Screenwriter Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, School of Rock) makes his directorial debut with the offbeat, darker-than-you-think Year of the Dog, which stars Molly Shannon as Peggy, a secretary who loses the canine love of her life. White chatted with us about making the transition from silent partner to the guy in charge.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is the loss of a pet something you had to go through yourself?
Yeah. I was never really an animal person, and then I got this stray cat that lived behind my house, and after a few years it became my pet. This cat died on me one day, and I had such a blubbering little-boy reaction. It was so unexpected — I didn’t even know how attached I was. It just totally unraveled me, so I thought there might be a story there.
Did you spin out of control as much as Peggy did?
Well, I didn’t break into my neighbor’s house and like, lie and wait for him. [Laughs] It just happened to coincide with a really stressful professional experience. I had all these scripts I had to write and I got behind, just ’cause I was bummed about this cat that just likes to live in the back of the house. I thought it was absurd, but at the same time, it was real from an emotional point of view.
This is the first movie you’ve written and then directed yourself. Does that make it your favorite so far?
It’s hard to say because as time goes on, your favorites change, and what you get out of the movies changes. I like it because I think in its own way, whether people agree with me or not, it’s the most unusual one. It seems like an animal movie, you know, with Molly and her little pristine sweaters, but there’s sort of a punk-rock spirit under it. Maybe it’s only accessible to me. But I like how so many unusual things are going on in the movie.
It’s not exactly for little kids who really like puppies.
Yeah, and this is why the reaction has been weird. People go and see a woman and a dog and it’s so cute, and they’re thinking they’re gonna have a certain kind of experience over the course of the movie. They’ll be like, ”What’s going on?”
Do you care?
You know, it’s hard. Right now, when you’re out stumping for a movie, it’s easier when you’re winning the popularity contest and there’s some kind of consensus about the value of the movie. At the same time, I’ve had the experience — with Chuck & Buck [about a man-child, played by White, who stalks a childhood friend] — where on first blush, people have a weird reaction to it. But then it sits in their consciousness and ends up being something that is interesting to them.
Certain people ask, Is it funny? Is it tragic? Do I like Peggy? She does sort of these transgressive things. As a viewer, it’s fun for me to see something that doesn’t feel predigested. When you’re having a weird reaction to a film, it ends up being more novel, I guess. I enjoy it. It’s been fun to see different people’s reactions to the movie. It isn’t what people were expecting.
The characters in the film are so odd and obsessive. How important do you think it is that people can relate to them?
I like eccentric characters. I do think people in reality are more eccentric than the people usually portrayed in movies, especially if you get deeper into the habits. You get past the public presentation of yourself and into the odd, more idiosyncratic reality. That to me is the place where I want to start. People are so used to certain kinds of ways people are presented in movies. It’s a much more flattering version of ourselves, unless it’s, like, the evil henchman or whatever. I find people funny and sympathetic, and I like to write stories about characters that may seem really flawed or desperate or broken, but at the same time, there’s a humanity to them. It’s increasing the empathy, I guess.
I understand that you had Molly Shannon in mind while you were writing the movie. How did you decide how her character should be played?
Molly has a real sweetness to her that Peggy has, but coming from live comedy and sitcoms, Molly is so much more animated and amped up and full of energy. So part of it was just bringing her down a little bit. Molly is really funny when she’s ”on,” but when she’s really soft, at her most subtle, I find it still really funny. So I wanted it to land at a point where it was much more quiet — she’s the demure one, she’s the listener. I don’t think that was her first impulse.
It did surprise me — I mean, Molly playing this character was hilarious, especially right at the beginning of the film — but the character herself wasn’t funny.
That’s why I thought it was really important that I get Molly to do this as opposed to some other actress. With Molly, even when she’s crying, it lands slightly absurdly, it’s slightly funny. With a really dramatic actress — say, Julianne Moore — it would have seemed like this really punishing journey of a woman breaking down. With Molly, it has a little bit of whimsy to it. When you’re hanging out with her, it’s not like she’s saying zingers all the time. There’s just something that puts a smile on your face about her.
Had you always wanted to direct your own project? Did you know for certain that you were finally ready?
I was of two minds — I kind of wanted to do it just so I could make the decisions, but then… I felt like it was going to be so stressful. It was something I was reluctant to commit to. But I had the experience of doing Nacho Libre, where I had cowritten it and produced it and I was on set the whole time. Jared Hess, who directed that movie and directed Napoleon Dynamite, had such a sense of humor about directing. He was so chill. While I was working on that movie, I was like, ”Oh, so, I can be myself and also do the job.” Like, I can care about the product at the end of the day, but I can try to have a sense of humor about it. Working with him made me think this was something I could do.
Was it terrifying at first?
When I was in pre-production, I was kind of in an anticipatory dread the whole time. How do I leave the country? Maybe I’ll just drive my car into the side of the road… ”I can’t direct the movie, I have a broken leg!” And then, as we got into shooting, I was like, ”Okay, wait, all these actors are totally cool, the dogs aren’t impossible, we’re gonna make our days.” I think by the fourth day I was actually like, ”This is fun!”
Do you like making small-scale, independent films better than major studio productions?
Well, I like getting paid… Other than that, this is definitely the level at which I’d like to make movies. I feel like all of the things that make this movie problematic but also gratifying to me, personally, would be ironed out if I was making it for a bigger budget. All of the tonal oddities and some of the moments where you’re like “Do I like her?” You know, in a mainstream studio movie, Peggy would end up with a guy at the end. It wouldn’t have the ending that it has. It wouldn’t have some of the odd story turns that it does. And those are the things that make it the most pleasurable to me.