Purple Magazine
— Los Angeles issue #30

wes anderson

los angeles
cinema
wes anderson

interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits by TAKASHI HOMMA
at the Old Imperial bar in Tokyo

No one in the cinema world today knows more about its history and the best actors than American auteur filmmaker Wes Anderson. He left New York and Los Angeles for Paris’s Saint-Germain-des-Prés to live in the epicenter of the French Nouvelle Vague. His new animated film, Isle of Dogs, is his first work to be so openly political, denouncing the global rise of fascism, ostracism, and environmental destruction.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with your movie Isle of Dogs. It’s a stop-motion animation film, and you’ve been working on this project for a long time, yes?
WES ANDERSON — We started writing the script about five years ago. Then we started storyboarding and designing the movie about three years ago. We started shooting it about two years ago.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And in the meantime, you were doing other films?
WES ANDERSON — A bit, but not so much. I did The Grand Budapest Hotel after we started writing this. But that came out maybe four years ago or something. It’s kind of a long time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This one, to me, is a masterpiece. It’s an incredible political and dystopian allegory of our time. For kids, for adults, for future generations — incredible.
WES ANDERSON — Merci.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I was extremely interested in it and would love to hear your comments on the political aspects of it, as well as the cinematic aspects. Because it’s a real movie. It’s a movie about movies.
WES ANDERSON — Good! I’m happy for it to be a real movie.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s start with the actors. So, they’re all dogs. Are they the closest animals to humans?
WES ANDERSON — Well, it was always dogs, but we wrote the dogs to be played by human actors. Because they talk to each other. So, for us, the characters were really basically people.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you envisioned the actor behind the dog?
WES ANDERSON — Maybe we didn’t envision the specific actors. But as soon as we were writing the dialogue, it kind of shifted away from exactly dogs and became more about a society where one little group is ostracized by another larger group, which is being manipulated to turn against them to consolidate their power, enhance their power, etc., and that’s usually something people do to other people.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s not going to end.
WES ANDERSON — No, I don’t suppose that’s going to end. When we started writing the story, we were referring more to history, but the world changed a lot while we were working on this movie. In a way, I think it gave us a feeling of purpose — it increased our determination.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because, in the meantime, Trump arrived in America. And in Europe we have the dramatic exile problems from Africa and Syria, and our governments in Europe are more and more intolerant.
WES ANDERSON — Everywhere. When we started this movie, the possibility that Donald Trump would be president was unthinkable — at least to me, at that time.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There are more and more refugee camps in Paris.
WES ANDERSON — When you go to the Cimetière du Montparnasse at night, on the narrow road that goes through the middle of the cemetery is a refugee camp. Anyway, last year it was lined with tents. I wonder: are there more refugees in the world right now than ever? Probably it’s at the maximum, I would think. Since the world wars, I mean.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, do you, as an American film director, have to be in Paris to do a political movie?
WES ANDERSON — I don’t know. I’ve probably spent one week in LA in the last three years. I don’t spend very much time in America either. I feel slightly disconnected from the country. It’s on a different wavelength. Sometimes America can feel kind of insular. I mean, it’s a very, very big island, but you can feel slightly out of step in America, when you’ve been away a long while.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you miss LA?
WES ANDERSON — The last time I was in Los Angeles, I had a great time. We saw our old friends, and I visited places where I used to live and things like that.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you live in LA for a long time?
WES ANDERSON — I think I went there in maybe 1993 or so, and then I was there off and on until maybe 1997. But we also made two movies in Texas during that period of time, so I was away a lot, and I started to spend more time in New York. I like Los Angeles. It has its own interesting sense of its own history. I like the artists of the Ed Ruscha and Ed Moses generation — the Venice artists and the Frank Gehry world of those guys. And I like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and that kind of Los Angeles. Mainly you have the whole story of American movies there.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes. LA noir, in a way.
WES ANDERSON — Everything to do with movies was in LA. That was the movie city. Everybody knew everybody. They all saw each other in the day, and they saw each other in the night. It was a small community, I think. And we don’t see that so much when we go there now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m very interested in teasing out this political aspect of your movie, which is very clear. Even a little boy or girl, who’s 10 or 12, can understand the political message. It’s beautiful because when you see that these dogs are fighting against, say, fascism — to put it simply — they keep maintaining an idea of democracy because they constantly vote. The five of them, whatever the urgency of what’s happening in their lives or in the situation, they still vote. There’s a very serious awareness of the importance of voting and deciding together.
WES ANDERSON — Yes! And also, there’s a united group of young people, and there’s a boy who is very brave, and I feel like in America, now especially, united and brave young people are valuable and accomplishing something.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Any example?
WES ANDERSON — Well, I mean, in particular, the kids against the guns. They’ve gone out into the world with a force that the grown-ups have maybe never managed to muster. Maybe they’ll succeed where everyone has failed for all of these years because that’s a problem that seems so obvious. The only defenses are lies.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, does it mean that besides this darkness or this chaotic or dystopian time we are facing now, even in five years, it’s gotten worse? It means that you’re still optimistic because your movie finished with a happy ending?
WES ANDERSON — Can a haiku change a fascist?

