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Mike White on “Year of the Dog”

Mike White on “Year of the Dog” (photo)

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Producer, writer, actor and now director Mike White made his memorable first dip into independent film as the writer and star of the 2000 Sundance Film Festival darling “Chuck & Buck.” His career has spanned mediums and genres — in television, he worked as a writer on both “Dawson’s Creek” and the critically adored “Freaks & Geeks,” and in film he’s collaborated several times with Jack Black, most notably on the Richard Linklater-directed “School of Rock.” But it’s the role of Buck that likely lingers in the minds of most indie film fans — White’s nasal-voiced manchild was simultaneously repellent and, miraculously, sympathetic, even as he persistently stalked his childhood (and only) friend.

White’s new film “Year of the Dog” marks his directorial debut, and delves into similarly uneasy territory between comedy and dread. Molly Shannon plays Peggy, a single suburban 40-something living in happy codependence with her dog until an accident deprives her of her beloved canine companion and sends her on a journey of what you could call self-discovery. I caught up with White in New York to talk about the film.

I’ve actually seen “Year of the Dog” described in some places as a romantic comedy, which is… not a phrase I would have chosen. So I wanted to ask you how you’d describe it.

I would say it’s a comedy with some really sad moments. It plays to me like some of the other independent movies I’ve done — “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl” — going back and forth in tone from moment to moment. Sometimes people will be laughing at the same time someone next to them thinks it’s tragic. It’s a drama-dy; it’s almost an anti-romantic comedy. It’s definitely not “lady falls in love, finds a man and drives off into the sunset.”

I’m sure you’re getting this from everyone, but are you a vegan? Are you an animal rights person? Are you a devoted pet owner?

I’m a devoted pet owner and I’m a vegan, but I’m not a perfect vegan.

What’s an imperfect vegan?

Well, I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat dairy and I try not to eat animal stuff, but I’m not perfect about it. I went down to Mexico for four months and by the end I was eating fish because there was nothing there that I could eat, and I’d much rather live. To me, the movie came out of my own experiences, but I don’t think the message is that everyone needs to go out and be a vegan. It’s more that this is [Peggy’s] particular passion and she’s basically looking for the people in her life to accept her and accept it — not necessarily prescribing it for everyone else.

There aren’t many sympathetic portraits of PETA activists — they seem to be regarded as one of the more petulant branches of activism. How did you end up there, thematically?

I like to write about people who don’t necessarily get that kind of investigation in movies. I’m not really interested in writing about the Everywoman looking for love or the Everyman who can’t lie anymore. I like eccentric, idiosyncratic characters, and I thought it would be interesting to write about a character who some might say is a bleeding heart, but who really just comes at things from a emotionally childlike place. There’s definitely a part of me that has that — that part that sees a dog that’s going to be euthanized and says, “Ugh, I need to do something.” Movies about animals are always skewed towards little kids or are really sentimental, while contemporary adult comedies have a cynical side to them. I thought it would be fun to meld those things.

Peggy seems like such a wholly conceived character, from her floral prints to her office job to her sensible car. I know that you’d written [the role] for Molly Shannon, but wanted to know where the character originated, because she seems like the kind of person everyone’s mom knows.

I felt like, in a weird way, she’s a female version of Buck [in “Chuck & Buck”]. She retained a childlike innocence about her and yet she, unlike Buck, is extremely demure. I had this idea of people talking at her — she’s the kind of person everyone leans on. She’s almost like a dog. There’s no back-and-forth, she’s really just there to be supportive. I’ve certainly had friends like that over the years who you take for granted. When they start agitating or having their own needs, you’re like “Wait, this is not what we bargained for! You’re supposed to be the one who sits there and laughs at my jokes.”

I thought your portrayal of sexuality in this film was particularly interesting — Peter Sarsgaard’s character is essentially asexual and Shannon’s has, if anything, seriously repressed any romantic desires. As you’ve said, there’s no general tie-up romance here, and it isn’t something you see often in a film — that idea that it’s okay to not always seek romance.

I agree… I personally think this is a very punk rock movie, even though I wanted to dress it up in a sort of schoolmarm-ish “dog and lady” [look]. It’s funny, because some of the responses to the movie been “This is propaganda-mongering” or “This is PETA activism,” [but] if she ended up with a guy in the end and went running off into the sunset like most other movies, nobody would be saying that. That’s just movies. I think that we as a society are really pushed all the time that we need to pair up, and that is the ultimate end goal. To show characters that aren’t necessarily going to fit into that, or that aren’t even seeking it, is a truly unusual characterization.

I have a lot of friends who are single, and I know a lot of people who are in relationships or have been in relationships and they’re just: “If it comes, it comes. I’m not going to spend my whole life searching for a date.” Regina King’s character believes that relationships are her religion and so she’s prescribing that to Peggy and believes that if it makes her happy, then it’s going to make [Peggy] happy. And people do that with kids, or work, or whatever. Not everybody is going to find their life meaning in that, and there should be representations of people who are outside of that world.

I felt like the ending of “Year of the Dog” was in way more radical than that of “Chuck & Buck.” At the end of “Chuck & Buck,” you get the sense that he’s rejoining or joining society. [Peggy]’s choosing not to join mainstream society.

I wouldn’t disagree, but I also think it’s a more mature progression in the sense that they’re both looking for understanding, but his understanding really starts and ends with him, and her understanding is about her, but also about doing something beyond her. It is a more activistic thing and I do think she’s a more sophisticated and mature person. But it’s also, as you were talking about, “radical.” I think she’s torching the place and his presence in that wedding makes the whole thing a little bit subversive. He’s more behind enemy lines and she’s saying “I’m out of here.”

From a directorial standpoint, it seems that you chose to shoot the conversations so that characters are always alone in the middle of the frame. There’s this cumulative suggestion that conversation is a useless endeavor in a lot of these everyday interactions.

Well, it was a little bit about people talking at her, and not a lot of connecting going on. In some [shots], once when she starts going on the dates or with the animals, you see them more connected in the frame and it has more traditional coverage. It isn’t so direct on, it’s a little more from the side.

I like the idea of portraiture, of letting the frame really show who [characters] are — some of the stuff you get in documentaries. When somebody’s being interviewed in a documentary, you get their awards behind them.

You use this blissfully sunny California setting in a unique way.

There’s this documentary [Errol Morris’ “Gates of Heaven”] that’s actually about pet cemeteries, and it captures this version of California that really strikes true to my childhood growing up there — the artificial man-made lawn and then the dead mountainside next to it. With the sun beating down, it’s a kind of artificial but kind of inviting world. [Peggy] is basically in mourning throughout the entire movie, while the world around her is so poppy and bright and colorful, and there’s a disconnect there, but it lends itself to the absurdity of the journey.

You mention “Gates of Heaven” — do you have any other reference points or influences?

I saw “Gates of Heaven”, which is one of my favorite movies, and I thought “If I was going to direct, this is the kind of movie, stylistically, that I would want to direct.” Movies have just become so quick cut-y — especially comedies, which are always cutting on the joke. I feel everything in our world has gotten so sped up that sometimes I just like going to the movies and slowing down and letting the movie take place, and also having enough time within it to associate while I’m sitting there. I could watch and be like, “Oh yeah, my dog died,” and think about the dog, and then come back and not have lost my way in the movie.

“Year of the Dog” is currently in theaters (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.