Mike White’s heroes and heroines seem like happy people. They are perfectly content with their mundane lives, until some uninvited intruder or unforeseen event exposes their frustration and complacency. The first step up from unconsciousness for a White character is awkward revelation, followed soon enough by humiliation and, eventually, some absurd form of enlightenment. “Year of the Dog” stars Molly Shannon as a single suburban secretary who loses her moorings when her canine companion suddenly dies, and marks the talented screenwriter’s first foray behind the camera. White’s scripts include the excruciatingly wonderful “Chuck and Buck” and “The Good Girl” (both directed by Miguel Arteta) and “The School of Rock” (Richard Linklater), as well as the TV series “Dawson’s Creek” and “Freaks and Geeks.” For his press day in San Francisco, the pale Pasadena native wore a green “Yes We Can!” T-shirt, which I took for an Up With People homage until I spotted an ancient Bank of America logo below the slogan. “Year of the Dog” opens Friday, April 20.
SF360: I always feel embarrassed for your characters. Is it intentional or just a happy byproduct that the audience squirms so much during one of your movies?
Mike White: Embarrassment is definitely a running theme in my real life so I feel like it’s only natural that that would be depicted in my cinematic alter egos. It’s probably intentional, and always a happy byproduct.
SF360: You said ‘alter egos.’ Do you think of your main characters as you in some ways?
White: I definitely feel the way I come at it is investing myself in the story and wanting to express something. I don’t think of any of the movies as autobiographical but certainly they’re personal. I have an affinity for the characters, for sure, otherwise I don’t feel like I could get inside it.
SF360: Your work reminds me of Todd Solondz (‘Happiness’) and Terry Zwigoff (‘Ghost World’), filmmakers whom I suspect you might feel simpatico with.
SF360: I don’t think Solondz likes his characters and Zwigoff doesn’t like anybody. But you seem to have a gentler, more affectionate relationship with your characters.
White: Some people may feel otherwise, but I appreciate a movie like ‘Happiness.’ But whether it’s ‘Chuck and Buck’ or ‘The Good Girl’ Or ‘Year of the Dog,’ I think there’s a lot more earnestness to what’s going on in [my] movies. I find that for my own writing, when I’m just trying to point out the absences or the failings it becomes kind of thin. I do think that people are flawed, and there’s a lot of absurdity in people’s logic and life choices, and that certainly feels ripe for comedies or dramedies or whatever they are. But if I’m not trying to get at something seriously, too, then it feels like shooting fish in a barrel, like an easy, empty exercise.
SF360: So at some level it’s got to be grounded in real life or real emotions.
White: Peggy in ‘Year of the Dog’ or Buck in ‘Chuck and Buck,’ I don’t feel like I’m making fun of those characters. I feel like there’s times when they certainly can embarrass themselves or they’re goofy, just like I see myself. When I’m writing the stories, I’m crying when [they’re upset]. I’m feeling the stories with them and I feel like that’s an important part of the process for me.
SF360: ‘Chuck and Buck,’ ‘The Good Girl’ and ‘Year of the Dog’ are crafted so precisely that they could almost be novellas. Why is film, and television, the medium for you, and television, as opposed to-
White: Writing fiction or something?
SF360: Right, where you’d have complete control.
White: I’ve always liked the collaborative nature of movies. I can be very particular and, I guess, stingy in the writing process. I want it to be mine in a sense, but then once it’s done, there is something that’s much more stimulating by bringing in the elements of the interpretive act and not just saying, ‘This is it. Done.’
SF360: Such as the way an actor might read a line or the way Arteta might compose a shot.
White: When the script is written, I want to feel like the script is a good read. I want people to have a pleasure in reading it. A lot of screenplays, it feels like a blueprint that would be pleasurable when depicted but in itself is just kind of dead. I want the script to be alive and if it never got made that I’d feel like there was something vital there. But then I feel like there’s the gravy of being able to bring people together and give them something to do and be a part of the interpreting of it and having that be its own new thing.
SF360: So how do you feel when an actor wants to change a line and says, ‘I’m not sure the character would say that.’
