Mike White, Year Of The Dog
Chuck and Buck (2000), an incendiary examination of male sexuality, announced the film’s writer and star, Mike White, as an unusually daring and original talent. His next foray as a screenwriter, The Good Girl (2002), was another subversive take on American life, and all the more refreshing in that it was a studio movie which dared to ask difficult questions and featured a raft of indie stalwarts (plus star Jennifer Aniston).
Though White’s subsequent films, Orange County, School of Rock and Nacho Libre (all starring Jack Black, his producing partner in Black & White Films) have been more mainstream fare, his directorial debut, Year of the Dog, finds him occupying an interesting middle ground between his recent family-friendly efforts and his earlier, darker films. Inspired by an incident from White’s own life in which a stray cat died in his arms, Year of the Dog charts the impact of the death of Peggy’s (Molly Shannon) beloved dog, Pencil, and how her life unravels as she attempts to compensate for his absence. White wrote the script especially for Saturday Night Live alum Shannon after they worked together on the White-created sitcom Cracking Up, which was canceled after only 9 episodes. Despite seeming wholesome and conventional, Year of the Dog is essentially about obsession and people’s inability to find meaning in their lives, and features White’s trademark edgy, barbed humor which works extremely well in this ostensibly benign context.
Filmmaker spoke to White about cats and dogs, screaming babies, and why he doesn’t want to go to the Oscars.
Filmmaker: In a way, some of the origins of the film stem from Cracking Up.
White: Yeah, I did that in 2003 and into 2004, but it was one of those [things where I said,] ‘I can do a TV sitcom,’ and then suffered the consequences the entire time. They said, ‘We want a show from you, we want what you do,’ but it was immediately apparent that they did not want what I do, and it was just a constant fight, the most stressful experience I’ve ever had. I came out of it going, ‘I’m never going to get that unwound by a professional experience again,’ and I really wanted to do something where I was like, ‘I don’t care if I do this for $20 or $2m or $20m, I’m just going to do something that’s just my thing and do it, and succeed or fail on my own terms.’ And I wanted to have fun doing it, so when I set out to do this, I just wanted to make sure it was a good experience, no matter what.
Filmmaker: Though Year of the Dog is all about dogs, the inspiration came from an incident with a cat.
White: I had a cat that died on me. I had not been an animal person up to that point, but when this cat died I was stressed because of other things, but this thing just set me off and I had a blubbering, emotional reaction to this cat dying, in a way that I was not expecting. I actually now have two dogs and a cat, and they run my household! It’s funny because I didn’t realize how conducive it would be to my lifestyle to take on that, because those walks with the dog are when you have some of your best ideas and best inspiration, and you can kind of mellow out in the midst of the hubbub of the day.
Filmmaker: You wrote Year of the Dog for Molly Shannon, but at the time you presumably didn’t know she was allergic to dogs…
White: Well, I knew she was allergic to cats, but she assured me that it was going to be fine. And then, like two days before we were going to start shooting, we were doing prop photography and the dog licked her and she had a reaction to it and it was like, ‘This is not good. She has every scene with dogs.’ I didn’t want her to start getting neurotic about it, but for whatever reason it ended up not being a big issue. I dunno, maybe she got so into her character that it altered her allergy pattern!
Filmmaker: There seems to be a journey you’ve taken from a film like Chuck and Buck to Year of the Dog.
White: You know, the truth is that I see them as having more in common – my personal aesthetic is certainly present in both. I feel like both movies walk a line between melancholy and absurdity, and that there’s something funny but also something kinda tragic about them. With the main characters too, sometimes you’re sympathetic to them, and then you’re like, ‘Oh no, what are you doing?’ and you recoil in anxiety about what they’re about to do. With this movie I just felt it would be interesting to do a movie that had a kind of punk rock core but on its face it was very much the opposite of that. I made a conscious effort to make the movie so there wasn’t a lot of cursing. You know, there’s something demure about it, but, at the same time, underneath it I feel like there’s a subversive spirit to it. Which has made for a very odd reaction from people. Some people come out and are moved by it, or some people think it’s really funny, or some people just can’t get past the disconnect of it. People are like, ‘Who is this for?’ It’s ostensibly about a single woman of a certain age looking for love, and usually those movies end with a wish fulfillment romantic comedy element, and there’s really very little wish fulfillment here. For the amount of money that it was made for, it didn’t seem like I needed to keep such an eye on the marketplace, and I set out to do something different.
Filmmaker: You’ve described Year of the Dog as “a comedy that’s not funny.”
