Mike White takes us through the process of making his first feature film
Mike White is known for writing interesting characters. From School of Rock, The Good Girl to Nacho Libre, White has fashioned people that have consistently functioned and thrived outside of the mainstream. In his first directorial effort he gives us Year of the Dog. This film follows a dog lover named Peggy (Molly Shannon) and the upheaval caused in her life when her beloved dog, Pencil, dies.
Mike White recently sat down with us to discuss this movie as well as a few other things he has going on.
With Year of the Dog, was it your goal to show how people basically substitute pets in their lives for people?
Mike White: It may seem absurd, Peggy's reaction to the loss of that dog, but it's real and I definitely know people, like myself, losing a pet, it's a real relationship, you know? People can get very bummed about losing a pet.
When you wrote the script did you write it knowing you were going to direct it? If so, how did that effect how you wrote it knowing you would have to pull off what was written on the page?
Mike White: Well, I wrote the script with an eye that maybe I would end up directing. I definitely didn't do a lot of explosion scenes (laughs). I purposely wrote what I felt like, I was inspired by certain styles of movies, I kind of wrote it with the idea of how I was going to shoot it. Which I don't usually do when I'm writing because I don't presume that I will direct it. This one I was like, well if I end up doing it I know visually how I want to approach it. I wanted to build it into the narrative, I guess.
You say you wrote it without explosions but for your first directing job to incorporate so many animals... what was that like? Did it make things harder?
Mike White: It didn't. The babies were tough because when a baby cries there's not much you can do about it. The dogs were awesome. I love dogs anyway, obviously, so it was just fun to have 15 crazy dogs on the set. It took a while to set up some shots because of the dogs but the trainers we had were amazing. These dogs, I don't say this feciously, they were total pros. They knew what to do... if all actors were that easy to work with.
In the commentary you touched on the look of the film and called it flat. I thought this really worked for the movie. Also, you see a lot of romantic comedies with the same look and it seemed like you were maybe trying to make a mature movie that looked like one of those romantic comedies? Or, am I just reading too much into things?
Mike White: I definitely wanted it to have a point of view. I wanted the visual style to sort of reflect the kind of cracked sensibilities of the movies. To approach it in a more traditional way... it would be a viable way to do it, like I said, I wrote it with this idea of these monologues that people were kind of giving; speaking at her. She's going through sort of an existential crisis in a way, once the movie kicks in, I felt like having a very minimalist approach, hanging in ways that people aren't used to in movies these days. I thought this could be a big misfire or I could end up with interesting results. So I just kind of went with it, I felt like this is what I want to do and I fell on the sword for it. I felt like it added a little bit to that absurdist sensibility of what the script was.
Would you consider Year of the Dog to be a companion piece of sorts to The Good Girl? Might there be a third screenplay to complete this trilogy?
Mike White: You know, you never know. To me I definitely see parallels between it and The Good Girl, and in a sense, Chuck & Buck, my first movie, in terms of the main character. I think it's really the tone instead if the female protagonist. I guess I like existential comedies. I like movies where people are trying to figure out how to make their lives meaningful and finding a lot of absurdity along the way.
Considering the wealth of talent that you had in the film were you insistent that they stick to the script? Or, were you more than happy to let Molly Shannon and some of the other actors kind of riff on the material?
Mike White: I'm definitely a proponent of actors being allowed to make the material their own. At the same time, just because of the nature of this kind of a shooting schedule you don't have the ability to do it 15 different ways or 15 different times. There was more, in preparation for the shoot, I would talk to Laura Dern who had ideas about what her character might say or do and then try to incorporate that into the script. Once we got on to the set we just kind of stuck to what it was.
Was there one thing about your first directing experience that you learned that you didn't know before? Something that you kept coming back to?
Mike White: The truth is, as I've been through the process a lot as a writer, as a producer and actor... in creating TV shows you end up doing a lot of jobs that the director does. It wasn't that surprising except for, you just realize that when you direct a movie you're giving over a least a year and a half of your life. I wrote it in December of 2005 and I'm still talking about it. For me, what I realized is if you're gonna take the helm and do it and direct something, you really have to be passionate about the story you're telling. You sort of start feeling like it's Groundhog Day, a year later you're still living that day in the life of your character that you concocted months and months ago. Whether it's on the set shooting it, or in the editing room, or out selling it, you just feel like you better be passionate about what it is that you're telling, because otherwise you're gonna start feeling like you in this "No Exit" scenario.
What are you working next?
Mike White: I just wrote a script with Edgar Wright who did Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. We did the story together of this movie that I wrote the script. It's crazy, totally different than anything I've ever written. It's sort of an adaptation of this book Them by Jon Ronson.
That's what the movie will be called?
Mike White: It should be, probably, called Them. Hopefully, that will happen. There's some other things percolating, too.
Year of the Dog comes to DVD August 28 from Paramount Home Entertainment.
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