Mike White has written some of the funniest movies of the last five years, including three for Jack Black–Orange County, Richard Linklater’s School of Rock and last year’s Nacho Libre–but he’s also been a driving force in the world of indie comedies by writing Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, starring Jennifer Aniston. (Both were well-appreciated movies at the Independent Spirit Awards.)
White’s directorial debut Year of the Dog is one for the dog lovers, who are likely to find more of the lovable pooches in this movie than in recent Disney movies. The dark comedy stars Molly Shannon as Peggy, a single woman whose beloved pet Beagle mysteriously dies, leaving her to try to find her way in life. Over the course of this journey of discovery, Peggy becomes a vegan, becomes involved in animal rights, and tries to save over a dozen dogs from a local animal shelter, while coping with unsupportive bosses, coworkers and family members. The latter are played by an impressive cast of indie movie veterans like John C. Reilly (who also starred in The Good Girl), Peter Sarsgaard, Laura Dern, Josh Pais, Tom McCarthy (who wrote and directed The Station Agent) and Regina King.
ComingSoon.net talked to White, one of Hollywood’s respected comedy writers, about his new movie, as well as an upcoming project that would team him with one of the funniest writer/directors from across the pond.
ComingSoon.net: Out of sheer irony, I’m calling you from the house of a friend who has eight cats running around.
Mike White: (laughs) So you’re sleeping with the enemy, as they say.
CS: I guess you could say that. So are you a dog person yourself?
White: I’m a dog and a cat person. I have two dogs and I have two cats, but one of them just passed away.. badly.
CS: Oh, I’m sorry, but two dogs is a little bit more reasonable than what we see in the movie.
White: Slightly more reasonable, although it does feel like they run the house.
CS: When you were coming up with the idea for this movie, did you always plan to direct it?
White: Well, I kind of wrote this one with any towards the visuals, like if I did direct it, how would I do it, so I was a little bit more crossing my T’s and dotting my I’s, in terms of thinking about how it might work. I wasn’t sure I was going to direct it eventually, but at some point, you become such a backseat driver, you just start to irritate yourself, so it was like time to shut up and get behind the wheel, I guess.
CS: Did you write this one any differently than any other script you might do for another director?
White: Yeah, I mean there was just a little bit more just as I was approaching each scene as a writer, I was thinking about it from an interpretive point of view.
CS: You don’t usually do that when you’re writing for another director?
White: Yeah, I mean sometimes I do, but not so much. Sometimes, like with “The Good Girl,” at some point I was thinking about directing it, then I would actually read the script, and I’d be like, “Gee, if I was directing this, I would have written this a totally different way,” but then I was like, “Well, I’ll just give it to somebody else. They’ll figure it out.” You know?
CS: Yeah, especially with this movie where you have all those scenes with dozens of dogs running around, which might be harrowing for any director.
White: What I knew I wanted to do was I wanted to approach it like if I was going to say a documentary-style, more like an Errol Morris, very flat camera, but not a lot of handheld camera movement, but just letting the camera sit there and letting the dogs go nuts and not try to do a lot of trickery shots. Just like letting it happen like it’s naturally happening in front of you. So that was something I wanted to do with the dogs, just let it seem like you’re just capturing something as it’s happening.
CS: Capturing chaos
White: Unfortunately, the dogs were so trained that capturing the chaos was something that happened to be completely choreographed. The thing is that those dogs, if they were left to their own devices would just sit there looking for their trainers, so you actually have to tell one of them to go chew a pillow, the other one has to be told to go pee in the corner. Each of the scenes, it looks like they’re just wandering, but they’re really each doing a specific task. Not because that was my vision, but that was just something that we had to do to get them rowdy.
CS: That’s pretty funny. And did you go through some sort of dog casting process to find the right dogs?
White: Yeah, especially with the main dogs, we had to look at a lot of dogs and see which ones would be adorable. The one we chose for her first dog had a really good jimmy leg when it was sick, it was just very heartbreaking, so we chose that one. Then we had to choose a good scary dog. They were all sort of cast.
CS: This being the first movie you directed, you have a lot of experienced actors, but then you have these dogs who are an uncontrolled variable when they get on set. Did you have to test out how the dogs would work together beforehand?
White: It certainly was the biggest variable, kind of seeing what was going to happen when we got them all together. It was definitely time-consuming while dealing with all the dogs.
CS: One of the most amazing shots is Molly driving in her car filled with dogs. Was that just getting the trainers to get all their dogs into the car and then trying to quickly get the shot?
White: Yeah, it was difficult that day because we were shooting right next to a dog kennel that we didn’t realize, so when the dogs got into the car, they kept hearing these dogs barking nearby and they kept wanting to jump out of the car. It was a little bit of a psychotic situation.
CS: At the Sundance premiere, I believe you mentioned that you wrote the part of Peggy specifically for Molly Shannon. What was her reaction when she found out she’d be doing many of her scenes with all those dogs?
White: Weirdly, two days before I had to start shooting, I found out she was slightly allergic to dogs, which gave me no little bit of anxiety. She’s definitely a dog person, but she’s allergic, so she doesn’t have any dogs.