White: I find it funny, but it plays at such a deadpan level for so much of it that I feel like some of the comedy is missed. And there are also so many minor keys in it. My preference for comedy is something that’s played so straight that, in a way, you’re wrong-footed. I think it’s a comedy; it definitely plays for laughs, but it plays with the audience. As somebody who sees a lot of movies, when something’s not pre-digested, it’s very pleasant because you’re like, ‘I don’t exactly know how to take this.’ I set out to do that with Chuck and Buck, and The Good Girl too. This one, I feel like in its own way, it’s the most totally weird of anything I’ve done. It’s hard, because you want to win the popularity contest, and for people to have a unified attitude about your movie in a positive way. But at the same time, the pleasures I get from movies often come from the things where it really stimulates your mind as to how to process it, and what it is. The unusualness of something is what interests me as I get older. Which is not necessarily the most commercially safe place to exist.
Filmmaker: Your work seems to seek out paradoxes and unusual ways of approaching subjects. For instance, you’ve described Year of the Dog as a whimsical film about obsession.
White: For better or for worse, my worldview can be very positive or be very melancholy, or a little bit alienated. And there’s definitely a comic alienation going on in Year of the Dog. It would be nice if I could jump sides, but I don’t like movies that are so self-serious, like they have no sense of humor about themselves. At the same time, comedies that are just playing exactly for laughs often feel like very empty experiences and aren’t really about anything, and are not the kind of things that I want to spend two years of my life making.
Filmmaker: Was this always going to be a film that you were going to direct?
White: I wrote it with an eye to how to visually do it, and so in a sense I was prepared in a way that maybe with some other stuff I wasn’t. But I even sent it out, when I first wrote it, to some of the usual suspects to see what they thought. For some reason, I just kind of hesitated over whether I should direct it.
Filmmaker: And how was your first time directing?
White: It was super-enjoyable, actually. I had a lot of anticipatory dread, but when we were in the doing of it, it was actually just kinda fun. I have had so much production experience that the transition was not psychotic, but I also felt like I have a day job that I’m doing OK with, which is the writing, and if I end up, you know, flying the plane into the side of the cliff, I will still survive. You know, I made a pact to just try and have fun and not get too wound up if things started falling out from under me.
Filmmaker: Of course you had Tom McCarthy [who directed The Station Agent, and plays Pier in Year of the Dog] on hand if you needed any advice on directing.
White: He was only there for a few days, but he was awesome to have there. I had the experience with Chuck and Buck of having directors in acting roles [American Pie’s Chris and Paul Weitz both had major roles], and it’s always helpful to have a few multitaskers on the set.
Filmmaker: What were the most difficult moments on the film?
White: The most challenging moments, in a basic way, were not [because of] the dogs, but the babies. The first day that we had Laura Dern on the set, I really wanted it to go well because I’m such a fan of hers. The first shot of the morning was her with the baby in her arms and she had this really long monologue. But the baby was crying wildly through the entire thing and nothing was usable. With those kinds of things, it’s hard to have a sense of humor in the moment that it’s happening. I’m kind of an over-preparation person, but the truth is that, as a director, I guess I’ve realized that you need to be fluid. It’s good to have an agenda, obviously, but when scenes don’t play the way that you hoped they would, or issues happen with production, you need to be as flexible as possible because otherwise you can lose yourself in the details. As a first-time director, you don’t know what you don’t know. Some of it is practical, in-the-moment decision-making and really being able to figure out what is important and what isn’t important, because if you get too precious about specific little things, you can miss the forest for the trees.
Filmmaker: You’re due to work with two British directors soon, Edgar Wright on Them and Pawel Pawlikowski on Vernon Good Little.
White: Well, Vernon God Little is just a movie that I’m producing, but I love the book and we’re putting that together as a production company and I think that will be a really great movie. And Them is something that I’m writing with Edgar, who’s awesome. I saw Shaun of the Dead and loved it, and we talked about doing something. This is kind of a paranoid conspiracy theory comedy that’s more in his wheelhouse than mine.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
White: I don’t think I‘ve ever wished that.
Filmmaker: Have you ever been to the Oscars?
White: I’ve never been to the Oscars, but if I was ever invited to the Oscars, I would have this weird paranoia of terrorism. It just feels like The Poseidon Adventure, everyone in their tuxes. Somehow, I feel like the whole time I would be looking for where the nearest exit was, and in a cold sweat about some kind of man-made disaster, like a terrorist strike or something. It seems like such a scary, claustrophobic proposition.
Filmmaker: And finally, which film do you wish you had directed?
White: Badlands. It’s one of those movies where you can have such a different experience watching it, from time to time. That movie just continues to reveal different colors to it. It can be so funny, yet so poetic, and so earnest – it depends on your mood. It just stays with me.