Including details on his writing process — and the surprising event that still inspires his work.
By now, you’re probably obsessed with White Lotus — or know someone who is. The Emmy-winning series has made a splash with sordid storylines, incredible fashion, and a star-studded ensemble cast (if you’re a fan of Jennifer Coolidge’s extreme fabulousness, White Lotus is practically made for you). Katie has written that she can’t get enough of the show, so it makes sense that she wanted to have an in-depth chat with show creator, Mike White. In this latest episode of Next Question, they talk about White’s long career writing oddball characters, his early 2000s love for Survivor, and how his evangelical upbringing led to his obsession with hypocrisy. Plus, he reveals how he dreamed up the show — and why HBO initially pushed back.
Let’s talk about the genesis of White Lotus: I was at a party and I heard from a couple of Hollywood types that HBO had access to a hotel that was empty in Maui and came to you and said, “Hey, Mike White, can you write a show that takes place in a hotel?”
They had a lot of projects that had fallen apart because of Covid. They knew I was fast, that I was good with dialogue, and that I could write a show in a bubble that would be immune from some of the Covid issues that they had come upon. They asked me, “Can you come up with a bubble show?”
But it was my idea to do it in a hotel. I have a place in Kauai, and I knew that there were all these hotels that had shut down because of Covid. But they didn’t want us to go to Hawaii because of potential issues with Covid. I had to push for Hawaii.
When you sat down to write, what were you trying to accomplish?
I’ve spent a lot of time in Hawaii; there are definitely two classes. There are the tourists and the moneyed people who have their vacations, then there are the service people. Some of them do very well financially, but they’re all servicing these tourists.
Obviously, with a hotel, you think of Fantasy Island or the Love Boat. There’s a history of shows in this genre. But I wanted to do something that’s a little more well-observed — that gets at who has the money. Money impacts relationships — obviously between the server and the customer, but also between the husband and the wife. It felt like a rich theme.
How did you become so good at tuning into people’s behaviors and attitudes?
I was obviously a writer before the big reality boom, which I think started in 2000. A show like Survivor came along and one minute, people would be very irritating or very petty, and then the next minute they would be very vulnerable. Then they could be courageous. Even though maybe the format could be formulaic, as a writer it made me want to raise my game when creating characters.
I’ve always wanted to try to write characters that could match some of the great personalities that you see in reality TV. When I was very young, Sam Shepard’s mother was my second grade teacher. Very early on, I was writing little plays. I’ve always been interested in how people talk because I’ve always thought about things in terms of dialogue — and how what people say about themselves doesn’t always necessarily match what they think or what they’re going to do.
You grew up in an evangelical household in Pasadena and yet you were always skeptical about religion.
My parents were very loving. I had a nurturing, positive nuclear family. My dad was a minister and we were part of a bigger evangelical religious community. I always felt a little alien; I never really drank the Kool-Aid. Part of drama is getting past the facade and trying to see what people really do and what people really are like — beyond what they say. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in those smaller evangelical communities, certainly around sex and motivations for behavior. I’ve always been interested in how sometimes, what people do is not really in line with how they present themselves.
You went to Wesleyan, and you’ve said you finally found your people there.
I was in a more homogenous community growing up. Wesleyan was very open-minded, liberal — those kids were so sophisticated. I felt like I was behind the curve. I was kind of self-taught: I went to a good school, but as far as culture, I had my own subscription to the New Yorker. I went to Wesleyan and there were a lot of New York Jewish kids who were fully baked. I felt like a rube, but I was so enamored by the whole vibe there. Still to this day, a lot of my friend group is the kids I met there.
When you graduated from Wesleyan, were you really interested in writing?
I wanted to be a playwright, so I went from California to Wesleyan and I realized how cold it was back east. I was like, “This is too cold for me.” My plan was to go to New York, but I didn’t know if I could handle the weather, so I fell into the wrong crowd and came back to L.A. Then I started writing for movies and TV.
I read that when you were 11, your dad came out to your family. He was a minister, as you mentioned, but also a ghostwriter for people like Jerry Falwell and Tammy Baker. You once said that finding out about your dad’s sexuality was the key to everything you write.
It’s a big rug to be pulled from under you. Your dad is a minister and then you realize there’s this other whole other side — which isn’t necessarily a dark side, it’s just a truth. The truth is in contradiction to what he’s supposed to be in the world. Exploring that hit home in a literal way. We’re more complicated than how we present ourselves. There’s some kind of solace to know that everybody is grappling with this. The person that we want to be and the person that the world wants us to be — they’re not always the same.