This week we are going to be talking about two scripts that seem to have nothing in common. The first is Isle of Dogs by Wes Anderson. And the second is the pilot of the new Roseanne.
Well keep listening, because as different as they are in every aspect of their execution, their style, their politics, their genre and their format, Isle of Dogs and Roseanne do have one incredibly important thing in common:
They’re both a lesson in the power of movies and TV shows to grapple with real socio-political issues, and make real change in our society.
And what’s so fabulous about both of these scripts is that they do so without sacrificing their political beliefs, without dumbing anything down for their audience, and without compromising their artistic integrity or their commercial or critical success.
Isle of Dogs is a ridiculous movie about a ridiculous concept.
And when I say Isle of Dogs is a ridiculous movie about a ridiculous concept, I’m not referring to the ridiculous concept of a Japan of the near future in which dogs are banished to a mysterious island by a cat loving corrupt leader… or the unlikely story of his adopted child’s flying a stolen airplane to the land of garbage save his beloved pet, Spots.
When I say ridiculous story about a ridiculous concept, I am talking about the concept underneath: the real theme of this movie.
Because this isn’t a movie about dogs. This isn’t a movie about the war between cats and dogs. This isn’t a movie about a closeted cat lover who wants to banish dogs from his corrupt future Japan.
And this is not just a movie the power of the visual image– though Wes Anderson’s approach to Isolating Visual Moments of Action is at once a master class in how to write action in a screenplay, and a complete violation of every rule you thought you knew.
And yes, I can’t help but wax poetic about how Wes Anderson somehow manages to fuse the rules of theatre and film, creating set pieces like a giant stage, and then populating them with oddly poetic images… or how he uses that poetry at once as an homage and a satire of a world that he loves, treating the ridiculous with piety, and the serious with ridiculousness…
But that’s not what the movie is about either.
Isle of Dogs is a movie about racism and politics. In other words, Isle of Dogs is a movie about America.
And it is interesting because Wes Anderson has taken a lot of crap actually for this movie. Some critics feel that Isle of Dogs is guilty of cultural appropriation in its depiction of this future Japan; other critics have argued that having a white exchange student as a savior is degrading to the Japanese characters at the center of the movie, a recreation of the old white savior trope.
And maybe these things are true. Maybe these things would be true if this was a movie about Japan.
But, really this is an homage to Japanese film making by a filmmaker who loves Japan, and who loves Japanese filmmakers.
And more importantly, this is a movie about America.
This isn’t a Japan that looks like Japan. These aren’t dogs that act like dogs. This isn’t a political landscape that looks like a real political landscape.
This is a satire of the most ridiculous part of our human nature.
This is a movie that looks at the ridiculousness of racism, that looks at the ridiculousness of deporting people based on what they are rather than who they are– in this case, the fact that they are dogs– which is just as ridiculous as banishing someone from the United States because they happen to have been born in Mexico, or some other country.
This is a movie about totalitarian law and corruption. This is a movie about playing the media. This is a movie about the way that actual science gets dismissed in favor of politics. This is a movie about the fact that our leaders tend to be puppets that are manipulated by much darker forces behind them. This is a movie about the idea of equal debate in a world where total falsehoods and totally true statements are given equal weight.
This is a movie about a black dog and a white dog who don’t realize that they are brothers because they seemed to have come from such different backgrounds.
This is not a movie about a bunch of stupid dogs, and it’s not a movie about Japan—it is a movie about us.
What is wonderful about Wes Anderson–and this is such an important thing if you are writing a political movie– What’s so wonderful about him is that he managed to make a political movie without making us feel political. Without getting up on a soapbox. Without isolating the people on the other side but rather, holding up a ridiculous, magical mirror in which we could examine ourselves and maybe change what we believe.
A lot of us are mad about politics right now. A lot of writers are mad about politics. And a lot of writers who don’t agree with my politics (and I am somewhere far, far, far, to the left), are equally angry about politics right now.
