Mike White is channeling his 'modern-day bitch' on The White Lotus
The resort on The White Lotus appears to be the picture of opulence. Which is no wonder seeing as how the HBO show was filmed at The Four Seasons Maui. But the man who created the series is currently sitting in a far less exotic location, a Walmart parking lot in Orlando. A cross-country road trip with a dog has led Mike White to this point, as far away from the idyllic yet also drama and trauma-filled setting of his TV show creation as possible.
But perhaps the change in scenery is a welcome one for the writer/director. While White spent a good deal of time at the hotel filming the 8-episode season (which concludes Sunday night, and was just renewed for season 2), he has spent even more time with the inhabitants themselves. "They're all very similar to me," says White. "I mean, there's a certain part of me in each of the characters, I think."
That includes Connie Britton and Steve Zahn as Nicole and Mark Mossbacher (a couple with a complicated history) as well as Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger as their children, Olivia and Quinn, and Brittany O'Grady as Olivia's college friend Paula. It also includes Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario as mismatched newlyweds Shane and Rachel, in addition to Jennifer Coolidge as the grieving and lonely Tanya, who recently lost her mother (a complicated history there as well). And then there are the hotel employees themselves in the form of resort spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and recently relapsed resort manager Armond (played with frenetic glee by Murray Bartlett).
The show has provided a riveting look at how the problems of the rich and famous do not magically disappear just because they travel to a magical location. ("I'm on vacation — I'm trying to unwind from the stress that is my life," complains Britton's Nicole.) It also throws a lens on the dynamic between the haves and have nots, which is not merely limited to the juxtaposition between guests and staff, as demonstrated by the relationship between privileged Shane and his less accomplished and less confident bride Rachel, or the power dynamic between entitled Olivia and outsider Paula (who rebelled against Olivia's controlling nature by having her new hotel staff boyfriend steal the family jewelry out of their safe).
With the final installment set to unspool on Aug. 15 — and the identity of the mystery body in the coffin about to be revealed — we checked in with White to chat about his inspiration for the series, and to find out which character strikes closest to home.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the biggest stories of the season that you wrote into the show is over a hotel guest, Jake Lacy's Shane, constantly complaining about his room. I'm always way too chicken to ever complain about a hotel room, yet I have a friend who refuses to ever take the first room she's put in. What's your position on that: Have you ever complained about your hotel room?
MIKE WHITE: I have an agent who it's a badge of honor for him. Usually, it's a lateral move, but he always feels some satisfaction of negotiating for a better room. As my aesthetic probably indicates, any kind of conflict at this frequency is almost unbearable for me. I can write it, but I'm very bad at trying to get a better room. I'm more of somebody who will just sit in my room and stew over it than actually do something about it, which is not necessarily the better call. Then I cop an attitude later and I'm sure they're like, "What's his problem?" And it's like I never even mentioned that my room is facing a wall or something.
Watching the show, I couldn't help but wonder: What is your take on tropical resorts? Do you like staying at them?
The first vacations my family took were in Hawaii. We were more on a budget, but, to me, going somewhere where it's got that Tradewinds or Breezes tropical feeling always felt like that's what vacation is supposed to feel like. So I do tend to want to go. Considering I'm an albino living in California, you'd think I would want to not go somewhere that's more hot and more sun-baked, but I do end up tending to take the tropical vacation if I can. And I guess Survivor is an extension of that. I would look at Survivor and be like, "That sounds kind of fun." It's like, "Yeah, you're starving, but it's pretty and the waters are blue and there's fish." And they've got a mask and a snorkel. Why not?
Is this the first time you really did a deep dive internal examination of the relationship between those working at the hotel and those visiting the hotel?
Do you mean psychologically or within writing?
Yeah, I now have a place in Hawaii and I have friends who work at those hotels, and then I also have friends who have stayed at those hotels. So you get both sides of the experience, and it definitely felt like it was something ripe to investigate and get into. Hawaii has such a complicated cultural history in its relationship to the mainland and American mainlanders. And I felt like it would be an interesting backdrop, people who are looking for some escapist vacation and you start to unravel how complex vacationing in paradise actually is.
