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Has the King of Twisted gone soft? Hell No!!

Has the King of Twisted gone soft? Hell No!!

Killing your college roommate, stalking a childhood friend, running away from your dysfunctional family, cheating on your husband and Jack Black jamming with a class full of children.  Looking at the premises from writer Mike White’s feature films, a song from my kindergarten days rings in my head - you know “Which one of these is not like the other?”  Well, Mike White’s latest movie SCHOOL OF ROCK starring Jack Black and a cast of kids is a departure from White’s darker comedies and vaults him into the upper echelon of Hollywood screenwriters.  But it wasn’t always this easy for Mike, who has worked in just about every area of Hollywood a writer can, from the independent scene with Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl, to TV writing for Dawson’s Creek and Freaks and Geeks - to major studio films like School of Rock.

As I clutched the phone waiting for Mike to join the interview, anxiety hit me.  This being my first interview, I was nervous regardless, but I was also privileged to find out this was the last interview he was giving after a day chock full of them.  Great.  Self-doubt raced through my head.  Was he gonna get off the phone quickly?  Would I be the annoying writer who wipes drool from the phone while begging the accomplished writer to make my big break happen for me?  After ten minutes of waiting, was he going to show up at all?  Well the answer to the last question was thankfully a yes and for the rest, well you be the judge.
The self-defeatist in me came out as I started the interview with, “I’m sure it’s been a long day of interviews . . .  so - ” luckily Mike cut me off.  “Actually it hasn’t been that bad today.  Actually at the end of a long life of bullshit so whatever”, he laughed.    Good - Not only a joke but swearing to boot . . . this was right up my alley.

We started talking about the departure School of Rock appeared to take from the darker comedies he had written and I asked him if that was a conscious decision on his part to do something a little lighter. “Yeah, a little bit”, he said.  “You kind of live in the world of the movie you’re making and The Good Girl (about a woman cheating on her husband) was the last one up and was kind of the most hopeless movie I had ever written and there was part of me, well with the kind of reviews that film had gotten, that didn’t want to fall into the trap of taking myself to seriously.  I mean I’m writing movies, so there was a part of me that just wanted to do something fun to write, fun to shoot, fun to be a part of and you know just be a real departure from more of the somber stuff I had done . . . I really just wanted to see if I could do it.”

Having worked in both the indie scene and the big studio world, the conversation turned to the differences Mike experienced working with major producers like Scott Rudin (School of Rock, The Royal Tenenbaums) and Gale Ann Hurd (Terminator, The Hulk) versus working with indie producers like those on projects like The Good Girl or Chuck and Buck. “The big difference is that Chuck and Buck and The Good Girl are exactly the draft of the script that I wrote.  There were some changes to the script that I initiated myself, but the script really is the movie.  But when you’re doing a studio movie, and you have big producers to please and big stars to woo, and directors who have strong opinions, frankly there is just much more negotiations going into ultimately what the final script is.” 

He went on to discuss his relative shock though about School of Rock and how close the movie came to the original script.  Scott Rudin, producer extraordinary is no pushover in Los Angeles, actually he’s one of the toughest in the city, but Mike found their relationship to be something he hadn’t experienced on a studio picture before.  “The good thing about Rudin”, he started, “is that you have to please him, but once you do he becomes the greatest protector of the script and he shields you from the whole development by committee process.  Sometimes he’ll be a lot to contend with and he’ll be the first to admit it, but once you fell like you’ve done your job by him, he definitely does his job by you.  Frankly after working with Scott, and actually having the experiences I have had on the independent movies I’ve done, it’s just going to be difficult for me to go back to (development meetings) and being pushed around that way when you realize that people don’t really
know what they’re talking about.”

Seizing my opportunity, I wanted to get to the underbelly of the business and find out about those people who really don’t know what they’re talking about.  You know who I’m talking about - the people who let drek like Gigli grace the silver screen. Recognized by fans and critics alike, one of the greatest crimes in Television in the last five years was the short rope which the sitcom Freaks and Geeks was given.  As a writer on the short-lived show, I thought Mike could explain what happened with that show and if there would be any DVD release of the episodes that did air.  “There will be a DVD release so watch for it.”  Good news there.  As far as the show went, well Mike said, ”After Dawson’s Creek I thought I wouldn’t do TV anymore, but then I saw the pilot for Freaks and I was like, ‘Wait, I told them this is the show I thought that we could do’ so I felt like I didn’t want to leave (TV) with a bad taste in my mouth . . . so I signed up to do that show and it was really creatively exciting and fun but it was another one of those heartbreakers where you think you’re doing great work but it still doesn’t hit and you’re not supported by the network and it’s just was really frustrating.”  Damn network executives.

However, Mike is braving the waters again as he started talking about his next project.  “Right now I have a TV show that I created that will be premiering in 2004 with Molly Shannon and Jason Schwartzman called Cracking Up where Schwartz plays a psychology grad who moves into the guest house of a Beverly Hills hills family to work with the youngest kid on his development problems but once he gets in there he realizes that the kid is the only sane one in the family and the rest of them are bananas.   It’s gonna be twisted and a lot of fun.”  “Twisted from Mike White?” I questioned.  He laughed and with a bit of devilish glee said “Yes, back to the twisted!”

Moving on to the subject of acting, I wondered since Mike has acted in all the films he has written, if acting was something he wanted to pursue further.  “I don’t know. It’s gets kind of frustrating being the screenwriter who kind of plans the party and then the party happens, and you get sent back to cage to write more.  The truth is to me it’s a bit of a distraction, it’s taken me so many years to get to the place where it’s a little easier to get stuff made that I write, that it would be silly to go off and play the computer scientist in some action movie.” 

Interested in a comment above, I pressed further to find out just what exactly he was talking about as far as all those “years” it had taken him to get where he is now.  I wanted to find out what kind of obstacles he had to overcome and just exactly how the hell he did it (of course for your benefit, not for mine).

He laughed a bit and started in on what I believe to be some of the greatest advice young screenwriters can get.  “The hardest thing that I did and the key to having any kind of success was channeling all that energy into writing.  I kept writing and I would write script after script. Some of them sucked and some of them were okay.  I just got past the whole way of thinking that I had written the masterpiece and that would get me lunches and meetings . . . thinking that somehow that would save me.   I think out of that, it helped me get a voice and it also certainly made me I realize there was stuff I could do and stuff I couldn’t do and that was okay.  There’s such a need for real material, that I think if you just continue at it, you are going to figure it out.  But so many people fall into the trap of figuring that there’s a million other ways to become a writer without actually writing.”

I pressed further, trying to get into the mind of twisted comic soul and asked what his worst writing experience was.  “Truth of the matter is any time you’re getting paid it’s better than the worst writing experience.  The worst experience is when you write something for no money and it turns out to be piece of shit and you’ve wasted months of your life.  But the worst in the sense that it didn’t match up to my sensibilities - had to be Dawson’s Creek.  But at the same time, it was a great learning experience and taught me a lot of the television process.  What I found that is if you just keep writing your own material and you don’t sign on to write the franchise or the sequel, and you stay as the creator, you just have much more control and it’s less likely they’ll replace you or push you around.”

Well - with this movie fan having come close to overdosing from the sequelitis the studios have endlessly proscribed for the viewing public, here’s hoping that Mike continues to be the creator of any type of comedy, now and in the future.  But we’re especially looking forward to twisted - as always.


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