Director Mike White Unpacks The Impulse To Compare In 'Brad's Status'

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 11, 2017 2:15 pm

You know that feeling when you envy someone because they're more successful, or you think they have a better life? That kind of jealousy can hit you in an almost physical way, even though you know better.

The new film Brad's Status is all about that feeling. It stars Ben Stiller as Brad, a husband and father taking his son to visit colleges like Harvard and Tufts. The trip gets Brad thinking about his own college friends, who are much more successful that he is. Brad feels like a failure, and he's jealous of his son's options. Through a series of voiceovers in the film, he questions the choices he's made in life.

Brad's Status was written and directed by Mike White, who also created the HBO series Enlightened and wrote the films School of Rock, Nacho Libre and Beatriz at Dinner. White says his latest film was born of his own status anxiety — an anxiety that sometimes keeps him up at night.

"I find when I'm in that kind of frame of mind, it's so embarrassing to talk about with other people. ... There's something just so not cool about it that I was like, Maybe there's something to unpack here."


Interview Highlights

On the universal nature of status anxiety

It's funny because I gave the script to Ben Stiller, who is the star, and if anyone's successful in our business as a contemporary of mine (he's a few years older) it's Ben Stiller. He's had a huge Hollywood career, and he was like, "I so relate to this character." ...

Everybody has their different trip. A lot of people, they want to be impressive or they want to have a public persona or they want a voice in the public sphere, and I think those people tend to always want more. They get a dose of success and it's like a drug and they need more of it or they need it better. It becomes a compulsive life behavior. ...

He says it in the movie, but it's definitely a waste of time and energy. ... It's a universal situation, but I also think that now more than ever with social media and the way you can access people's lives through Googling each other or getting on Instagram, you're just kind of more aware of, like, the curated lives of your contemporaries. And I think that creates a sense of anxiety or a sense of lack and feeling like "Is somebody's vacation better than mine?" or "Is someone having a better life than mine?" And it is a high-end problem and absurd, but it is something that I think people contend with.

On how Brad envying his son reflects White's own relationship with his father

I think that because my dad was enlightened in a certain sense — and the progression of where his parents were at, versus the kind of parent he was to me — he really allowed me to try to just become the person I wanted to be, as opposed to put a lot of things on me. So I haven't struggled in the certain ways that he had to struggle.

And I think — I know he is happy and proud of his role as a parent. At the same time, I think sometimes I can see that because it was easier for me, because I didn't have his parents, I do sense that there's probably a part of him who maybe is jealous of that reality for me. Not like he doesn't wish the best for me. I just see it: It was just easier for me because of him. ...

It's slightly emotional because I realized that the whole heart of the movie is just me telling my dad that I love him. I'm grateful for him and I see him as a success.

On his own decision not to have children

I think not having kids — you can direct some of the energy that people do direct toward their kids toward the public sphere or different kinds of things that I think really are positive for society. I think that there's something great about not having kids. It's not just a selfish thing to be like, "I don't want to devote my life to caring for someone else." I think there [are] other things you can do with that energy.

On premiering Beatriz at Dinner (about a Mexican-born masseuse stranded at a wealthy client's house) just as Donald Trump became president

I was really grateful that I had written that movie, Beatriz at Dinner, because right at the inauguration is when we premiered it at Sundance. I think there's a time where you really feel like you want to be, as an artist, speaking to something relevant that's happening in the culture now. ... I was glad that I wasn't going and talking to the press about Nacho Libre at the moment where he was elected. I had this movie that really spoke to some of the issues that I think are facing the country. ...

You want to feel like you're part of the conversation. You feel sometimes, when your values are more vulnerable, it makes you want to dig deep and feel like, OK, there's really a role for the artist now. Whether the other side will listen to it, I don't know, but it feels like it's worth trying to weigh in on these kinds of values for our country.

Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know that feeling when you envy a friend because they're more successful than you or you think they have a better life than you do? And that jealousy hits you in an almost physical way, even though you know better? That kind of envy is what the new film "Brad's Status" is about. It was written and directed by my guest, Mike White, who also created the HBO series "Enlightened," wrote the films "School Of Rock," "Nacho Libre" and "Beatriz At Dinner," and wrote and directed "Year Of The Dog."

"Brad's Status" stars Ben Stiller as Brad, a husband and father taking his son to visit the colleges he's applied to, including Harvard and Tufts. The college trip gets Brad thinking about his college friends who have become much more successful than he has. He runs a nonprofit organization. They're wealthy and are big names in their fields. We get to know what Brad is thinking through a series of voiceovers, like this one from the beginning of the film. Brad is tossing and turning in bed, questioning choices he's made in life and feeling like a failure compared to his old college friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRAD'S STATUS")

BEN STILLER: (As Brad) So many friends from college have become successful. Nick Bascal (ph) was a big movie director in Hollywood, living this crazy, decadent life. Jason Hatfield (ph) had his own hedge fund. Obscenely rich. Owns three houses. A big philanthropist. Billy Wurstler (ph) sold his tech company at 40. He's already retired, living a life of leisure in Maui. Craig Fisher (ph) worked for the White House. He's written all these best-sellers. Always on TV. It's stupid to compare lives. But when I do, I feel somehow I failed. And over time, these feelings get worse.

GROSS: That's Ben Stiller in Mike White's new movie, "Brad's Status." Mike White, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the film. Why did you want to write about jealousy and always measuring your accomplishments against those of college friends who are more famous and more successful?

MIKE WHITE: I felt like I was wanting to write about, yeah, status anxiety. And I find that I sometimes, yeah, lie at night not necessarily in a jealous place, but I do feel like I have a relationship to my sense of where I stand in the world. You know, I wished I had been more success - I don't know. And I find when I'm in that kind of frame of mind it's so embarrassing to talk about with other people. And because I find it, like, a side of myself that is so kind of just so - not cool about it that I was, like, you know, maybe there's something to unpack here.

GROSS: And, you know, in your life, like, you're successful. Like, you've made movies. You've had an HBO series. And you could probably measure yourself against people who are far less successful than you who you knew from school and other people who have franchise films now and have made, like, a fortune several times over. (Laughter).

WHITE: Yeah. You know, it's funny 'cause I gave the script to Ben Stiller, who's the star, and he is, you know, I mean if anyone's successful in our business in - as a contemporary of mine - you know, he's a few years older but, you know, it's Ben Stiller. You know, he's had a huge Hollywood career, and he was like, I so relate to this character.

GROSS: You cast yourself in the role of one of Ben Stiller's friends who's become very successful in Hollywood as a director. His Malibu mansion is on the front page of Architectural Digest. And Stiller's character imagines this friend getting married, marrying the man he loved - 'cause there just has been a wedding to which the Stiller character wasn't invited - and in this fantasy that he has of that wedding, like, each of these two men are, like, smearing wedding cake on the other's face. And it's so much, like, it's, like, fun and funny and romantic all at the same time, and he's so jealous. Meanwhile he's in a wonderful marriage himself.

WHITE: Right. Well, I think comparative anxiety - and he says it in the movie, but - it's definitely a waste of time and energy. But I think it's just something that happens. And, you know, it's a universal situation. but I also think that now more than ever with social media and the way you can access people's lives through Googling each other or, like, getting on Instagram, that you're just kind of more aware of, like, the curated lives of your contemporaries. And I think that that creates this sense of anxiety or a sense of lack and feeling like, you know, is somebody's vacation better than mine? Or is someone having a better life than mine? And - and it is a high-end problem and absurd, but it is something that I think people contend with.

GROSS: Do you follow people on social media and do that kind of comparative thing?

