Saturday, April 21, 2007

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: "Year of the Dog" writer/director Mike White

Okay… the following is a transcription of probably the most uncomfortable interview I’ve ever done. And I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable interviews. From my understanding and what I’ve heard, at some point in many a writer/director/actor’s press day, they hit a breaking point and start to just fuck with members of the less important press they’re forced to talk to. Apparently, I was one of those interviews on Mike White’s day doing press in Washington, D.C.

Still, it’s relatively informative, and it was pretty fun. I’ve long been a fan of White’s writing-- his smaller character-driven stuff like “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl” is great, and I also love “School of Rock,” and enjoy “Orange County” and “Nacho Libre.” On top of that strong resume, he also wrote three of the finer episodes of “Freaks and Geeks.”

His latest writing venture, and directorial debut, “Year of the Dog” starring Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard, Laura Dern and John C. Reilly, is also a really fine piece of work that’s currently playing in limited release. It opens in quite a few more markets (including Baltimore) this coming Friday, April 27th. I only got 10 minutes on the phone with White, so please be understanding with its brevity. This is what I answered the phone to:

Mike White: Wuzzuuuuuup?

Rob Scheer: [laughs] How’s it going?

MW: What’s up.

RS: How’s your press day going today?

[long pause]

MW: Felt good.

RS: Allllright. Um.. let me just preface this by saying I’m a big fan of your films, particularly “The Good Girl.”

MW: Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh. Go!

RS: Alright. Well, I’m sorry to ask you about repeating yourself, but I was just wondering if you plan to make another film featuring Tim Blake Nelson fucking someone while yelling at a dog?

MW: Definitely. How did you know? That that’s the inspiration for my next movie.

RS: Really.

MW: [laughs] Wait, he doesn’t actually fuck a dog.

RS: No, no.

MW: Oh, he fucks someone while he’s yelling at a dog.

RS: Correct. I don’t know, I heard the premise for this film and I thought there might be a chance.

MW: Oh, in this one?

RS: Yeah, but not so much.

MW: Yeah, there’s a little less fucking in general in this film.

RS: Well, nonetheless…

MW: It’s a PG-13 movie, buddy.

RS: I know, I know, I just had high hopes.

MW: [laughs]

RS: What are your thoughts on the trailer for “Year of the Dog”?

MW: My thoughts on the trailer? Well, have you seen the movie?

RS: Yes, I really liked it.

MW: Oh, okay. Yeah, the trailer is definitely a bit of a mislead. I mean, it makes it seem like it’s a quirky romantic comedy, and obviously, it’s got a lot more strange turns in it. But, that’s fine with me. I like that it’s briiiiinging ‘em in and then hitting them when they don’t expect it.

RS: I’ve read before that you tend to write scripts with specific actors in mind. I was just wondering what about Molly Shannon made you want to write this part for her?

MW: There’s just something about her that cracks me up, whether she’s like really broad, and I actually think it’s even funnier when she’s really quiet and subtle and stuff. I remember when she [and Ana Gasteyer] did their parody of the NPR women who have the cooking show, and she would act really quiet talking about how to baste turkey and stuff. There’s just something about her when she’s really quiet and subtle that makes her even funnier to me. So I kind of felt the idea of doing something for her that she could be a little bit more subdued.

RS: I’ve actually been fortunate enough to meet her twice, once at a ‘Wet Hot American Summer’ event and another time while she was standing in line behind me at a movie theater…

MW: In Baltimore??

RS: No, no, I’m from New York and it was at Lincoln Square.

MW: Oh.

RS: Um, and she kind of struck me as the nicest celebrity I’ve ever met.

MW: That’s exactly what she is.

RS: Can you tell me anything to debunk my impression?

MW: No. And honestly, more than anything, that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write something for her. I’d worked with her on this TV show, and she’s just the most unaffected, sweetest person you will ever meet. Not just a celebrity. I think she’s generally one of the funnest, coolest, nicest people, and it just felt like it was worthwhile to give her the opportunity to have a part she could really sink her teeth into.

