Awkward Dinner Parties in the Age of Trump
Mike White, screenwriter of Beatriz at Dinner, describes why his latest film was nearly impossible to get made
Mike White's next film, Brad's Status, will play as part of TIFF's Platform programme at the 2017 Festival. We recently spoke with White about his screenplay for Miguel Arteta's Beatriz at Dinner. Read that exchange below, and check out Brad's Status at TIFF '17.
To call Mike White a singular voice in indie filmmaking would be an understatement. A Mike White movie is revealing, uncomfortable, but also deeply humane, the equivalent of seeing your iPhone camera pointed at your face when you’re trying to take a picture. Cutting his teeth in the writers' rooms of Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks, the writer, actor, and director (not to mention Amazing Race contestant!) straddles the line between big-budget comedies (amongst them School of Rock, Nacho Libre, and the criminally underrated Orange County) and a more personal form of auteur filmmaking. White has become an indie-film soothsayer thanks to his particular brand of righteous, unhinged female protagonists who care deeply about the death and destruction facing the planet. From 2002’s The Good Girl, which featured Jennifer Aniston facing an existential crisis in a Walmart-style vest, to his 2007 directorial debut, Year of the Dog, in which Molly Shannon attempts to grieve the death of her dog by adopting way too many rescues, he writes great roles for women over 30. This also includes his masterpiece, the HBO series Enlightened, starring Laura Dern as a former corporate executive who, after experiencing a mental breakdown, is sent to a rage rehabilitation retreat and upon returning, decides to blow the whistle on her company’s greed and corruption (probably as passive-aggressive revenge, though it’s actually for the betterment of society).
White's latest writing venture, Beatriz at Dinner, is directed by his frequent collaborator Miguel Arteta, who also helmed The Good Girl and White’s 2000 breakthrough, the disturbing and wonderful Chuck and Buck. Beatriz stars Salma Hayek as a Mexican-immigrant masseuse and naturopathic healer, grieving the death of her pet goat who was killed by a neighbour. After massaging her client Cathy (played by Connie Britton), her car breaks down and she’s stuck at their mansion with nowhere to go. Cathy, feeling a mixture of white guilt and Californian social obligation, invites her to a high-pressure dinner party where the honorary guest is Doug Strutt (a perfectly cast John Lithgow), a Trumpian real estate developer prone to game hunting and boasting about his conquests. What ensues is a long, uncomfortable exchange between Beatriz and the symbol of all evil, between wine pairings and aperitifs. A cast of supporting players, including Chloe Sevigny, Transparent’s Amy Landecker, and Jay Duplass, assume the audience’s uncomfortable vantage point and beg the question: if you had the chance to truly take a man like Donald Trump to task, what would you say?
We spoke to Mike White over the phone about the difficulties of getting Beatriz on screen, why he’s attracted to writing humiliation scenes, and how years of awkward dinner parties helped his research for the film.
Variety called your film “the first dramatic comedy that’s an explicit — and provocative — allegory of the Age of Trump.” You wrote Beatriz at Dinner while Donald Trump was still in the primaries. How much of Trump’s administration and his retaliation against immigrants has shaped the reception of your film?
Oh, because of what’s happened? I do think it has probably helped the movie, in terms of getting attention. I think people probably have had the fantasy of what they would say if they had Trump standing right in front of them. I tried to write something representative of two characters at both ends of the spectrum; hopefully it's not just a political movie, but something more timeless in terms of different approaches to life and society. I couldn’t have modelled this movie on Trump because Trump becoming the president was the last thing I would have ever wanted to happen.
Your last three projects have been anchored by female protagonists who are solipsistically consumed with the failing state of the world. They’re do-gooders, and bleeding hearts, concerned with the environment, animals, corporate corruption, and power struggles. I’m thinking of Molly Shannon in Year of the Dog and Laura Dern’s character in your HBO series Enlightened. Do you see Beatriz as part of that continuum?
There's a part of her that’s in that tradition of my other characters. She talks about old souls and new-age holistic stuff. There were other things I could have made her do that would have made her saintly, but I wanted to make her idiosyncratic in her own way… the extreme thing about her, which I think is true of the characters I write and is something I relate to, is that she feels everything extremely strongly. When she thinks about the suffering of the earth, of animals, of people who are more vulnerable than her… she feels too much, it’s too much for her at times to live in this world.
Do you empathize with that as a filmmaker?
I think it’s always interesting to enter a movie with someone who comes at things from a radical, passionate place. Especially, when you’re considering how that character would talk to someone like Trump, someone who has cut off his passion. What would happen if that person got pushed? How could you change someone’s mind who has that social Darwinian attitude about life where the world isn't about making things easier for the vulnerable; it’s about taking what’s yours, seeing the world as something exploited for your own selfish interest? There are so many people who believe that’s the way the world works. It’s the king-of-the-jungle, Ayn Rand approach.
Since the current political situation is so confusing and insane, I’ve been wondering whether there will be a need for movies like Beatriz at Dinner. Do you see a hunger and demand for movies that make make sense of our current moment?
I don’t know, we were basically turned down for this project at every step of the way. We ended up making it for a small amount over 18 days, which is nothing compared to other studio movies. Even though we had all the actors attached, we were still rejected by every single indie financier and every source of money. It took many rounds to cobble together enough cash. Luckily, we were able to find Bron Studios and they ponied up. It was because of the script, because it was overtly political and button-pushing, and because the lead was Latina. It’s interesting that this film has subsequently received so much attention because nobody foresaw that when they read the script.
What did the studios and financiers say when they read it?