WHITE: I try not to. But I do. I mean, it's hard, it's hard to avoid it. Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITE: Yeah. At one point I was on Instagram and I had, you know, followers and followed a lot of people and I was active on it, and then I started hating people that I actually like in real life just because of the way that they were sort of, like, presenting themselves through Instagram. And then I was like, I don't want to feel this way about these people, and then I started realizing that, like, I was looking at my own kind of curated, whatever, Instagram page, and I was like, gosh, you know, I'm sure there's times where I'm on some, you know, nice vacation or doing something fun and somebody's sitting in some, like, dark room who's a friend of mine who's like, great, yeah, thanks. I really needed to see that. Like, and you just go - I don't know. I just - I just became more self-conscious as I continued to participate, and then I just had to bolt.

GROSS: So since your film is all about that kind of always measuring who's more successful than you are and how come you are not more successful, what did success mean to you growing up with your father, Mel White, who has been on our show a couple of times and, you know, we've talked to him and we've talked to you about him. So your father was best known, well, best unknown we could say, (laughter) as a ghostwriter for books by evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker. But while he helped boost their success, he remained an invisible figure as a ghostwriter. But he was also invisible in the sense that he was gay and closeted during that period. He later not only came out, he became an activist. He became a minister to LGBTQ congregations. He started a group called Soulforce that was an LGBTQ group.

So anyways, growing up with this father who had to hide things about himself professional and personally, what did success mean? When you looked at your father, did you see somebody very successful or somebody hidden and invisible?

WHITE: Well, I definitely thought of him as a success and still do as somebody who was endeavoring to find his authentic self. And at much risk, personal and professional, you know, ended up having to speak his truth, for lack of a better cliche. And so I think of him as a success as a person. I admire him so much. I think as far as his own perceptions of success and, like, the more, like, external barometers of success, I think like Brad, he's somebody who devoted the last half of his life to nonprofits and activism. And, you know, sometimes I think it's - for him, I've seen that it's - you know, as he's retiring now and he has the money that he's left with to retire, I think there's moments where he questions, like, what did it all amount to? And what do I have to show for my life?

And, you know, you can be praised and people can say, oh, wow, that's really, you know, noble of you or whatever. But, you know, I think there are people that are his age that have a lot more in, just, in terms of material wealth and success in that sense. And, you know, different ways to think about success. And when he was retiring, it made me think about his own feelings maybe that, I don't know, maybe he wished he had more things to show, you know, for his life or something like that. And I don't - if you asked him he probably would have a much more wise kind of response to this, but that was my perception. And it made me think about what is the value of a life, and what is happiness as you look back on the life, and what's important?

GROSS: The frame of the film is that the Ben Stiller character is taking his son on a college tour because his son is a senior in high school. And his son is a very good musician and composer. And all the people at his school say, like, you can get into Harvard. You could get into the top schools because you're that good. And so they're going on a tour of Harvard and Tufts. And they live in Sacramento.

So this is, you know, it's a big trip to the East Coast. And why did you want to frame it on this, like, father-son college trip? You know, the wife and mother is home 'cause she can't leave work. She has a government job and she can't leave to get away for this trip.

WHITE: I grew up in Southern California. And I went back East with my dad and looked at schools. I also went once with my mother too. And I just remember that period of time was the first time where I had this intense status anxiety and that getting into colleges and being accepted was the first kind of referendum on, you know, what has led you to this point, like, your value and, like, what that means as far as your future.

And my parents went to an unaccredited Bible college. And, you know, they were not up to date on the Fodor's list of what's the best college. They didn't care, really. They just wanted me to be happy. But I was at this preparatory school that was very competitive, and I - and I just kind of lost the plot. It was like the first time in my life where I was just so spun out about, you know, if I get into this school, this means that and, you know, like, and other people getting into other schools.

And so I just, you know, as I was thinking about status and trying to find a location for this idea, it seemed like that might be the right time and place, you know, a kid who's about to apply to schools and that his father - you know, I think for parents, it is also another time where, you know, it's a referendum on their parenting. And it just seemed like even though I don't have kids, it just seemed like it was ripe for a lot of the ideas that I wanted to get out in the movie.

