An actor since the ‘60s, Balaban has appeared in everything from Catch-22 to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Little Man Tate and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water. If you’ve seen any of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show, you’ll know his face. Same if you’re a regular viewer of Seinfeld, on which he played fictional NBC exec. Russell Dalrymple.
Then there’s all the work Balaban has done behind the scenes, producing Robert Altman’s Gosford Park, a project he put together, which became a SAG and Oscar winner after receiving seven nominations including one for Best Picture. He also has directed a few feature films, a ton of television episodes and even a doc or two.
Isle of Dogs is Balaban’s third feature in a row with Anderson, having first appeared as the narrator in Moonrise Kingdom and in Anderson’s Oscar-winning The Grand Budapest Hotel. The premise involves a semi-futuristic version of Tokyo where dogs have been exiled to a place called Trash Island, and a young Japanese boy who tries to retrieve his beloved pet. Balaban voices a dog named King. (It’s the brown dog second from the left in the above pic.)
Figuring that Balaban could possibly teach a few lessons about the business as well as offer some enlightening thoughts on Mr. Anderson, the Tracking Board got on the phone with him for the following interview. At the end, he gives us a fairly detailed explanation of how he went from being an actor to being an Oscar-nominated producer.
This is your third movie with Wes Anderson and I guess Grand Budapest came out four years ago, so did you stay in communication with him from that time? How does he generally approach you for a movie like this? I imagine it doesn’t involve agents so much.
Bob Balaban: I don’t remember agents being involved too much. I think Wes just emails you or calls you. The first time, I think it might’ve come through my agent saying, “Wes would like you to do this.” I didn’t have to audition or anything, I’m sure sometimes, I mean I would happily do that for him if he wanted that, because all of his actors have been in eight thousand movies and work with every different kind of director in every situation, and Wes makes you feel that you’re about to go and be in the world’s best home movie.
It’s that spirit of adventurousness, playfulness, seriousness, cause he’s not at all lax about everything — he’s quite in charge — but you really feel like you’re in the hands of Wes in every department. Not that he blurs lines, because he’s great at depending on different departments that he knows so well, he does tend to work with the same crews over and over again, same DP’s. But you know that, he really does make you feel like there’s no big deal about anything that you’re doing except the work and what you’re doing with him. And then you’re surprised to find out that these movies are beloved by so many people. I mean, I knew it, I wasn’t naïve, but you don’t feel you’re working in a amazing grandiose experience. You feel like you’re just in somebody’s personal dream when you’re working with him. And it’s a great way to feel when you’re working.
This must be a little bit different from the last two, only because it’s animated. Do you have to do the voice work like years ago, or is it kind of process over the course of years, or what sort of, when do you actually do the majority of your work for it?
I suspect it was different for the different characters, because there were some characters who run throughout the movie and kind of connect the whole thing. In my case, I did my part for two days, and we did it in a little group with Edward Norton and Bill Murray and Brian Cranston, and we just did that for a couple of days in a magical recording studio in Manhattan. I don’t remember what it’s called, but it’s a voice recording place, and for some reason, whoever built this thing in the first place made it look like a giant log cabin. It was so much like what Wes would’ve designed to make you feel like you weren’t in a scary, austere place, but that you’re in a place full of surprises and character and kind of hominess. And that’s where we recorded. It took two days and we didn’t come back and re-do anything.
We did come back, although we did it at home I think. We all just did it on our iPhones. We did some materials for social networks and our dogs talk about what it was like when they were children and different things, but we just did it kind of as ourselves. As you know, Wes always has these amazing things happening on either Twitter or Instagram, YouTube or wherever they’re happening, so you can kind of experience different aspects of the movie before or after you see the movie. It’s kind of like an ongoing experience.
I’m sure Fox Searchlight has something to do with that because I can’t imagine Wes taking to Twitter to promote the movie. Maybe I’m wrong and he’s secretly on Twitter and I didn’t realize it. You mentioned you did your recording together with the other three guys, which is not normally the case. I don’t know if you’ve done a ton of animated movies, but usually everyone does their parts separately.
I mean, I’m glad I was with the other dogs, or three of them anyway, all four of us together. It was good for the experience. We also did group noises. We would do the growling and making little inquiring sounds to be used wherever Wes wanted to, and that was fun that we were together. But I know Jeff Goldblum was by himself somewhere, and Liev was somewhere, he was working. It does seem to work out pretty well when you’re not together, but it was just more fun being together, because I like everybody. It was fun, and we went out to lunch and ate good food and had a good time. I think if you’re there just by yourself, you probably don’t go out for lunch with yourself.
