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'White Lotus' creator Mike White finds wide success after 25 years in the margins

From left, Meghann Fahy, Theo James, Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe in Season Two of <em>The White Lotus</em>.
Fabio Lovino/HBO
From left, Meghann Fahy, Theo James, Aubrey Plaza and Will Sharpe in Season Two of The White Lotus.

Mike White, creator of HBO's pandemic hit comedy-drama series The White Lotus, has, in his own words, been "making stuff for a long time."

The writer, producer, director and actor got his start in the late 1990s. Early in his career, he wrote episodes of the TV series Freaks and Geeks and Dawson's Creek. He also wrote the 2003 hit Jack Black film School of Rock, wrote and directed the films Year of the Dog and Brad's Status, and created another HBO series, Enlightened.

You may also remember him as a reality show contestant: He competed on two seasons of The Amazing Race with his father and was a runner-up on Survivor.

But nothing has been like the success he's experienced with The White Lotus, for which he won Emmys for both writing and directing. The show also won for best limited or anthology series.

"I just feel like I'm like a surfer who's been in the ocean for, like, 25 years and suddenly caught a wave," he says.

The White Lotus is about the staff and the wealthy guests at five-star luxury resort hotels in gorgeous, panoramic settings. Though the settings resemble paradise, the guests are wrestling with their own problems.

Season One was set at a White Lotus Hotel in Hawaii and focused on class, money and entitlement. Season Two is set at a resort hotel in Sicily and pivots around the sex lives of its main characters – from infidelity to sex addictionto sex work – and the suspicion, jealousy, mischief and mayhem that sometimes follow.

Like Season One, it kicked off with a mysterious death, a plot device that White says was a revelation to him.

"When that first season became such a water cooler show [that] people were talking about, I was like, had I only known if I'd put a dead body at the beginning of Enlightened, maybe people would've watched Enlightened," he says. "You realize these kinds of hooks do actually get viewers."

It's not what drives him, White says, but of course he enjoys when people see and are engaged with his work. So maybe these mysterious deaths – which White describes as building to an "operatic or tragic" ending for the characters – will be a defining characteristic of the White Lotus series.

"It clearly is something that drives interest in the show. People will decide at the conclusion whether it's satisfying or it feels just device-y, but at this point, I'm excited about the finale," White says. "As somebody who's been working in the margins, it is kind of nice to have viewers. "

The season finale will be released Dec. 11.

Interview Highlights

On Season Two's focus on the dark side of people's sex lives

Originally I had a different idea. ... And then we went scouting for hotels and we went to the hotel that we ended up choosing, which was in Taormina [in Italy], San Domenico Palace, which is a renovated convent. And it's just a very spectacular hotel. It seemed like the perfect place to set the show. ... The original idea was more [about] heavy hitters in business, more about power.

And then I got there and I was like, this is not the right place for that kind of topic. It gave me the idea that to focus more on sexual jealousy and adultery and infidelity and a more operatic kind of bedroom farce. [In] the first season, we did so much about privilege and about how money is used as a wedge between relationships, both intimate and in even surface relationships. And I just felt like maybe we should try to not repeat that same idea and just felt like sex was always such a fertile theme to explore. The place sort of forced my hand in a way.

On directing a lot of sex scenes

As a director, I'm very timid about asking people to undress and get into sexual situations. It's not my wheelhouse. There were definitely times on this shoot that I was like, what have I got myself into? My threshold for awkwardness is very low. The actors are much more confident and uninhibited than I am. That was new terrain for me. It just felt like it was important because it really is baked into the narrative.

It's funny, though, how now that the show is airing, how much you realize a graphic sex scene or a sex scene that kind of is titillating for various reasons, does just spike and generate an interest in the populace, for better or worse.

Aubrey Plaza and Theo James in season 2 of <em>The White Lotus.</em>
Fabio Lovino / HBO
Aubrey Plaza and Theo James in season 2 of The White Lotus.

On how his time as a contestant on Survivor influenced the show

Survivor is not that dissimilar, which is a lot of times just people kind of kvetching about who's tending the fire or they're hangry because they haven't had anything to eat. But then the music is making it feel like this is going to end up bad for somebody. And then you have these transitions of sharks in the water. And I was like, we do that in White Lotus. ... I have to cop to being influenced by Survivor and these shows where you have a device that makes it feel like it's a built-in cliffhanger.

When you're on HBO and there's all this sense of, 'It's prestige TV and blah, blah, blah,' I'm doing basically a reboot of 'Laverne & Shirley' meets 'Fantasy Island' with some 'Survivor' dropped into it.

On the influence of TV from his youth

I'm definitely in the Fantasy Island [and] Love Boat generation. I was probably 10 to 13 years old when they were in their heyday. And I love those shows. My other favorite show is Laverne & Shirley. The two prostitutes in [The White Lotus], I was like, there's something very Laverne & Shirley here about these girls, because Laverne and Shirley were always trying to break into the party that they weren't invited to and they were these underdog, working-class girls.

When you're on HBO and there's all this sense of, "It's prestige TV and blah, blah, blah," I'm doing basically a reboot of Laverne & Shirley meets Fantasy Island with some Survivor dropped into it. I think those early entertainment things that capture your imagination definitely stick with you.

On how even in a paradise, people take their problems with them

I think the show tries to get at this a little bit, too, in a macro [way] that when you're wealthy and you don't have situational problems that have to do with money, then your problems become existential. You have all of the tools to figure out your life, and you can't figure out your life. If you're in some gloomy, urban, dystopic spot, you can always say, "Oh, it's my surroundings that are making me depressed."

But if you're in paradise and you feel like something's missing or you're melancholy or you're tortured, you know it's not the ambient nature of what's going on – it's something in you.

Lauren Krenzel and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Maureen Pao adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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