GROSS: And Brad, the father, the Ben Stiller character, seems to in some ways not only be jealous of his old college friends but to be jealous of his son because his son is young and he's going to college and it's going to be an exciting experience. And his son is incredibly talented. His son has a gift. And have you seen that with people actually being jealous of their children?

WHITE: Well, I think it's something that I - I mean, I don't want him - I was thinking about it in terms of my dad. And I think that, you know, my - because my dad was enlightened in a certain sense, and he - and the progression of, like, where his parents were at versus, like, the kind of parent he was to me, he was - he really allowed me to - I don't know - tried to just become the person I wanted to be, as opposed to put a lot of things on me. And so I haven't struggled in the certain ways that he had to struggle.

And I think he was - he - I think he - I know he is happy and proud of his role as a parent. And at the same time, I think sometimes I can see that because it was easier for me because I didn't have his parents, I think there's - I do sense that there's probably a part of him who - I don't know - maybe is jealous of that reality for me. And not like something that is like he doesn't wish the best for me, but just that, you know, I just - it's - I just - I see it. You know, it's just a little bit like - it's like - it was just easier for me because of him, you know. And I think...

GROSS: You OK?

WHITE: Yeah. No, I'm just - it's just - yeah. For some reason - yeah - it's slightly emotional because I realize that that - sorry - is like the whole heart of the movie is just me telling my dad that I love him. Yeah. And I'm grateful for him. And I see him as a success. Yeah. Anyway. Sorry. I just - it's like - yeah. So I think you just hit on, like, to me, the movie is me - it's a love - gift I'm trying to get at, in a sense, for my dad is one way of looking at it. Sorry.

GROSS: But I bet, unlike in the movie, that your father knows how you feel?

WHITE: Yeah. Oh, he knows. And he's not as tortured as Brad. He's not Brad. It was just, you know, it's like you get at these little things in you and then you try to turn it into ideas. And, you know, you try to make it more universal and - or, I don't know, specific in some other way. And so - but yeah, at the core of it, it really is - yeah - getting at, like, you know, I do think that life is a grassroots campaign, you know, where success is about, you know, starting with yourself and then starting with the people that are closest to you and building out from there, you know.

Like, and that if - you know, it's like - and I think that trying to find success from some kind of top-down campaign where it's like, oh, I won an Oscar so that means I'm a success. Or, you know, I have fans and that means I'm a success. Or I have all this wealth, that means I'm a success. Or I'm the president of United States and I, you know, like, I'm still tweeting late at night. You just see that - that's not going to, like, you know, like, really, you have to - yeah, it starts with you. And you have to - yeah - build out from just, you know, the dirt on the ground you stand on.

GROSS: Well, we should take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. And he wrote the film "School Of Rock." He created the HBO series "Enlightened." He has a new movie called "Brad's Status" starring Ben Stiller. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "FRONTIERS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. And he wrote and directed the new film "Brad's Status," which stars Ben Stiller. So when you went on a college tour with your father, was your relationship good enough at the time that you didn't have to, like, try to separate - you know how like some kids at that age are kind of embarrassed about their parents?

WHITE: Oh, yeah. No, I was...

GROSS: And you go into college and you don't want to be judged on who your parents are. You want to be judged on who you are, so, you know, you want to separate yourself from your parents.

WHITE: Right. Oh, no. I was at my worst. I was so - and I was convinced that, like, anything that my dad - my dad's very social and genial and extroverted and would interact with everyone. And I was just, like, in my head being like every bad encounter in my mind was going to be remembered forever and, like, I was never going to able to go to this school. And I was like - and the character in the movie that is played by Austin Abrams is like a lot more wise and grounded than I was.

But he, you know, I thought Austin - he was so - when he came in and auditioned, I was like, wow, he just nails this certain kind of thing where I think kids at a certain age - right when they're about to leave the house. - it's like everything their parents do is like nails on a chalkboard, but they don't really want to get into it because it just exacerbates the issue. So they just kind of like shut down and become kind of monosyllabic and just sort of like - it's like - you just sense that they're just trying to survive until they're free. And I just felt like that withholding thing he was doing but without being petulant or being kind of - I don't know - like argumentative was exactly the tone that I was like - that just felt so true to me. And he just brought that naturally.