I’ve been covering Wes’ films since The Life Aquatic, and every time I go to one of these junkets, everyone talks about the great food. That has to be another consistency between Wes’ movies besides his very unique vision.
It’s because he’s making a home for you and he wants you to feel part of it. He doesn’t want you to feel like you’re in somebody’s sterile movie experience where you’re just over on the side and then you come be in the movie. He literally makes every day here on location, or in the recording studio, he makes every day kind of be a special, family experience. Which, if he were manipulative, you would say it’s a great way to make you feel comfortable and to probably get more out of you. But obviously he only does it cause that’s who he is and it’s a wonderful, delightful way to experience the movie.
Did he tell you a lot about the dog you were voicing or show you any of the designs of even the puppet? Or did you just get the script or the parts you were recording?
I think he emailed me my character’s puppet a couple months afterwards, but it probably wouldn’t have made it be better or worse if he showed it to us before, if you know what I mean. I think we just accepted the fact that we were dogs. I assumed we were all mutts of some kind, so I didn’t have to, I guess if I knew more about my dog and it was a breed that had characteristics, maybe I would’ve tried to be more, like if I were a bloodhound, I would’ve tried to sound like the bloodhound in Lady and the Tramp, but maybe that wouldn’t have been a good thing.
He does work with a lot of the same actors, and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognize your voice or that of Goldblum or Bill Murray, since they’ve worked with him a lot. Maybe I just wasn’t conscious of it.
Well, you start accepting these dogs as the person, in a funny way. And the actors’ personalities, which are important and all that, but not as actors, it just gives the dogs great individuality, and the fact that nobody tries to sound like a dog, you know, have a funny voice or anything. I think it just helps translate the dogs, who really, you almost don’t need us to talk, you can so understand so much of what we’re feeling and thinking by the amazingly intuitive way the what you call “animators” [inaudible 00:08:59]. Whatever the name is for the person that keeps posing that little dog puppet, in eighty trillion poses, overseen by Wes, of course. But, they really do make those little figures reek with life and personality with or without the voices.
You kind of mentioned this family of actors Wes has created, although with Moonrise Kingdom, you kind of were by yourself. You’ve also worked with Christopher Guest and his crew for a long time, so do you get the impression that at any time, you might be given a call to do something else with either of them?
No, I don’t think you can ever count on being in the next movie. I mean, I certainly can’t. I’ve only been in three and Bill and a lot of the others have been in nine or twelve or whatever, and others have been in more. But it sure does feel comfortable, and absolutely, I really look forward to the day that I get an email or my phone rings again and Wes is calling. I hope that happens. But if it doesn’t, I’ve had a great time, and I’ve been really lucky to be in two different directors’ [movies], whom I admire, and whose work I just love. Christopher Guest and Wes, to be in an ongoing situation in anybody’s movies is unusual, because usually they’re sequels that you would be in. If you did the movie Star Wars, I assume then it wouldn’t be a family.
But in each one of these you get to be a different character with everybody else, all your friends playing different characters, and it’s really fun. It’s a comfortable work situation and, I’m sure for Wes, it’s nice he’s getting to be in a room with people and directing them knowing, as he knows us. And the more he works with people, he knows their limitation and he knows the things they can do the most easily. He knows, well, he always knows how to work with people. But it’s just more comfortable, I would imagine, for Wes too. Not to have a lot of surprises.
I’d like to talk about some of the other things you’ve been doing. I mean obviously, you’re kind of a Renaissance Man, where you direct, produce and write. Do you still write fairly regularly, like a couple hours a day?
Am I writing? I always work, I seem to find myself developing a lot of different things at the same time. I don’t set hours or anything. I wish I did, but my life, if you actually really saw it, you’d go, “Oh my God, how does he ever even accomplish anything?” I’m so scattered, but for instance, I’m directing a play at the Alley Theatre in Houston right now called Cleo. It’s about the relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during the making of the movie Cleopatra. This morning, before I came to work, I reviewed the latest draft of the script. I started writing a letter to the writer — I didn’t write this, but we’ve kind of been developing it together for about eight years, and it’s really been an interesting experience. So that happens in the morning and then I’m developing some other stuff. I’m not actually writing anything right now. I’m taking things that exist, like a book or a magazine article or something like that, and trying to make it into something, whether it’s a movie or a series or a mini-series. I’ve got a bunch of those whirling around in my head, and I enjoy it. I’m sort of obsessively interested in trying to help stories get told and make them into things that will be fun to direct and/or produce.