Is there any common thread throughout all these wealthy hotel guests as you were writing them? Or is it just a common location? Is there something beyond the hotel and their obvious wealth that binds them together?
I just wanted to get at how money really impacts all relationships, beyond even just guest and employee. But how some of these classic relationships — a couple on their honeymoon, a family on vacation, a woman who's maybe looking for love or looking for some kind of relaxing vacation on her own — and just try to orchestrate it around who has the money and calls the shots and how there's these power dynamics, even in these relationships that seem like they would transcend that kind of thing.
Do you see yourself in any of these characters? Are any of these characters similar to you at all?
They're all very similar to me. I mean, there's a certain part of me in each of the characters, I think. There are some more than others, but I definitely feel like my job as a writer is to try to lean into the ways that I relate to that character, as opposed to just trying to create a character totally outside of something that I can relate to.
You've always struck me as someone that's really self-aware and someone that knows certain things about yourself that maybe you're not crazy about, but that you acknowledge and will examine. So if that's true, and you're saying that you're in all these characters, what was it like holding a mirror up to yourself that way?
Well, like the Shane character, the guy who's just so entitled — in a way, that was one of the easiest characters to write. Not necessarily that I'm all switching rooms, but there are moments where you're like, "I paid for this!" There will be some injustice, and you pull back on yourself and you realize, "Oh my God, I am that guy. I just said that!"
This happened just recently where I was checking into a hotel and it was two o'clock and they're like, "The room won't be ready till four." And I was like, "When I called you on the phone on the way here, you said two!" And you just catch yourself in those moments where you're like, I am a modern-day bitch. It's hard. Our whole world orients you to having a life of comfort and convenience. It's in the water that we drink every day, which is that's the life you're supposed to have. That's why we grind throughout the week, so we can have these moments of like, "I'm on vacation and I should have the room that I wanted." And then you realize how privileged that is to even have a vacation and all those things.
I was obsessed with the choices that you made for Shane, just down to stuff like the Cornell hat and reading Malcolm Gladwell's Blink that he's reading. How involved were you with making those wardrobe and prop choices?
That's probably the best part of being a director is that I can make those little decisions. So yeah, I was like, "It can't be Dartmouth cause that's too on the nose." Cornell seems to be a good one and that seems funny. And we got the hat, I was like, "Yeah, that's perfect." He got it all broken in. And then the Malcolm Gladwell, I am a fan, but it just seems like such a normie book for a guy who wants to feel like he's having some intellectual curiosity thirst quenched on a vacation. And what was funny was that Jake never really gets very far in the book. He's there all week reading it, by the end, on the last episode, he really only got 30 pages in, and I was like, "That's hilarious."
One of my favorite scenes so far was between Rachel and Nicole back in episode 2. And they're getting along so well, and Nicole is so nice to Rachel and giving her mentor-like career advice and then this big turn happens where Nicole realizes Rachel wrote this rehashing of a different article about her, and the interaction gets very chilly very quickly. Where did the seed of that scene come from?
Obviously, in the wake of #MeToo, there was a lot of talk about women coming together and they're going to do things differently. Well, I definitely think great things have happened in the wake of #MeToo as far as enforcing certain parts of my industry and industries in general of creating a more diverse group of people at the top layers and then throughout companies. And, at the same time, it's funny to see how the capitalist boardrooms kind of still work the same way, regardless of who makes them up. And how, when push comes to shove, people can get territorial, it doesn't matter what the gender is.
It's funny to watch people spout the cliches of like, "Yeah, I always want to help women when I can." And then it's like, "But you f---ed me over. I'll destroy you." And I find that the great executives that I've worked with who are women have all the moves. They can be very supportive and very Team Girl Boss Power, but then can crush someone who looks at them the wrong way too. So I just felt like that was sort of true.
We obviously need to talk about the Armond and Dillon scene, and you know exactly what scene I am talking about, where they are caught in the act, so to speak, at the very end of episode 4. How did you come up with the act they were caught engaging in?
