Interview with Mike White
interview by Dan Lybarger, 19 September 2003

Many screenwriters toil in anonymity, often losing the spotlight to the performers who recite their lines or the directors who film their stories. This is not the case with Mike White. After penning episodes of the TV series Dawson's Creek and co-writing Dead Man on Campus, he wrote and starred in Chuck & Buck where he played Buck, a man who tries to act on his childhood crush on a fellow (Chris Weitz) who doesn't return his affections.

The microbudgeted film was directed by his former Wesleyan University classmate Miguel Arteta and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature under $500,000.

Since then, he's written for the cult TV series Freaks and Geeks and is developing another with American Pie directors Paul and Chris Weitz. He also re-teamed with Arteta for The Good Girl, which starred Jennifer Aniston as a frustrated thirtysomething woman in a small Texas town who takes up a disastrous affair with a disturbed young literary wannabe (Jake Gyllenhaal).

He also wrote and played a teacher in Orange County, where Colin Hanks stars as an aspiring writer who blames his dysfunctional family and especially his drug-abusing brother (Jack Black) for impeding his ambitions.

White portrayed another teacher and joins forces with Black again in his new film School of Rock. Directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life), the comedy features Black as Dewey Finn, a penniless guitarist who poses as a substitute grade school teacher to pay the rent. Dewey quickly discovers his pupils are talented musicians and secretly recruits them as his own band.

Contacted by phone from Minneapolis, White recalled how playing small roles in his films has made a big difference in terms of recognition.

Dan Lybarger: The setup for the film is pretty simple, but you and Mr. Linklater and Mr. Black were able to milk a lot out of it.

Mike White: I think all of us recognized from the get-go that there were sort of formulaic aspects to this movie in the sense of the setup: "the teacher that comes in and inspires" and "the fish out of water." It's subjective. Some would say we failed, but if we did succeed, we went with the attitude of making those more obligatory moments into throwaway moments and not necessarily focusing on that and trying to find the pleasure of the movie in the spontaneous moments of the movie between Jack and the kids in the classroom and not making those plot points sort of the hinging points of the pleasure of the movie.

DL: What were some of the obligatory things you downplayed?

MW: When you talk about whether they're going to win the competition, instead those moments with the music building to a crescendo, you try do it in a way that just sort of feels like OK this is pleasurable. These kids are funny. I think it's just by not trying to do it too heavy-handed and trying to find the original moments in something that could have been more by the book.  

DL: Is there a difference between writing a more mainstream movie like this one or Orange County and an independent film like The Good Girl or Chuck & Buck?

MW: Yeah [laughs]. I mean with the independent movies that I've written, I just wrote them for myself and basically said, "Either you want to make this movie or don't make it. Make it as it is or don't make it."

DL: You had said that you were inspired by the attitude from Playwright Lanford Wilson's Burn This.

MW: It wasn't the short play exactly, but the idea that he wrote "Burn This" on the top of everything page because he wanted something that was so sort of like exposing of himself that would make him uncomfortable. And I just thought that was a cool way to look at writing.

Obviously, you can't do that every time out. For me, when I take money from a place like Paramount, it's hard to say, "Make it as it is or f*ck it." There is a part of me that wants to write something they can get their head around, that they can get behind and is something that they would make. And at the same time do something that I can hold my head up when it finally comes out.

DL: Your child characters were distinct. Was it difficult to write? Of course, you could argue that your character Buck was a bit of a child himself.

MW: [giggles] To me what I was trying to do with the kids was not make them too "kid-like." I remember when I was that age I took myself very seriously [chuckles]. It always irritated me when people would say "kid" or "children" or "child" in reference to me, so I was just trying to write kids who were sophisticated and wise as those kids can be.

That's a testament to Rick's [Linklater] eye for that kind of thing. It think he did a good job of finding some sort of fresh personalities.

DL: The kids look as if they were really playing. I play piano, and the kid at the keyboard looked right.

MW: Rick Linklater went out of his way to find musicians first and foremost so they didn't have that Josie and the Pussycats moment at the end when they're all just air-guitaring to a pre-recorded track. And I think that it sold those moments. It allowed us to cast kids who weren't that sort of kewpie-doll, Hollywood-type of brat kids that populates these type of movies.

DL: I listened to your audio commentary for The Good Girl.

MW: [Laughs] Oh, God!

DL: It was a little looser than some I've heard, but one thing that kept striking me is that Mr. Arteta had to remind you which scenes or patches of dialogue he had cut, and you didn't seem to mind and wouldn't have noticed if he hadn't mentioned it. I'd imagine that most writers would be very defensive about their words.

MW: Right. One of the aspects of being in the movie and being on the set and working in TV and having the amount of production experience that I've had is that it makes you understand why things have to get cut for the rhythm of a scene. As a writer sitting in your room, sometimes you don't know all the variables and all the things that you're contending with. When you're sitting in the editing room, sometimes things that seem tight on the page seem loose in the shoot in the way it runs.

I don't know. As much as I'm a perfectionist or I aspire to be when I'm sitting in from of the computer, at some point, you're going to have to let go of it.

DL: A conservative Catholic philosophy professor friend of mine loves The Good Girl because he said he had never seen another movie that put him so far into the mind of the protagonist.

MW: That's cool. Chuck & Buck is pretty much the same in terms of subjectivity, although that's a character that's a little more difficult to access. I love subjectivity. I think that's my favorite part about writing and movies is being able to leave yourself and have this sort of empathetic exercise where you're suddenly living someone else's life and trying to get inside that. It's just my personal preference.

