Mike White broke into Hollywood as a writer on Dawson's Creek. His credits include Chuck&Buck, Orange County, The Good Girl, and School of Rock, as well as the TV series Freaks and Geeks, Pasadena, and Cracking Up. White's directorial debut is Year of the Dog, starring Molly Shannon as a woman sent spinning by the death of a pet.
Groucho: Ironically, Year of the Dog was inspired by a cat. Can you explain how that came to be and why the cats went to the dogs?
Mike White: (Laughs.) I, well, uh—the cat was a stray cat that lived behind my house, and I kind of inherited. And didn't realize how attached I had become to this cat until it sort of up and died unexpectedly and kind of threw my world into disarray because I was actually, like, deeply upset over the loss of this cat. I felt sorry for myself and the cat, and I was in this sort of very stressful professional place. And ended up getting behind on scripts for this TV show I was running, and then the whole show fell apart. And I really think that, had that cat not died, it would definitely not have had such a dramatic, tragic end for this TV show. So that was the backstory, but out of it, I had the idea to write something about how a pet's death can end up having sort of a profound effect on your life. But the reason it became a dog is just cause I think it's just sort of the demands of moviegoing, which is I think cats are just more aloof on screen. And I think it's easier to depict the emotional connection that someone would have with a dog rather than a cat, even though I'm a cat person, kind of.
G: Sure, that makes sense. The movie is an allegory for modern urban life and all its anxieties professional and personal. And it's kind of like an around-town picaresque. What attitudes did you particularly want to diagnose through these characters?
MW: Well, I mean, in terms of the characters that are constellated around her, I wanted to depict—you know, you have the story about a woman who's kind of obsessed with animals and becomes—she's first obsessed with her own pet, and then kind of animals in general. And I felt like there was going to be a trick to trying to make that character relatable to people who don't have that kind of connection with animals. So I actually thought it would be interesting to have the other people in her life have more sort of mainstream obsessions, but just as obsessed and kind of absurdly obsessed as she is, to the point where people could see that her obsession was just another side of the same coin that everybody kind of lives, you know. Even if it's a little bit more sort of eccentric than the status quo obsessions with work or romance or, you know, children.
G: And it seems that not only are they obsessed, but they become pundits protesting that their choices are the right choices, the sane choices. Do you think that aggressive advocacy is coming from a pure place, or an insecure place in people today?
MW: Well, I think that as we get older, at least I've found that people's life decisions become in a way their religion. Like what you decide is your—(chuckles) what made you hap—if you're really happy in your love life, you want to set everybody up, you know? Or if your work gives you a ton of pleasure, you feel like everybody who's not happy just isn't satisfied professionally. You know what I mean?
MW: I think that we forget sometimes how we sometimes just by—even in a sort of harmless way, just expressing the enthusiasms for the things we care about can sometimes have an oppressive effect on the people around us, you know? And as somebody who is—we all do it in different ways, and are both the receiver and the giver of those kinds of anxieties. And I just thought it would be interesting to depict in a sort of real pure form with each of these different people.
G: There's no easy answers for the struggle that Peggy goes through, but is it fair to say that there's kind of an implicit value in the film of finding moderation and perspective, or do you sort of empathize with going overboard?
MW: (Laughs.) Well, I think in the end, the hope is that she's kind of in a little bit more of a sort of—she has decided that this is what her calling is, and what she's doing, and that does seem to many people sort of an extreme state. But once you've kind of pushed the pendulum all the way to where she's completely unraveled, it sort of feels like a healthier place to end her. But I'm always interested in taking a character and, like, pushing them to the other end of their sort of trajectory, just to see what that looks like (chuckles) and then bring them back.
G: Out of the comfort zone—it's dramatic.
MW: If she was just like—obviously there'd be less conflict, just from a pure storytelling point of view, but it also makes it feel a little more simple in the sense it's like "Oh, she likes animals. She finds she likes animals." You know, I also wanted to talk about the dark side of how people can sometimes overidentify. By the end, she's really overidentifying with the discarded animal, and projecting on it. I wanted to give her a dog that was kind of a true animal, and something that—no amount of sentiment or positive projection could save that dog from being a danger to her, and it needed to be put down.
G: Yeah. Sexual dysfunction is also a vein of comedy in the film, and maybe particularly how pet intimacy can replace or crowd out human intimacy. How would you describe Peter Sarsgaard's character, and what inspired that character?
MW: It's interesting 'cause it's like, I do think that people—I do—have met over the years people, whether they're people that are animal lovers or not, who have—who come to some sort of like—I feel like there's many movies that touch on the sexually ambiguous guy—"Is he gay? Or is he not?"—and I just thought it would be interesting to have a guy who was like—he's celibate, he cares about animals, relationships are too hard, and he's kind of closed the book. And whether he's gay or not doesn't matter; it's the moot point. And I felt like "Well, I've never actually seen that character before." You know, it depends on how you see it. Like Peggy at the end, her choice is to—she's sort of giving up on actively pursuing a romantic relationship, and that could either be a sexual dysfunction or just a healthy reaction to the fact that she's not gonna spend her whole life beating her head against a closed door, in a sense, you know?
G: Sure. The pursuit of happiness is maybe the central concern of the film. So what makes you happy?
