Illustration by Tony Millionaire

“No One Is Purely Heroic”

An interview with filmmaker and actor Mike White.

Over his sixteen-year career, Mike White has written seven films, all of them bittersweet, black comedies about characters who fail horribly in their attempts at self-improvement. These include The Good Girl, Orange County, Chuck and Buck, and School of Rock. White has also directed one film (Year of the Dog), and has acted in the majority of his own films, usually volunteering to play the most hapless, unappealing characters, the kind of role well suited to his pallor and discomfiting grin. After some early writing for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, White eventually found a place on television with the new-age corporate dramedy Enlightened, which he created and wrote in 2012. Though it lasted for only two seasons on HBO, the show enjoyed critical praise for its writing and for Laura Dern’s anxiety-driven performance. I visited White at his home in Santa Monica. He had recently returned from a well-deserved Hawaiian vacation.

—Toph Eggers

THE BELIEVER: I’m curious about how you end up acting in so many of the films you write.

MIKE WHITE: I don’t come at it as an actor who is writing his way into his movies. I’m really coming as a writer who ended up acting in certain things—kind of like I backed into it a little bit. With Chuck and Buck, the director really wanted me to do it, and then, because I starred in that film, it kind of set a precedent. I actually think it’s helped me as a writer to have to act. It’s only when you actually start putting yourself out there that you appreciate the anxiety that comes with having to try to sell a line, or with trying to own a character.

BLVR: In Hollywood, even though the vast majority of both creators and critics lean pretty liberal politically, they still get queasy about any story heavily featuring left-wing politics or social issues. And yet in both Enlightened and Year of the Dog, you managed to make some interesting points about social issues (animal cruelty, corporate greed, mental health) without coming across as preachy.

MW: It’s hard to say. I think that those movies, those shows, have still been criticized for [preachiness] in some sense. Like Year of the Dog—when we got our first round of reviews, in New York and LA, the critics seemed very positive about the movie. But as you got deeper into the middle of the country, suddenly there was a lot more hostility. So I do get criticism. But at the same time, Enlightened was an example of trying to see something from many perspectives. And while I guess my affinity is with Amy [the main character], I see the arrogant side of her, too, and the narcissism that comes with that I see in myself. So it’s about trying to be as honest about the character as possible, while at the same time wanting the audience to take her seriously. But I think the problem with Enlightened was that if I had made Amy a little bit more of a hero, then maybe it would’ve gotten a bigger audience, but I also think that would’ve undercut what I was trying to do.

BLVR: Is being heroic boring?

MW: It’s not boring. It’s more like I want to write something that feels true. I don’t always get along even with the people I love in my life. I’m happy with a characterization I’ve written when I’ve revealed someone with as many of their good sides and bad sides, and I’ve tried to be sympathetic to them, and honest. No one is purely heroic.

BLVR: Yeah, the current model works on the idea of a character with one specific fatal flaw that’s destroying their life, and once they solve that shortcoming everything will suddenly flip for the better. With Amy in Enlightened or Molly Shannon’s character in Year of the Dog, you oscillate so adeptly between heroic moments and small, petty moments.

MW: Well, a certain kind of likability becomes a way that people approach, like, how to give notes on something, especially on television, but in movies, too: “Do we like her if she does this?” “Are we into this?” It was always annoying to hear people’s prejudices about what they like and don’t like. I also think that women characters are harder nuts to crack. You see a lot of male antiheroes being antiheroic in a way that’s very “cool.” You know, they’re killers, or they’re… I don’t know, grifters. But with Amy or Molly Shannon’s characters, there seems to be less patience with their type of weaknesses. The ways that they are antiheroic are not cool, just human.

BLVR: You’ve used voice-over a number of times. Do you ever get nervous about it? There are so many voice-over haters out there. I always think about the line from the invented version of Robert McKee in the film Adaptation.: “God help you if you use voice-over in your work, my friends. God help you. That’s flaccid, sloppy writing.”

