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

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

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.”

The uncertainty surrounding “Enlightened” comes, naturally, at a time when the show is at its best and attracting deservedly glowing press. It’s anchored by a fearless Laura Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an executive who’s returned to Abaddonn Industries, the company at which she used to work before a mental breakdown and subsequent time at a treatment facility. Fond of self-help generalizations and driven by a new, vague desire to do good and bring about change, Amy can be both a grating presence and an achingly vulnerable one — she’s ridiculous and touching all at once as she strives to lead a better, bigger kind of life while having little idea of how to actually manage that. Dern’s formidable performance as Amy is backed up by some strong supporting turns from Luke Wilson as her substance abusing ex-husband Levi, White himself as her meek coworker Tyler and Dern’s real-life mother Diane Ladd as Helen, the somewhat estranged parent with whom Amy has moved back in.

In its second season, “Enlightened” has combined its portrait of a woman trying to rethink her existence with a corporate thriller-style story arc in which Amy attempts to bring down Abaddonn with the reluctant help of Tyler, thanks to the encouragement of a dreamy Los Angeles Times journalist played by Dermot Mulroney. The overarching plot has pulled the show together into a stirringly sad and funny whole in which good intentions meet up with action, and not always easily. Indiewire spoke with White on the phone about the series and its incomparable heroine.

I saw you speak on a panel about the future of sitcoms at The New Yorker Festival last fall — one of the things that came up from another showrunner was that he didn’t feel his show had really come together until several episodes in. Did you feel the same at all with “Enlightened”?

For me the pilot has all of the tones of what the show turned out to be — the emotional stuff and the reflective stuff, but also the character/observational satirical stuff. What I like about writing it is it keeps shifting in tone from episode to episode. I wanted to do a show that shed its skin every week, that can veer off into more emotional episodes or more black comedy ones.

This season does have the overarching whistleblower storyline — was the plan always to do something different this round?

Originally we were going to do the whistleblower stuff in the first season, but then I started writing all the scripts and I got more into these meditations on her relationship with her mom, or her friend coming to town. I wanted to explore aspects of her character and stuff that was interesting to me. I thought people would like that part of it, and I think they do, but it didn’t have that hook of “You’ve got to see what happens next week on ‘Enlightened!'” Because of our ratings, the second season may be pushing a little bit more the potboiler part of it to help draw in viewers.

One of Amy’s foremost qualities is the generalness of her desire to change the world — she has such a strong desire to better things without really having had any specific ways to go about that. How has it been, balancing that vagueness against having this thrillerish plot?

Some people used to say “Why doesn’t she just volunteer somewhere in Riverside? Then she could feel good about herself.” And I was like, that’s actually a pretty good question. What she wants is a bigger life. She does have delusions of grandeur, too, coupled with her desire to do good. It wouldn’t be enough to just, I don’t know, recycle. She wants to be Joan of Arc, and that is something I can relate to, for sure.

I once volunteered to teach English as a second language, and I thought that I would have all these intense relationships with all these people from other worlds. Then you get there, and it’s like, “This is a pencil. This is a pencil.” And afterward, you like, “It’s so depressing. This isn’t what I imagined! I thought this would be more glorious.”

There’s something poignant about that aspect of Amy — the way the idea of her doing these things is almost more important than any actual achievement.

That’s part of the fun of the character. If she was just a pure, straight-up saint, I don’t know how interesting it would be, let alone relatable. Obviously there are people doing good things all over the world at all times. But Amy has this romanticized notion of what “good” is, and that’s why she’s flawed.

When “Girls” started, I remember getting into a argument with someone over whether or not the show approved of Hannah’s tantrum over her parents cutting her off — like, no, that’s supposed to be funny, it’s satirical. And Amy preceded her, and “Enlightened” is more overtly compassionate toward her. Do you feel that people have trouble processing female characters like this, who aren’t primarily designed to be likable?

I mean, I did “Chuck & Buck,” which was about a male character and was the same kind of thing. People were either like “AAAAAAAH! I hate him!” or they cried for him. He got a polarizing reaction. So I don’t think it’s necessarily just female characters, I think it’s more that men often come to female-driven shows with a certain amount of trepidation anyway, in the sense that getting inside a female character’s world is somehow intrinsically feminizing: “Why would I want to see that?” There’s some kind of resistance to the material off the top. Then when they get in there and she’s annoying, it’s like, “Exactly!” It affirms their resistance. But it’s actually a really good time for annoying female characters. [laughs] There’s a lot of them. Calculatedly annoying, you know, not just Bonnie Franklin in “One Day at a Time.”

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.

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.

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.

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