Mike White on new Ben Stiller film Brad's Status
Writer-director Mike White on Brad’s Status, in which Ben Stiller plays a man intimidated by his peers' success. We chat about White's eclectic career, working in the Hollywood sausage factory and the aspect of directing he likes least
Mike White tends to make films about life’s outsiders. In his 2000 breakthrough Chuck & Buck, which he wrote for director Miguel Arteta, White played a childlike, unstable character awkwardly attempting to insinuate himself into the life of his onetime best friend. In 2017 the same pair collaborated on Beatriz at Dinner, in which a Mexican immigrant prompted some tense confrontations at a wealthy American family’s gathering. If you asked Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller), the protagonist of White’s new film Brad’s Status, he’d surely tell you that he’s an outsider too, although that’s not how anybody in the audience will view him.
Brad has a good job, a loving wife (Jenna Fischer), a handsome home in Sacramento and a talented son who is likely to be accepted by Harvard. Brad’s life, by any measure, is comfortable and enviable – any measure, that is, except his own. Brad’s dissatisfaction springs from the fact that his contemporaries at college have all achieved incredible levels of wealth and fame, dwarfing his own modest achievements, and Brad is plagued by the feeling that he somehow has been left behind.
“I think that's very true to life. Most people see themselves as the underdog in their own story,” White tells The Skinny over the phone from his home in California. “I think we project on to other people who we see as having more advantages, but when you actually get inside their heads they don't see it the same way. I think Brad is obviously reduced to that feeling, he's kind of monomaniacal throughout the movie about feeling this sense of being put-upon or an outsider, but I think that's something that is universal. There are a lot of rich, white men who run companies and see themselves as coming up against all odds and still striving, and from another perspective we'd think they have everything. I think it just all depends on where you stand.”
It’s a tricky line that White is walking here. By putting us inside Brad’s head – complete with a constant self-pitying narration – he risks being accused of indulging the blinkered whining of a privileged white man, although his screenplay is a lot more nuanced and questioning than that. “I kind of wanted to explore the psyche of someone who is a man and is dealing with masculinity and its discontents, but I was trying to come at it not only in a satirical way but in a way that had some compassion for him,” he explains. “It's about his privilege issues but also I can relate and I see it in my world a lot, and it's something that I think is worth considering.”
Crucially, White gives us an external perspective on Brad’s behaviour through his son Troy (Austin Abrams) and Troy’s friend Anyana (Shazi Raja), both of whom highlight the absurdity of his complaints. “I thought it would be interesting to have the wisdom coming from the youth, giving his son and his son's friends some perspective that he doesn't have, and I also think that's more true to life in some ways,” he says. “I think in one way you have the ability to get wiser as you get older, but when it comes to your identity and stuff, I don't know, people paint themselves into corners psychologically and it's hard not to get beaten down by life in a lot of ways. I often see it with my peers. When you're young you have a certain kind of hope and idealism, and things don't always pan out as you'd hoped.”
Another key factor in the film’s success is the casting of Ben Stiller, from whom White draws a superb performance. Brad Sloan is the kind of neurotic, on-the-edge character that’s very much within his range (in fact, Brad’s frequent lapses into imaginative reverie recall Stiller's own directorial project The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from 2014), but here it is augmented with a deeper and more complex emotional make-up. “I do think he has trafficked in this and part of me was wondering if that is an issue,” White admits. “But I came down on the side that it might be more interesting, because for me the movie does have parallels to Walter Mitty, but it's the hyper-specific version. I got excited about the idea of doing something that seemed like a familiar Ben Stiller movie, but by making it more low-frequency and nuanced, certain colours and tones would come out that might be unexpected.”
It’s an unfortunate truth that Brad’s Status is likely to draw a smaller audience than the average Ben Stiller movie, but White has occasionally found his sensibilities chiming with mainstream audiences over the years. “There was a time around doing School of Rock when I thought I could maybe dovetail my own sensibility with something that was a bigger studio type of thing, but I think it's harder than ever to make original movies in that space. It's all franchises and intellectual properties where you have to come in and dance for The Man,” he says. In fact, White did a little dancing in that environment earlier this year, earning a writing credit on the much-derided family animation The Emoji Movie.
“I worked on The Emoji Movie for just three weeks, and I'm not exactly sure how I got credit on it,” he says with a laugh. The experience did give him an insight into a whole other world of filmmaking, however. “You see how the sausage is made, I guess, and you're actually part of the sausage. It's obviously not Mike White's Emoji Movie – and it's not even the director's Emoji Movie, to be honest – it's Sony's Emoji Movie. I think there's a desire for some kind of authorial ownership, whether it's a writer or director, but that's just a perception of the public or film writers. Studio movies have become so expensive and there are so many people being a part of the process, that at some point you don't even know who deserves the credit or the blame for any of it, you know what I mean? It just feels like its own kind of weird beast.”
White is on much firmer ground in the world of independent film and in television, where he co-wrote all 18 episodes of the Golden Globe-winning series Enlightened for HBO. White also directed a number of episodes in that show’s run, but it’s perhaps a little surprising that Brad’s Status marks his first time behind the camera for a feature since 2007’s Year of the Dog. His direction is measured and sensitive, and perfectly in tune with his own perceptive writing, so one hopes it won’t be another decade before we see him directing again.
White himself doesn’t seem so sure. “To be honest, I'm a writer by nature and I really don't like to be in charge of a lot of people, so the managerial aspects of directing take a lot out of me, but I feel like if the elements all line up in a way that seems like I can have a good time doing it, I'll think, ‘Yeah, let's try it,’” he says. “But then when I'm done I'm like, ‘OK, I'd like to go back to the writer's life for a while.’”
Brad's Status is released 5 Jan by Vertigo