GROSS: So, Mike, this is - your movie's a father-son story. And you don't have children. So if you don't mind my asking, I don't have children and so I'm always interested in hearing people's stories about this. When you watch friends who do have children and you wonder how your life would have been different had you had children - and you could still have them at some time in the future but you haven't yet. So when you look at your life, do you wonder how it would have been different, for better or for worse?

WHITE: I think I thought about that more, I think, in my 30s, but just about whether it was something I wanted and also feeling like that was something everyone was doing. And I was like, am I missing out on something? And especially - I don't know - as a writer, you think about things as far as like - I mean, and a writer meaning like as somebody who - it's like I want to get out of life with the most - I don't know - like, with the depth of life I guess and feeling like - having not had kids, I feel like I've, yeah, missed out on some essential aspect to life.

And I've - I'm constantly told by my friends who have kids that I am but, you know, in not necessarily direct ways but indirect ways. But I don't think about that as much anymore. And I don't really - I don't want kids. But I certainly have a lot of kids in my life and enjoy them.

GROSS: What kids do you have in your life?

WHITE: Well, just friend's kids. I'm the godfather to a bunch of, you know, two different kids. And I like being with the children and young adults. And I, you know, I enjoy that. And so I think there is a part of me that would have been a good father. And at the same time, I am just so tired.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: No, I just - I do think that, you know, and "Enlightened" kind of got at some of these ideas with Laura's character, which is, you know, some of the, you know - I think their - you know, not having kids, you can direct some of the energy that people do direct toward their kids toward the public sphere or different kinds of things that I think really are positive for society.

And I don't know, I think that there's something great about not having kids as well as, you know. You know, it's not just a selfish thing to be like, I don't want to, you know, like, devote my life to caring for someone else. I think there's other things you can do with that energy, I guess.

GROSS: My guest is Mike White. He wrote and directed the new movie "Brad's Status" starring Ben Stiller. We'll talk more after a break. And David Bianculli will review a TV series that just ended, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks: The Return" and a series that's just about to begin, David Simon's "The Deuce." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mike White, who wrote the film "School Of Rock" and created the HBO series "Enlightened." He wrote and directed the new film "Brad's Status," starring Ben Stiller as Brad, a husband and father taking his son on a tour of colleges he's applied to. The trip gets Brad thinking about how famous and wealthy some of his old college friends have become and how jealous he is of their success and their fabulous lives.

Now, you also cast Jemaine Clement as one of the college friends who's very successful, or at least Stiller assumes that he is. He's a kind of tech entrepreneur who's sold the business and retired in Maui. In fact, why don't we hear a scene? And this is the kind of funny Ben Stiller from early in the film. So Ben Stiller needs the phone number of one of the college friends so that he can ask for some help for his son at Harvard. And so he calls the Jemaine Clement character. And for people who don't know Jemaine Clement, he was in the HBO series "Flight Of The Conchords."

So here's the Ben Stiller character calling the Jemaine Clement character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRAD'S STATUS")

STILLER: (As Brad) Do you happen to have Craig's number? I wanted to ask him something, but I think that he changed it.

JEMAINE CLEMENT: (As Billy) Oh, yeah, I'll text it to you. I just saw him in L.A. at Nick's wedding.

STILLER: (As Brad) Nick got married to who?

CLEMENT: (As Billy) To Xavier (ph). It was actually very cool. It was a beautiful ceremony.

STILLER: (As Brad) Yeah, no, I didn't know about it.

CLEMENT: (As Billy) Oh, well, it was real small. Somebody asked about you, I forget who. They were, like, asking about, you know, where you were, or whatever happened to you or - I'm not - who was it? Who was it? Someone was saying, where's Brad? I remember that guy, Brad.

