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Mike White on Todd Haynes, Romanticizing Goodness and the Exquisite Awkwardness of 'Enlightened'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire February 22, 2013 at 5:47PM

Mike White is, at the moment, a man in limbo. His HBO series "Enlightened" has two episodes left in its second season, and its future is uncertain -- ratings are up from season one, but it's still attracting half the audience that tunes in for "Girls," the show with which its been paired this year. While journalists, critics and fans are rallying around "Enlightened," which has yet to receive a yea or nea from the network, White's left waiting to find out what's next for him and for his unique comedic drama. "It's hard to even make a lunch plan," he sighs. "Even if it's a no, a just want to know so that I can move on with my life."
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'Enlightened'
Lacey Terrell/HBO 'Enlightened'

How much of you is in Amy? Do you ever find it difficult to get into her headspace?

No. I completely sympathize with her. I'm used to it now, because it's happened in other stuff I've done -- people judging the character, then ending up in a place of rejecting the character. To me it's always surprising. I don't understand some of the reactions to her. To me, when I'm writing her, I see myself in her for sure. But I see myself in the other characters, too. To me the fun of writing fiction is to hopefully, from the humanistic perspective, to try to identify with someone that maybe you originally thought of as the other, and finding compassion for parts of yourself you want to disown.

How much do you see Amy as being aware of these qualities in herself within the world of the show? There are times when it seems like everyone in conversation with her always looks to be rescued.

That is her big black hole. She has her enthusiasms, she's reaching out to people like Krista (Sarah Burns) or Tyler. She wakes up with an agenda for the day, she has a super positive attitude, but it's not necessarily welcomed. She's not a psycho bitch on the loose, you know? The thing that's annoying about her is her chipper obliviousness.

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You've had some great directors on these episode -- Nicole Holofcener, David Michôd of "Animal Kingdom," Todd Haynes, who I don't recall having directed episodic television before...

He never has. Todd's awesome. He's got such a great eye -- I'm jealous of his eye. I would look at the dailies when that stuff was coming in, and would be like, that set we shoot on all the time, why does it look so different here? He's such a master of framing. What was cool about it for us was that all these people were fans of the show -- James Bobin, who did "The Muppets," and Todd.

It's such a diversity of aesthetic, but they all liked the show and wanted to do the show, and it was elastic enough to allow them to do what they do. It's the coolest part of doing a show, honestly, being able to collaborate with so many people. You do your movie, you don't get to have that many cool people come in through the revolving door and see how they work and how they talk to actors and designers. It was such a learning experience for me, because I have less experience directing.

You're the only writer credited on the episodes. Do you work with a writers' room, or do you write them all solo?

There's no writers' room. I try to write the scripts before we start shooting -- I write them all in my house.

That's pretty unusual, isn't it, for a TV show? I feel like very few people are able to do that.

When the order's eight episodes or 10 episodes, it's a lot more manageable. The reason I'm here is because I'm a writer, not because I'm a good manager of people. [laughs] On other shows I would staff up, and I would get to the writers' room, and it felt like I was teaching a tutorial about my show to a bunch of people, then I'd go home and be like, fuck, I've got to write! It felt like a waste of time. I love being with writers, but I'm too greedy. So they would turn in the drafts, and I'm sure they were all really good, but I would just look at them and be like, I didn't write this! [laughs] Like, what is this? It would be Greek to me. For me, feeling my way in means imposing it.

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Can you tell me about the look of the show? It's really beautiful, even though it's set in areas that you don't tend to associate with that kind of beauty, like office parks and suburban homes. Usually these things are made to look like "Office Space," like cubicle purgatory, but while they are purgatorial aspects to Abaddonn, the way it looks isn't part of that.

Much of the credit goes to our DP Xavier Grobet, who's amazing. But as far as the design -- I grew up in Pasadena, and I always think there's beauty here, but especially since this is an existential crisis show, I thought it would be funny to have a show that is very pretty, but also it's like you're depressed on the prettiest L.A. day. I think about the houses of my childhood, these contemporary homes that are very kitschy, and it was all very new, but 30 years later it's not new anymore. Helen's house, it's like a haunted suburb. Levi's apartment, it's pastels, but the paint is old. There's a certain kind of California aesthetic that's both cheerful and silly but also can be haunting when done in the right way.

Then when we went into Abaddonn, I wanted to play with the world of those office communities. They can be very inviting, you know? I remember when I was a kid, taking my bike and biking down to those office parks with my McDonald's bag. It was pretty, those fountains. As corporate and silly as it is, those are our communal space -- at least in Southern California.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Enlightened, Mike White, HBO , Laura Dern, Todd Haynes







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