Mike White chooses Molly Shannon for his directorial debut
Mike White skyrocketed to fame with his brilliant screenplay "Chuck & Buck". He then went on to write "Freaks and Geeks" for television, School of Rock and Orange County with Jack Black, and The Good Girl with Jennifer Aniston. White returned to television for a brief stint writing/producing the short-lived Fox comedy "Cracking Up", where he met recent SNL alum Molly Shannon. Shannon made such an impression, he decided to write a film specifically for her. Year of the Dog is that vehicle and Mike White's directorial debut. The film is a tragic-comedy about a lonely woman who discovers her true path in life. Molly Shannon really blossoms as an actress here. Directing was not such a leap for Mike White. He seemed to have a good time and ended up with a rewarding experience. White's next collaboration is a top secret script with writer/director Edgar Wright of Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead fame.
So this is the big jump to the director's chair. Did it live up to your expectations?
Mike White: My expectation was that it was going to stressful and kind of hellish. It actually turned out to be fun, so that was surprising. Once I realized I could make my days, the actors weren't divas, and that the dogs weren't going to bit me...it turned out to be pretty fun.
How difficult was it controlling all of those dogs?
Mike White: It was too controlled at first. I wanted to do shots where the dogs were just being dogs, but they would just sit there looking for their trainer. It wasn't that exciting. Some of the scenes were it looks like they're going crazy are actually choreographed. They're really just these trained dogs who just sit there waiting for their treats.
There's a scene in the film where Molly [Shannon] finds the word that describes her, "vegan". Was that your choice to focus on the vegan lifestyle?
Mike White: I don't think it's about a woman realizing she's a vegan. I think it's about a woman who figures out her enthusiasm, first it's her dog, but then, by extension, all animals. I felt the logical extension of that would be her involvement in animal rights, finding her passion. It's really about how we all have this 'fill in the blank' version of that. It's just about her not being embarrassed to claim that.
There's a deeper darkness regarding what happens to animals in this film. Where you worried about going to far in that aspect?
Mike White: I wanted to talk about someone who get's really sensitized to that issue. She really thinks there's an animal holocaust going on, and from here point of view, there is. It becomes more of a call for her. But at the same time, I try to show there can be an over-identification with her, especially with all the disgarded animals she has. The German Shepard is really a dangerous animal, but she has this sentimental feeling towards it. You can lose sight of reality. I wanted to push the pendulum one way, but ultimately bring it back.
In The Good Girl, you showed a different side of Jennifer Aniston. Were you trying to do the same thing with Molly Shannon here?
Mike White: It wasn't intentional, but that experience with Jennifer prepared me. There aren't a lot of movies with female leads, and the ones that do are mostly romantic comedies with the same six or seven leads. That's mostly because of financing. When I was writing this, and I did write it for Molly, because I knew the performance Molly was capable of and that it would be more interesting for a filmgoer to see her in it. So I did learn from The Good Girl that it's not a stupid or crazy idea to get someone who's sort of out of the box.
Your supporting cast is very good. Did you have specific roles for them as well?
Mike White: No, I wrote for Molly, but for the rest of the people, I had kind of a wish list of actors I wanted to work with, like Regina King and Peter Sarsgaard. I really respect their choices and range. I didn't want to surround the film with too many 'comedian' comedians. I didn't want people expecting a rip-roaring laugh riot or a lot of physical comedy. The movie is much more low-key, deadpan, kind of melancholy. There is comedy, but it comes from the script, not the actor's actions specifically.
Did you think you were taking a risk with any of your choices?
Mike White: The biggest risk is with your lead. Personally, I like characters that flirt with the audiences' sympathies, and then pull the rug out. One minute your heart goes out to them, and then it's like 'Oh No'! It's been my experience that there's a way we present ourselves, but deeper down there's a way more eccentric, weird person behind that. It's a more interesting place for a dramatic or comedic role to start from.
Have you reached a point where your writing is so respected by the acting community, that they're sort of clamoring to do your films?
Mike White: Well, Laura [Dern] was someone I always wanted to work with. I sent her the script, and I know she's really picky. If I'm confident about anything, the parts themselves, even if they're not big, there's stuff there for actors to play with. A lot of times in movies there's one good part, here, there are a lot of different colors to play. I think that's what attracts actors, not me particularly.
How did you meet Tom McCarthy? He's so funny here.
Mike White: He actually auditioned. I thought he was hilarious, then I realized he was the guy that directed The Station Agent and thought it would be fun to have him on the film.
I'm also a big "Freaks and Geeks" fan. Many of the people involved with that show have really gone on to success. Did you have a feeling it was something special when you were writing it?
Mike White: It was definitely special. For a TV experience, it felt really cool and there was some very unconventional casting that went into it. Usually everyone is pretty and sometimes funny. Everyone was funny, then sometimes pretty in that show. It's not surprising that the actors continued working, because they were really funny. But I'm also surprised too. I'm still friendly with a lot of those people and it certainly was fun while it lasted.
Has directing made you a better writer?
Mike White: Well, I thought I might direct this, so from a writer's point of view I had to think more visually. That was something I'll probably try to do from now on. When you realize the buck stops with you, it kind of makes you more accountable.
What was the most difficult thing to shoot?
Mike White: The baby...there's all these scenes with the baby. When the baby starts crying, there's nothing you can do. I couldn't believe I put a baby in all of these scenes.
What are you doing next?