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Introduction

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Introduction



The following took place in London during the post-production of Isle of Dogs. The conversation included Wes Anderson, Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola, Kunichi Nomura, and Faber’s editor, Walter Donohue

Walter
How do four people write a script?
Wes
We learned from our colleague Lauren that in his writers’ room Kurosawa had one special collaborator named Oguni who was called – what was the name of it?
Roman
The Command Tower.
Wes
Kurosawa and his co-writer or team of co-writers worked together to form the initial ideas and scenes of the films – but, as they progressed, they would periodically show them to the Command Tower, Mr Oguni. He would then tell them what was good, what was bad – basically crit - ique their work and steer them back on track when they were off the rails. And that’s how they shaped the scripts. It’s quite a common thing in Italian cinema as well – writers working in teams. I think more or less all the Fellini movies and the Rossellini and the DeSica and the Pietro Germi: you even see their names on each others’ movies. I think maybe even Pasolini worked on Nights of Cabiria. Anyway, obviously, it can be a good system! We’ve worked together on several scripts. Kun, of course, is the only one among us who is actually Japanese. Half the movie is in Japanese, and it’s set there, and Kun is the only one who actually knows what anyone is saying. He translated most of it and helped us try to always look to Japan as the inspiration for our little reality.
Walter
Was it all four of you at the same time or just three of you working up the story?
Roman
Well, even going way back to our earlier collaborations on The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom, so much of it seems to start with life stories. We start with memories and people and so on. Things that seem relevant bubble to the top, and you grab on to them. It’s never been a one-step-after-the-next format for us.
Wes
It’s more like an ongoing conversation. The conversation, in this case, began on a boat.
Walter
A boat at sea?
Wes
A boat at sea. We were afforded the opportunity to go on a wonderful ocean liner to show some of our movies and do talks about them, which we all did together.
Walter
Where was this? The Mediterranean?
Wes
No, it was transatlantic.
Kun
I was in New York and you wrote me and said, ‘We’re taking the Queen Mary, want to come?’ But I couldn’t make it.
Walter
It takes a week, doesn’t it?
Wes
Eight days. So that’s where we started, though we had done a bit before.
Jason
In a way, it was a metaphor for the creative process: out at sea, no land, will we get there? Who knows.
Roman
I can remember there were lots of conversations before that, too. I was on the phone with you from Palm Springs, and I remember we were talking about fleas and rats. I was on the phone with you from a balcony in Brooklyn, and we talked about Chief nearly biting off the hand of the child of the family that had adopted him.
Wes
We wrote that part over the speakerphone.
Roman
There was also the train ride where we watched the Studio Ghibli animated film, the one with the small princess.
Kun
Arrietty.
Walter
In French cinema there’s a tradition of having two writers on a film. One works out the structure and plot and the other does the dialogues. Do you three divide up the writing like that?
Roman
No, we talk around it. Maybe, Jason will say something that’ll spark off an idea, or a piece of dialogue. Wes is pretty meticulous about taking notes. He writes it all out. And then, sometimes, we’ll assume the roles of the characters. We did this a lot on Darjeeling because there were three main characters, and three of us.
Jason
When we were writing it, I expected to play one character, and I ended up playing another! Often Wes might have a notion or an idea about what the movie is – something very basic, a feeling for what it’s about. So our process is to figure this out. That’s what is interesting to me: trying to understand what this feeling is about. What he thinks he’s looking for.
Walter
Did the project start with dogs? Or Samurai dogs?
Wes
It started with dogs before it moved to Japan.
Roman
It was always about dogs who were decrepit and abandoned and wasted.
Wes
Yes, and a pack of dogs who all saw themselves as the alpha.
Roman
And there was always a boy.
Jason
And a garbage dump. With fleas and rats.
Roman
The setting was always a blighted, urban, garbage dump. And the dogs sent away from their masters. That was there from the beginning.
Walter
So when did it become Japanese dogs?
Wes
Kun, when did we first talk about this?
Kun
From time to time I suddenly get a very short email from you, and it’s the start of something big. When the email is short, I know it’s a bad sign. You said you were thinking of an animated movie taking place in Japan, and you needed my help. Just a two-line email. Three years later, it’s not over yet.
Wes
It’s not over yet, but it will end. One day.
Kun
You wanted me to help work on the script and the story. Also, someone else was working on the translation, but we knew I had to make it sound like you.
Wes
Yes, the translations needed to have the voice of the movie.
Kun
You have your own voice, so the translating was really hard. Then you asked me to record some of the characters to see what they sounded like. Kobayashi, the Professor, some of the women.
Wes
We had characters speaking Japanese, so we needed to start recording voices so we could do the animatics of our storyboard version of the movie.
One of the voices Kun did was Mayor Kobayashi, and we ended up keeping Kun’s voice, because he has such a low, powerful voice. Nobody sounded as formidable as Kun. Although Kun is much younger than the character.
Jason
His voice records even lower and more powerful than his normal voice.
Kun
I have my own radio show, which I do every week. Wes asked if I could record the voices properly. So when I was recording the show, I asked the tech - nicians if they could stay half an hour more so I could record the characters’ voices. They were really curious because I was in the studio alone, yelling, ‘Banish all dogs!’ And they asked me, ‘What’s it all about?’
Wes
And then I asked you to help me direct all these performances!
Walter
Do you remember when you made the decision that it should take place in Japan? What was there in the story that would make it work better if it was located in Japan?
Roman
Something about the sci-fi genres of Japan. It’s funny, when we started it wasn’t necessarily a feature film. It was just a story, a part of a bigger piece.
Wes
