Host: The first season of HBO's, White Lotus chronicled the visit to a Hawaiian resort of a select group of the very, very privileged, a tech mogul and her family, a pair of newlyweds having second thoughts, and an heiress whose grieving and in need of therapy.
Tanya McQuoid: When I saw my mother's ashes hit the water, it just reminded me of sprinkling fish food in an aquarium and I was just like, "Oh my God, am I feeding my mother to the fishes?"
Host: All the while, the resort's manager is having a complete meltdown that's both hilarious and harrowing to watch. New Yorker staff writer Naomi Fry, called the show a near-note-perfect, tragic comedy.
Naomi Fry: When I first watched the first season of White Lotus, I was really interested in its combination of scathing critique and just basic plot enjoyment. It was about watching a bunch of rich people in a luxury resort supposed to be having the time of their lives and through a series of events having the worst time of their life, pretty much. It also said something bigger about where we are right now as a society.
I think it's fairly rare that a show manages to do both of these things without being too ponderous or too flimsy. I think one of the things that interested me to talk about with Mike White, he's a very successful writer and creator, he wrote movies like School of Rock, and he's a very well-respected and successful screenwriter and producer. Another funny and interesting thing about him that maybe some people don't know is that he's also a huge fan of reality competition shows and has even participated in a couple of those shows himself, he was on Survivor on The David versus Goliath season, a few years ago, and he was also on The Amazing Race where he partnered up with his father.
The issues that come up in those reality shows that have to do with status, competition, and power relationships between people are also I think evident in White Lotus and what he does in White Lotus.
Host: Season Two of the show has just premiered set this time in Sicily, Naomi Fry sat down with the creator, Mike White.
Naomi Fry: Was it your hope from the get-go that this would be part of kind of series, like, "Okay, each season will concentrate on another location, and the connecting thread would be that these are all part of this-
Mike White: Hotel.
Naomi Fry: -hotel franchise basically?"
Mike White: To be honest, the first one was just such a one-off flyer, there was no big design to what would follow. I'd always tried to figure out how to do this. When I was on The Amazing Race-
Naomi Fry: WIth your father, right? Your father was your partner.
Mike White: -I was always like, "This is so cool. I would love to be able to simulate this in my own wheelhouse of scripted stuff and figure out how to travel and go new places and, and have a life adventure while I was still trying to make something artistic." I had this idea for a honeymoon show which was basically, we can have this Amazing Race experience where it's like a couple on an ambitious honeymoon and you follow them and one of them realizes that now they know the person in a way that they didn't know prior to traveling. Then in the back of my mind, I was like, "Maybe we could do this again, new characters."
The misbehaving actors from the first season that I don't want to bring back I can just dump. Not that there were any it's just that idea I can start fresh. I'm not somebody who is really that interested in keeping a franchise going creatively, because after a while it just feels like a job. [laughs] It's like, "I don't want a job." This felt great, I can bring in new people, tell a new story, go somewhere new. To me, that's cracking the code for just my own personal druthers.
Naomi Fry: Because you like to travel? Does that mean anything? [crosstalk]
Mike White: The experience we had in Sicily, I can start crying. That's the life I always wanted as whatever a middle-class kid growing up in a homogenous persevering just like, "Go and shoot in Asia, go shoot in Europe. Get out of my little--" Now I'm spoiled so unless it's like firing on all of these lifestyle pistons it's just now or never, forget it. I never want to drive on the 405 to a stage in Burbank again. [crosstalk]
Naomi Fry: Right. That's interesting because in a way that parallels the experiences of at least some of the characters on the show. The idea of being able to leave your life behind and go and become this new thing is something that the show is about in a way. Does that idea interest you?
Mike White: I also think that traveling, especially vacationing, it's very ripe with just the existential experience, which is like, "Who am I? What do I want? What do I want?" In a vacation too, it's like you're seeking pleasure, you're seeking some kind of-- I don't know, I always feel stupid talking about-- I do like existential comedies or whatever. It's like that people who are searching for meaning in their life and what is the life I want to live and not so much situational stuff. I just felt like, I was like, "This definitely feels like it's a piece of the things I like to get into when I write."
Naomi Fry: For sure. I know that you wrote the first season on your own, which is not completely typical, I think, right? The second season, did you write it on your own? Did you have a writers' room?
Mike White: I used to have a writers' room when I first started making shows-- I only made four shows, but the first two had writers' rooms. The writers would write their scripts, and I would look at it, and I'd be like, "This isn't written by me." It wasn't alive unless I was immersed in it somehow. It's the part of the job that I don't want to subcontract it out. I don't see myself as a producer, I look at myself as a writer who is finding different ways to do it. For me, it was over time, I realized it may limit the show's point of view, there's criticism that comes, I guess, and especially lately of someone being the sole creator.
For me, if I wasn't able to do that, I'd go write a book or I'd find some other medium because I don't want to interpret someone else's writing. That's just not what I'm about.
Naomi Fry: Right. Although that's interesting because I know you to also be a very successful writer for hire on other people's projects.
Mike White: Yes, which is the writing part.
Naomi Fry: Sure.
Mike White: I've never really directed somebody else's work. I've produced but I hated it. I like being helpful in those situations plus it's nice to get paid.
Naomi Fry: Let's talk a little bit about this season, it seems that the focus, the thematic focus is more about sexual politics and the ways people interact with each other and have conflict with each other and have conflict resolution with each other and so on, is through the sexual realm.