MW: What makes me happy. Well, I mean, in a way, if there's a character I relate to the most, it's probably the boss. Not that I'm obsessed with money, but I definitely—over the last decade or so—really put my eggs into the work basket. And that's borne fruit for me, but it also—you know, you realize (chuckles)—there's definitely more to life than just making movies and telling stories, and there is a part of me as I get older where I want to get a little bit more balance to my life, too. And have more days off and more just, you know, hangin' out in the house or like traveling or whatever, pursuing relationships or whatever. So I get a lot of pleasure out of making movies and collaborating, and that's something I will continue to do, but as life goes on, you start—it's called a midlife crisis, where you go, "Well, what else is out there?" And maybe I need to look both ways before I continue down this street, you know?
G: And it's kind of ironic, I guess, that that should coincide with your breakthrough as a director—finally your auteur film here. What was most important for you in preparing for that? I know you have a lot of experience, but in assembling a support staff for you as a director, whether it was the cast or the cinematographer or the caterer. What did you want around you?
MW: That's a good question. I mean, I had come out of this really bad TV experience. And I've had all kinds of experiences, both good and bad professionally, and this time I just was like—whether I fly the plane into the building, I really just want this to be a good experience in the process of making it. And so both making the movie with Molly, who's such a cool person, and the rest of the cast, and then some of these other designers I hired—I really tried to make sure that these were people that were going to be fun to collaborate with, and that it wasn't going to be some kind of nightmarish power struggle or a lot of drama. And so that was really a key component. Obviously they're all people whose work I respect but it was just really important to me to try to fill it with people—you know, you're kind of like throwing a party, and you want it to be a fun party.
G: Sure. Chuck&Buck was your breakthrough script, and that was about as outsider as it gets, in terms of mainstream cinema—outside the mainstream. Were you sort of longing to reconnect with more personal material after working more in the mainstream for a few years?
MW: Yeah, it definitely felt like—I'd had these TV shows that were kind of frustrating, and I'd done School of Rock and Nacho Libre, which were fun, fun movies to make, but definitely not exactly my tonal aesthetic. I mean, they were movies that I could invest myself in, personally, but not in the same way. So yeah, there was a part of me that just was like, "Yeah, I'm ready to go back to some of the weird, eccentric storytelling that is what really excites me.
G: You mentioned the TV work that you've done, some of which are considered cult classics, but didn't take off because of lack of network support or other factors. Having been burned in TV a bit, would you go back, and if so, what would it take to convince you?
MW: It's hard. I actually think that my strengths are more suited for TV. Like I like writing, I'm prolific, I like going back to the same characters, I'm not somebody who loves to come up with the big comedy concepts. And so I feel like creatively I could definitely get back into the idea of doing a TV show. The problem is I just only have sort of heartbreaking experiences in TV. So I just don't—and I've had really good experiences making movies, so it's just, you know, I feel like the rat in the cage who has learned not to press that button 'cause I'm going to get a shock. So I don't know—it's tough, 'cause they always tell you, "We want your show! We want," whatever, "Mike White!" And then you realize that that's really not what they want. And they want something that—they want their version of what it is that I do. And so, I don't see them anymore.
G: It's funny, you mention they say they want Mike White. The trailer for this film refers to "the singular mind of Mike White." And I know you probably didn't come up with that line yourself, but how would you—
MW: You don't know what an egomaniac I am!
G: (Laughs.) But how would you define your perspective as an artist, or your strengths? Do you have any sense of that?
MW: To me, some of the tonal stuff that we're talking about, and some of the—I don't know if they're strengths, but I know that there's like certainly a strain of consistency in terms of some of the like—whether it's the blend of comedy and pathos or protagonists who can be both sympathetic and then transgressive and have a complicated relationship with the audience. Those things are what interest me, and also playing with some of the assumptions of mainstream thinking, with movies, is something that's interesting for me. And trying to give voice to some more subversive ways of thinking about life and relationships between people.
G: I wonder how your comfort level with your own sexual identity was shaped by your father's experiences as a gay rights activist within the Christian faith.
MW: Right. Well, he started off as like a minister deeply entrenched in the conservative evangelical movement. And then he came out and became a gay activist. And the most salient thing that I got out of it was, you know, the disconnect between the public presentation of self and the (chuckles) more sort of real, flawed, more interesting version of, like, the private self, you know? And I think that that is something that has always been of interest to me when depicting characters. And it's also made me, in life, more sort of skeptical about the face that we show to each other. And the sort of needy, flawed, interesting, and ultimately sympathetic people that we really are.
G: What can you tell me about Them or any other projects you've got in the pipeline?
MW: Oh, yeah, that's what I'm supposed to be doing next. The guy, Edgar Wright, who directed Shaun of the Dead and this movie Hot Fuzz that's coming out, he and I are working on a sort of horror comedy (chuckles) conspiracy theory movie, which is totally out of my normal wheelhouse, but it's been fun to work with him on this. And that's what I'm supposed to be doing.
G: And that's based on a documentary, right?
MW: Yeah, it's based on a book that also has a documentary thing, but it's definitely a complete, like—it's—some of the sort of nuggets we're taking from the book, but it's such a sort of journalistic, comedic account of this guy's run-ins with conspiracy theorists, and our movie is like a complete fictionalized version of if these secret rulers of the world got together to destroy humanity.
G: Well, that sounds like fun. Alright, I'm going to have to let you go, but thanks very much for talking to me.
MW: Cool, man. Thanks. Thanks for writing about the movie.
[For Groucho's review of Year of the Dog, click here.]