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Exberlinale Interview: Bill Murray and Bob Balaban

INTERVIEW! Everyone's favourite Wes Anderson vet, Bill Murray, and his equally charming costar, Bob Balaban, talk working Isle of Dogs and other Wes wonders with our blogger.

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Photo by Siebbi (CC BY 3.0)

I’m told, as I sit down for a series of interviews with the cast of Wes Anderson’s newest elaborate animated caper Isle of Dogs, that you never know if you’re gonna get Bill until he walks in the door. Meaning: the ever-charming and mercurial Bill Murray is somewhere in the building, and if we close our eyes and wish real hard, he’ll appear in this room and spout his words of wisdom. His costar, Bob Balaban, equally charming, has already made his appearance, and pairing them as a dynamic duo makes perfect sense – as it turns out, Bob is the perfect straight-man foil to Bill’s larger-than-life presence. When the man himself does finally burst through the doors, cracking jokes and shaking everyone’s hands, the relief is palpable, although the ride has truly just begun.

Bill and Bob, being part of the ever-growing revolving door of Wes Anderson cast members, were able to shed some light on making an Anderson flick. Just watch out for the ticks.

So, as Wes Anderson vets, is there a lot of shorthand when it comes to making one of this movies?

Bob Balaban (gesturing to Bill Murray): Well, he’s a vet. I’m a minor vet.

Bill Murray: I don’t think think that it’s shorthand, I think that it’s comfort. 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.

So when you get the call to be in a Wes Anderson movie, are you locked in a groove with him at this point? What goes through your mind?

BM: Well, this is 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 [on Moonrise Kingdom], how bad was that?

BB: Well, it was dangerous. There was the tick situation.

“The tick situation”? Care to elaborate?

BM: Oh man, there were ticks out there. And you had to wear long socks. But we went to a beautiful location there every single day. That coastline of Rhode Island is crazy beautiful with small islands and peninsulas. We went to a beautiful place every day, and then we would eat a great meal –

BB: And you lived in Wes’ house.

BM: He did this thing there where we would say “Oh, I got us a private chef,” which sounds like a great deal but it also means you can work until 10:00pm because the private chef will be cooking a meal to be served at 11:30. So you’d be sitting there like “Oh great, we have a wonderful meal coming…” [slumps back in chair] Then you’d have some wine, then the food would come and it would be really good and then you’d just pass out.

BB: I don’t remember there being dressing rooms. My character had to wear a giant red coat and a funny hat, and like, elf shoes or something. I used to leave my hotel every morning dressed like that! I had dinner with some friends one night and I didn’t have time to go back and change at the hotel so I ate dinner at a really nice little Italian restaurant looking a little bit like Elmer Fudd.

You were the only group that was together for the recording of Isle of Dogs, right? You guys were a pack.

BB: We don’t know! We don’t know anything about the other people!

BM: We don’t know much to begin with. But we were together, so you got to see the sort of spiral of canine performing. We sort of went, [growls] and got a little more doggy as we went along. I think Wes enjoyed watching it.

BB: I think we were early in Wes’ process. [To Murray] Do we think that?

BM: I think so, yeah. The plot starts with us, I guess, and it gets more complicated once you get into the political structure of the movie. But our dog thing was the foundation of the story.

It’s so fascinating because most animated movies have the actors recording for a year or two. All I’m hearing about this is you guys went in once or twice, did the lines, and that was it.

BB: But it’s different. I was thinking about other animated films I’ve been in and I was amazed at how the director has to keep pumping you up. Like everything gets bigger and bigger: “You’re really afraid, you have to be screaming now!” And that’s the opposite of what we were all doing on this movie. It was probably good that we didn’t go in and shoot it full of steroids.

BM: Also, Wes didn’t direct those other movies. There’s not a lot of messing around with his dialogue, there’s not a whole lot of improvising in Wes’ movies. He knows exactly what he wants.

Did you get a complete script before you shot?

BM: No. He gave us something of the storyline. I mean, I had some idea of what was going to happen, but nowhere near the complexity of what we saw.

How does voice acting differ from film acting for you? Does one make you more vulnerable?

BB: I think it’s, in a way, different but also the same. You’re working at the same goal, basically. Maybe with different tools. I think it’s strangely the same – [animation] is a little more difficult, maybe, because as actors we draw on circumstance all the time. The circumstance is when you’re standing in front of someone. But Bill, you were talking about when you did Fantastic Mr. Fox, and about how they went to locations that were similar to the locations in the movie to record voices. We couldn’t have done that on this movie, obviously, but that’s a brilliant thing to do, and nobody does that.

BM: And it was fun to do.

BB: I wouldn’t have wanted to go to the Isle of Dogs though (laughs).

BM: I told you, we went to a trash heap for the first scene of The Life Aquatic. Wes wanted to have a scene of seagulls that were going to be following the boat at the end of the movie. We were told that the most seagulls were in the dump in Rome. So we went to the dump in a couple of pick-up trucks and drove around, and I was supposed to wave at the birds. Well, have you ever been in a real dump? They have these pipes that just breathe methane. It just pops out in this semi-liquid, semi-gaseous substance. We’re driving around in this stuff, and our eyes start getting a little weird. And the gulls would not follow us! We were chasing the gulls around and around the garbage dump of Rome for hours.

You seemed excited before its Berlinale premiere on opening night.

BB: Bill drummed before the movie.

BM: Yeah, that energy outside was cool. People always think you sign autographs for a small child or Make-a-Wish or something like that, but most of those guys are pros, they’re all sellers. So the good thing last night was, it was so cold out and they’d been out there so long that you could just shake hands with someone, and their hand was cold that they’d just say, “That feels so good, thank you!” As soon as I saw that I thought, “That’s aaaaaall I’m gonna do!” and I went all the way up and all the way back, shaking everybody’s hand. Then they had the taiko drummers out there, and I asked Wes if he had seen them and he said, “What!” So he went out there and then he’s like, “I’d like to play them, would you like to play them?” He knew I’d say yes. So of course he’s already up on the stage before I can answer. It was crazy, my heart was beating hard. It’s hard work, to really keep up with them. Got really pumped up, went inside, and waited for hours [laughs].

Since neither of you had read the whole script, what was your reaction when you saw the finished movie for the first time?

BB: Mine was, “Oh my God.” And it was last night.

BM: I’m still reacting to the show we had to sit through. [Laughs] We were so tired. We came over from San Francisco, which is the exact opposite end of the Earth. I was like, “I’m gonna fall asleep Wes, I can’t do this!” But with the first frame of the movie, I was like, “Ah, it’s so beautiful.” The movie felt longer to me because I felt so tired, and we had been sitting there for so long. I asked how long the movie was and they said 90 minutes. I said, are you kidding me? Our movie was three hours because it started in the car!