Mike White: Yes, the first season was a lot about money and how it impacts all relationships. Because we shot in Hawaii, it did obviously give in to colonialism and different macro elements of that same idea. I was worried about trafficking in that again, because I was like, "I'm just going to get dragged." I felt like we got through the first season, we're just, by the skin of our teeth just because they were just like I don't know-- There were fierce criticisms from certain people about me as a creator touching on these topics.
Naomi Fry: As a White man and so on.
Mike White: Exactly. I didn't know if I had the stomach to go through that again. I was like, "I think we need a new theme in general." I had a different idea, but then when we got to Sicily, there were all these tested De Mora heads. The test of De Mora is about sexual jealousy and adultery. I just was like, "Maybe that's where we start this." There's just still this unfettered machismo that you associate with Sicily and this old-world way of dealing with issues and patriarchal street way of handling conflict. It's just like--
Naomi Fry: It's less woke than "In America"-
Mike White: In a certain way.
Naomi Fry: -in their imagination.
Mike White: Yes, for some, it's like a nightmare, and for some, it's like a bucolic fantasy of how men could still be men and you know.
Naomi Fry: Sure.
Mike White: It just felt like I was like, "This is funny," and then I had this idea of there are three generations of American men in different stages of their relationship to being a man. Yes, I pivoted to that theme.
Speaker: It just seems like the body will naturally stop getting horny once you're past the age of procreation like at 50, you just stop.
Speaker: 50? 50 is not that old.
Speaker: It just seems undignified.
Speaker: I'm still variant by the way. I could still impregnate a woman.
Speaker: No girl should have to be exposed to an old guy's junk.
Speaker: It's not like it was ever so beautiful to look at anyway. I mean, it's a penis, it's not a sunset.
Mike White: The thing that always interests me about sex and I think is what saturates the show is this kind of the animal in us, the monkey in the man, and how as much as we want to be virtuous or dignified or upstanding individuals, there's this antic force in us that motivates us and pulls the rug out from under us. Without sounding forty in it, I just think that imbues life in every-- An actress talking about, "What's my motivation?" It's like the motivation of sex is always primary, I think.
Naomi Fry: Right. I mean, there's nothing more interesting than sex and money, I think.
Mike White: It turns out that's true.
Naomi Fry: Speaking of money, and I know you've spoken about this a little bit about what it's like being interested in writing and making a show about status, money, and power. Dealing with that but also being at a point in your life in which you yourself are quite powerful and-- [laughs] Our listeners can't see. I can see Mike on Zoom and his eyes are opening wide and his smile is absolutely explosive.
I mean you can admit that you're coming to writing about this note of issues, not from the place of aspirant but as a person who in some ways has arrived, or maybe one never arrives. Maybe that's another thing.
Mike White: I know. It's definitely why sometimes criticism is lobbed just as a person going through the world and being seen in a certain way. My observations or what I'm creating is suspects because, yes, I have money and I haven't given it all away. I'm not walking with the poor like my dad always told me that we were supposed to if we-- My dad was a minister and was-- He didn't believe rich people should even own houses. I grew up in a rich community but we were not rich. I always was fascinated and repelled by the rich people. I guess I will always see myself as someone from the outside looking in whether I'm not that or not.
I think it holds true to just my writing in general, which is, I like to put out there the flawed human characters and not try to create idealistic flattering characterizations of people but at the same time, see that they are human or whatever. I don't know how to do it any other way. It's like either don't come to my class or whatever, I don't know.
Naomi Fry: Yes. No, I know. I think it's honest. There's a thing I often say to my husband which is like, the first step is to admit that you're part of the problem.
Mike White: The problem is old as time itself. It's like it's not like the-- This is a historical reality that I will never be pure. It reminds me of Survivor, which was like I went on Survivor and you're like you see yourself as the underdog of the story. Everyone does. Elon Musk, I'm sure feels like he's the underdog of the story, like, he's coming in and changing the system and he's finding all these obstacles and he's going to come in and he's going to be the fighter.
Everyone feels that way. I feel that way. I feel like I'm like this weirdo kid who never fits in. I was like this weird writer, and then I get on Survivor which I've always been like, "Oh, that'd be so cool to play in," I've always identified with the underdog. I've always fought. One is the underdog when I just naturally associate with the underdog and gravitate to those stories, and then you get on there and they're like, "Oh, you're a Goliath."
I was like, "I'm a Goliath? What?" Then you're like, "Oh, yes, I am a Goliath. Not only am I a Goliath, but I am the hill, I'm the villain in this story."
Naomi Fry: You're the hill.
Mike White: I look across and I see all of these Davids and I'm like, "Oh, this is a story about them overcoming me and I'm the bad guy," and it's like-- I see that largely in my own career which is like- It was always just whatever, it's this outsider who was determined to write stories that were not about the beautiful people. It wasn't about sex. It's like, here I am and the biggest success of my career is about writing about hot people on vacation.
Naomi Fry: Yes, like beautiful people fucking in paradise. Yes.
Mike White: It's just like there's a part of me, the 22-year-old in me is like, "What have I done?" At the same time, it's just like, "This is just this natural stage of life." I don't know. I'm just going places. It's like, "Yes, if you reject me, go ahead, whatever," but I just feel I'm being true to what I'm seeing around me. Again, I hope that I'm not writing this show for the rest of my career or that I can expand beyond whatever the ideas of this show but it does feel like it's like if you're taking a snapshot, I am being true to the things that I'm thinking about right now.
Host: Mike White speaking with staff writer Naomi Fry. Season two of White Lotus premiered last week.
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