by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Mike White understands oddballs. He has made a career writing about fish out of water and the kids most people didn’t want to play with. His work has spanned the realm of indie classics like Chuck and Buck, to mainstream hits like School of Rock and Nacho Libre, to critically-acclaimed TV like Enlightened. His newest film, Beatriz at Dinner reunites him with some of the talented people he has previously worked with in front of and behind the camera.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down to talk with White about his writing process and the inner workings of his latest project.
John: I’ve heard that the origin of Beatriz at Dinner springs from the death of Cecil the lion. Is that really where the idea originated?
Mike: Yeah. I’m an animal person. I read about Cecil and I already had the idea of a dinner party. I asked myself, what if I was at a dinner party and a guy told me he was going the next day to go shoot a lion? What would I actually do?
John: Have you ever been to a dinner party where someone spoke out of turn or really changed the tone of the moment?
Mike: I grew up here in LA, and I wasn’t from a rich family but I went to a school with a lot of kids whose families were wealthy, and I just remember observing these sort of richer families and the way these dinner parties presented this very cheerful kind of “best face forward” type of life, and then underneath it was this kind of casual racism or casual apathy or a certain kind of ugliness that was disguised in this perfect façade. And so to me it felt like something I’ve been trying to find the right vehicle or right sort of constellation of characters to help do my version of this dinner party from hell.
John: You’ve really been a master throughout the years of creating fish out of water characters that feel very awkward on screen but that we root for with all our hearts. Can you talk about how your character development process goes? How do you take a character from just an idea to the page?
Mike: I’m attracted to misfits and sometimes I feel like an outsider myself. A lot of it is just observing people. I don’t find average every-day characters inspiring or relatable for me so, to me, it’s a response to create a character that maybe people wouldn’t necessarily relate to or won’t even have a conversation with at the beginning as you approach them, and then over the course of the movie you realize that there’s something universal to their situation and you end up rooting for them and finding yourself — seeing yourself — in that character. And I think that’s a challenge but also something satisfying as a writer to get the audience behind a character like Beatriz who maybe seems like just some new-age weirdo or whatever she is at the beginning, and in the end, your heart is breaking for her, or you at least feel what she is feeling.
John: You have spoken a bit in the past about your writing craft, being a writer who starts at 6:00 AM and then stops at 5:00 PM. Can you speak to the effectiveness of that process? That’s not common in our industry.
Mike: I actually feel like I spend most of my time not writing, and I think actually the times I’m not happiest with the outcome is when I’ve really procrastinated as long as possible as far as not sitting down and writing. It’s really a curse. I know it sounds like I’m writing all the time — 6:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day — but it’s like, no. That’s not happening. That’s not my life. I go through little spurts of productivity because I’m inspired or I feel like I know where I’m going and then long periods of just lying on the floor and watching TV.
But I do think that generally for me the longer I gestate on something, the more it becomes fully realized when its written. And the times when you sit down and you have to write ten pages… then you write something and there’s things you like about it, but you don’t exactly know where it’s going. That’s when I find I’m the most confused on how to proceed, because there’s some stuff that’s working and some stuff that isn’t and then you need help from other people to find it for you, and then you’re just lost.
So for me I think it’s better to be all in, so that’s why sometimes the days are long and I’m super productive, but there’s definitely times where weeks will go by and nothing will happen.
John: That’s really helpful to hear for those of us who are working in the trenches writing.
It seems that this film couldn’t have come at a more relevant time with our current political climate, and it seems like you’re having this cultural conversation on screen in front of us that represents two very significant voices in our culture. Was that something you were thinking about when you were writing the script or did that just organically happen?
Mike: I do think that, as someone who has political beliefs, I feel like you’re trying to understand the other point of view, and I felt like I wanted to create two people who both live by their own world views and principles but have extremely opposite ideas of how to live, and I wanted to look at what the best society is and what the answers to all of the current issues that we are facing as a species are and try to distill it down to what those perspectives really are and have it be a war of ideas.
Obviously, people see parallels between the character and Trump that ended up being an unfortunate coincidence. I think Trump or no Trump, there is a timeless political argument about which is the right way to approach society’s issues.
John: One of the most interesting parts of the story for me is that Beatriz holds a lot of different types of mystical ideas and religious traditions. Your father’s religious work has meant a ton to me in my personal journey, and I know you often have things to say about our grasping at the mysteries in spirituality. How do you walk such a wonderfully fine line with the nuance of not being preachy within your script but still managing to say something important?
Mike: Well, thank you for saying that. I think it seemed correct for Beatriz to have a spiritual point of view on all these things, because she is so deeply committed to a life of radical compassion and feeling the suffering of all of the vulnerable in society, whether its people or animals or the land itself or the environment. I like the idea of trying to write a character that isn’t completely from your own point of view in the sense that some of the things she can say, you don’t have to. We may not connect with them or believe them, you can just see her as a character that has some new age ideas but that ultimately, there’s also wisdom there. So, it’s like trying to find the humor in some of those moments and allow the audience to even laugh at her in a sense.
Sometimes you don’t connect with her and then there are moments where you realize that compassion is very noble and there’s something very profound about her, and so it challenges your assumptions I guess, and if you also agree with those beliefs, you get catharsis. But yeah, it’s a tricky one because I find that if a movie starts to feel like it has some kind of belief system placed on you, then you start to resist it, and so it’s about trying to find that right balance where you are allowed to find the humor in it and then at the same time it maybe starts to touch you in some way that you have to take it seriously as well.
Beatriz at Dinner is in select theaters June 9.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.