Mike White
Writer & Filmmaker

Photo by Deborah Farnault

"I feel like I am writing my own life, the life that I live at the end will be a life that I wrote and I chose for myself."

Mike White is a screenwriter, actor, director, and producer based in Los Angeles. White wrote the screenplays for the hit comedies School of Rock and Nacho Libre, as well as the independent film Chuck & Buck, for which he won the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. He also co-created, executive produced, wrote, directed and acted in the HBO series Enlightened. White has also competed in two seasons of The Amazing Race and was a contestant and runner-up on Survivor.

In this interview, Mike White shares his creative process for writing characters, how he became interested in accessing his past lives, and how his experiences on The Amazing Race and Survivor have changed him.

TGL: How was your childhood?

MW: My childhood was good in that I had a lot of free time, so I read and played a lot. I was not really scheduled...It wasn’t like now where all the kids have schedules; it was just a lot of time on my own. This built my imaginative side, and my parents were very indulgent of me being able to do that - to be creative and weird. I never felt like I had to be more productive or something like that. I feel like that was the beginning of becoming an artist or writer - just being a kid who fantasized, was imaginative, and played around the house.

TGL: When did you start writing?

MW: When I was a kid, my teacher in second grade was the mother of Sam Shepard, the famous American playwright. I liked my teacher, and it was then that I realized people actually were playwrights and wrote dialogue. I would read his plays and I wrote my own little plays for her class - I was like 7 years old. It was just something I did on my own, I never really showed people when I was young. I did little plays around the neighborhood and stuff, but it was really not until college when I had a playwriting class, that I could tell I had a more developed voice than some other people in the class. I was able to get stuff made, and I started making me feel confident about maybe pursuing this as a career.

TGL: Did you feel influenced by other writers?

MW: Well, first when I was young, Sam Shepard, and then I was really into the playwright Edward Albee who wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I liked absurdist plays, like Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Jean Genet. I just liked the language, the words on the page, and things that were funny. But, I would say Edward Albee, and then the musical writer, Stephen Sondheim. I remember getting his musicals and reading along with the lyrics for hours. I mean, I still know all the words to those songs for some reason from way back then.

TGL: When did you write your first play?

MW: I wrote of my first full-length play my sophomore year of college. Then, I wrote another play my senior year that was my senior thesis. There was also this class at Wesleyan - where I went to school - where they had us write these ten minute plays, and I would do that every week. I was writing a lot of stuff, and I liked it. I was going to be a playwright, and then, I don’t know, it was too cold back east, so I came back to LA and fell into the wrong crowd, and I became a screenwriter.

TGL: Existential crises are very present in your work. Do you think that writing is existential itself?

MW: I mean there are a lot of reasons to write, but growing up, my father was a minister and when he wrote sermons for church, it was about trying to explore how to live and speak to a universal truth. I think there is an impulse in me to write that speaks to this, but that doesn’t have as much of a religious component. I think it comes from the same impulse as trying to understand the bigger existential questions. It doesn’t interest me as much when things are too situational, where you feel like it is a specific problem very specific to someone. I am more interested in people trying to create meaning in their life and searching for their purpose. It gets me excited to write more than little situational ideas. If I am not getting at some of those things, it doesn’t feel profound enough or interesting enough to me.

TGL: You are an actor and you work with actors, do you have any methods to working with actors or to creating characters?

MW: When I’m writing, especially when I’m writing dialogues, I am all the characters. I’m playing all the characters as I’m writing it and hearing all of the voices. When we are young, we want to play all of the parts: you play the old people, the young people, the women, the men, you play every part. As you get older, you realized you can only play certain parts. You are trapped more in yourself. That is why acting is not as interesting to me as writing, because when I write, I can play all the parts in my head. So, I use that as I approach actors, because in a sense, I have already played the character while I wrote it.

TGL: What is your creative process? How do you structure writing?

MW: I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to write, like a long time. Most of this time is spent coming up with the characters and the story and not writing anything. Almost resisting starting to write until I really feel like it is fully born. Then, when I write it comes out really quickly. I am still discovering things, but it has already been seen in my head. I find that if I write before I have actually thought through everything I get more stuck. I have learned over time that is better for me to really resist starting to write until it is really ready for me to write. I think if I was writing a book or something it would be different. I would probably have the same structure with the same process, but I think screenplays have more of a motor, more momentum. A screenplay is only an hour and a half or two hours long, and if you don’t know where you are going it becomes really obvious, so I think you have to have more of a sense of drive, at least for me. Writing more observational material would be a less intense process and would probably be healthier, but it just is not something I know how to do that way.

TGL: How do you decide on the style for a movie?

