Not all cinema is crafted with a personal resonance that connects it to its author, but ten years on from his directorial feature debut Year of the Dog (2007), Mike White’s sophomore feature Brad’s Status (2017) is the definition of personal filmmaking. Here he uses the film as a means to explore the foibles of his own personality. It’s a bold move from the filmmaker, especially as the process of releasing a film inherently positions one in a vulnerable position, regardless of whether or not it’s a personal work. White’s prolificacy lies not behind the camera directing, but as a screenwriter for films including The Good Girl (2002), School of Rock(2003) and Nacho Libre (2006). He also created and directed the HBO series Enlightened (2011-13), which he co-created with actress Laura Dern.
In Brad’s Status, introspective, middle-aged Brad (Ben Stiller) deals with anxious feelings as he accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of colleges. Questioning his sense of self, he compares himself to his distant friends and how even his son’s future will define him, amidst the nostalgic reminder of having once stood on the edge of tomorrow.
In conversation with PopMatters, White reflects on the formative years of encountering film and theatre, and the appeal of the printed word. He also discusses the desire to express an alternative side of himself than previously exposed in his television work, the conflict of creative and business motivations, and film as an ongoing spiritual journey.
Austin Abrams in Brad’s Status (2017) (Courtesy Vertigo Releasing)
Why filmmaking as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Well, I guess it goes back to childhood influences and being enamoured with the world of film and movies. I feel that was so influential to me growing up, it felt like it could be something that was both an exciting profession and that they could also be meaningful. So it wasn’t like I always intended to write movies or I wanted to be a writer, but I kind of fell into the wrong crowd and ended up being a screenwriter.
I recall Quentin Tarantino saying: “If you want to make films, watch films. If you want to write books, read books.” But I have also heard the contrarian opinion to pursue that which you are less familiar with. In terms of your early influences, were there any films or filmmakers that were a particular source of inspiration? And how do you view the importance of exposure to a creative medium as being integral to the individual pursuing it?
My story is that when I was in second grade my teacher was the mother of Sam Shepard, the playwright, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child (1978). That was the first time something lodged in my head that there are people that do that. As a kid I would go to the bookstore and look him up, look at plays or just the words on the page. There was something early on that just happened, that had some kind of resonance for me.
I was thinking I would end up being a playwright, but it’s just so cold on the East Coast [laughs] that I ended up back in Southern California. So I haven’t really pursued playwriting, but for me I actually disagree in the sense that I think Quentin Tarantino’s stuff is amazing, but there are a lot of references to other films. He’s a movie aficionado and encyclopaedia of shots and music. I’m not that, maybe I’m not the filmmaker he is, but I’m not somebody who feels like I need to see every movie that comes out. In fact when I was a kid I would watch tons of movies, but now I rarely see any. I think I’m more inspired by reading books or just living. It doesn’t mean I can’t get inspired by a movie, but Quentin is a very specific kind of filmmaker, a movie fanatic [laughs] and I’m not that.
I remember at one point — and this was ten years ago writing a sci-fi mystery with Edgar Wright, who is similarly like Quentin — a walking encyclopaedia. We were working on this script and he wanted to watch every single movie in the genre, and I remember being two movies in and saying: “I can’t do this” [laughs]. It was like an apothecary, this sacred church of B sci-fi movies and I just couldn’t do it.
There’s the idea that there are only so many archetypal stories, hence the same stories are being retold time and again. Is there a point when we become literate in storytelling with a familiar sense of the language that we no longer require such exposure to films or literature?
There’s always new stuff being made and I don’t think everything is as reductive as that, in the sense that there are only so many stories. As far as genre, it’s not that I’m not a fan, but it’s not what I go to movies for. If I’m going to make something, I want it to be vital, I want it to feel that it’s alive. Often films are very clever, but it feels as if they’re just a repurposing of other movies, more like a reference to other genres. At some point I’ve graduated out of feeling the need to do that. It doesn’t inspire me, it makes me feel dead [laughs].
What was the genesis of the idea for Brad’s Status and how do you approach the writing process? Do you write through images or words, or is it even a process of piecing the story together like a mosaic?
There are two different answers, I guess. The idea for Brad’s Status — I’d made a TV show called Enlightened (2011-2013) for HBO in the States. I had received some praise for writing a character with obsessive high-minded ideals who is going to make the world a better place with all these progressive values. I thought there’s another side to me too, petty and comparative, needing to be impressive and up late at night comparing myself to others. I think we all have a little of that, the embarrassing side of ourselves. So I thought or felt there may be something amusing to me and an audience about unpacking that.
As far as how I approach things, I’ve directed in my career, more so lately, but I do come to it as a writer, meaning I like words. I’m somebody that likes to sit and craft the dialogue and to create ideas through the words. As I’ve gotten older and more into the visual side, I have the facility to think in terms of the visuals. But I think people would say my stuff is more of a writer’s movie than just coming at it from more of a visual storytelling direction.