STILLER: (As Brad) Oh, well, I'm just - just been doing my thing.

CLEMENT: (As Billy) Dude, it's good to hear your voice. My dog took a [expletive] though, so I got to pick it up.

STILLER: (As Brad) OK.

GROSS: (Laughter) That was the ocean we heard in the background because he was walking by the ocean. So did you know Jemaine Clement from "Flight Of The Conchords"?

WHITE: I knew him - I knew his work from there. And we actually acted in a movie together, a little-seen movie by the name of "Gentlemen Broncos." And so I got to know him kind of well in this shoot. And, yeah, he just seemed like he'd be a funny person to - I just know that, like, with a - because of some of these smaller parts, you know, it's just really one side of a phone call, and a few flashbacks and stuff, so I was just was like, I need to - I need actors I know who can just kind of really create a presence in a really short period of time.

GROSS: So the character they're referring to who had the wedding that Ben Stiller's character was not invited to, you play that character who got married at that fabulous wedding. So you cast yourself in a small role as somebody who is very successful who the Ben Stiller character is very envious of.

It was interesting to see you cast yourself in such a successful role - somebody who's getting married to the man he loves, and it's a lovely wedding. And so how come you cast yourself in that role?

WHITE: Well, there was a practical reason which was that this character didn't really have any lines and - but at the same time had to be in a couple different locations. We shot in Montreal, and Boston and then Honolulu. And so it was like, OK, how are we going to get an extra? Like, we were on a limited budget.

So there was a practical reason that I did it. In fact, the director of photography of the movie plays my husband in those scenes. So we were kind of like, well, we're flying ourselves there; we can save some money. But I also thought it was kind of a funny idea because, well, one, I, usually, in the stuff I've played - in my own things, I'm usually the kind of sad sack, like, I don't know, loser at the computer or whatever.

And I thought that it would be, you know, just from a meta point of view that, you know, people might think I'm Brad. But, you know, like, I - you know, they - you can be on both sides of the same idea sometimes, that you can be the object of other people's envy while you're envying others. And I just thought it would be interesting to do that kind of meta thing, I guess.

GROSS: There's this scene where Stiller's character imagines his son being very successful, and he imagines his son on Jimmy Kimmel's show. And his son is, like, telling funny stories and then starting to tell stories about how crazy his father is. And Ben Stiller is just, like, lying in bed, watching his son, imagining - this all in his imagination. But he's lying in bed, watching his son on TV talk about how crazy his father is. And it ends up being just, like, a horrifying (laughter) experience for him. And I wonder where that comes from for you.

WHITE: Well, you mean, did - has that happened? Well, I mean, I was actually on - I was on Jimmy Kimmel and talking about just a funny story about my childhood and going to a religious summer camp where they would have rapture drills and various things that, like, traumatized me. And it was played as just comic anecdote, you know.

But I know that my dad, the next day, was like, you know, that makes me look like I, you know, sent you to some, you know - I - he was, like, kind of ruffled I guess by it because I think he took it as, like - you know, it made it sound like I had crazy parents that would allow, you know, me to be in a situation like that.

And so, yeah, there was a sort of moment from life that that's drawn from, which is, you know, it's - I did have a crazy upbringing because I was in a kind of conservative, Christian world. But my dad, you know, straddled it in a very - you know, it wasn't - my parents weren't crazy. But yeah, I think my dad is a little bit prickly about all of that, because I think he was a great parent, but I was exposed to a lot of dogma and some weird stuff.

GROSS: What is a rapture drill?

WHITE: A rapture drill is when we would wake up in the morning, and all the campers would get together, and they would be, like, rapture. And then you'd, like, raise your arms to the sky as if, like, you were - it's like a fire drill, but it was the rapture drill. So, like, all the good Christians will get, you know, I don't know, beamed up to heaven. And all of the sinners would be left to fend in the apocalypse.