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs] A beautiful haiku can touch everyone’s heart in Japan. It’s important to mention the haiku.
WES ANDERSON — How the climax of the movie became a haiku, I don’t know.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is the animated movie, and cinema in general, a weapon, in a way, for you?
WES ANDERSON — I’m thinking about the project I’m working on next, which relates to some of these same political themes.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Is an animated movie technically easier to make than a normal film?
WES ANDERSON — I will say that a somewhat unusual thing with a movie like Isle of Dogs is that we approach it completely the same way as we do a live-action movie. The shots are not thought of as animation shots. We just do it like we’re going to shoot on a live-action movie set, with real actors. Everything is done as if we were going to build the dolly track in real life, and we do almost all of it in camera. Digitally, we combine things, but everything is shot on a real set, which is not so common now, and maybe that makes it sort of more cinematic, in a way. It is very time-consuming, but you do shoot many things simultaneously. We might have 40 or even 50 different shots happening at one moment. So, it’s very, very slow on every unit, but there’s so much happening at once.

OLIVIER ZAHM — What organization!
WES ANDERSON — We might have six or eight different models of the same puppet. So the same character is working on several different shots at once. It’s the most complicated scheduling that you can imagine.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The way you capture Japanese culture and mentality is very beautiful, and feels universal. It seems to me that there are many references to Hayao Miyazaki and all the old Japanese movies like those of Yasujir¯o Ozu, which were very slow and based on dialogue?
WES ANDERSON — Yes. The inspiration really is related to Japanese cinema. That’s the real source of the movie — that’s why I wanted to set it in Japan. It’s because I love the Japanese cinema of the ’50s and ’60s — and ’40s. You saw Miyazaki. You saw Ozu. But you didn’t see Kurosawa.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes.
WES ANDERSON — Kurosawa is more the inspiration for the dark aspect and the setting, really. I think of the Kurosawa movies like Stray Dog, High and Low, and The Bad Sleep Well: the city ones in a contemporary setting, not the 19th century or an earlier setting. But I guess the framing, the setups of the shots in my movies — they’re kind of like Ozu. It’s not that I ever deliberately tried to imitate Ozu.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But the sense of time and the rhythm make me think of Ozu. It’s a long movie.
WES ANDERSON — It’s quite a long movie. For an animated movie, it’s at least 10 minutes longer than animation movies ever are.

OLIVIER ZAHM — This movie is also a political message on ostracized groups or communities. It combines a French political sensibility — which you also had in Hollywood in the ’60s — with this young woman activist, who looks a bit like Angela Davis. At the same time, it’s also a commentary on the global ecological disaster.
WES ANDERSON — That is happening everywhere. The movie is in Japan, but it could be set in almost any coastal nation of the western world. It would be more difficult to accept it if it were set in Sweden. There are probably some places where you’d say this would never happen — this just doesn’t feel like the Swedes. It’s much more an American kind of politics than Japanese, but we wanted to do a story in Japan because we love Japanese cinema, we’re interested in Japan, and we wanted to engage with Japan, learn about Japan, and do a story in that setting. But the politics of the movie could have happened anywhere.

OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s still your fascination for Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the sea because Japan is permanently connected to the sea. The water and this trash island in the film are really metaphors for the planet today.
WES ANDERSON — Yes. Well, we did talk about Cousteau during this movie and when we did The Life Aquatic. The interesting thing with Cousteau was that he was somebody who started out wanting to explore the ocean, but as he proceeded in his career as an adventurer and filmmaker, he became an environmentalist. He became more ecologically sensitive and extremely interested in protecting these environments because he saw them being damaged. And he saw intimately because of the way he was living — that became his mission, but it didn’t start as his mission.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The casting of the movie is fantastic because it’s local. The French casting makes a commentary on French cinema — I guess the Japanese casting must do the same. I was so happy to see all these famous, legendary actors in France reunited in your movie, and their voices reconnect their memory with what they did in the past. And it’s beautiful, for someone who loves cinema in France and as a French person, that you’re totally into the soundtrack of old or more recent movies.
WES ANDERSON — Yes. I’m very surprised that we succeeded in putting together this group because, really, this is a list of my favorite French actors. And there’s a lot of them — like 15.