Across the decades the feel of film has changed. For example, the American gangster film of the ’40s has a different feel to the gangster film of the ’70s onwards. I asked Agnieszka Holland whether this goes beyond technological development to a more aesthetic consideration, and she offered the opinion: “…it is something more mystical – a mystery that is included in the particular film, and which doesn’t age.” The themes of Brad’s Status and the experiences of the character are not only universal, but timeless. Looking throughout film history there are films that belong to a certain period but the themes and ideas ensure a presential resonance. So while a film physically ages, its spirit or soul can endure.
It’s interesting to hear you unpack it like that. This is a heavy topic in some sense, in that I think it’s a spiritual endeavour, without sounding to hokey. But I feel that’s the thing about movies that I find still compels me to do it, and movies that I feel have aged with a soulful presence are the movies that still edify me. It’s hard to quantify what that is — you feel it when you feel it, but to me that’s the highest compliment you can make, that there’s a palpable soul or spiritual quality to it. That’s the timeless essence and in the end, especially as I get older, you question what it is you are trying to do.
I think there’s a part of me that’s trying to affirm this spiritual self that transcends the particulars of me, can live through the thing that I’m making, that then somehow lives on in others that are watching it. If you start thinking about it in those terms, I realise that idea and pursuit is why I still want to do it. But the other parts of it, of having a popular movie is the stuff that I feel ends up becoming more of a materialist perspective on the themes, which are the commercial aspects of it, and the selling of an aspirational quality. That stuff deadens me and it’s the other that feels like it’s something exciting to keep on doing.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2014), she explained: “You take it 90 percent of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” If the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I would say that I find there’s something satisfying and I also feel like it’s my cross to bear sometimes. I’ve made many things over my career that have had very different reactions. Some people walk away hating the protagonist and some see themselves in them; some people think it’s a comedy and some think it’s a tragedy. Some of the things I have made allow elastic interpretations and that’s challenging as a filmmaker because it doesn’t galvanise people; there isn’t a consensus in terms of allowing for criticism. Some people are, “I love this movie”; whilst others are, “I don’t want to see a movie about a guy like that”, and are completely perplexed.
As far as your question as a creative person and as the creator of it, I love that. As a businessman and somebody who wants my movie to be seen so that I can be allowed to keep on doing [this work], then it’s problematic. Movies where there’s more of a consensus and clarity about how people are supposed to feel about a character, and the movie itself, are an easier sell.
I just hope I can keep on making those kinds of movies because it is hard. A lot of gatekeepers are saying, “No, we want to like the protagonist. Why aren’t you doing this? What are we supposed to feel here?”
Writer and producer Alex Lipschultz remarked to me recently: “I do believe that like good art, good cinema is about exploration.” Through film we can explore ourselves and our world and perhaps sadness evokes an active contemplation that contented filmic or narrative experiences cannot. They open a door within us, to our memories in which we can seek clarity as to why we felt a certain way about a past event or moment. With this in mind, Brad’s Status creates an active communication with its audience through its melancholic character.
I’ve noticed over the years that I start to feel movies for some people are like a drug. People know what they want and especially in the television world, at least before all of this cable stuff. People want their comedies funny, bright and it’s a very formulaic idea of what funny is. They’re okay with tragedy too, but it needs to be tonally very dark and emotional.
With Brad’s Status I was trying to create the emotion of somebody who’s in this space of anxious dread and how he’s working through and dealing with it is a feeling that’s in the lexicon of everyone. We all have this feeling of being exposed, of feeling insufficient and anxious about who we are. It’s trying to unpack feelings, and it’s not an operatic feeling, it’s something that can be triggered all day long at any time. You can be walking around with your son looking at colleges and suddenly you see something and it takes you right back to this edgy self-hating place.
Some people don’t want to feel that [laughs] and I understand those reasons. Those kinds of feelings about the bad stuff are not something people are necessarily looking to get into. My hope is that by acknowledging these feelings or states of mind, by putting a spotlight on them, then there’s some kind of catharsis that can come through it, or some kind of understanding, which is not always verbal.
Tying into this idea of catharsis, filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yes, and I try not to think of myself as a careerist. I want to think of myself as somebody who is progressing and with each thing it’s more of a spiritual and personal journey as an artist, especially if you’re making personal movies. I think about reading the reviews and having my reaction to those when Brad’s Status was released in the States and realising the antidotes for some of those feelings were actually in the work itself. Those mirroring moments where you realise your art is forming your life and your life is informing your art creates more meaning for me personally. That’s what I love about getting old, and older in the creative space, because I think it just gets richer. So I do think each movie makes me a little wiser, hopefully.