MW: Well, I’ve used it so much. When I first started writing, I thought that much of dramatic writing had to be about revealing something between two characters—that in the end it was about these two characters connecting or not connecting—and yet I feel like so much of my life is about a conversation I’m having with myself. I do interact with other people, but often I’m more interested in what I’m learning in the relationship I have with myself. And I feel like it’s frustrating to try to enact that dramatically without voice-over. Some things that I was able to do in Enlightened I would not have been able to without voice-over. The feelings that you can get at, or those kinds of philosophical moments—you just can’t get to those another way. I find it adds texture and another tool to the kit that I can use to try to get at certain thing that, if I didn’t allow myself that tool, I wouldn’t be able to tell that kind of story. I think of a movie like Badlands, which is so heavy on voice-over, or any of Terrence Malick’s other movies, all of which I love. It’s like everyone comes with their own sense of aesthetics, of what they’re trying to say. The poetry of it you can’t approach with dialogue.

BLVR: How do you deal with killed or failed projects?

MW: You know, when I started out, there would be a script that I had written that was fundamentally flawed in some structural or conceptual sense. Something just wasn’t working. And so you’d get a situation where, like, a hundred different people were telling you similar things, or different things, and then you’d go to lunches or you’d have script meetings and you’d have conference calls and all of this stuff. And I just couldn’t take it. Like, I just cannot take it.

So early on I started going, “The only way I can avoid this process is to try to write something that is as bulletproof as I can make it.” And that doesn’t necessarily make the best movie. But as far as a script, it’s something that I feel like I aspire to, because I just hate the process of getting notes from people about my script. If I start feeling like this is what’s happening with a script, I would rather abandon it than try to go through that again.

There’s so much time wasted with these lunches and meetings. I don’t like getting a lot of compliments or criticisms on my scripts. For me, writing is a solitary thing and a personal thing. And it’s weird, because when you make something that requires money and collaborators, you have to talk about them. I don’t enjoy that part of it. I still want to keep it to myself.

BLVR: You pull the rip cord a little bit quicker than most, maybe?

MW: Yes, I do. That’s the name of my company, Rip Cord.

BLVR: At what point do you know what the financial limitations of the film will be?

MW: Early on.

BLVR: And are those determined by the studio that hired you?

MW: Well, for me it starts very early, with the protagonist itself. Because a lot of what the business is—the reason that kind of banal movies are made is because they’re trying to speak to a huge number of people. And so if you get real specific with the kind of person that you want to focus on, no one’s going to say this is going to be a hundred-million-dollar movie. But I’m OK with being on the margins. It’s about just accepting that if you want to tell more-idiosyncratic stories with more-idiosyncratic types of characters, you will walk a certain road. You can’t compare it to a Judd Apatow comedy.

BLVR: Do you ever have fantasies of what the studio system could be like?

MW: Well, at a place like HBO, often what they want to do is something that’s very distinctive and of high quality. I tend to feel like I can succeed better with that litmus test of success versus what the studios do, which is, like, how do we feel we can justify spending, you know, fifty million dollars on this? Are we going to be able to get our money back? And is it something that’s going to appeal to people all over the world, who don’t speak English and who are looking for spectacle or whatever? Because then I will fail.

When you’re in school—in a creative-writing class—what they’re looking for is something that’s nuanced and thoughtful, and that has different colors. And then you get out into the movie business and all of those things that make something an interesting piece of writing are now problematic. And so I was always trying to figure out, like, how do I get back to what I was trying to do before? But I don’t really believe that it’s the studio system. I really believe it is the audience. People don’t go to see things in the theater for the same reasons that I do. And movies are about mass audiences. And so moviegoers are going for a different kind of drug than for a certain kind of literary quality.

I mean, even the people who were the film cineastes are not going to the theaters as much anymore. And so, you know, you whittle down your audience to a place where it makes sense why TV has become more for character-driven stuff, or a more observational type of drama.

BLVR: What continues to cause you anxiety about screenwriting?

MW: I’m forty-three years old, and I think the biggest anxiety I have is about committing. I just know now how much time goes into something. When Enlightened got canceled, I was like, Well, that sucks, because I did have another season of scripts in me that I was excited to write. But HBO was like, “Come tell us what your next idea is.” And it’s flattering, but at the same time my anxiety comes when I start to foresee the pain of making the thing. And then you just go, “Do I really want to jump into the deep end of the pool again?” I see why a lot of times, especially in TV, show runners go crazy. And they do go crazy. Like people who write books—they live in their own world as they’re writing. But people who are doing shows or big movies—not only are you writing this world that you’re living in, but you’re also simultaneously running a circus, and you can kind of start losing your mind like that.

Toph Eggers is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. He is also the coauthor of the Haggis-on-Whey series of faux-science books for kids, including the forthcoming Children and the Tundra.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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