In Mike White's directorial debut, Year of the Dog, Molly Shannon plays Peggy – a cube-stuck, quiet woman whose main source of joy is her beagle, Pencil ... who dies. White's best known for broad screenplays (he wrote School of Rock, and co-wrote Nacho Libre), but his scripts The Good Girl and Chuck and Buck have a smaller-wrought, more intimate feel to them. In many ways, Year of the Dog is a bridge between the two seemingly separate threads in his work. White, in person, is unassuming and mild; talking about his work, though, the level of thought he puts into his scripts becomes slowly and firmly apparent. Cinematical spoke with White in San Francisco. The technically-minded can download the entire interview here.
Cinematical: Year of the Dog came out of a pretty personal place for you -- The inciting incident being a stray cat had been living in your backyard literally dying in your arms. How long a relationship did you have with this cat?
Mike White: A couple years -- I had sort of inherited it when I moved into this house that I had bought. And I didn't have any animals up to that point -- I mean, when I was a little kid, I did -- I didn't even really realize how attached I had become to this cat. Over the years it sort of became my pet; it had come in, slept with me -- I was really just super-stressed, and kind of over-worked, and under-slept, and this cat's death just totally spun me out in a way that I totally did not expect. I just had a really emotional reaction to it, and it just gave me the idea – later, after the dust had settled – I just thought, "Well, that's an interesting idea for a movie premise – somebody who has a relationship with a pet, and the loss of that changes their life in away."
Cinematical: And you're not a psychologist, but obviously, you've thought about this to a certain degree – do you think that people put a lot of emotion into their relationship with their pets, because culturally, we're not supposed to it with work?
MW: Right. I think a lot of people do ... In the movie, people put a lot of their eggs in different ... I mean, Peggy's boss is really into his job, the parents with the kid, her friend at work who's obsessed with her boyfriend. ... Whether it's animals, or -- with animals, because they are a source of affection and because the relationship is relatively uncomplicated – there's not a lot of the bargaining that goes on in human relationships, and the needs of animals are pretty simple: being fed, and ...
Cinematical: Pick up the poop. ...
MW: Right. I think the movie – while it does sort of take her animal passion or animal love seriously, it also does gets into her projection on to the animals in her life and how some of it is a little absurd and kind of misguided at some points, too. strong>
Cinematical: Did you know from the outset --- even during the writing process, were you thinking of Molly Shannon (as Peggy)?
MW: Yeah. When my cat died, I had been working on this TV show, and it turned into this really bad professional experience – it was this show for Fox that Molly was starring in – and it only lasted a few episodes and after it was over, I thought "I'd like to do something with Molly that isn't such a bad experience, where we can both kind of have a good time?" I had really just become a huge fan of hers through the course of the show and realized not only is she a super-cool person but she's a comedian as well as an awesome actress; I just feel like people associate her with just the broadest comedy, and that she's the girl who sniffs her armpits, the characters she did on SNL. And so I thought it would be cool to put her in a movie where she gets to play something a bit more subtle that has more colors to it.
Cinematical: And there are these weird, slightly big moments for each of the characters; Molly's glee about being around animals, or John C. Reilly's excitement about his knife collection; Regina King with her whistling bad dental work. Did you ever find yourself thinking "Okay, we have to dial this down, we have to make this less broad?"
MW: Well, to me, some people are going to be going to Year of the Dog thinking it's going to be a lot broader than it is, and it was like trying to find a balance between something that was kind of pleasurable enough as a ride and the characters were eccentric and funny enough that you are hopefully engaged in that part of it and that some of the more melancholy or more thoughtful, the minor keys of it that kind of sneak up on you. I wanted it to be funny, but certainly – these actors are so versatile that we could have done a much broader version of this movie, we definitely toned it down; I just didn't want it to be toned down so much that it didn't even register as a comedy anymore.
Cinematical: Peter Sarsgaard's character – his fanny pack. Your idea, or his idea?