If you watched the reboot of Roseanne what is incredibly powerful and what made that reboot so darn effective and successful is that, like Isle of Dogs, rather than getting up on a soapbox and preaching to the choir, it trusted its audience to form their own opinion.
Which is interesting, because we’re talking about two writers on completely different sides of the political spectrum: One, Roseanne Barr, an unabashed Trump supporter, and the other, Wes Anderson, making an allegory about racism and xenophobia in a magical dog hating Japan.
But both writers take the same approach, which is basically to say, “Hey, we trust our audiences to form their own opinions. Rather than getting up on a soapbox and moralizing, what we are going to do is we are going to give our audiences a chance to look at themselves.”
Both Isle of Dogs and Roseanne make their political points by transcending politics– and focusing instead on the heart of all screenwriting– by focusing on characters, and relationships and the things that really matter to us.
If Isle of Dogs is a poetic masterpiece set against a ridiculous world, Roseanne is a couch, a studio audience, and a bunch of laugh lines, set against a very real world.
In Roseanne what happens is we get to look at a family that we love and that loves each other, Roseanne has always been the symbol for white trash dysfunction, a family that is so messed up, but underneath it really loves each other.
That’s why Roseanne was welcomed into so many houses and so many homes for such a long time with so much success. Because Roseanne gave us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, but also to see ourselves clearly, not as the perfect people that we are supposed to be, but as the totally messed up but well intentioned people that we actually are.
It allowed us to see our families that way. And our friends that way. And even the people we don’t agree with that way.
Who would have thought that a reboot of Roseanne, might be the thing that actually begins the healing of America in the wake of the horrific political crisis we have been through.
That a show like Roseanne would be able to take these two extreme points of view and somehow bring them back together. That a show like Roseanne would help us remember — you know what?– at the end of all this, at the end the day we still love each other.
Roseanne is going, “Okay look, I believe this, and my sister believes this, and we are estranged over the rift between us so badly that we have forgotten the fact that we love each other. And somehow through humor, comedy and love we are going to agree to disagree, and remember that at the end of the day we are sisters, or we are brothers, or we are family.”
That we are actually all the same, and that we are actually all going through the same stuff together. Even the people who support the party and the politicians that you don’t believe in… So, as a screenwriter this is why you are here. You are here to change the social fabric of your world.
But that doesn’t mean getting up on a soapbox. In fact if you do get up on a soapbox, if you make one of these moralistic movies about the way things are supposed to be, here is the only thing that you can be guaranteed: the only people who will listen to you are the people who already believe what you are saying.
You are going to be preaching to the choir and you aren’t going to convince anybody.
But, create a show like Roseanne and you give people a chance to actually look at themselves, to actually look at how ridiculous, and how beautiful, and how loving, and how messed up we all actually are. You give them a chance to actually come out the other side and remember who we can actually be.
So, Roseanne takes one model, “Hey let’s look at this honestly, let’s look at the real intentions and the real misconceptions, and the real extremes on both sides, and let’s show America a model for how those two sides can actually come together, not in perfect harmony but in beautiful dysfunction.”
Roseanne actually gave a template for a lot of families who honestly didn’t know what to do with all their unfriended Facebook friends and unfriended family members. And at a perfect time! Right around Passover and Easter when we have all got to get together with our families and deal with the crazy uncle who is on the other side.
And so here is the goal: Write something you believe in. But don’t get on a soapbox and preach to people, instead wrestle with both sides, attack your own ideas.
And one way to do it is head on. And the other way is to do it through metaphor. Roseanne takes it on head on; Isle of Dogs takes it on through metaphor.
Isle of Dogs basically says, “This is ridiculous, the state of our society is ridiculous, the scapegoating of people based on their racial heritage is ridiculous, it is like a bunch of people banishing dogs to an island, ‘oh what a great idea!’” .
And the occupants of the island the dogs aren’t perfect dogs. You’ve got a gossip who spends most of his time spreading fake news, That is the character of King. So you’ve got a dog who has always got his ear to the ground and is always picking up the fake news, sometimes it is real new sometimes it is fake, but he is always picking up the gossip.
