Mike White first started receiving acclaim for his writing with a mix of high concept comedies (Dead Man on Campus), television shows (Dawson’s Creek), and Sundance darlings (Chuck & Buck) that led up to the 2003 hit School of Rock, directed by Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black. A few years later, White would try his hand at directing with Year of the Dog, another Sundance movie starring Molly Shannon.
Ten years later, White returns behind the camera for Brad’s Status, a film starring Ben Stiller as Brad Sloan, a man experiencing a mid-life crisis, jealous of his friends’ success while touring Massachusetts colleges with his son Troy (Austin Abrams). White appears as one of Brad’s more successful friends along with Luke Wilson, Michael Sheen, and Jemaine Clement. Jenna Fisher from The Office plays Brad’s wife, but much of the movie is just Stiller and Abrams engaging with each other.
The Tracking Board sat down with White at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where Brad’s Status had its World Premiere mere days before its theatrical release.
This seems like a very personal story for you, maybe more than other stuff you’ve done, so what got you started on this idea?
You know, I don’t know. Over the years I’ve seen kind of personal movies of some contemporaries where I know the person to be cravenly ambitious and so focused on their work, but then their movies are about this slacker guy who’s in love with a girl, like romantic comedies. So I’m like, “This is not you at all. This is not what you spend most of your time thinking about.” I wanted to write something that really speaks to this kind of ambitious personality, some who wants to be impressive and then, because of it, is subsequently comparing himself to the impressiveness of others and looking to some outside externals to like prove that he’s successful. It took me a while. I mean, I was floating around the ideas. It was only after I came up with the idea of the father/son storyline to hang it on that it like started to gel into a movie.
I’m not a father myself, so I really couldn’t relate to that part of it, but I think everyone can relate to trying to achieve one’s full potential. What I immediately found funny about the movie was that you show a lot of the other characters only through Brad’s imagination or via phone calls, then you cast the likes of Luke Wilson and Michael Sheen to play them. What led you to that sort of structure where much of the cast never appears in scenes with Ben?
There have been movies about ambition but the ones that I can think of are like Wall Street, or Scarface, or Citizen Kane. These kind of larger than life titans of industry, or some guy coming up through a rags to riches story or something in that world. To me, I wanted to do something that was much more observational, and so that on the face of it, he’s just going through his day and there’s not that much plot, but inside his head, he’s just up and down all the time.
Brad’s running inner monologue drives the movie, and there’s so much first-person narrative. Have you ever written anything else like that which utilized that sort of running narrative to such a degree?
Enlightened, the show I did with Laura Dern, we used voice-over in certain ways, but this is more extreme than that. With her, it was like bookends to the story.
What made you think of Ben for the role of Brad? He’s a great writer and director in his own right and he’s done other movies with Noah Baumbach that bears similarities, so what made you want to partner up with him for the movie?
My hope was that Ben would relate or respond to the material. I just feel he does this kind of urban, ambitious guy, kind of a high-strung guy, but I also felt it would be fun to make it seem like maybe it’s a little bit of a more familiar type of Ben Stiller movie, then start subverting it with these more melancholy strains and more sort of nuanced moments and kind of subvert the audience’s expectations, I guess.
As you were writing this, did you see this as a bigger movie than some of your earlier indie work, even though it’s still only a few characters and not a ton of settings?
I wanted it to be intimate, which it is, but I also felt like it would be nice to open it up, especially since it is so much about comparative anxiety to really see the lives of these other guys and try to get the sort of wealth of it, or the aspirational aspects of it. I mean, it’s the kind of movie where I would have liked to have $20 million to make it and really sell the wealth, but I felt like it landed at the right place for it.
What about finding Austin Abrams to play Ben’s son? I’m not sure if I’ve seen him in anything before this.
Yeah, he’s done some credits, I had never seen anything he had done, but he just put himself on tape and he seemed so natural. It was seeing his audition where I was like, “Oh gosh, we can make this movie.”
How was it working with Ben? Although he’s written and directed his own movies, he also seems able to compartmentalize and just be an actor. Is it helpful having someone with those other experiences?
