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Interview with Mike White, writer/director of Year of the Dog

Mike White writes and directs Year of the Dog about Peggy (Molly Shannon) a lonely woman whose life changes when her beloved dog, Pencil, dies. Mike White has previously written The School of Rock, The Good Girl, Ocean County and Chuck & Buck and co-written Nacho Libre. This officially marks his directorial debut. I had the privilege to interview him.

Paramount Vantage will release Year of the Dog on April 13th, 2007.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What inspired you to write and direct Year of the Dog?

MW: I was doing a TV show with Molly [Shannon] called ďCracking UpĒ which was a very ill-fated show and during the holiday break, when I was trying to catch up scripts, a stray cat who lived behind my house died. The cat had been mine for three years. I guess I was really attached to it because I was totally, emotionally broken down over the whole thing. I was very upset. I ended up writing a really depressing half hour on the show that the [Fox] network hated even more than the other scripts that I was writing for them. When it was all over, I thought it was an interesting life experience [involving] a seemingly innocuous relationship and the death of this cat had profound reverberations. I thought it might be interesting to tell a story about that.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to direct your first feature film?

MW: Iím not scarred forever. I definitely feel that it was a good working circumstance, so I donít want to accept anything less. Iíd like to stay at this kind of level. I donít feel like that now Iíve jumped off a cliff and canít go back to being a writer who gives my script to somebody else to interpret. Iíve had really good experiences that way, too.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you choose Molly Shannon to play Peggy?

MW: Iíve done ďCracking UpĒ with her and it was, like, one of those things where you throw a party and you tell people itís going to be great and then the party ends up being a nightmare. I wanted to do something with Molly [Shannon] that was a great experience. I just got to know her. I think sheís funny whether sheís pitched up or whether sheís really quiet and doing stuff really subtle. She makes me laugh and I thought it would be really fun to work with her. I wrote [the script] with her in mind.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you go about casting the supporting actors?

MW: What was lucky about the schedule was that each [actor] didnít have to work more than a few days. I just, kind of, went down the list of people I really wanted to work with. Molly [Shannon] has associations with really broad comedy and I just wanted to make sure that the other people in the movie would [understand] the comedy, but donít necessarily have that association. I didnít want somebody coming into the movie thinking it would be some [slapstick] comedy. I wanted to constellate the people in her life with obsessions that were a little bit more mainstream or typical. Depending how you look at it, [their obsessions] can be just as absurd and over-the-top as [Peggyís obsession] with animals.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you allow your actors to contribute their own ideas to the film?

MW: Iím not a big improviser, but Laura Dern, for example, has little kids. Thereís specific [details] that she brought to [the film] that I would never have thought to go there. I took feedback and improved the stuff. But the schedule of these kind of movies are so unrelenting that you just have the time to do the [scene] that you set out to do and thereís not enough time to [re-shoot].

NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think it was ethical of Pier to euthanize Peggyís dog?

MW: I think so. There are some animals that canít be saved. Even though itís about animal rights, I think Peggy goes through a period when she over-identifies with the discarded animals everywhere around her. Her sentiment is, maybe, unwarranted as it relates to that dog. I think it was important to show that part of it as well as the more pro-animal rights part, too.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Did the cast or crew keep any of the dogs?

MW: No way. The trainers would never let that happen. Those dogs are all money in the bank. But we did shoot in a working shelter in the scenes where she goes to adopt the dogs and a lot of dogs got adopted the day we shot in there.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What kind of a tone were you trying to achieve in the film?

MW: I always wanted to have a tone that plays with the audienceís sympathies a little bit. One minute youíre really [empathizes with] her and then youíre like, ďOh, no. What is she going to do?Ē I liking having that push and pull.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did Brad Pitt become an executive producer of Year of the Dog?

MW: I met Brad [Pitt] when Jennifer [Anniston] and I were doing The Good Girl and he came on the set. He was very helpfulóa real cheerleader. He was making his own movies then, so he couldnít be on the set the whole time.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Are you a vegan?

MW: Iím more of an imperfect vegan. I donít eat meat or diary, but sometimes Iíll have some fish. After reading the books that Iíve read, itís just something that doesnít appeal to me, but you donít want to see anything suffer whether itís a person or a pig.

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