Mike White has written screenplays for films such as "School of Rock" with Jack Black and "Beatriz at Dinner," one of many collaborations with the director Miguel Arteta. But his latest film hits closer to home — it's inspired by his relationship with his father, Mel White, a writer and preacher.
"Brad's Status" stars Ben Stiller as a suburban dad who finds himself reflecting on his life while touring colleges on the East Coast with his high school son, Troy (Austin Abrams). While Brad has a sort of existential crisis, comparing himself to his college friends — and even to his own son — Troy is just trying to get through the trip.
Mike White's relationship with his father formed the inspiration for the movie, so we were happy to have both of them join us in the studio to discuss the movie. It's nothing knew that a filmmaker would use his family as source material, but it was new that we could bring that source material — er, person — into the studio to talk about the film.
Mel and Mike have maintained a close relationship over the years. They even competed as a team on the reality television show, "The Amazing Race."
When the Whites stopped by The Frame, they talked about how their personal relationship influenced both the film and their own lives over the years.
Below are highlights from our conversation. To hear the entire interview, click the play button at the top of the page.
How they both see themselves in Ben Stiller's character in "Brad's Status":
MEL WHITE: There is so much life material in "Brad's Status." That film is about me. I was sitting next to Diane Keaton as we watched it and I said, Should I leave this room with a bag over my head because people will all know it's me? It was about me and his trip, although he made it a lot better and he made the father a lot smarter.
MIKE WHITE: It's usually all personal, but it's not autobiographical. I love my dad and I do think, in a way, it's a love gift to my dad. But the parts where I feel like I'm hard on Brad I feel like are actually more me — those petty moments that I am resentful of somebody else's success or schadenfreude of someone else's failure. Whatever it is, it's not my whole self, but there is a part of me that has those things. And it's embarrassing and I felt like the movie was a way to kind of unpack those things and hopefully then be released of some of that.
Mel White reflects on his son's success:
MEL WHITE: When I look at Michael and his success now, I'm just absolutely in awe of it. But I don't feel in any way jealous. Of course if he doesn't loan me money now and then I would. But the fact is I am proud of him for being smarter and richer and more powerful than I am. There's something though about the film that is not just a personal thing. I think he's holding up a mirror to culture, all these crazy guys who have their own planes, they have their own this-and-that. And then he holds it up to me and I'm saying, I have a 501C3. I got no pension. I have no money. And so I've thought, now and then, Have I made a mistake? Do I at least sell Amway on the side or something?
Mike White on playing an envied college friend in "Brad's Status":
MIKE WHITE: There's the other side of it, which I realize I'm also on the other end of — maybe people see me and I have this life and I have some freedom. You can be on both sides of that. You can be the one who thinks that everybody's having a good party without you. You're the one who's curating your life and putting it on Instagram, and maybe making one of your friends sitting in their cave think, Oh great, thanks.
How Mike's observations about his father's life appear in the movie:
MEL WHITE: Didn't you feel like that you picked up some of that stuff from me? I wonder if I'd wasted a lot of life and not succeeded in ways. I mean, there are moments where I've gone through that. And maybe you were reading me like you read me when you were a real little kid.
MIKE WHITE: You write books, you made films, you've been a preacher. You have a relationship to the world. And I think that that was something that I wanted to explore, that I don't think is explored very much in movies in an observational way that I can relate to. Like feeling like you want the love of the world. Where you stand in relation to the world was something that I definitely felt you struggled with at different times — where you felt good about the external things that were coming back at you at certain moments, and then sometimes feeling frustrated that you weren't getting the reactions that you wanted from the world. And that's something I certainly relate to in the movie business and people I know.
On growing up together and working together on the film:
MEL WHITE: Did you hear him say, I think it was a love gift to my dad? I feel like that was. And I look at that film now and I say, Thanks, Mike. You got me, both sides of me, and you didn't make me look terrible for the other side. I really love that film.
He hasn't changed much. Michael has always been an observer — always thinking, always talking about what other people are doing and feeling. And he's an observer now. Only he's now turned it into a tremendous vocation. And when I look back on it, I don't think I've changed much either. We haven't changed much. He's still my son. I still love him. We're still taking that tour of saying, What do we wanna do next? I don't see us changing much.
MIKE WHITE: It's just gotten better, Dad.
MEL WHITE: Oh geez.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Mike and Mel White, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.