MW: It changes for me. A lot of it has to do with doing something different from what I just did. So like, I did one movie, Year of the Dog, which was very static, still and pictorial, and I wrote it to that aesthetic. Then, the next time, I wanted to write something very kinetic and handheld: Brad’s Status. I don’t come to filmmaking inspired exactly by style and aesthetics - visual aesthetics - but it is something that is fun for me to get into when I am directing. I’m more of a writer, so I come at it more inspired by the stories, the character, and the moments, the style comes later.

TGL: You made a project about your past lives and commissioned painters to represent each of your past lives. How did you become involved with the idea of accessing your past lives?

MW: Well, it was just a series of circumstances. I became friends with Shirley Maclaine, the actress who is very well known as a metaphysical writer and who writes about her past lives. I would always ask her about them, and she got tired of answering my questions, so she just said, “You have to go.” She set me up with her past life regression people, and I had my past lives done. It was such a strange, but kind of fun, but uncanny experience. I thought it would be fun to have them depicted in paintings, but at first it was just one and then it became all of them. It came at a time of my life where I had already told my little narrative, the story of my life, so the idea of seeing yourself in other lives, in other people, in other stories, and finding yourself in all these different times and types of people seemed like a playful way to think about life. It inspired me as far as being a writer to consider the self as something that is not fixed - not an essential self, but a playful and changeable series of different masks you wear.

TGL: You participated in the TV shows The Amazing Race and Survivor, what were the differences between your experiences? How did they change you, and what did they bring to you?

MW: As a writer, one, I spend a lot of time alone, and two, at the computer. I have spent a lot of time feeling like an observer of things and there are parts of me as I get older that want to participate, I don’t want to just observe. I don’t know, maybe also be seen, because you are always in a cave at your computer. I liked the idea of playing those games, having an adventure, and participating in these shows that I enjoy watching for the character study aspect of it, because the people are so weird.

The Amazing Race was so impacted by the fact that my father played with me. It was so interesting to have this experience with him as an adult and as he was getting older: being teammates, competing, and having these observed experiences. It was very transformative for our relationship, but it was also stressful. Survivor wasn’t as stressful, it was more like a slow psychological torture. You are with people in a very existential kind of situation where it is like Sartre with No Exit, sitting on the beach trying to get rid of each other. It was fun to be in an immersive game like that, but in a way it was easier than The Amazing Race, because The Amazing Race is so stressful and a lot of it hinges on luck - you get a bad taxi driver, and it is over. On Survivor you feel more in control, but you are also not eating, not sleeping and with crazy people for 39 days. With Survivor they asked me, “Would you go back again?” and I feel like I had that experience and I know what that is, but with The Amazing Race there are new places to see and different kinds fun to be had. Survivor is not exactly fun.

TGL: Do you see screenwriting as a game?

MW: No, I don’t. I feel like the business of Hollywood is a game, the entertainment world is a game, and getting movies made can be a game. I am competitive in situations even where there is no competition, so that part is a game, but the actual making of something to me comes from a different strain. It is not a competitive thing or a game, it is art.

TGL: What do you think makes a good film?

MW: For me, a good film is something that feels like I am experiencing something very new, often authentic, and where the emotional ride of it is very vital. I would also say that a good film is where you feel that the maker of the film, the filmmaker, the writer, or whoever, is very conscious of what they are doing. They have a real vision and they are able to execute it; I don’t like things that feel undigested. You can have a strong reaction to stuff or a strong emotional reaction to things, but if you don’t feel like the creator has a full blown conscious perspective on what they are making, it is less interesting to me. It can be an interesting experience, but I don’t know if it makes a great piece of art.

TGL: In an interview you said that you are seeking something. What are you seeking?

MW: When I was younger, I was trying to see if I could find myself in the work and learn about myself from what I was making. I used to think that my life was being used to make art, but as I get older, I feel like the art is really used to enhance my life. Now the things that inspire me to write are a gateway to places that I want to go, people I want to work with, or some kind of experiences that sometimes I can’t even fully articulate. I want to use my work to have this aspirational experience, either while making it or the thing itself at the end or to feel it when I watch it. As I get older, I am seeking new feelings. I am less interested in myself except when myself is a way to get a new feeling from the art or the process of making the art.

TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?

MW: That’s a good question…Well, the writer that I talked about before is still alive, Stephen Sondheim, who wrote all these musicals and had such an impact on my creative life. He was also so prolific and came out with another musical every year or two years or whatever. I find that interesting, and I would definitely have enough questions to fill a meal.

TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?

MW: I don’t know if anyone should take advice about life from me, but for me, I have always chased freedom and being free. I think this comes back to this existential question: I don’t want the compromises of life, whether it’s bills, or other people’s demands on my time, or other people’s agendas, to impinge upon me. I feel like I am writing my own life, the life that I live at the end will be a life that I wrote and I chose for myself. I get a lot of happiness out of feeling like I own my life, and for me, that is the key to being content both as an artist and as a person. That is probably why I don’t have kids, I just don’t want to feel like I had to give up too much of my creative mind and my time and my choices to someone else.