And what is really interesting is that the temptation of the writer might be to say, “You know what if we are going to put fake news, let’s put it on the side that we disagree with.”
And of course, the bad guy, Kobayashi is the spreader of fake news. as well he has invented a fake dog flu, a fake snout fever. He has dismissed the easily, readily available solutions and even assassinated the science party leader who is asking for sanity.
So, we got fake news on the bad guy’s side for sure. But we’ve got fake news on the good guys’ side too. We’ve got all the same gossip; we’ve got the rumor of the cannibal dogs.
So what is really beautiful is he is looking at this ridiculous concept, but he isn’t saying, “These are good guys, these are bad guys.” What he is saying is, “Look, we are all messed up and we are all ridiculous. We are all going through the same stuff; we all don’t know who we are.”
You’ve got Spots the high class guard dog who has been working for the man, and you’ve got Chief who looks like a black dog who turns out to look just like Spots… but just has had so much dirt on him from his down on his luck life that we can’t tell!
Chief, who is born from the same litter, but has a completely different view of himself due to an unfortunate incident where he made a mistake and bit somebody… and now has a whole self-concept built around the idea of, ‘I bite’, just like Spots has a whole self-concept built around the idea of being a guard dog.
And of course you’ve got Atari, the little pilot, the son of Kobayashi, the young boy who steals an airplane and flies to this island to find his dog.
And this is a ridiculous premise! Nobody believes that a 12 year old is going to steal a plane. Nobody believes that we are going to send a bunch of dogs to a trash island. No one believes that there was a clan of Japanese warlords who loved cats who were defeated by a great swordsman who instituted the years of dog dominance.
We aren’t tied into the reality of the story. We are tied into the metaphor of the story.
We are tied into a story that lets us riff on this idea of identity, of the difference between our belief of who we are and who we actually are– a belief about who the people around us actually are.
The way that we can mistake man’s best friend for man’s greatest enemy, the way press and anti-science and fake news and gossip and all these political forces have actually conspired to make us do this completely ridiculous thing!
The way that we can watch this movie and go, “but this is ridiculous,” and yet we are actually doing it.
So there are two ways of wrestling with political issues–in fact there are many more ways of wrestling with political issues… But for the purpose of this podcast
We have the Roseanne way of going, “Let’s just look at this honestly, let’s wrestle with this concept, and let’s remember who we are underneath, let’s show America a model of a different way of dealing with the same political problem. But let’s not make it easy, let’s not make Roseanne right and her sister wrong, or vice versa. Let’s do the brave thing, if you’re Roseanne Barr, and still believe in Trump’s message, let’s set that all aside, let’s make them both crazy, and challenge our own idea and let’s find where we match up.”
And you’ve got Isle of Dogs which is basically to say, “Hey, let’s just create a metaphor, let’s talk about this through symbols, let’s hold up a mirror to our society– not a literal mirror but a ridiculous one. A mirror of metaphor that let us sees the truth.”
But regardless of what your political point of view is, what is most important is always to attack your own ideas.
We all have the desire to hold our ideas as holy and to dismiss the other ideas, but if you do this you will not convince anyone.
To illustrate this concept– let’s talk about a couple of movies that are more overtly political.
Those of you who know Michael Moore’s work– if you saw Bowling for Columbine, it starts out with a thesis, which is honestly a thesis that I believe in, a thesis that we are still seeing everyday with this crazy shootings. The thesis is that guns cause violence, and that is what Michael Moore believes in, and that is what Michael Moore’s audience believes.
And Michael Moore’s films– they might be documentaries but they are a narrative documentary. And what I mean by that is they have a main character, just like a feature film, and that main character is Michael Moore.
So, Michael Moore has a belief that guns cause violence and he goes on a mission to prove this and to stop the guns.
Instead of just following that idea, what Michael Moore does is attack that idea. Because he comes up against the problem of Canada. Canada where they have more guns and less violence.
And he uses Canada to attack his own idea and reach a synthesis that is a little closer to the truth– which is that it isn’t just guns, it is also fear. It is also the media. It is also a societal problem that we need to address.
