Mike White Interview, Year of the Dog

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline had the pleasure of sitting down with writer/director Mike White at the Los Angeles press day to promote his new film, Year of the Dog. White, who has penned Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, makes an auspicious feature directorial debut with this richly crafted tale of self-discovery that is at once comedic, poignant, and compassionate. White creates a compelling world, populated with his signature brand of funny, off-kilter characters who are endearing and extremely committed to their cause. Nan Morales and Brad Pitt served as the film’s executive producers.

The story revolves around Peggy (Molly Shannon), a happy-go-lucky secretary who is a great friend, employee, and sister, and lives alone with her adorable beagle, Pencil. Peggy and Pencil have a blissful relationship full of love, appreciation, and companionship -- until one night Pencil wakes up to go potty and meets a mysterious demise in the neighbor’s yard. Pencil’s sudden death leaves Peggy reeling in a world devoid of meaning without him. Left to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, Peggy embarks on a personal journey to fill the void.

White has assembled an exceptional cast which includes Laura Dern, John C. Reilly, Regina King, and Peter Sarsgaard. But the gem among them is Molly Shannon who delivers a multifaceted portrait of Peggy, a woman who radiates enduring optimism, even in the face of hardship and judgment by others. Year of the Dog is a charming and resonant film that will leave you laughing and crying, especially if you are a dog lover.

"The movie is a lot about obsessive thinking,” says writer-director Mike White. "I don’t think they are extreme characters, but they’re kind of obsessed with where they derive their happiness and where they think Peggy should derive her happiness.”

Both Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl earned Independent Spirit Awards for White. His other writing credits include the short-lived but acclaimed television series, Freaks and Geeks and Pasadena, as well as the feature comedies, Orange County, School of Rock, and last year’s Nacho Libre (which he co-wrote with Napoleon Dynamite’s Jared and Jerusha Hess). His production company, Rip Cord, is based at Paramount Pictures.

Mike White is a fabulous guy and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about directing his first feature and dealing with dogs on set:

Q: What kind of animals do you have?

A: I have two French bulldogs and I have a kitty cat.

Q: And were they your little muses?

A: For the movie? Well no, I actually… well, yeah. Yeah, they are. I mean I had a cat that died that sort of inspired the writing of the script. And when I was at the hospital and I was really upset that the cat was dead or they were putting it to sleep, the doctor came out and was like, ‘Is this your only pet?’ And I was like, ‘Who cares if it’s my only pet? I don’t care.’ And then I realized like maybe I need to get more than one because then if you just have one that croaks, you’ve put all your eggs into that one pet.

Q: Is it weird that they try to get you to get another pet right after your pet has just died?

A: I know. Yeah, that was the thing. I kept putting that line in the script where she keeps saying, ‘He had such a good personality.’ It’s like they have personalities. It’s not like you just pop in another cat and it’s like nothing ever happened.

Q: What was it like working with all those animals as a first time director? Why did you take that on? Were the trainers great or was it hard?

A: The trainers were great and I like dogs so… but it was super time consuming and the reason it was time consuming was not because they were bad dogs, but because they were almost too good. They are so overtrained that if you just leave them to their own devices, they just sit there waiting for their trainer. So like there’d be some scenes where I’d just be like, ‘oh let them just be dogs. Let them be rowdy.’ They’re sitting there looking at me like, ‘well, duh, we’re going to do something here.’ In some of those scenes where it looks like they’re just chilling or it looks like they’re being kind of rowdy, really one is being told to go across the room and chew the pillow, one is…, you know they’re all on their little tasks.

Q: You definitely have your own distinctive style. I’m just wondering what films or filmmakers you were influenced by.

A: Well for me, I like movies that sort of blend together. I like comedy and drama, whether it’s a movie like Terms of Endearment where you’re laughing and then really crying or a movie like Badlands which, depending on your mood, you watch it and you think, this is absurd, very deadpan comedy or this is a very tragic story of two young lovers on the run, and it sort of depends on your mood or how old you are or whatever. I’ve always enjoyed movies where you watch it with an audience and some people are laughing just at the absurdity of the situations and then some people are finding the scenes kind of poignant and tragic.

Q: How do you describe this one? Because you know this probably is a black comedy but there are some moments that are very upsetting.