CS: Then how did she react when you first handed her this script? She didn’t say, “Oh, this is great
but I’m allergic to dogs”?
White: No, I think she kept it from me, because she didn’t want me to think she couldn’t do it because she was allergic to dogs. I think she was really excited. She doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to play something that has so many different colors in terms of being funny, but having more dramatic scenes. I think she’s pitched-up pretty broadly, and this was a little bit more low-key comedy. I think was happy to get a good part like that, I guess.
CS: It’s such a great part that I’m sure any actor wouldn’t have told you about the allergies. The comedy is a bit more subdued than some of your studio comedies with Jack Black. Did you specifically want to stay away from the physical comedy and get more into the situational character type stuff?
White: Yeah, in “The Good Girl” and “Chuck and Buck,” I kind of like movies that play with tone and with the sympathies of the audience towards the main character. I like movies that don’t feel predigested sometimes where you go, “Was that funny? Was that sad? Did I like her?” That can cook up some good conversations afterwards, but it’s harder to do those kinds of movies when you have a $35 or 45 million budget and have to worry about a lot of money for a studio. So it’s easier when you do it on a smaller scale.
CS: Are any of the characters based on people you know or have encountered? Things like Josh Pais as her boss and Regina King as Peggy’s coworker seem like real people that exist in our lives.
White: Yeah, I certainly know people who are in a new relationship and are obsessed with their new boyfriend or just had a kid, so they’re not specific people, but there are definitely parts of them that I see all over the place.
CS: Do you know if Josh or Regina had any kind of background with people like that they could draw from?
White: Yeah, Josh was so real he came in and auditioned and he was the first person I saw, and I was like, “This is weird. I’m falling in love with the first person who walks into the room.” But yeah, they’re actors, so they’re really more just using their imaginative will power. I don’t think they ever really had those jobs.
CS: Did you have to push Regina to get that over-the-top gabby personality out of her?
White: She really wanted to come in, because I think she plays more like serious, no-nonsense, the more matter-of-fact two-feet-on-the-ground type characters, and I think she just got excited about playing someone a bit more flighty and exuberant, and so she really wanted to push that element of it. It was good, because it a good juxtaposition for Molly’s character, who was so much more demure and modest.
CS: A little reverse from the normal with Molly, too.
White: Yeah, exactly.
CS: As far as the animal activism and vegan elements in the movie, are you a vegan or was there anything you were trying to say with the movie about those issues?
White: I feel like to me, it’s more about a woman who’s obsessed with her dog and then ultimately, she’s obsessed with animals, and then I think the logical extension of that is that she would become involved in animal rights issues. I’m a dog lover and I don’t eat meat, but it was never my intention to like write a movie that was a call to animal activism, as much as that’s just where the story took it.
CS: Well, it would make a great double feature with “Fast Food Nation.” Do you know if you’ll be doing anything more with Jack Black?
White: Yeah, I’d like to. We’ve talked about doing stuff together, and right now, I’m just selling this movie and when it’s done, it’s back to the old drawing board to figure out what’s next.
CS: What’s going on with Miguel Arteta [director of “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl”]? Do you think you’ll make another movie with him?
White: I’d like to. We’ve definitely been continuing to look for stuff to do together.
CS: You don’t have any other scripts you’ve been working on since finishing up this movie?
White: I have an adaptation of a book that I did, which looks it will probably get made sometime this year. It’s called “Oh, the Glory of it All,” it’s for Miramax. (Note: This is Sean Wilsey’s non-fiction memoirs.)
CS: I’m surprised to see you adapting books, because a lot of your other work has come from original ideas.
White: Yeah, this was just one thing because I actually knew some of the people in real life, so I felt like it was something I could come from a place where I really knew the material, so that’s kind of why I got involved with it.
CS: Are you still going to be doing something with Edgar Wright?
White: Yeah, we’re supposed to be writing something together. We’ve both been working on putting our own movies out there, but we have this paranoid conspiracy theory comedy that we’re going to be writing called “Them.”
CS: But that’s not based on the ’50s thriller with the giant ants, is it? That would be odd, because Edgar’s also supposed to be doing “Ant-Man” eventually.
White: No ants in this one.
CS: Have you known Edgar for a long time?
White: I haven’t worked with him, but I just loved “Shaun of the Dead” and we just hooked up and decided to do something together.
CS: Do you have any inclination to do anything like what he’s done by satirizing movie genres?
White: Well, this movie is slightly like that but I’m not so much into parodies as I am into drawing a bit more from life then from movies for inspiration, but this next one with him will definitely have some references and stuff, which should be funny.
CS: And he’ll end up directing that?
White: Well, that’s the hope. I mean, you never know until you get it done. There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place for that to happen.
CS: After the experience making this movie, do you think you’ll want to direct more of what you write or do you feel you’ll just write scripts and see whether you feel like directing as you work on them?
White: Yeah, I think it’s the latter. I don’t feel like I have to direct everything I write at this point, but it would be fun to do it again under the right circumstances.
White’s new movie Year of the Dog opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 13.