GROSS: So in rapture drills, do you imagine yourself - do you always imagine yourself being lifted up to heaven or erased?

WHITE: Oh, no, that was the whole problem of religious summer camp because I just - the thing about me was I was just never - I don't - I never had that moment where I was like, I got it. I didn't know. Like, they would have these, like, former junkies come and speak to us, and - in front of a campfire, and tell us how they found Jesus under a bridge and changed their life. And then they would tell us to go out into the dark and accept Jesus into our hearts.

And then we would all be sent out into the night. And, like, I would be like, what is going on? And, like, I would go look for my friends. And then I'd be like, hey, you want to go hang out? And they'd be like, go away, I'm accepting Jesus into my heart. And I would be like, am I, like, am I the seed of the devil? And, like, I really felt like I was - I - yeah, I never really felt like I was going to get raptured, to answer your question. No.

GROSS: So were those rapture drills, like, an existential crisis for you?

WHITE: Yeah, no, it was like, I remember really being tortured. And I was like, get - you know, I'd send the letters home like, get me out of here. Like, I was - it was just so - yeah, it was very, you know, it was cultish (ph). But, like, on such a mass scale, it's, like, (laughter) it's beyond a cult.

GROSS: Well, I always find it interesting that, you know, your father managed to stay a Christian and maintain his beliefs even though he threw out a lot of the things that he thought were really negative and wrong like the prohibitions against being gay or lesbian because he came out and he wasn't going to deal with that anymore. And he participated in churches that, you know, welcomed LGBTQ people and built the church around those people. So, you know, like, he didn't have to abandon his faith even though he abandoned some principles that he was taught in the version of the faith that he was brought up with and that the people around him espoused.

And you didn't throw out - I don't know if you still go to church or not, but you maintain some kind of, you know, spiritual force in your life through, you know, meditation and studying Buddhism and, you know, whatever you've built around that.

WHITE: Well, it's definitely taken me - I mean, I'm now in my 40s. It's taken me a couple decades to realize how much I did get out of certain elements of this Christian upbringing. And I'm grateful for a lot of it, certainly the stuff that I got from my parents. You know, my mom is involved in really a sort of civic-minded Christian church and does a lot of great things. And I admire her and her friends and her church. And my dad, he instilled in us values that I think, you know, are really positive.

You know, he really believed in Jesus as someone who walked in solidarity with the poor and the outcasts of society. And he always, you know, it was the kind of you do unto others as you would have unto you and this feeling that Jesus could come back in any form. And even before he came out and became an activist, he was very much in solidarity with civil rights. And, you know, so there was a conservative part of it, but there was also a very kind of - I don't know - a very - something very enlightened about it, a real spiritual side that really was inclusive. And that, I really still appreciate and, I guess, draw on in my life still.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. And he directed and wrote the new movie "Brad's Status." He also was the showrunner, the creator of the HBO series "Enlightened." And he wrote the film "School Of Rock." We're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON'S BIG HAPPY FAMILY'S "LESTER")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike White. He wrote the film "School Of Rock," created the HBO series "Enlightened" and wrote and directed the new film "Brad's Status" starring Ben Stiller. White's viewing life includes watching reality shows. He and his father, Mel White, actually competed on the reality show "The Amazing Race." And Mike White's dogs were on the reality show "The Dog Whisperer" with Cesar Millan.

What do you like about reality shows?

WHITE: You know, I tend to find that even, like, the most kind of fabricated reality show sometimes can speak to human motivations and behavior better than, like, the most well-observed scripted show. And so - and sometimes when I'm watching scripted shows because I'm in the industry and I know all these people, a lot of them, I tend to get hyper mental. And sometimes, you know, at the end of the day, you're just trying to like kind of unwind.

It's like - it's just easier for me just - I don't know. It's like kind of just like - I tend to enjoy watching some of these reality shows, not a lot, but some of them just because I just feel like - I don't know - they're compelling to me in certain ways. And then they're also like - it's just a kind of a more relaxing way of deprogramming my brain at the end of the day.