White: It all depends on what and who. (Laughs.) I can’t say that I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever works for you,’ As somebody who aspires to have authorial pride, you don’t want it to be too loosey-goosey. But at the same time, Laura Dern in ‘Year of the Dog’ had ideas that altered her character somewhat and all for the better. Every sort of idea she had improved what was there, so I would be an idiot not to—obviously, I respect her as an actress, and as a collaborator I’m going to respond to those ideas. Even for my big comedy, ‘School of Rock,’ Jack [Black] isn’t really an improviser and he wants it on the page. So I feel like it’s my job to care enough that I’m not, ‘Whatever, and you’ll do something funny on the set and that’ll be great.’
SF360: It sounds like you’ve sat in meetings with other writers.
White: (Laughs.) Well, other people have different ways, and in the end I’ve realized that the best scripts don’t always make the best movies. I do think that movies are their own medium. A lot of people come into movies from a DP (director of photography) sort of view, some come as writers, everyone has a different thing that brings them to directing. For me, I want to write the perfect script, and that’s more important in a sense than making the perfect movie. You know what I mean? For whatever reason, that’s my own sort of pleasure and maybe that means my movies are going to have certain failings that, if I came at it from a different way, they wouldn’t. But in the end when you have your own aesthetic you just have to accept it.
SF360: Now that you’ve directed one of your scripts, has your attitude changed?
White: It definitely feels like when you do give yourself the job of directing, you realize that you have to be even harder on the material because you go, ‘I can’t expect someone else to come in and take it to the end.’ You’re going to take it to the end. At the same time, I realize that having it on the page makes your job so much easier as a director. You end up having even more of an appreciation for what the writer brings to it. And why it can be and has been just as satisfying to have just written the movie as having directed it, too.
SF360: Can you imagine yourself directing someone else’s screenplay?
White: It’s harder [to imagine]. Now that I’m directing, people send scripts. When you write and direct, it’s much more exposing—it’s like jumping out of an airplane, and once you’ve jumped out of an airplane it’s not as interesting to just fly the plane. It’s an intense kind of rush that you get having to go there.
SF360: Although your work is obviously personal, I never thought of your films as a form of self-exposure. But you’re saying that directing another writer’s work wouldn’t have the same juice.
White: The goal that you get over time is when the thing that you create reveals something to yourself about yourself. You’re like, ‘Oh, wow.’ You’re making stuff that is meaningful to you and making your life more meaningful in the process. Whether that’s in your mind or real, who knows, but it is part of what you’re doing. So when it’s not yours, it’s the difference between building a house and redecorating a house. It’s just a much more thorough, intense process.
SF360: You’ll never make it in Hollywood with that kind of attitude, using words like ‘meaning.’
White: Exactly. (laughs)
SF360: ‘Year of the Dog’ looks and feels much like ‘The Good Girl.’ Did you watch Arteta on the set of that film?
White: I definitely learned from him and Linklater (‘School of Rock’). I learned from all the directors I’ve worked with ‘Year of the Dog’ has a style that’s a little bit flatter. There are some choices that are different from what Miguel would do. [My] scripts could be interpreted like you could really hit the comedy hard or pull back on it, and Miguel always really wanted to [pull bback]. I think a little bit was the language barrier, because I don’t think he saw the humor that some people did. So he was just looking for the reality and not playing up the jokes or the comedy at all. And it ended being, I felt, a nice sort of blend because people would be laughing but he was always looking for the more gravitas element of the scripts and I felt like that made a nice balance. I definitely got that from him in terms of [‘Year of the Dog’], which was trying to play the reality of it. That was where my sense of humor lies and also it would make for a more interesting experience for the audience too: ‘Is this funny or is this sad or is it both?’ I’ve always liked movies that play with people’s expectations that way.
SF360: Any titles you want to throw out?
