AFS Moviemaker Dialogues: Writer/Director Mike White


Mike White Master Class

While in town to celebrate the 10th anniversary of The School of Rock, writer/director/producer Mike White took the stage with Austin Chronicle managing editor Kimberley Jones to talk about some of his past work. I was surprised at the relatively low turnout -- less than half the Marchesa was filled. Unlike the last Moviemaker Dialogue I attended, there was not much delving into how White (who scripted The School of Rock) started writing, or even his history here in town. Perhaps because there was only a little over an hour to discuss White's career, the conversation touched on only five of his works.

2000's Chuck and Buck, which White wrote and starred in, was nominated for many Independent Spirit Awards and won the award for best feature under $500,000. The clip we watched was the scene of Buck, played by White, presenting a homemade collage to his childhood friend Chuck (Chris Weitz, who would go on to direct About a Boy with his brother Paul).

Asked about choosing tone, White said that somewhere in between drama and comedy "feels right to me."  He commented that movies aren't fully able to depict how complicated people really are, but that they serve as a way for us to realize "there are other experiences other than your own."

Conversation about The Good Girl (2002) brought up his love of voiceover, which he thinks helps to create more of an "immersive film experience." He repeatedly said during the evening that his films are very subjective. White wrote and appears in this movie about a small-town grocery store worker (Jennifer Aniston), limited by her lack of imagination and considering an affair with a younger man (Jake Gyllenhaal). No clip was available, but Jones asked White about his tendency to write female-led stories. He said there seem to be unlimited options story-wise for female characters, and always new things to discuss.

The School of Rock, the most flat-out comedic screenplay White says he's written, was scripted with Jack Black in mind. Black and White used to be neighbors and White felt that Black deserved a chance to show his innate warm and kind nature onscreen. Director Richard Linklater kept his "eye towards authenticity" by choosing children with musical talent over past acting experience. White called the 2003 film, about a substitute teacher who forms a rock band made up of kids in his class, an "empowerment story for kids."

His first work as a director was 2007's Year of the Dog, a black comedy starring Molly Shannon as a quiet woman thrown off course by her dog's death. He wrote the story specifically for Shannon; he wanted  her in a quieter role than those she usually performed. As Peggy, she plays "someone finding her voice." The clip shown was an example of the movie's dark humor as Peter Sarsgaard's character weepily informs Peggy of some awful news.

White's most recent project was the show Enlightened, which he wrote, directed, produced and co-created with star Laura Dern. Despite a small, dedicated fanbase, HBO canceled the program after two seasons. White said the show was polarizing for the cable channel; they were fine with the annoying aspects of the lead character, but found some things too depressing. 

A clip we were shown from first-season episode "The Weekend" contained lines White told us he kept in despite pushback from the channel: "The baby died. The dog died. The heart broke." The scene was poignant and beautiful -- it's difficult to imagine it being so without those words to give it such heft.

Before questions from the audience were taken, Jones asked White about his preference for A plots. "I don't really like B stories," he said, saying he much prefers the subjective viewpoint to the objective.

Questions ranged afterwards from work his production company does to advice for current writers. He said as he was growing up, one of his teachers was Sam Shepard's mom; therefore, White started reading screenplays at a young age. As far as whether he prefers working in TV or film, White confessed, "I care more about the story."

I was unable to ask my own question about whether his stint on reality competition show The Amazing Race impacted current or future projects (honestly, it didn't really fit with the flow of the other questions asked). Otherwise it was a nice evening spent learning more about one of the wittier minds in entertainment right now.

[Photo credit: Mike White Master Class by Charles Ramírez Berg. Used with permission from Austin Film Society.]