MW: It was actually our costume designer's idea; she said "He should have a fanny pack where he can keep all his little dog treats. ..." and I was like "Yeah, absolutely." Because those guys always do, they have their little .. treats.
Cinematical: There's the old joke about "Never worth with kids or animals." For your first directorial effort, were you thinking "God, why do I have these shots with 15 dogs in them?"
MW: I did. There was times when I was like "This is crazy." But the dogs, oddly, were much easier than the babies. The babies ... I would think twice again about putting babies in a lot of the movie, because when a baby cries, there's nothing you can do. Dogs at least have trainers; they can kind of like canoodle them into doing stuff, but. ...
Cinematical: To talk about the nature of dogs, I mean, obviously, this movie came out of your relationship with a cat – but it'd be trickier to do this movie if Molly Shannon's character were a cat person ... (White laughs) ... because they don't respond to training, because they have that aloof nature. ...
MW: The trainers say the cats are easy to train, I felt like when I was concocting the movie that it should be dogs. I mean, you put a camera on a cat, it's harder to .... the cat doesn't have the same kind of. ... I think dogs just have this natural sympathy that you can see the sort of sweetness of a dog just straight out; with a cat it's like, as you said, a little aloof.
Cinematical: And lets' be honest – Pencil, Molly Shannon's dog in the film, is perfectly cast.
MW: It's a pretty adorable dog. ...
Cinematical: Did you know you wanted that type of dog?
MW: No, I didn't; I didn't know ... I knew it was going to be a smaller dog in the beginning, but we auditioned many dogs and that dog – besides being cute – was just amazingly well-trained; it was pretty adorable.
Cinematical: The one thing I found really interesting in the film is that a lot of the time in movies, when characters come close to more radicalized ideas, the movie will tend to back away from that, or end with a compromise, or with a softening of the position. And not to spoil the pleasures of the movie for someone who hasn't seen it, but that doesn't happen here. Did you know from the outset that you wanted to take things to their logical conclusion?
MW: In a sense; I mean, I wanted to push the pendulum pretty far in one direction so it could come back a little bit towards center; I mean, she does go off and she is an animal activist by the end of the movie. I do think that she's in a relatively healthy place; at least she seems to have a sense of herself that I think is positive. To me, I see so many movies – especially female-driven comedies – where it is about finding the guy, heading off into the sunset – and I thought it would be interesting to have her have a different kind of happy ending. And that was something that was kind of important to the story, I think?
Cinematical: Was it kind of a comfort to write something a little more intimate after writing School of Rock and co-writing Nacho Libre, and all these big ...
MW: Absolutely. I mean, it's fun to be able to do something where you don't have to ... think about the marketplace that much; you can just tell kind of your odd, eccentric story and do it the way you want to do it, and I think that if I had to always do something that, you know, "This has to make $20 million opening weekend or else we're screwed. ..." I think that that would be creatively really inhibiting.
Cinematical: That's a good mogul accent, by the way. How long was the shoot?
MW: The shoot was 35 days, 7 weeks.
Cinematical: And what was the biggest thing you found that you weren't prepared for?
MW: Hmmm. Honestly, I wasn't prepared for how fun it was going to be. I just really assumed it was going to be stress from beginning to end, and I was always going to have to be stress from beginning to end and that I was always going have to be anal and "Ooh, the light's going. ..." And once I realized we had a pretty healthy schedule and I could make my days, I just ended up having a really fun time and that was not what I was expecting: I thought I was just going to be running around crazy the whole time.
Cinematical: Were there any moments for earlier drafts of the script that you knew you had to lose? Andy darling you had to kill? Anything you really wanted in there that just didn't make the final cut?
MW: It's funny; the final cut is my cut, so it's not like I had to compromise what I wanted, but it's interesting: The genesis of a project, and things that you think are really crucial to the story, as it sort of plays out, you realize aren't as crucial as you thought they would be. And the place where you think you're going to end up is not always where it ends up. It's interesting that there are certain scenes that are no longer in the movie where I would have said, sworn on my life, "That scenes is not getting cut from this movie!" and then realizing "Yeah, we don't need it."