In her grief, Peggy searches everywhere to fill the void of her loss. Everyone in Peggy's life seems to have the answer for her pain.
“The movie is a lot about obsessive thinking,” says writer-director Mike White. “I don't think they are extreme characters, but they're kind of obsessed with where they derive their happiness and where they think Peggy should derive her happiness.”
Laura Dern, Regina King, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Josh Pais and Tom McCarthy join Shannon, in this sometimes dark, quirky dramedy about finding happiness in the face of tragedy.
Peggy's pill popping co-worker (King) claims she needs a man, followed by a ring on her finger. Her hunting-happy neighbor (Reilly) wants to be her man. Her wound-too-tight boss (Pais) thinks she needs to focus on work and leave her agendas at home. And her cookie-cutter brother (McCarthy) and his Stepford neurotic housewife Bret (Dern) are concerned that she's become too involved in some new issues that she adopts as her own.
In the midst of all of this, Peggy finds companionship in Newt (Sarsgaard), a vegan, animal rights advocate who works at the veterinarian's office where she learned of Pencil's unfortunate demise. Newt offers her a new dog that desperately needs a home.
“She doesn't need the perfect dog,” explains Sarsgaard. “She needs a dog that she can try and help, and that will take the focus off of her.”
Although Year of the Dog marks White's directorial debut, his screenwriting credits include The Good Girl , Orange County , The School of Rock and Nacho Libre , and this film proves he's got directorial chops.
The colors in the movie punctuate the lives that the characters lead. The offices where Peggy, Robin (Pais) and Layla (King) work are bland with splashes of color offered in Layla's wardrobe.
White says the inspiration for the film came from an experience he had as a child, when a cat that lived in his backyard died in his arms on Christmas day.
“I couldn't believe how broken up I was over this stray cat,” he recalls. “The cat dying coincided with a time when I was extremely overloaded with work and I ended up getting really far behind.
“My whole life began to spiral out of control, which I thought was an interesting premise for a movie. I thought I could somehow take the experience and turn it into something cathartic for me.
“I always thought it would be interesting to do a movie about animals that was more sophisticated than the typical family film. I wanted to explore adult relationships with animals that blended some of the humor and pathos I like to do in my writing.” And that he does.
“Mike is such an amazing writer and performer and to be working with him on his directorial debut is absolutely thrilling,” says Shannon. “There's nothing like having the writer direct because he has such a clear understanding of the moments.”
White's decision to set the film in sunny Southern California is a brilliant clash of ideas coming together seamlessly. “One thing I find distinctive about a childhood in Southern California is that you have painful moments, and they always seem to fall on the most beautiful sun-dappled days,” says White. “Even though Peggy is going through an extreme deep grief, the sun is shining brightly, and I wanted to capture how weird it feels to be in such a depressed state while in such a beautiful environment.”
The dogs are as much main characters in the movie as the actors themselves, and all had to work very closely with one another. Trainer Ursula Brauner is quick to point out the dedication both Shannon and Sarsgaard had for their roles with the dogs.
“It doesn't always happen, but we were lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with Molly and Peter. They both came out to our ranch in Castaic, and spent a lot of time with the dogs,” notes Brauner.
Though he commends the trainers on the film for being the best at what they do, White points out that working with that many animals can still be a task not best battled alone.
“Our trainers were so good, and all of the dogs were all extremely lovable and professional, but there were definitely moments where it felt a little crazy. When we shot at the animal sanctuary we had pigs, cows, turkeys and chickens combined with little kids and babies who needed to take a nap … all with three cameras and a crane. It definitely got crazy at times.”
One of the best surprises in the film is the choice of casting for each roll. Most of the actors in this film took parts that are a departure from the characters audiences would expect to see them play.
Shannon surprises in a more dramatic roll than her previous credits, such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas , Never Been Kissed , Superstar and Analyze This . The actress first known and loved to many as her iconic character Mary Katherine Gallagher on “Saturday Night Live” shows here that she too can take something serious and run with it.
The best part of her performance is the comedic timing she brings to some of the darker moments in the film. Her character's journey is one of self-discovery by way of self-destruction, and ultimately one is left feeling that she's really found herself.
In her portrayal of Peggy's best friend, King makes Layla her own and finds a new niche for herself as an actress.
“Mike called me and said ‘I know this isn't how we've talked about the part, but Regina King should be Layla,'” relays producer Dede Gardner. “I was 100 percent onboard. I'd never seen her do this kind of thing.” King takes leaps and bounds from the more dramatic figures we're used to seeing her play in Ray , Boyz 'n the Hood , Poetic Justice and Higher Learning .
Dern is in a class all her own in her role as Bret. She plays the stereotype of the rich, sometimes neurotic, and completely overprotective mother like no one else can.
Along with McCarthy's Pier, the couple becomes seemingly concerned for Peggy as she gets further into the world of animal rights, when really their concern lies in what she appears to be exposing their daughter to. Ultimately though, as family does, they are there for her when she needs them most.
Sarsgaard adds a different flavor to the cast. Newt is sort of the calming but misleading voice in the narrative of Peggy's life. He helps guide her to clarify the things that matter most to her but can't help her find the brakes.
And though Peggy looks up to him, she learns the hard way that he, like everyone else, is only human and thus, will falter. Sarsgaard's portrayal of the animal loving, tree-hugging vegan is exactly what Shannon's character is looking for.
In his role as Al, Reilly is not in Chicago anymore. Though it comes as no surprise to audiences these days that he can take on drama with the best of them, Reilly's character is the man we all love to hate.
The irony in his character's attraction to Peggy is nothing short of hilarious, though he certainly establishes himself as the real life villain. Because seriously, who hasn't had a neighbor they despised?
Year of the Dog offers a few surprising turns and really dives into what it's like to be human, even if you're an animal lover.
Year of the Dog releases in select theaters April 13.