I saw that you’re a producer on Searchlight’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? which just released the trailer, so were you involved with developing a previous version of the movie or are you still involved?
That’s exactly it. I was developing it, worked with the first writer, and we spent about two or three years on guiding along and casting it and almost getting to make the movie. And then for a thousand different reasons, didn’t, and then it became a different experience, and yet I’m called an Executive Producer, although I really didn’t have anything to do with this version of the movie. Although, it did come out of a movie that I developed.
And you’ve also been working on another doc called Justice Served, so what’s that about and what’s going on with it?
Oh, yeah, well that’s interesting. I’ve been making a documentary, which is morphing into something else. I directed and produced a play a long time ago by now, twenty years, called The Exonerated, where e examined the lives of men and women who had been on Death Row and were wrongfully convicted. It’s a docudrama and it’s based on an interview deposition, court documents, letters back and forth between some of the people and their beloved relatives. And as I continue to know these people and work on it, I’m involved in some of their lives, sort of peripherally, trying to help out or do various things. Nothing right now is happening with it, but it will eventually, I think.
Since this interview is for the Tracking Board, which is read by a lot of new and younger writers, at what point in your career as an actor did you realize that you needed to be more well-rounded as a filmmaker and started producing and directing as well?
Well, yeah, I began life as a child puppeteer, so that’s kind of like writing and directing and acting all rolled up into one, I guess. The first time something actually occurred to me was [when] Joe Papp asked me to direct a play at the Public Theatre. I hadn’t really considered directing or doing anything else outside of acting, and I directed the play. I had a really interesting experience. I loved working with Joe and being at the Public Theatre and it sort of opened my mind up. Then I worked with Sidney Lumet. I acted in a wonderful movie called Prince of the City, and I got to know Sidney and really admired him tremendously. I went to Sidney and I said, “I had such a good experience, can I study you? Can I apprentice myself to you on your next movie? I just wanna hang out, I wanna hear everything, and I wanna be a fly on the wall. I’ve had ten years, at this point, maybe I thirty-five by then with fifteen years of being in other people’s movies, and maybe I would like to do something of my own, so can I study you?”
I spent five months on a movie called Deathtrap, and I was of no use to anybody, although I would’ve happily carried water or brought sandwiches. But I didn’t have to do that. I just studied Sidney, and he was tremendously generous. He explained things to me, “This is how come we had to do twelve takes of that. Usually I don’t like to do that, but in this case, because depth of field was a real problem and it’s a moving shot, etc.” And I made maps of these and diagrammed every moving shot, where the camera positions were. It was really a great experience.
When it was over, my wife, for my birthday, wrote me a short film. She’s a writer, she’s incredibly talented. Her name is Lynn Grossman, and she does a lot of great things. She wrote me a short film, which I immediately made, and became totally hooked on doing more directing, because I just loved it, I could tell the minute I came out there with my one little primitive camera, it was pretty basic what I did. But anyway, I got hooked at that point. And the movie got into the New York Film Festival as a short film, and it got me a job directing a pilot for a television series called Tales from the Darkside, which ran like nine million years. Then I directed a little movie, and then I made a different movie called Parents, which actually just got re-done on blu-ray, or whatever process it’s in, and it’s got a really nice version of it hanging around.
I started being interested in multitasking and I was sitting around one day about now fifteen years ago at least, and I thought, “What can I do with Robert Altman? I know him, he’s a genius, obviously. Maybe I could work with him in some capacity.” I was reading a bunch of Agatha Christie short stories, and I thought, “Robert Altman should direct an Agatha Christie movie,” because he could make it [so that] it wouldn’t feel formulaic if he did it. It would just be a real combination of rigidity, cause the structure of those things is so rigid, and Bob’s so loose — it would be a great combination. I kind of got an idea to get together for a movie, and I went to Robert and he said, “Oh, yeah. Let’s do it.” And then I found Julian Fellowes, who was an actor at the time, and I got him to write a script and Robert and I financed it ourselves. Not the movie, but the development, and then woke up one day and found myself playing a part of the American movie producer, which I was the American movie producer, or one of them.
And that was a great experience, and it really opened my eyes to, “I’ve gotta do more of this stuff where I do things on both sides of the camera.” I did something that ended up on HBO with Susan Sarandon and Ray Fiennes called Bernard and Doris that I produced and directed. I want to have more of that in my life. I just have to not do these seventeen things at the same time and devote myself a little more seriously in one direction or another.
Isle of Dogs is now playing in select cities, and one can expect that Fox Searchlight will go wider with it sometime in April.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor