Thursday, January 04, 2018

"If we all have to live like the Kardashians and if everybody has to fly private to feel like they are a success, then we are headed to certain catastrophe." - An Interview with Mike White

Mike White began 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival with Beatriz at Dinner – which he wrote for director Miguel Arteta – being hailed as the first great film of the Trump era, and he ended the year with Brad’s Status, the first feature he has directed since 2007's Year of the Dog. Both films are astute social commentaries, with Brad’s Status exploring issues of privilege, jealousy and perspective as Brad (Ben Stiller) wonders why his perfectly satisfactory life doesn’t match up to the extravagant lifestyles enjoyed by his wealthier peers. Ahead of its UK cinema release this week, I spoke to Mike White about both of his acclaimed 2017 features, as well as his more unlikely involvement in one of the year’s most critically derided blockbusters.

When you were writing Brad’s Status, was it always written as a film that you were planning to direct yourself?

I had written Beatriz at Dinner just earlier and I had given it to Miguel Arteta to direct, so I was thinking that if he was busy with that then this was something I could do. I knew that it was a tonally specific movie, and sometimes as I get older it's just easier to do it myself rather than try to unpack it for another director.

There are a lot of thematic connections between Brad’s Status and Beatriz at Dinner, with the discussion of class and privilege, and the sense of feeling like an outsider. Did these two stories come from the same place?

After I wrote Beatriz at Dinner and had written Enlightened, I kind of wanted to explore the psyche of someone who is first a man and is dealing with masculinity and its discontents, and that kind of thing, but I was trying to come at it not only in a satirical way but in a way that had some compassion for him. It's about his privilege issues but also I can relate and I see it in my world a lot, and it's something that I think is worth considering.

The interesting thing about Brad is that he sees himself as being on the outside, but everyone in the audience is likely to look at him and see him as someone who is very much on the inside, and is lucky to be living so comfortably.

I think that's very true to life. Most people see themselves as the underdog in their own story. I mean, just look at Trump. Even as president of the United States he is the underdog hero facing all of these obstacles and the haters and all of that. I think we project onto other people who we see as having more advantages, but when you actually get inside their heads they don't see it the same way. I think Brad is obviously reduced to that feeling, he's kind of monomaniacal throughout the movie about feeling this sense of being put-upon or an outsider, but I think that's something that is universal. There are a lot of rich, white men who run companies and see themselves as coming up against all odds and still striving, and from another perspective we'd think they have everything. I think it just all depends on where you stand.

We spend a lot of the movie inside Brad’s head but the occasional different perspectives on him from the younger characters are crucial. They seem to be grounded and have a wisdom or a philosophical outlook that he lacks. 

I thought it would be interesting to have the wisdom coming from the youth, giving his son and his son's friends some perspective that he doesn't have, and I also think that's more true to life in some ways. As you get older your identity becomes more concretised and you're more on your heels about where you are, and I think when you're young you are all potential and you're still forming, and so you look at older people's defensiveness or anxiety about their identity with a perspective they don't have.

I’m sure Brad once thought of himself as being as hopeful and passionate as these students, though. Do you think they’ll inevitably end up as embittered and feeling stuck as he does?

I mean, obviously Brad is an extreme kind of character, because I was trying to unpack that certain kind of comparative anxiety and really let him embody that. I think in one way you have the ability to get wiser as you get older, but when it comes to your identity and stuff, I don't know, people paint themselves into corners psychologically and it's hard not to get beaten down by life in a lot of ways. I often see it with my peers. When you're young you have a certain kind hope and idealism, and things don't always pan out as you'd hoped. I think it seems like Troy is pretty grounded and you would hope that it would remain so.

What was it about Ben Stiller that made him perfect for Brad? I think it’s interesting that he made a Walter Mitty movie a few years ago and this feels like a riff on the Walter Mitty story in some ways.

Yeah, that was part of it. I'm a big fan of Ben and I've been wanting to work with him for a long time, and he's also been really kind about my work, so I felt that would be a collaboration that would be enjoyable. I do think he has trafficked in this and part of me was wondering if that is an issue, but I came down on the side that it might be more interesting, because to me the movie does have parallels to Walter Mitty, but it's the hyper-specific version. I got excited about the idea of doing something that seemed like a familiar Ben Stiller movie but by making it more low-frequency and nuanced, certain colours and tones would come out that might be unexpected.

I think that’s something you tend to do a lot, tapping into some aspect’s of an actor’s persona but also pushing them into something new. I’m thinking of Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl and Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, for example.

For me, I enjoy writing for actors who have a comedic sensibility and I find they're more enjoyable to make movies with. At the same time, if I don't connect emotionally with the character it feels empty, and I do think Ben gave a soulful performance in the movie that I was excited to see and show people.

So having not directed a film for ten years, did it feel different this time? Did your experience working on Enlightened help you approach this film in a different way?

I did feel that Enlightened allowed me to feel more comfortable directing. Because I have quite a specific tone it just made me be more confident that I would be a good interpreter of my own work. To be honest, I'm a writer by nature and I really don't like to be in charge of a lot of people, so the managerial aspects of directing take a lot out of me. It's not a place that I want to be in all the time, but I feel like if the elements all line up in a way that seems like I can have a good time doing it, I'll think, “yeah, let's try it.” But then when I'm done I'm like, “OK, I'd like to go back to the writer's life for a while.”

How does it work with Miguel? Do you collaborate on set or do you give him the script ad trust him to take it from there?

Usually we work together, but while Beatriz at Dinner was shooting I was prepping Brad's Status, so I couldn't be there during the shoot, but I was there for rehearsals. Because Miguel and I have worked together over the years on many things there's a kind of shorthand and I feel comfortable just letting go, but he's always very good about not having ego about it and letting me be as involved as I can be or want to be, so that's why it works for us.

How did you feel about Beatriz at Dinner being hailed as a great “Trump-era” movie when it debuted at Sundance? Obviously you made it before there was a real possibility of Trump being elected, but were you conscious of tapping into something there?

Well, Trump had started his campaign, we were still in the Republican primary stage, and the truth is that it certainly made it a better story for cultural critics writing about the movie and things like that. But unfortunately the truth is America has become more polarised and I think those issues that came up in the movie would still have been relevant even if he hadn't won. To both our dismay and surprise, Trump's inauguration was just after our premiere so it made for strange sense of timeliness.

That polarisation feeds into Brad’s Status too. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening so much, a guy like Brad feels a desperate need to keep up and not get left behind.

Right. I think there's an extreme sense of what being a 'have' is today, and that's what the movie is also trying to get at. Obviously there is poverty in the western world but so many of us do live enviable lifestyles, and whether it’s capitalism or social media or our own psychological failings, there’s this sense of us grasping and not really realising how lucky we are and how much we have. That kind of philosophy or sense of lack is psychologically crippling and, from a more macro point of view, it's globally destructive. If we all have to live like the Kardashians and if everybody has to fly private to feel like they are a success, then we are headed to certain catastrophe.

How consciously does the political atmosphere affect your work as a writer? Do you feel compelled to respond to what’s happening in your work?

When Trump became president, I was really grateful that I was talking about Beatriz at Dinner or the topic of Brad's Status during that period rather than just entertainment stuff. When you feel that your civic values are at stake you do want to be part of the conversation and use your art of whatever it is work as a way to weigh in on the conversation.

On the subject of entertainment stuff, I’m not going to ask you much about The Emoji Movie as I haven’t seen it, but I wonder what is it like for a writer to be brought into a big studio franchise movie like that? Obviously those jobs pay the bills, but can you get some kind of artistic fulfillment from it or is it simply a job of work?

I do get a lot out of it. I worked on The Emoji Movie for just three weeks, and I'm not exactly sure how I got credit on it. I've worked on other movies where I've done a lot more and didn't get credit on it. In terms of what I get from see how the sausage is made, I guess, and you're actually part of the sausage. Sometimes when you read reviews or people writing about movies, it sometimes feels naïve because with something like The Emoji Movie, you realise it's a product. It's obviously not Mike White's Emoji Movie - and it's not even the director's Emoji Movie, to be honest - it's Sony's Emoji Movie. I think there's a desire for some kind of authorial ownership, whether it's a writer or director, but that's just a perception of the public or film writers. Studio movies have become so expensive, and there are so many people being a part of the process, that at some point you don't even know who deserves the credit or the blame for any of it, you know what I mean? It just feels like its own kind of weird beast.

So where do you see yourself as a writer now? You’ve done a lot of work in independent films and television. Do you feel more comfortable in one medium than the other? Is one a better fit for your sensibilities?

TV plays to my strengths because I like to write and I wrote all the episodes of Enlightened. I think that if Enlightened had been a movie it wouldn't have had the depth that I felt it ultimately had, and that's just because you can keep going back and filling out the characters and their world, so I like that. It just takes a lot out of me, and the truth is that I was lucky with that show to be at HBO where they were pretty supportive of what I was doing, but sometimes when you're doing all of that work and then you're also fighting for it, that can be very stressful. For me, I'm not eager to get back to TV unless I feel like I have a passion that's worth all the work it's going to be and all the fights that come with it. Each thing has its positives and negatives, though. I like writing independent films, those are where I feel like my voice is able to be heard. There was a time around doing School of Rock when I thought I could maybe dovetail my own sensibility with something that was a bigger studio type of thing, but I think it's harder than ever to make original movies in that space. It's all franchises and intellectual properties where you have to come in and dance for The Man.

In that environment, it’s very heartening to see a film like Beatriz at Dinner taking in over $7 million in the US. Not a lot of small movies get any kind of traction at the box office these days.

Yeah, it's crazy. You never know. I mean, nobody wanted to finance Beatriz at Dinner and we had to make it on the smallest micro-level, even with the names we had. The theatrical world for those movies has kind of become a sucker's game, which is why places like Amazon and Netflix are the only places who really have the ability to lose money on these things and still somehow make it worth doing. It's a tough time. It was hard to get even my friends to go to the movie! They know they'll watch it on demand or they'll watch it on an airplane, or something. Unless it's a superhero movie or a Dunkirk, something epic in scope, it's just hard to get people to go out to watch movies in the theatre.

Brad's Status is release in the UK on January 5th