As long as Mike White is working in Hollywood there’s still some hope for the movies. He’s got a unique sensibility and an incredible range – the same guy who creeped me out beyond belief with Chuck and Buck also wrote the funny and heartwarming School of Rock. His new film – his directorial debut – is somewhere between the two, but with more heartwarming and sadness than creepiness (although there’s some of that too). In Year of the Dog Molly Shannon is a 40 year old woman who lives alone, has no social life, works at a pretty boring job and mostly identifies with her dog Pencil. When Pencil suddenly dies, she’s cast adrift, trying to find something to latch on to to give her life meaning.
Year of the Dog opens this weekend in select cities.
I was struck by how sweet the movie was in the end. Can you talk about the approach you took to the tone of this film?
I feel like that was probably the reason why I decided to direct it, because I felt like the tone was going to be tricky. I like mainstream comedies – School of Rock is something that’s pretty tonally straightforward – but whether it’s Chuck and Buck or The Good Girl, I like stuff that kind of blends it so that some people in the audience are laughing and some are crying and some are taking it seriously and some see the absurdity of it. That sort of playing with the audience’s expectations is pleasurable from a storytelling point of view for me, although it does give you divided reactions. You take the good with the bad.
I read that you’re a vegan.
Yeah. I’m an imperfect vegan.
How much of Molly Shannon’s character’s journey in this personally relates to your own experience as a vegan?
There are moments in it that are definitely taken from life. I had a cat that died and had that feeling when you tell people why you’re so upset and they just don’t get it. Some people understand that bond with an animal and some people don’t. I also have the experience of reading a book and going, ‘Ech, I don’t want to eat this anymore.’
When you’re selling a film like Year of the Dog, which I think could be a very mainstream movie in many ways, what do you think is the best way to get across to potential audiences what the tonality is?
I’ve gone out in the field and seen people have divided reactions to the tone, and my feeling is that the people who definitely relate to pets that they care about relate to the movie. People who like movies that are funny and sad and don’t go in expecting a comedy that’s knee-slapping and rollicking have the best reaction.
You’ve known Molly Shannon for some time – you guys met on a TV show. But this role is so unlike anything she’s done before. How did you know she’d be able to do this?
I worked on a TV show with her, and the thing about Molly is that she makes me laugh, whether she’s at her broadest – falling over chairs and the stuff she’s known for from Saturday Night Live – and at the same time when she’s really subtle and quiet it’s almost funnier to me. She has a range, and most people don’t know about her and I thought that would be part of the fun of the movie, showing people her different colors.
You have such a great cast in general in this film. Can you talk about working with people like John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard and Laura Dern?
I wanted to surround [Molly] with people who would get the comedy of the script and didn’t have that big, broad comedy association. I don’t want people going thinking it’s going to be this rip-roaring comedy, because it’s really a different tone from that. John Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard and Laura Dern can all be so funny and they’re real dramatic actors as well.
Your career is interesting – you do things that are more mainstream and you also do films that are edgier and more personal. Where is your heart? Are you doing the mainstream films as a way to pay for the personal ones?
I’m as proud of School of Rock as the other stuff I’ve done. I try to approach it, even if it’s a more commercial quote unquote movie, from the same place, which is to try to do something that is personally meaningful to me and is inspired by something I can relate to. My hope is that I’ll be able to keep darting back and forth between those.
What ended up being the most difficult part of directing for you?
The most difficult part was stepping up and doing it. I had a lot of anxiety before doing it, so there was a lot of anticipatory dread. But once I realized I could make the schedule and that I liked the actors and they liked me, it turned out be fun.
What gave you the confidence to direct?
This is like my sixth movie, I think, and I’ve done four TV shows; after a while you feel like it’s just a question of like, ‘What’s your problem? Stop being a backseat driver and take the steering wheel at least once.’ With this I felt like the scale was small enough and I really wanted Molly to do it, so I had to make sure that happened. After a while I felt like it wasn’t going to be that hard of a transition and I should just do it.
Is this now a new phase of your career? Will there be more directorial efforts from you, and will you stop writing for other people?
I’m supposed to be doing a script that I’m working on with Edgar Wright, who did Hot Fuzz. It’s ostensibly for him to direct, so… I don’t think I’m necessarily going to have to direct everything I write from now on. Directing will be something I do once in a while, when I have something I want to spend two years of my life on.
You and Edgar are working on Them, right? It’s based on a non-fiction book. It’s about obsessive types?
It’s about conspiracy theorists, yeah.
So what’s the angle that you are taking?
It’s kind of like what if these conspiracy theorists are right about the world.
Are you doing that next?
It remains to be seen just how the schedule works out, but it’s something I plan on writing next.
Is there any more acting for you in the future, possibly Them?
I don’t know about Them, but I did just act in a movie with Diane Keaton and Liv Tyler called Smother.
Diane Keaton’s a legend of comedy – she’s worked with Woody Allen in so many classics. What’s it like to work with her?
She’s so awesome. She’s a friend of mine because she directed a pilot I once wrote a few years ago. She called me to have a part in this movie, and to have Diane Keaton call you to be in a movie with her is like a fantasy come true.
You’ve worked on some great but short lived TV shows. Do you ever feel like you might go back to TV?
I love the format of TV, and I think it plays to my strengths as a writer as a way, but I’ve had such heartbreaking experiences in TV. As long as my feature career is moving I feel like I’ll have better luck there.
I’ve always felt that you had the real distinction when it came to Freaks & Geeks – the show was so underseen and cancelled too early and you had the episode that nobody ever saw.
[laughs] I know! I had the cult episode of the cult show.