White: I’m thinking of a movie like ‘Badlands’ or Todd Haynes’ ‘Safe,’ where on one viewing you can see it as a tragic, scathing critique of society and then, depending on your mood, you can see it as this really deadpan comedy that is full of hilarious absurdities and a very funny movie. Movies that aren’t predigested like that, where you can have people coming away with different kinds of reactions, I find are complicated and hard to achieve but they stay with you. When it’s predigested you have the reaction that the author, I guess, is looking for but there’s not a lot to chew on afterwards. You know what I mean? It’s in those weird turns when you’re like, ‘I don’t know exactly how I feel.’ And sometimes people don’t get it until years later, and never. Sometimes you get frustrated, because we always want to win the popularity contest and want everybody to like our movies. But if you set out to do the thing that I’m talking about, you can’t get bummed when it has a sort of divisive reaction.
SF360: The odd sexuality of your characters is definitely a part of what you’re talking about.
White: There is a part of me that likes to problematize something. Like creating a character where people go, ‘Oh, I know this kind of person,’ or ‘This is this type,’ and then as it progresses they [find out differently]. Like in life, you put a label on someone and then you realize they’re a lot more eccentric and interesting and also sympathetic and transgressive. In my own experience, sexuality is something that is more complicated than a label or just one kind of experience or person or whatever. So it’s fun for me to give representations to the more complicated side of that.
SF360: Your fascination with unpredictable and occasionally unsympathetic characters shrinks your chances for a mainstream hit. Is it hard for you to get the backing of studio execs? Or do they say, ‘At this budget level, we know we can come out OK.’
White: I personally want to be financially responsible. You don’t want to be somebody who’s losing money for someone or a company or whatever. For this kind of movie, we’re making it for this amount of money and there’s no way that anyone is going to lose their shirt over this. And probably they will stand to make some money. Especially with this cast. Then I can tell the story I want to tell without too much [of] an eye toward the marketplace and [they] let me tell the random story I want to tell. As the budgets get bigger, there are certain satisfactions to face those challenges head on and try to do a more down the middle kind of thing and still figure out how to bring a little bit of whatever subversive stuff that I like to bring. Yes, it’s tricky. You want to be able to get paid.
SF360: ‘Year of the Dog’ is your directorial debut after years as a writer. Has it long been a goal of yours to shift into directing?
SF360: OK. In terms of your aesthetic and ambition, where do you go from here?
White: Well, I learned so much in terms of just the job of directing. A lot of people want to capitalize on whatever success or perceived success they’ve had and, especially in Hollywood, get bigger and bigger and bigger. For me, there was the temptation, too. ‘Now I’ll direct a more mainstream movie and use what I’ve learned.’ Then I was like, ‘I should use what I learned on this to even go deeper into what it is that makes me excited.’ There’s a part of me that feels like that is where I come out. I’d like to do something more in my own vein and keep it small so I can have the latitude to do that.
SF360: What’s your favorite piece of gear, at any stage in the filmmaking process?
White: My favorite piece of gear. Now I’m having a blank. What did I even do while I was directing? (Laughs.) I will have an answer for this. (Long pause.) I’m trying to think what was the most pleasurable part of the whole thing. I’ll tell you what it wasn’t, was playback. I hated looking at the playback.
White: When you’re watching it, it’s helpful, but then after it’s over the actor starts coming around and you realize that here’s this magic that’s happening, and when you see it back it feels like it’s slightly dead. After the whole process, it comes back to life. But it’s like when someone tells a joke and you’re laughing and then suddenly you see yourself laughing and it just doesn’t seem like the funny joke you thought it was. It’s this weird process of trying to keep the hope alive of what you’re doing. It’s like walking down the street and thinking of yourself as Robert Redford and then you glance into the office building and see your reflection and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not Robert Redford,’ and then down the road you see who you are and you’re like ‘Eh.’ It’s interesting enough or good enough or whatever, but you have these moments of existential crises. It’s best not to get too self-conscious while you’re in the midst of creating.
SF360: So you are a 50-year-old man in the body of a 37-year-old. Who sees Robert Redford now as a reference point for debonair good looks?
White: (Laughs.) I think it was my mother, that’s her model for ‘movie star.’
SF360: Last question: What’s with the shirt?
White: This is just my positive presentation of self for the day.
SF360: But ‘Yes We Can!’ is like an ad slogan from 1989 or something. Have you had the shirt forever?
White: I know. It just refound me.
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