A: I don’t think of it necessarily as a black comedy because I think black comedies are more… I don’t think of it as that satirical in a sense. I do think that there is like a lot of absurdity to the situation, but it’s an absurdity that I really relate to. Her character I really relate to. At the same time, I sometimes can catch myself going ‘okay, I’m spending my whole life like these dogs are taking over my life. How did this happen?’ But at the same time, I love the dogs. I guess I see life in the tone of the movie where there’s poignant stuff but it can be bananas too.

Q: How about casting Molly? I mean she was superb in this role. How did you decide on her?

A: I just love Molly as a person. I’ve done a show with her and we just really hit it off. She’s one of those people who has a lot of character. I think there’s like a source of, you know, like an untapped, dramatic, real emotional part of her that I think is there when you know her. But then there’s something just so funny about her on her face, and something about that blend definitely felt like it was right for this part. I just felt like with another actress, by the sixth time she is crying because her dog dies, you just find it punishing or something, but with Molly it still lands in an amusing kind of place.

Q: How did you get Peter Sarsgaard and John C. Reilly and everybody?

A: They love me. No, I don’t know. I got lucky. The truth is I just made a wish list of actors that I really want to work with and started sending the script out. I think I just got lucky because, you know, the schedule was such that it was easy to pop people in for a few days. And then also I think each of the parts sort of had … you know, everybody had their little moment and when they were working, there was a lot to chew on, so I think that sometimes appeals to an actor.

Q: What is it about the fact that your central character isn’t the usual glamorous center-attention star that movies are made of? You know how people say you have to have a Julia Roberts type. You obviously think of it very differently.

A: Right. The truth is I love funny women and I’ve always found there to be so many cool, funny comedians and I find it’s too bad that most comedies are built around these same six guy comics, and while I like those guys, it’s like … You look at someone like Molly who’s as talented as those guys and just as versatile and so funny and appealing, and it’s just too bad there aren’t more opportunities for those people to really show the things that they can do. When I wrote the script, I think there was a little bit of pressure to …. You know this is a script that could attract one of those six women that actually star in these, like a lot of these romantic comedies that come out there and it’s just like … This isn’t a romantic [comedy]. I wanted to do a movie where it’s really letting someone who’s usually just a side character kind of come center stage and let them have their moment in the sun.

Q: Did you stick pretty close to script or did you allow room to improvise a little?

A: You know the truth is with these smaller budget movies, it’s like the schedule is so unforgiving that you really can’t. It’s hard to just go ‘let’s find it on the day.’ So I think it was pretty much close to what the script was. At the same time I want to make sure people feel like they’re comfortable with the language and I try not to be too precious about it.

Q: Did you become more of a vegan or an animal activist after researching this?

A: You know the truth is there was a course of time where I got these dogs, they looked like pigs, and then I stopped eating pig. There’s a few moments in her story that I can completely relate to because I was there. But I’ve never laid in wait for my neighbor to stab him in the back for poisoning my dog.

Q: What made you go vegetarian?

A: Well it was similar, like I said, the truth is what I just said. I got these dogs that sort of looked like pigs and I kept going, ‘These are like little pigs. I’ve got little pigs here,’ and then suddenly the idea of eating a pig just seemed gross to me.

Q: But don’t you feed your dog meat?

A: I don’t feed him pig.

Q: But I mean like fowl or whatever.

A: The truth is I have tried playing with the idea of … I may one day wean them off meat, but I felt like this was a choice for me. But when I hand them over the vegetables, it’s like they want nothing to do with it. I feel like I can’t… maybe these other animals have to suffer so my dogs can eat meat.

Q: Did you do any testing with movie?

A: We did two proper tests. But the truth is the movie…the response, just like it’s always been, was a lot of people were really positive about the movie and then there’s a section that feels kind of confused as to how they feel. Was that funny? You know, how to just digest it. And then there’s I would say a smaller percentage that it rubs the wrong way. I think that some people like their comedies funny or just the subject matter doesn’t … In my own informal polling, it feels like it’s an audience that’s very well served in movies. I don’t feel like ‘okay, this one’s not for them.’ They have 50 other movies at the movieplex they can go see. They don’t need to go see this one. And there’s a lot of people that I think will respond to both the subject matter and her story or whatever that there aren’t a lot of movies out there for, so I kind of feel like it’s different strokes for different folks.

Q: Just to clarify something that was asked earlier, are you a vegetarian or a vegan or in and out?

A: I’m an erstwhile vegan. I actually don’t eat meat or dairy, but I do eat fish. I don’t know why.

