Mike White on Money, Status and Appearance on “Survivor”
Last summer, writer, director and actor Mike White took his dog on a road trip through the American West. He was in a mid-life depression, driving aimlessly, when he received an email from HBO. Due to the pandemic, the network had a content void it needed to fill, and executives were reaching out to writers like White for ideas. White, who made a name for himself in Hollywood in the early 2000s with comedies such as “School of Rock” and “Orange County,” saw HBO’s email as something of a lifeline, Mr. ‘he said – an opportunity to shake himself off. out of pandemic stagnation. And the urgency of the network might benefit his creative process, he thought. If he could come up with a worthwhile project and push it to production, he said, “It’ll be like a rock that they can’t stop. I can do exactly what I want to do.
In his recent work, White has been concerned with wealth and class and how they distort social hierarchies: “The Status of Brad,” a 2017 white film, stars Ben Stiller as ‘a newly obsessed middle-aged dad comparing to his wealthy and successful college friends. In “Beatriz at Dinner”, another film released the same year and written by White, Salma Hayek plays a holistic healer who accidentally becomes a guest at the baffling dinner party of one of her very wealthy clients. When HBO came to call him up, White once again reverted to ideas about wealth, this time in the context of marriage. The result is “The White Lotus,” a six-part limited series that takes place over a week in a Hawaiian resort. It’s a delightful and ominous show about wealthy people on vacation and the catastrophic things that can happen when the super privileged collide with the people who have been sent to serve them. The eccentric and dazzling ensemble includes Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Molly Shannon and Jennifer Coolidge.
White has an unusually high profile for a Hollywood screenwriter as he often stars in his own projects, either in leading roles or in minor supporting roles. (He is perhaps best known as Ned Schneebly, Jack Black’s sweet sidekick in “School of Rock.”) His career is also unusual as he is well known for a project that ultimately failed: in 2011, he released “Enlightened,” a comedy-drama and meditative symphonic poem about a newly converted idealist, Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern), and her battle with her soulless employer. Despite critical adulation, “Enlightened” was canceled by HBO after two seasons due to low viewership numbers. Fans and critics alike were outraged and White, like it or not, has become, for some, a symbol of resistance against the oppression and commercialism of Hollywood. After the show was canceled, he explained, he spent time “healing his wounds,” did some soul-searching, took on standard screenwriter jobs, and appeared in season 37 of “Survivor. “. (White has a deep and enduring obsession with reality TV.) “The White Lotus” is kind of a vindication – and also his sexiest, most glitzy TV work to date. We spoke on Zoom recently, and our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your last show with HBO, “Enlightened,” was a critical success, but it was canceled after two seasons. It was almost ten years ago. How was the new show born?
There was a practical backstory, that HBO had no content because so many shows were shut down due to COVID. I think they came to see me because they know I’m a quick writer. I’ve been trying to get things done at HBO since “Enlightened”. It wasn’t like I had just quit television. I made a pilot for them which I think went really well. I wrote a screenplay, starring Jennifer Coolidge, that they didn’t want to do. They couldn’t have walked over it faster. And so, you know, I kind of think I benefited from the COVID situation with them. Usually on TV everything is really taken care of – at the start of any new show every script you write is super vetted. The filtration system of diffusing something into the air is aggravating and takes time. So to be able to do something in that window of time. . . I thought, if they go with that, it’ll be like a rock that they can’t stop. I can do exactly what I want to do.
I’ve always wanted to do a show about a couple on their honeymoon – a story of money, and someone who gets married with money, and realizes what she might have lost. The Faustian Marketplace is when you want a lifestyle, but also want to maintain your independence and power. And so I thought that was a good place to start. Instead of just focusing on a couple’s honeymoon, I ran the series with lots of people struggling with money ideas. Who has the money can really build the dynamics of a relationship, the relationship itself, the sense of self. Money can really inform and pervert our most intimate relationships, beyond the simple employee-guest relationship at the hotel.
Hawaii shows up a lot in your work, and now you’ve put on quite a show there. What is your relationship with Hawaii?
When I was little, I used to go to Hawaii with my family. My father was a minister, so we didn’t have a lot of money. It was my first experience to be somewhere other than where I lived. Hawaiian culture is very specific, and there is something very magnetic and beautiful about it. After doing “Enlightened”, I was able to buy a seat there. I was hoping to be Paul Theroux and have my Hawaiian writing retirement or something. And it is such a heavenly and idyllic place. But it’s also such a living microcosm of so many cultural accounts going on right now. There are ethical aspects to just vacationing there, let alone buying a house. The more time I spent there, the more I realized how complex it was. And I felt like it could be an interesting backdrop to this show.
At any point in your trip to Hawaii, did you identify with the wealthy tourists you portray in the series?
I have a place in Hanalei, and there are all these technical buddies. The tech world has found Hanalei. So there are these huge houses, not mine, which sell for thirty million directly on the beach. Mark Zuckerberg has his place. And I’d be, like, Ugh, those guys. They own the world! And then I was, like, I’m that guy. The people who live there [in Hanalei] and have lived there all their lives, they are all displaced. And it’s a place small enough that you can kind of keep it all in your head in a way that you can’t in a place like LA It’s a complex place, and I didn’t feel like to be able to tell the story of the native Hawaiians and their struggles to fight some of their battles, but I felt like I could sort of get there the way I experienced it. At first, it’s like, it’s so beautiful! I am in contact with nature and it is so calming. Then you realize it’s on the backs of people who’ve had a complicated affair with people like me.
Your most recent major projects – “White Lotus”, the films “Brad’s Status” and “Beatriz at Dinner” – have all been about wealth and the class struggle. Did anyone you interact with in your real life identify with these projects and feel attacked?
[Laughs.] I think there are people I take inspiration from. Right now there’s just one really funny thing going on in my bubble. I did not come for the money. But I know a lot of people now who have money, and everyone they know has money. They live in a money bubble. They are so defensive right now – the culture has them on their heels.
“Enlightened” came to the problems of unfairness and injustice of the position of a person who has no agency and no money. And it was interesting, getting into the free space of that. With this project, I thought it would be interesting to try to get into the minds of people who have more money and a little more power. These are people who could do something about inequality. I wanted to try to understand why they don’t want to do something, and why they are defensive, and what they use to justify their complacency and fear of change. And to do it in a way that seems believable. I didn’t want people watching the show to be able to say, “This is the mean one! I am the good guy. I wanted them to see the rich on the show and think, it’s me, I’m that person. I said these things. I have been on the defensive this way.