RS: The endings of your smaller… um, non-big-studio films… tend to be rather bittersweet; they’re simultaneously satisfying and rather sad.

MW: [sounding kind of annoyed] Yeah…

RS: Is the necessity of having grandiose, crowd-pleasing endings on your mainstream films at all being untrue to your natural instincts?

MW: [laughs] Well, I love the ending to “School of Rock” actually. I like a good crowd-pleasing movie, but I certainly feel like my personal life, my usual mood, is more in a bittersweet place. I like a little hint of melancholy, even in the happiest moments.

RS: Yeah, a certain integral component to your smaller movies is discomfort. I saw “Chuck & Buck” in a theater full of elderly folks who didn’t quite know what to make of it…

MW: [laughs]

RS: What is the most uncomfortable scene you’ve ever written or shot?

MW: Well, that one definitely has a couple. But it was my first movie anyway, so I didn’t really have anything to compare it to. But truthfully, the scene [in “Year of the Dog”] where Molly and Peter [Sarsgaard] are about to kiss was really awkward to shoot too, because Molly kept laughing right before they were supposed to kiss, and Peter was sort of being real serious. And I was supposed to direct it, but it was like “Ugh, we need to do it again, I can’t make them do it again. Ugh, that’s painful.”

RS: How do you choose to oscillate between your broader comedies and your more character-based movies? Is there a strategic plan?

MW: Money, dude. Bank account.

RS: [chuckles] But, I mean, how do you decide which…

MW: Bank account!

RS: [I actually didn’t hear him] I’m sorry?

MW: [through laughter] Bank accooount. No, I mean, I kind of want all my movies to come from something that is meaningful to me, but [inaudible] really survive on the money I made from “Chuck & Buck.”

RS: So, is it like one little one for every big one?

MW: Well, sort of. It doesn’t really work exactly like that, but yeah… it’s not like I go into the more money-making projects more cynically like [grumbling] “Wanna get paid.” It’s fun to write something for a bigger audience, like work for a bigger crowd.

RS: Do you think you would ever direct someone else’s screenplay?

MW: Um…. Probably not. I mean, I guess, if I ran out of ideas maybe. But I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

RS: Alright. What are your favorite tragicomedies?

MW: Tragicomedies? Um…. I love “Badlands.” I mean, that’s a pretty tragic story, but it’s a very funny movie. And I think that movie “Spaced” was really funny, but also very tragic. “Terms of Endearment” is an obvious tear-jerking comedy…

RS: Do you tend to find it particularly easier to write for women than men, or vice versa?

MW: Uh, well, it’s a mix. It’s much harder for me to write an everyman, or an everywoman. I don’t think I could ever really write regular men and women. I like more sort of eccentric characters.

RS: Could you maybe talk a little bit about “Them”?

MW: “Cuddle with something at the end”?

RS: Talk a little bit about “Them.”

MW: Oh, yeah, I’m supposed to be writing that.

RS: Um, are you?

MW: I’m… gonna do it. I will do it. One day.

RS: Um, okay. Anyway, in my opinion, Laura Dern is probably the most underrated actress around these days….

MW: But seriously, I don’t think she’s underrated, I think everybody sort of feels that way about her. Yeah, I guess Hollywood doesn’t give her many opportunities, but I think she’s really discriminating in a sense that she doesn’t really do a lot of stuff, but I think she’s awesome.

RS: Yeah, most people agree that she’s great, it’s just that…

MW: Yeah, you’re right, I think she should be in like every movie, but she’s not.

RS: What was working with her like?

MW: She was awesome. If there was somebody that I was intimidated by, it was her. Her first day on the movie, it was definitely the height of my anxiety, where I just didn’t want to come off like a total idiot in front of her. But she was so nice, and really into it.

RS: Do you have any aspirations to work with any of the “Freaks & Geeks” crew again, or Jake Kasdan specifically?

MW: Well, yeah, Jake and I did “Orange County” together, and all of those guys, are… I really like, and would love to do something. But they seem to be doing just fine without me.

"Year of the Dog" is now playing in limited release, and opens wider this Friday, April 27th.


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