To me movies that have many characters and are more sprawling, like a lot of independent movies these days, are about how something, like a car accident, connects them all. For me it's like I'm suddenly disconnected from it and too outside. I'm more traditional in terms of form. I just like subjectivity as the method of storytelling.

DL: With the exception of the Colin Hanks character in Orange County, a lot of your characters tend to be people with artistic ambitions but their skills to meet those ambitions are missing. 

MW: That's interesting. For me I've noticed that myself and only in retrospect. With each thing, I like to get at what is behind the artistic impulse. Usually I find out how happy the movie is has some correlation to how talented the character is [laughs]. Like in Orange County, the kid turns out to be a more happy ending. In The Good Girl, the Holden character (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) writes the same story over and over, and it ends up a tragedy. Everything has a little bit of autobiographical aspect to it, and for me it would be hard to write a movie that didn't have some sense of somebody wanting to express themselves, be creative or write something whether it's music like in School of Rock or something else.

DL: You wrote School of Rock with Jack Black in mind. Is that correct 

MW: Yeah. I only had the idea for the movie because I know Jack and was friends with him, and I just thought I was speculating on how Jack had been sort of underutilized in a certain way.

DL: What makes Mr. Black's character Dewey redeemable? We imagine him like the stoner slob he plays in Orange County. What were you able to tap into?

MW: It's exactly what you said. I think there's something more appealing about a character even if he's coarse and an oaf and all those things if he's got an earnest passion for something and a goal. I think in a lot of those other movies, he's the sort of a layabout and just lives for partying. There's something about him in this where he's in the most earnest way passionate about something that he's pursuing. And so even though, he goes about it in completely the wrong way—it's kind of self serving—you completely buy his passion. That's a part of it that makes it sound more heroic in that sort of way.

DL: Was it different to work with somebody like Mr. Linklater verses somebody like Mr. Arteta? I just remember from the audio commentary that both men seem really detail-oriented

MW: There's a lot of similarities. The major difference is that with Miguel, I've known him for a long time, and I've known him personally and socially before he directed anything that I did. So there's a real shorthand there I didn't have with Rick because I only met him a few weeks before we started shooting. When you're really in the thick of collaboration, you always have to figure out how it's going to work and the ground rules for that. That would be the big difference. It was just sort of new ground to work with Rick.

They're very similar in that if Miguel had directed School of Rock, he would have a very similar approach in that he would want a more sort of low-fi authentic take on the material than the more sort of poppy hitting every moment really hard. I think he would have wanted to find kids who brought a freshness to it and who could play music. So I think there was a real attention to deal, and Rick was extremely detail-oriented when it came to logic things in the script and things I would have thought in the movie (the character) would just go with that. He would say, "I don't think he would say that."

DL: On a more trivial note, how does your taste in music differ from Dewey's?

MW: [Laughs] My taste in music is sadly lacking. I grew up in a religious family, and we weren't really exposed to rock music until MTV infiltrated our house. When I think of a rock band, sadly the first band I think of is like Duran Duran. And then by the time I got to the point where I could to where I could take on my own creative interests, I was much more into movies than I was into rock, so my taste in music is a little more idiosyncratic and not so rock-heavy.

DL: You've told me your taste, but what sort of musical background did you have? Can you play anything?

MW: I played piano growing up. I had a piano teacher, and I played that growing up. Now, I've completely lost it. In the script it was pretty rudimentary.

DL: Dewey's taste for heavy metal music also predates that of the kids in the film.

MW: None of them had ever heard of most of the music in the movie although a lot of their parents who were sitting around the set could appreciate the references. I always associated Jack with late seventies and stadium-rock bands.

DL: Your father is Mel White, an evangelist and gay-rights activist. How has he reacted to your more recent movies?

MW: He's been cool. With my aesthetic, we are so different. I think he's happy that I'm doing what I want to do. He thought that Orange County was kind of cute and The Good Girl was…I don't know. It's such a loaded subject when you ask your parents' opinions on what you're doing. Unless he's really forthcoming about it, I don't push him too hard.

DL: Your background does come through in the movies. Growing up in Kansas, I know so many people like the fanatically religious security guard you played in The Good Girl.

MW: A lot of his lines are taken directly from relatives' mouths, not my dad exactly, but from his extended family of missionaries and ministers.

DL: For somebody who has grown up primarily in big cities, I was struck by how vividly you captured small town life in The Good Girl.

MW: My dad lived in Texas for a few years, and I spent a few years there. I've had my share of drudgery jobs. To me it's less about small-town America, really. No matter where you are, you can sometimes feel you're watching the clock ticking away and wanting something more to your life. To me in the way that I came to it was in a much more conceptual landscape than in the verisimilitude of small town life.

DL: With the exception of Chuck & Buck¸ you don't write yourself the leading or the showier roles.

MW: I'm not looking at as a way to get myself starring vehicles. I mean it when I say that it's a way for me to be part of the movie. It's not that I have a huge bug for acting or that I want a career as an actor beyond the scripts that I write.

DL: Even though you haven't directed a film, people still talk about your movies in an auteurist way.

MW: For my point of view, I think that people who write and direct should be considered that way. But I feel like just because I come from a writer's point of view, if you're creating the story, to me that's the person who's saying something versus the person who's actually filming it. I know that there are examples of directors to the contrary who can take found material and make it their own. I feel that it begins with the writer. I'm surprised that (the writer's recognition) doesn't happen more.

The reason that it happens with me is more due to the fact that I'm in the movies. They can put a face to my name and my name to the movie so that I'm getting more credit as a writer than if I had written these movies and not had my face associated with it. I think that that has had more to do with it than it does to any idiosyncrasies that all the movies share.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.