Oh you know, studios like Focus Pictures and Searchlight just said, “This is not for us.” I think the market is just not ready for these films because it’s really a place for mainstream movies, just done on a smaller scale. The world of indie pictures has gotten much more conservative, in terms of what they think audiences will want to see and what they can sell, and they just did not see how this movie fit, even though we were asking for very little money.
Honestly, I think it was having a Mexican-American female protagonist that made people pause. They’re not gonna say that, but I had another movie I was trying to direct (Brad’s Status) that was equally as challenging. It’s a white male lead, so it was a lot easier to get the money, let’s just say. It’s hard for me to get inside their heads. I knew going in that we had Salma Hayek attached — the most famous Mexican-American actress and an Oscar nominee. People love her! Everything is risky but for this one, the risk factor outweighed the potential positives.
All your movies feel so personal to me. Do you approach your films through an issue you want to address, or does a character just start speaking to you?
Sometimes I’ll have to take jobs that are so divorced from what’s going on in the world. But every once in a while I feel like, “I have to get something out of my chest.” Using my specific set of skills, I can weigh in on something that feels relevant to me. It was cathartic to write this script. I knew I wanted to write something for Salma, and I felt like I needed to write something meaningful. Right now, the political and cultural climate feels so personal to everyone. It’s consumed all the oxygen in our lives.
Without giving too much away, what did you want to say with the ending in Beatriz?
The movie ends with a punch to the gut. I’ve done interviews where I say, “Well in a way, it's a happy ending. Everyone wants to go back to a time that precedes the million intractable ways we are damaging the planet.” But where do you go? You can’t go to Canada. There’s nowhere you can go to be free of these issues, you have to swim back to a fantasy before they existed.
I wanted to create a figurative ending where Beatriz is back to where she wants to be. Though we’re visualizing that possibility, I’m pretty pessimistic about whether we as a species are going to be able to deal with these problems we created. In the face of a Trump presidency, it still feels pretty dark.
Do you see movies as being our way out of that darkness right now?
I always feel like there is a purpose in telling stories. I still feel there is something about fiction that asserts the universality of us as humans; something about stepping out of own personal sphere and stepping into someone else’s point of view, so you can see things as they see them and feel the way they feel. As I get older and older, it starts to feel a little more apocalyptic. I’m still wrestling with what the value of storytelling is right now. I don’t have any other skill set, I don’t know what else to do. You’re right that I tend to write about a character’s impulse to want to help and do good in the world, but I don’t know how much of that personally relates to my own path towards goodness.
Well, you’re very good at writing voiceovers in movies, not just as exposition but as the real, incessant panic of someone’s thoughts. You mentioned that films help you step into someone else’s point of view, so how is voiceover an extension of that?
I like using voiceover, even though it’s derided sometimes as a screenwriter’s crutch. I’m interested in how the characters talk to themselves, not just other people. It can be way more interesting to hear and identify how you speak to yourself, which is also the relationship you have with yourself. There’s no VO in Beatriz, but I sometimes try to write dialogue that feels like voiceover. I want those little moments of connection between characters to feel like they do in my life. I want to create these luminous moments of reflection, like the ones I have inside my own head. I tend to find the voice of the character in how they think to themselves, as opposed to how they talk to other people.
My first writing job was when I started writing for Dawson’s Creek, and so much of it was, “Oh Dawson,” with a big reveal in the final act. That whole thing never felt as true; it just felt like a dramatic, obligatory moment. Voiceover always fixes that problem because in this instant, you’re right inside the character’s head. I always liked subjective movies where you really see a situation from your protagonist’s point of view.
Which ones are your favourites?
Well, I like every kind of movie. My favourite movies run the gamut from Jane Campion’s The Piano to Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman. It’s usually about who the protagonist is. They have to be someone I can connect with. I do think that my pleasure in screenwriting is often coming up with a kind of protagonist where something amuses me about an unlikely person getting the spotlight.
There’s a particular type of scene that you write really well: the humiliation scene. These scenes are never mean-spirited, and always come from a point of identification with the main character. There’s a great one in Beatriz at Dinner where, even if she’s wrong given the social codes to act the way she does, it’s totally justified. What attracts you to these moments?
Critics have pointed that out before when I’ve read reviews of my work. I don’t think that’s what I set out to do, I just end up doing it. I think a good story is when a character really feels like their back is against a corner. It’s not that they just want whatever they’re trying to get from another character — they need it. So, there’s a pleasure in finding the tension of the story; not with violence, not with interpersonal dynamics, but a way to make little moments feel like they’re played for real. There’s times in Beatriz where you’re watching the film like, “Oh god, are they gonna give her the drink? Are they going to ignore her?” I’m like that at Starbucks — I’ll watch someone try to order a drink and the barista ignores them, and I’ll stand there thinking, “Oh my god, they don’t see her!”
Beatriz at Dinner perfectly captures the fraught social dynamics of going to a rich person’s dinner party. Have you personally attended a lot of awkward, rich people’s dinner parties?
[Laughs] Well, the funny thing is that I actually feel like I am these people. Okay, I’m not John Lithgow’s character, but I’m probably more like Cathy, the character Connie Britton plays — a bleeding heart who does have this special relationship with Beatriz, but who also just wants to enjoy the dinner party. Yeah, you may be on the Titanic, but let’s all have fun, let’s enjoy! In my next film, Brad’s Status, the character is obsessed with thinking about all the other people who have more than him, even though he’s a very privileged man. A lot of times, the pleasures of privilege are lost on the privileged.
I grew up in a wealthy community as the son of a minister. There’s a casual racism and sexism that goes along with those conversations, and I’ve sat there feeling like, “Oh, this is what people talk about?” I like to think of myself as a good person, but when push comes to shove, am I really going to upset the apple cart? I guess you could say I’ve spent my whole life researching this film. It’s a life’s work, the dinner party.