Q: So did you feel while you were doing the movie that you were satirizing more the people who are carnivores or the people who are vegans because you kind of took shots at both of them?

A: The truth is it’s not so satirizing. This is my own personal thing and I think the message of the movie is this is her thing and there should be room for her at the table. The people in her life should hopefully understand at least where she’s coming from, but her obsession doesn’t necessarily have to be shared by everybody. Just like we all have our obsessions and that’s just life.

Q: Was there anything about directing this that surprised you?

A: One of the reasons I postponed it for so long was because I thought it would just be incredibly stressful, and the truth is that it was a lot less stressful than I thought. Once I realized that I could bank my days and that the actors weren’t divas and the dogs weren’t divas, then it actually was pretty fun.

Q: We spoke with your colleague, Edgar Wright, earlier today, and he mentioned you guys are going to be working on Them?

A: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: What’s the status? Have you guys started writing?

A: We’ve definitely been talking about it. I mean it’s something that we’ve supposedly supposed to be doing for over a year, but as you know, we both have movies and we’ve been kind of waylaid.

Q: You don’t mean to remake the 1950s ant film?

A: No, not an ant film. No ants. He’s so talented and so fun and such a good guy. I’m really excited to do something with him.

Q: You talked about this movie being for the percentage of the audience that isn’t as frequently catered to? Have you considered your own tastes always to be eccentric or slightly off center? Or is the success that you’ve experienced allowed you to create a more personal voice?

A: Well I started off, like the first movie I made was Chuck & Buck, and that’s about as eccentric I guess a movie as… I mean the truth is, I don’t see it as eccentric when I’m writing it. It’s more like you get out into the world and you see the reactions that the movie causes. It’s funny to me that a movie like this… like some people… there’s a percentage of people that’s like [angry whisper] ‘this movie pissed me off’ or ‘why didn’t she end up with the guy at the end’ or ‘why…’ Certain things are just like ‘what?’ For me, I guess that’s when you’re truly an eccentric when you don’t even realize that you’re an eccentric and everyone’s reacting to you like you are. So I don’t know. I certainly do think as time goes on, especially as you get older, you become more of the thing that you are, and I do tend to like more idiosyncratic movies as I get older.

Q: Does that mean you don’t feel pressure from Hollywood studios to make a certain film? I mean you seem to be quite authentic. Do you think that’s true about what you do?

A: Well, it depends. I think obviously when you’re making a movie for $40 million, you have to take on different creative parameters for the projects that you do. You have to take into account, like okay, this is for little kids, The School of Rock, and it needs to appeal to these different things. I try to do it so then they don’t tell me to do it. I mean it’s nice to be able to pay your bills, and I think if I was just making movies like Chuck & Buck, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

Q: How much input did Brad Pitt or Nan Morales have as producers? Were they very hands on or did they just give you free rein?

A: Everybody contributed, but this was one of those things where we knew we were making it for the budget that it was and I think people really liked the script, so it wasn’t like we had to keep too much of an eye to the marketplace. As far as Brad Pitt, he was definitely a good person to be able to drop a name if I needed to just get something pushed through. It’s nice to have somebody like that on the team.

Q: In the production notes, they talk about the contrast between the character’s sadness and the brightness. Can you talk a little about how you captured that through the film’s visual look?

A: I just always thought it was funny on days where you were really melancholy or feeling sorry for yourself, it was always the most beautiful day and how the outside world, especially L.A., there’s so much color and artificial popping of… there’s just something. I thought it would be fun instead of doing something where it’s more drab, cold… like it’s really sort of a juxtaposition to her sort of internal mood.

Q: Is Pasadena ever going to be out on DVD?

A: You know, I’m like Charlie Brown. They keep putting the football there and then I tell everybody it’s coming out on DVD and then they pull it away. I don’t know. It’s one of those things where I really wish people could see it because it was a really fun show. It would be a perfect thing for DVD because it’s like a 13-episode mini-series. Oh well, put in a call to Sony.

Q: What is the very next thing for you at this point?

A: I’m going to probably write this thing called Them.

Q: That will be the next thing?

A: Yeah. Hopefully the schedules will align and it will be the next thing made, but it will definitely be the next thing I write.

Q: Great. Thanks.

A: Bye guys. Thanks.

"Year of the Dog” opens in theaters on April 13th.

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