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Mike White, creator of HBO’s hit pandemic comedy-drama series The White Lotushas, in his own words, “been making stuff for a long time”.
The writer, producer, director and actor made his debut in the late 1990s. Early in his career, he wrote episodes of the television series freaks and geeks and Dawson’s Creek. He also wrote the 2003 hit film Jack Black. school of rock, wrote and directed the films year of the dog and Brad Statusand created another HBO series, Enlightened.
You may also remember him as a candidate for a reality TV show: he participated in two seasons of Fantastic race with his father and was a finalist on Survivor.
But nothing was like the success he had with The White Lotus, for which he won Emmys for writing and directing. The show also won Best Limited or Anthology Series.
“I just feel like a surfer who’s been in the ocean for like 25 years and suddenly caught a wave,” he says.
The White Lotus speaks of the staff and wealthy guests of five-star luxury hotels in beautiful, scenic settings. Although the sets look like heaven, guests struggle with their own issues.
The first season was set in a White Lotus hotel in Hawaii and focused on class, money, and rights. Season two is set in a resort hotel in Sicily and revolves around the sex lives of its main characters – from infidelity to sex addiction to sex work – and the suspicion, jealousy, misdeeds and chaos that sometimes ensue.
Like Season 1, it opened with a mysterious death, a plot that White says was a revelation to him.
“When that first season became such a water cooler show [that] people were talking, I was like I only knew if I put a corpse in the beginning of Enlightenedmaybe people would have looked Enlightened“, he says. “You realize that these types of hooks really attract viewers.”
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That’s not what motivates him, says White, but of course he loves when people see and are involved in his work. So perhaps these mysterious deaths – which White describes as constructing an “operatic or tragic” ending for the characters – will be a defining feature of the white lotus series.
“It’s clearly something that sparks interest in the show. People will decide at the end whether it’s satisfying or just a device, but at this point I’m excited for the finale,” said White said. “As someone who works on the fringes, it’s kind of nice to have viewers.”
The season finale will be released on December 11.
On Season 2’s Focus On The Dark Side Of People’s Sex Lives
Initially, I had another idea. … And then we went looking for hotels and we went to the hotel we finally chose, which was in Taormina [in Italy], Palazzo San Domenico, which is a renovated convent. And it’s just a very spectacular hotel. It seemed like the perfect place to put on the show. … The original idea was more [about] heavyweights in business, more on power.
And then I got there and I said to myself, this is not the right place for this kind of subject. It gave me the idea to focus more on sexual jealousy, adultery and infidelity and a kind of more lyrical bedroom farce. [In] the first season we talked a lot about privilege and how money is used as a wedge between relationships, both intimate and even superficial. And I just felt like maybe we should try not to repeat that same idea and I just felt like sex was always such a fertile topic to explore. The place kind of forced my hand.
On directing a lot of sex scenes
As a director, I’m very shy about asking people to get naked and get into sexual situations. It’s not my wheelhouse. There were definitely times on that shoot where I was, what did I get myself into? My clumsiness threshold is very low. The actors are much more confident and uninhibited than me. It was new ground for me. It just felt like it was important because it’s really integrated into the narrative.
It’s funny, though, how now that the show is airing, how much you realize that a graphic sex scene or a sex scene that’s sort of titillating for various reasons just goes up in arrow and generate interest in the population, for better or for worse.
On how his time as a candidate on Survivor influenced the show
Survivor isn’t that different, which is often the case for people wondering who’s tending the fire or are hungry because they haven’t had anything to eat. But then the music makes it sound like it’s going to end badly for someone. And then you have these shark transitions in the water. And I was like, we do this in White Lotus. … I have to bear to be influenced by Survivor and those shows where you have a device that feels like it’s a built-in cliffhanger.
On the influence of television since his youth
I’m definitely in the fantasy island [and] love boat generation. I was probably 10-13 when they were at their peak. And I love those shows. My other favorite show is Laverne and Shirley. The two prostitutes of [The White Lotus]I was like, there’s something very Laverne and Shirley here about these girls, because Laverne and Shirley were always trying to sneak into the party they weren’t invited to and they were these working class girls.
When you’re on HBO and there’s all this feeling of “This is prestige TV and blah, blah, blah”, I basically do a reboot of Laverne and Shirley meets fantasy island with a certain Survivor fell into it. I think those early entertainment things that capture your imagination definitely stay with you.
On how even in heaven people take their problems with them
I think the show tries to address that a bit in a macro as well [way] that when you’re rich and don’t have situational problems with money, your problems become existential. You have all the tools to understand your life, and you cannot understand your life. If you’re in a dark, urban, dystopian place, you can always say, “Oh, it’s my surroundings that make me depressed.”
But if you’re in heaven and you feel like something’s missing or you’re melancholic or tortured, you know that’s not the ambient nature of what’s going on – it’s something in you.
Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio for this interview. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Maureen Pao adapted it for the web.