GROSS: I'm wondering if the election of Donald Trump as president has affected your life as a writer or as a person in any way?

WHITE: Well, I was really grateful that I had written that movie "Beatriz At Dinner" because right in the inauguration was when we premiered it at Sundance. And I think, you know, I think there's a time where you really feel like you want to be, as an artist, speaking to something relevant that's happening in the culture now. And, you know, sometimes, you know, you're - I don't know - you, like - it's like I was glad that I wasn't, you know, going and talking to the press about, like, "Nacho Libre" at the moment where he was elected. I had this movie that really spoke to some of the issues that I think, you know, are facing the country.

And so - and that makes me more - so now as I'm, you know, trying to think of what to write next, you know, you want to feel like you're part of the conversation. You feel - sometimes when your values are more vulnerable, it makes you want to dig deep and feel like, OK, this is - there's really a role for the artist. Now, whether the other side will listen to it, I don't know, but it feels like it's worth trying to weigh in on these values for our country and - yeah.

GROSS: What was your early movie life like?

WHITE: Well, I was obsessed with movies when I was young. Now I can't seem to watch a single movie. But when I was younger, I would - I just - I really looked to movies to kind of, like, I guess, fill out my life education. You know, I did it with books too. But, you know, I felt like I was in a very homogenous culture.

I - you know, it was - I felt like movies kind of made me realize there is other lives going on. There's other kind of philosophies people live by. There's other, you know. And I guess I was hungry for all that. And so, you know, I watched movies. And I loved all kinds of movies. I was definitely a movie geek, I guess.

GROSS: You said that you can't watch movies anymore. What do you mean?

WHITE: I just find that, I mean, I do watch some of them. But I find that I - you know, there's so many things I would rather do with my time now. Like, it really - it isn't - you know, there used to be a time where I really wanted to see anything that felt like people were saying were culturally relevant or whatever. I just - I don't know.

Like, my time - it's like I just - it's like if I go into a movie theater and like five minutes in I'm not into it, like, I, like, I feel like I'm, like, trapped. And I was just like, I got to get out of here. So it's like - it's just - for some reason, I just find that it's like I've seen enough. You know, and I've spent enough of my life watching movies. Like, I don't feel like I need to do that anymore.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you think it's symptomatic that you're not that interested in movies now and maybe movies are losing their kind of stature in American consciousness?

WHITE: It's possible.

GROSS: Yeah.

WHITE: It's possible. I mean, I think television may be becoming more - I do think there's a - definitely a hunger for people to - I mean, certainly people are watching things as much as ever. I mean, bingeing things and watching things and - and, I mean, I don't think people have the ability to be bored anymore. They have to, like, constantly be feeding themselves entertainment. And I think that that for me, it's like I - and, you know, and that part of it I find kind of - that's the part that I find I'm tortured about having this career because I feel like I - you know, there's so much going on in the world, and it's, like, you know, the idea that everyone's at home bingeing on Netflix, it's just, like, it's, like, do I want to really be - I don't know, like, I don't know. Like, having - you know, I don't know, like, adding to the - just the content, like, out there.

But, you know, and so my hope is - or, like, what I'd like to think of myself as, like, I'm trying to make movies that ask people to go back into the world, you know? Like, engage in the world and not, you know, flee from the world but, like, you know, participate in it. And in the world outside just entertainment. And whether I'm successful of that or not, or if that's valuable or not, I don't know, but that's something that I like to - I don't know. That's what I endeavor to do.

GROSS: Well, Mike White, thanks so much for coming back on FRESH AIR. I always love talking with you. Thank you.

WHITE: Thanks, Terry. I love talking to you.

GROSS: Mike White wrote and directed the new film "Brad's Status" starring Ben Stiller. It will have its world premiere this weekend at the Toronto Film Festival and will open in theaters September 15. Coming up, David Bianculli talks about the end of Showtime's "Twin Peaks: The Return" and the start of the new HBO series "The Deuce." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.