums as Bill Murray and Frances McDormand to provide the voices for Isle of Dogs, writes Helen Barlow

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