Mike White is not very anxious over ‘Brad’s Status,’ a film about anxiety
Mike White is one of those Hollywood guys who works all the time, but stays, unrecognized, behind the scenes as a screenwriter. Well, except for those times that he takes on acting jobs. If you’ve ever seen him, you would from then on recognize him immediately. Let’s call his look unconventional. He played bug-eyed Buck, one of the two leads in the 2000 film “Chuck & Buck,” the film that put him on the map as a writer. He was the wonderfully named Ned Schneebly in another of his scripts “School of Rock,” and he had the ongoing role of Tyler on the TV show “Enlightened,” which he co-created with Laura Dern. White had only taken on both writing and directing duties once before, on the serio-comic 2007 film “Year of the Dog.” He does it again on “Brad’s Status,” with Ben Stiller in the title role as an everyman having a midlife crisis when he and his teenage son (Austin Abrams) go on a road trip to look at colleges, and he starts realizing that his former college pals have all found successful careers while he’s still struggling along, doing important work but not bringing in the big money. White also has a couple of brief appearances as Nick, one of those college pals. White, 47, spoke about the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: You generally don’t write autobiographically. But this one sure feels close to home. Is it?
A: I don’t write autobiographically, but I do write personal movies. As far as this movie, I don’t have any kids, and there are lots of things that are concocted. But I do have anxieties. While I don’t look at writing as therapy, I do feel that the things that I struggle with are things that I tend to like to unpack in my scripts. There’s a part of me that is Brad, and it’s the least cool part of me. I’m a little embarrassed in the way that I compare myself to others, or resent someone else’s success, or want something that somebody else has. And I do have conversations in my head about things like that. I wanted to write about ambition. There have been other films about ambition, like “Wall Street” or “Scarface.” You know, the rise and fall of these larger-than-life characters. But I thought it would be interesting to write about it in a more observational way, about someone who is taking stock of his life and wasn’t as successful as he wanted to be.
Q: You wrote “School of Rock” for your friend Jack Black. Did you write this one for Ben Stiller?
A: No, but he was definitely the first person I thought of when it was done. I’d written for specific people before. There was Jack, and Laura Dern in “Enlightened,” Molly Shannon for “Year of the Dog,” and Salma Hayek in “Beatriz at Dinner.” So, no, this one wasn’t written for Ben, but it’s kind of hard to imagine it being anyone else at this point.
Q: How did Ben and Austin come into the picture?
A: Ben and I have known each other socially over the years, and he had a small part in the film I wrote, “Orange County.” We’d talked about working together, so I sent this script to him and he responded to it. He identified with it, and I thought, well maybe there is something universal in it. Here’s one of the most successful people in our industry, and he sees himself in Brad. Austin auditioned and made a self-tape at home. I got it through the casting department, and when I saw it I said, “Wow, this kid really could make this work.” We got them both together and it seemed like a good pairing.
Q: Brad is constantly thinking to himself. At what point did you decide there was going to be so much voiceover?
A: Not that much happens (in the film); it’s not a big plot. So, the real stakes are in his head. And the only way to get a sense of his roller coaster mental ride was to be inside it. Sometimes I don’t like voiceover, for instance when it feels like it’s trying to tell the story. But on this one I don’t think I could have told the story another way without it.
Q: You haven’t directed for a decade. Why this one?
A: I directed a couple of episodes of “Enlightened.” But as I’ve gotten older, and have written more scripts, I’ve never felt like, “Oh, I need to get back on set as a director.” Sometimes I feel that it’s harder not to direct it than to do it. Like when you’re trying to articulate the tone to a director, hoping that they will interpret it the way that I want to. At times, I feel like I can take a leap of faith, but then certain scripts come along and I feel, “Well, I might as well just do this one.” Now that it’s done, I’m not that anxious about it. I’m sure I’ll get a range of reactions, as I always do. But it’s very close to what I actually imagined, and I’m really happy with the way it came out.
“Brad’s Status” opens on Sept. 22.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.