In this situation, yeah, definitely it was helpful because he is not trying to direct the movie for me, but there are moments where you know he knows so much, and he has so much production experience, that there were moments where he would reset or change. He was just helping me, where I was like, “Oh God, this guy knows exactly how to help.” Whether it was working with another actor, like just the set-up, and there were times where I think the reason we were able to make our days and he was so prepared. He doesn’t come at it just as the actor and the character, he also knows that his character is there to tell a story, and that’s pretty unusual.
What were some of the surprises you had while making the movie? Is there anything that you learned about yourself or your filmmaking either while filming this script or in the edit room, maybe something you didn’t think about while writing the movie but surprised you later?
Well, I mean to me what’s been interesting is that this is like a mid-life crisis white guy story, and what I guess I’ve been gratified is by how many people of all ilks have been like, “Have you been listening to my thoughts? Have you been following me around?” and how many people have said to me, “I am Brad.” So, that has been gratifying. It turned out to be a more emotionally-heavy movie than I guess I originally expected. I knew that there was a heart to it, but I think this sort of existential angst when it’s really enacted up there and done like real, I think people are really feeling it.
You also wrote Beatriz at Dinner, one of my favorites from Sundance this year, and it also did pretty well for an independent film. What was the impetus for that one?
That one, I had just started reading the paper and started to feel like I wanted to weigh in on some of the stuff that was going on during the election. I had met with Salma (Hayek) and I was trying to come up with an idea of something for her, and it just sort of gelled around this idea of having a dinner party and having somebody who had access to some Trump-like guy who was starting to spin out over it.
Did that come together pretty fast? I mean you were thinking about the election that was literally last year, and the movie was at Sundance in January. Was it literally that fast?
Well, I wrote it in the end of summer 2015, and Trump had started his campaign, but I had no idea that he would end up being the Republican nominee and then the President. I actually thought, “Oh gosh, maybe by the time this movie comes out this will feel really dated like Trump is like an old dead horse or something,” but then he won and I was like, “Oh my God.” By the time we premiered it at Sundance, it was like, this is just too depressing, but this is now so prescient.
It was really interesting to watch it mere days before the inauguration. I want to back up a bit, because you’ve been a writer for a long time, but what originally made you want to get into directing your own stuff? Do you generally know when you are writing something, that you might want to direct it?
Well, this one I knew I wanted to direct it. Beatriz, I knew I wanted Miguel to do it. It kind of depends. I mean, I’m not somebody who … I’m a writer first, and I’m not somebody who needs to be back on set, so that’s why it’s been a long time since I directed a movie. I enjoyed doing this last one, so I hope that I will do it again, but it all depends on the material. This one seemed totally specific and it was going to be hard to try to explain to a director, how I want it specifically to be interpreted, so maybe I should just do it myself.
I’ve spoken to so many writer/directors who eventually just decide they don’t want to spend two years writing their next movie, so they start looking for other scripts to direct.
Yeah, I like the writer’s life, I got to say. It’s like managing a ton of people is not necessarily my bag.
You’ve been getting further into television in recent years by developing your own shows. Do you find there’s more of an openness to your type of humor and storytelling there?
I mean to me, the world of premium (television), whether it’s Amazon and Netflix or HBO, doesn’t seem that different than movies I make. The only reason I wasn’t running back to TV after Enlightened was just like the amount of volume is higher, and I write all the episodes, so the burden of that is heavier. It’s sort of like I’ll go back to TV when I really feel like I have a whole built-out world where I really feel I can spend that much time and energy on.
Any idea what you’re going to be doing next?
I think I may go back and do a limited series for Amazon, but it’s still at the very basic main stage.
When I spoke to Jim Jarmusch last year, he was raving about working with Amazon, and he was doing independent film long before anyone else. What did they bring to making a movie like Brad’s Status?
They really provided the resources to make it in a way that we could do it the right way, and they were really supportive, so similarly, I only have nice things to say.
Brad’s Status opens in select cities on Friday, Sept. 15 with plans to expand to other cities later.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor