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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).

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