Now with shows, anytime there's nudity or anything sexual, there are these intimacy coordinators. And so before we'd ever get to set, there are a hundred conversations about whether the actor will be comfortable with this and what exactly are we seeing? And it's so awkward to start off conversations with actors that you just started working with, and you immediately really have to jump into, "Are you going to be okay with this?"
So I wanted to minimize it. And fortunately, Murray Bartlett and Lukas Gage didn't seem to have any anxiety or qualms and so they took it into their own hands. They were just like, "Let's do something more fresh than just the typical thing that you would see." And I obviously thought that was a great idea because you want it to feel like it's really shocking, but sometimes shocking has to show crazy penetration or whatever, something ridiculous. So I just felt like it was specific, but also would end up being impactful visually. So we kind of landed there.
It's so great because you think know what's going to happen. You see Shane and Belinda walking towards the office, and you generally know what's happening behind the office door so you think you're not going to be shocked by it because you're expecting to see a certain thing, and then instead we get Armond doing something else.
What's classic is all of the Twitter people online the next day are like, "You're not doing it right. He should be bent over." It's all these different ways they want to be the intimacy coordinator and telling us how to do a good rim job.
You have Armond reciting a portion of The Lotus Eaters at the end of episode 5. Was that poem a big inspiration for the series as a whole?
Yeah, the poem is about people on an island who are doe-eating monsters just disassociating and I think it's a good metaphor for money. How having money can, in a way, buffer you from some of the harsher parts of life. But you start to feel a little disconnected and it definitely felt like these characters lost touch with some part of reality, and so they're creating their own problems and they're half asleep and just felt like it was ripe. You always want to have intentionality when you're coming up with the name of the hotel, so it felt like the right one.
You talked about the dynamics, not just between the guests and the staff, but amongst the guests themselves, so how would you describe the dynamics of the Paula and Olivia relationship? Because they're good enough friends that they went on this trip together, but Olivia appears to want to have the power in the relationship and Paula wants to strike back at the family by convincing her island boyfriend of 4 days to steal their jewelry.
Well, I grew up in a wealthy community. My dad was a minister. We didn't have a lot of money, but a lot of my friends did. And something about that was true to me at the time, which is having a kind of love/hate relationship, or there was a little bit of jealousy but also fascination with the lifestyles of some of these kids who went on these vacations. And sometimes I was the one being taken on these vacations and hearing certain conversations amongst these families and being like, "Wow, they really think like this. They really talk like this." Like certain kinds of casual, racist comments or casual classist comments, and how you start to like getting a taste of how the other half lives and you're intrigued and there's a reason to go, but you also have this potentially building resentment against them and feeling... that there's something that's sticking in your throat a little bit. And I felt like that's something that has come up in other stuff I've written, but felt like it would make sense here too.
I know I'm not the first person to tell you how great the music is in the show. How did you find your soundtrack from Cristobal Tapia de Veer?
I knew there were going to be a lot of attractive people sitting and having conversations at dinner around a pool. I was like, "I want to feel like the music is telling us there's going to be a human sacrifice after dinner." Or there's just a real tropical anxiety. I was trying to find stuff that felt very edgy and that there was a little bit more blood in the mouth. And Cristo, our composer, one of the editors used some music he did for Black Mirror in our temp, and I was like, "What is that? That works really well." And it worked so well, I was like, "We just have to find this composer. I need this exact thing." And so we found him and we were just lucky that he was available and was excited to do it. And yeah, people are like, "How did you create the tone of the show?" And I was like, "Well, Cristo did." The tone is really so much set by the music.
He was actually a little bit of a troublemaker. We were in a bubble at the Four Seasons and we were never supposed to leave. But Alec is a little ADD and kind of a rule-breaker, so he would run off to go jogging a lot. I was constantly having to defend him to this producer, saying, "Alec would never do that." And then, of course, I find out that he really was leaving our bubble.
Was he posting pictures on Instagram with the caption "F--- it" or not?
He didn't go that far, but I could see it happening.
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