Even though, in order to get there, he has to accept some of the arguments of a side that he doesn’t believe, he is ultimately able to come to a place that is much closer to the truth, and much more convincing.
If you compare that with Sicko, another Michael Moore film, Sicko is a movie again that stars Michael Moore, and is about a guy who believes that we need national health insurance. —to show you the ugliness of the current system. But the movie isn’t convincing, not unless, like me, you already believe we need this.
And the reason for that is he manages to make an entire movie without interviewing a single American doctor, or at least not putting that American doctor on the screen. And it seems that in all of Europe, Michael Moore isn’t capable of finding one person willing to complain about the medical system, which I find not credible– and I believe his argument!
And what that meant was that if you didn’t agree with Michael Moore and you went to see Sicko you get to go, “Oh, well that’s ridiculous. A lot of people in Europe don’t like their health care.”
He didn’t trust his argument in that movie enough to actually challenge it.
And then finally let’s look at one of the great political movies of all time, Network, a movie that was totally predictive of the current state of political affairs that we were going to find ourselves in based on the privatization of our news.
Paddy Chayefsky is a big ol’ lefty, but he puts his point of view into the craziest guy in the whole movie.
In Network, Howard Beale is an anchor of a news program. He has a nervous breakdown on the air, and he challenges all of America to go to their window and scream “I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”
And all of America listens to this mad man, and you the audience listen to this mad man.
You are like, “You know what, I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” And all of America is like, “We are mad as hell and we are not going to take it anymore.”
And you get swept up into the political argument that Paddy Chayefsky is making, and it is a political argument that Paddy Chayefsky believes.
But we get to the end of that movement and Paddy Chayefsky doesn’t go “see!”
Instead Paddy Chayefsky marches Howard Beale into the office of the network’s CEO, who raises his hands in the air and says, “You have meddled with the forces of nature…” and goes on to give the most impassioned monologue ever, arguing exactly the opposite of everything Howard Beale believes–arguing for the modern capitalistic system.
And Howard Beale is so convinced that after hearing the CEO’s argument he says, “I have seen the face of God,” and he finishes the movie by becoming a shill for the man.
Now, does Paddy Chayefsky agree with the network’s CEO? No, he doesn’t. And do you finish the movie agreeing with the network’s CEO? No you don’t.
But what you do is go on a journey that allows you to wrestle with your own ideas. And if you are with Paddy Chayefsky you get to go on a journey that affirms your point of view but also tests it. And if you don’t agree with Paddy Chayefsky, you get to go on a journey where your own beliefs get honored and tested.
And so this is the idea that I like to leave you with, all movies are political, all movies are political movies. Isle of Dogs is a political movie, Roseanne is a political TV show, Network is a political movie, and Bowling for Columbine is a political movie.
But guess what, so is every action movie that you go to see, so is every thriller, so is every drama, every movie that you make is political, because movies are just stories, and stories are what we use to understand our world, to understand our friends and our neighbors, and our family, to understand what gives life meaning, who is a hero, what am I supposed to do?
Movies allow us to see what is beautiful about ourselves and what is ugly about ourselves. And every film you make, every script that you write is saying something whether you intend it or not, and will sway the minds of millions of people who see it, and change the way that they see the world.
And to change the way that they see the world, you can choose to kill a bun of soapbox, you can write Sicko, and you can galvanize your base. But you can also choose to write a film that does something much more complex, you can give your beliefs to a character and then do everything you can to test them.
You can honor the side that you don’t believe in as strongly as you honor the side that you do, or you can just calm and play with a bunch of metaphors that hold a mirror to our civilization not in a serious way, but a fun way.
So, get out there, and go write a political movie, but don’t be so darn serious about it, instead have some fun, test your beliefs, test the beliefs of those around you. See if you can wrestle with who you really are and who the people who are different from you really are. And, what you may find out is that you actually have a hell of a lot in common, and that actually you may find out that you can be in a dialogue together rather than an argument.