Originally, it was a short story that was part of a little collection of movie short stories. But maybe the Japanese setting was more to do with being inspired by Japanese movies – a whole world of cinema that is so interesting and vast and complex. Kurosawa, in particular, is the biggest influence on this movie. It’s really as simple as: we love these movies, and wouldn’t it be nice to make our version of being in the Kurosawa world. When you’re doing a stop-motion movie, you can say a character should be played by someone like Toshiro Mifune, and you can make your own Toshiro Mifune. More or less.
Walter
Whenever there’s a novel or film set in the future, you take some - thing that people are especially used to now and say: what if we no longer have it? Or what if we have something else instead?
Wes
Well, I guess our film could really be set today. It’s not really very far in the future. The futuristic aspect of it is pretty limited. In fact, the original situation we began with was that the story began in the year 2007, except the movie has supposedly been made in 1962. So it was only the future from that perspective.
Walter
Like Blade Runner was made in 1982 but set in 2019?
Wes
More like if the new Blade Runner pretended to have been made in 1983. Frankly, it became a bit of a struggle to communicate this idea, pretending to be an old movie set in 2007. I’m confused even trying to explain what we failed to do. Anyway, I guess we thought of the setting as being the Japan of The Bad Sleep Well (1961) or High and Low (1965). We were trying to make it look like that period of Kurosawa’s work. Also, the movie reflects the genre of Japanese disaster movies – the Godzilla world of movies. It has quite a few links to that kind of thing too, which is not exactly science fiction; it’s more like disaster fantasy, monster fantasy. Isle of Dogs is about a political monster.
Walter
Because it’s animation, did a lot of the decisions have to be made early, or was your particular way of working together an ongoing thing all the way through?
Wes
We had a script. My impression is that sometimes when they do an anim ated movie they don’t exactly start with a script. They just start story - boarding. They have a story, and then go directly to a storyboard. But we had a finished script first, and then we did the storyboard version.
Roman
But there’s another layer to the writing where we may feel the need for another scene or to clarify something. There was a complete script, which you would have for any normal feature, but it shifts and grows and shrinks more this way.
Walter
So when you started storyboarding it, it might suddenly become clear that you needed another scene or a flashback.
Wes
Right. As you make the movie, you mock up the movie, edit it so you can see how it works. And, in this case – with many of the voices not being actors – with drawings, which is sort of a simulation of the movie, which is sometimes a complicated thing to make, which is why it takes a long time to do. You end up rewriting and revising. You have much more freedom when it’s drawn, you can change it readily. There’s a lot you have to figure out in advance because it takes a long time to make the puppets, to make their faces, etc. You’ve got to know some weeks before shooting the scene that this pup - pet has to be angry, or have a frown, or have a certain gesture, depending on what range of faces you have for that puppet, because some of the puppets have replacement faces. You can’t just say, ‘I want him to be wide-eyed,’ as that face doesn’t exist to put on him; it has to be sculpted and painted and prepared. You have to make a mould. Many of the faces are made of resin, they’ve got to be painted – it’s a whole process. And then you look at it, and it might not have turned out very well. In that sense, you have to think in a long-term way, on a different time-line.
Walter
Does that process help shape the dogs’ very specific personalities?
Wes
Actually, it’s only the human characters who have the cast-moulded faces. The faces of the dogs: the animators can do what they want with them. They have the equivalent of muscles in their faces. The faces of the humans are cast. It’s a different method. They’re more like dolls, really. Hundreds of chang ing doll faces.
Walter
How did you work out which personality each dog had?
Wes
Basically, you have to dream up a cast of characters. So we started by figuring out where they came from. We knew we wanted a gang, before we knew who they were individually. First of all, we probably had a sense of Chief and Spots. The two brothers.
Roman
Though we discovered that they were brothers later, along the way.
Jason
I recall that Duke’s ability to overhear and know about gossip became part of his character.
Roman
That’s because I would say to Jason, ‘Did you hear about the guy and what he said about this thing?’ and Wes would say, ‘What’s that? ...’
Walter
It’s a good device for revealing information.
Jason
Dogs have really good hearing; they’re the best animals for eaves - dropping.
Walter
When you’ve got the characters, do you say, ‘Well, Bill Murray could play this part’?
Wes
We didn’t really write this one for actors. We just wrote characters.
Roman
At one point, we talked about having a cast of all very, very alpha men: Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger. All action stars. But then we decided to go in another direction.
Jason
We’d have conversations and one of us would say to the other, ‘I thought you were going to say ...’ Someone will say something, and then we’ll do an inversion because you’ll misunderstand or you’ll take another train of thought from what has just been said.
Wes
An idea can sort of come from any direction: ‘I thought you were going to say the opposite of what you just said, but this is better!’
Roman
Jason will sometimes say, ‘Here’s the worst, corniest Hollywood version ...’ and we immediately perk up and say, ‘Give it to us,’ because it usually means it’s a nuts-and-bolts version of what we want to say. We’d say, ‘Well, that’s a good start. That would actually work.’
Walter
Does the fact that there’s three of you mean that you don’t get deadlocked because if two of you get deadlocked, the third one can unlock it?
Wes/roman/jason
Command Tower!
Walter
Given the series of conversations on trains, phones, etc., was there a point where you had to be in one room?
Roman
The crucial work is almost always the work we do in a room together.
Wes
As cousins, Roman and Jason have known each other since the occasion of Jason’s birth. Roman occasionally prefers to take up a position on the floor, and Jason often seems to find his stocking feet resting on top of Roman like an ottoman. They’re very comfortable together in a confined space.
Walter
The fact that all three of you have worked together for so long suggests that you share something which probably couldn’t be articulated.
Wes
We’ve been trying to articulate it to you for the past hour. So, if we haven’t succeeded, then it’s probably time for this interview to come to an end.