OLIVIER ZAHM — From Hippolyte Girardot to Isabelle Huppert…
WES ANDERSON — Hippolyte Girardot I first saw when I was 18 — or no, younger — in Un Monde Sans Pitié [Love Without Pity]. That was released in America, and I love that movie. And Yvan Attal is in it, too. That’s his first film. But people like Isabelle Huppert I’ve loved for years, and Jean-Pierre Léaud: he’s one of the reasons why I make movies. Les Quatre Cents Coups [The 400 Blows]. That’s what I wanted to do. So, for me it’s very moving to have them all doing these voices. And also the young ones — I love the younger people, too, like Louis Garrel and Léa Seydoux and Romain Duris.

OLIVIER ZAHM — You were able to tell a story about French cinema with the voice. And that’s one of the magical things about cinema: it’s the voice. We forget about that because we always overevaluate the picture.
WES ANDERSON — That’s right. You think of their faces when you do an animated movie. Like Daniel Auteuil, for instance — I love Daniel Auteuil. One of my favorite movies ever is Un Cœur en Hiver [A Heart in Winter] — you know, the Claude Sautet? That’s a very special movie for me. But when we recorded, when I heard Daniel Auteuil’s voice separated, I had no idea his voice is much higher. I know his voice instantly, but you don’t think about it separately. And I like hearing them, focusing on their voices, and realizing how much of their performances — the performances we already love — come from their voice. It’s like recording a radio program.

OLIVIER ZAHM — I was surprised that you didn’t use Gérard Depardieu for the black, angry dog.
WES ANDERSON — Oh, yes. [Laughs] Well, I thought of Vincent Lindon because he’s one of my favorites. He was the first one I thought of. I love Vincent Lindon.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And what about the Japanese cast?
WES ANDERSON — Well, we start with Kunichi [Nomura, Anderson’s co-screenwriter for the film], who plays the mayor.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Ah, Kunichi plays the mayor. [Laughs] He has a good voice, Kunichi.
WES ANDERSON — Oh, yes, a great voice. He has a very deep voice. Two actors, whom you might not know from other movies, are Akira Ito and Akira Takayama. They’re both Japanese, but I cast them in America. And the boy who plays Atari, he’s Koyu Rankin — his mother is Japanese, his father is Canadian, and he lives in Vancouver. The surgeon in the movie is Ken Watanabe, who, as you know, is a great Japanese actor. The auntie, the grandmother kind of character in the story — she’s played by Mari Natsuki. In Spirited Away, she’s the two sisters who are the main characters. She’s an amazing artist. Do you know her?

OLIVIER ZAHM — No, I don’t know her. We have to speak more about Miyazaki because he is the master. In a way, you are challenging the master.
WES ANDERSON — Well, I would say, we don’t challenge…

OLIVIER ZAHM — [Laughs]
WES ANDERSON — We follow. I really only started watching the Miyazaki films when we were doing the earlier animated movie I did, Fantastic Mr. Fox. That’s when I became more interested in Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki. And for this movie, it’s Kurosawa and Miyazaki — those are our two masters. Those were the two who were the inspiration we always followed.

OLIVIER ZAHM — The American cast — it’s your family?
WES ANDERSON — Well, it’s many people whom I already knew. But there are several new voices, like the narrator, Courtney B. Vance. I had met him years before, but had wanted to work with him again for many years. And Greta Gerwig I had never worked with before. Liev Schreiber is an actor whom I’ve loved for a long time. Bryan Cranston is sort of the center of it — I love Breaking Bad, and that performance is one of the great performances in anything, so when I thought of him for Isle of Dogs, I thought that could really galvanize the thing.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Behind the voice and behind this allegory, there’s your personal pantheon of films.
WES ANDERSON — It’s not something I thought of beforehand, but my whole life is related to movies, so we’ve gathered together some of my favorite American actors, most of my favorite French actors, and, in Japan, a whole group of artists whom I love. The key one for me is Yoko Ono. She has only a few scenes in this movie, but I’ve always been inspired by her, and I’ve always just loved her. And so, to have some little way of paying homage to her, or to collaborate with her in this tiny way…

OLIVIER ZAHM — And were you there during the voice recordings?
WES ANDERSON — Yes. I mean, it was only a few hours.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Giving direction.
WES ANDERSON — Yes, giving direction. In fact, I was kind of kneeling next to her the whole time.

END

 

[Table of contents]

Los Angeles issue #30

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