I wanted to write a movie about men and their discontents, to do the midlife male crisis movie honestly — with some satirical teeth — but also compassion.
During a career that now spans almost 20 years, writer, director, producer and actor Mike White, who is also known for twice competing in the Emmy-winning reality competition “The Amazing Race” with his father, Mel, has carved out a unique niche as a filmmaker with a surprising and very personal point of view.
In a raft of successful feature screenplays including School of Rock, Nacho Libre, The Good Girl and the recent, timely satire, Beatriz at Dinner, as well as his work as a director on Year of the Dog and the acclaimed HBO series “Enlightened,” White creates stories filled with seemingly ordinary people whose lives take unexpected turns.
His latest film, Brad’s Status, is an intelligent and poignant exploration of the human condition. It will intrigue, amuse and unnerve its audience with a sympathetic, warts-and-all portrait of a man who thinks he wants it all — if he can ever figure out what it is.
I wanted to write something to tell my father I love him and think he is a success, even though he feels like he never lived up to his expectations for himself. I also saw with him that the relationship one has with the world (status) can be as important (or more) as the relationship one has to family, partners, friends. I see that in myself in that — like Brad — I’m always having this running commentary in my head, comparing myself to others and the success I perceive they have — and I’m always either building myself up or tearing myself down.
I thought movies rarely tackle this aspect of our lives in a relatable way. How our thoughts about ourselves cannibalize most of our time. And how much we feel is on the line all the time.
I also wanted to write about comparative anxiety in the culture at large. How we aren’t only keeping up with the Joneses, but are keeping up with the Kardashians; through TV and social media we are seeing the lifestyles of millionaires and billionaires and how it creates this sense of lack and envy. Everyone seems to be winning the lottery around us. And how in our consumer capitalist culture this desire to live these extreme lifestyles can be both personally painful and globally destructive.
Lastly, after writing Year of the Dog, Enlightened and Beatriz at Dinner with female protagonists I wanted to write a movie about men and their discontents, to do the midlife male crisis movie honestly — with some satirical teeth — but also compassion.
In Brad’s Status a trip to Boston with his college-bound son triggers a crisis of confidence for Brad Sloan (terrific performance from Ben Stiller) as he reassesses his own life choices in a bittersweet comedy.
Brad has a satisfying career and a comfortable life in suburban Sacramento where he lives with his sweet-natured wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams), but it’s not quite what he imagined during his college glory days. Showing Troy around Boston, where Brad went to university, he can’t help comparing his life with those of his four best college friends: a Hollywood bigshot (White), a hedge-fund founder (Luke Wilson), a tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), and a political pundit and bestselling author (Michael Sheen). As he imagines their wealthy, glamorous lives, he wonders if cozy
middle-class domesticity is the best he will ever achieve. But when circumstances force him to reconnect with his former friends, Brad begins to question whether he has really failed or if, in some essential ways, their lives are more flawed than they appear.
Brad’s Status begins in upper-middle-class Sacramento, as Brad Sloan prepares to take his only child on a tour of East Coast colleges, prompting him to wonder if his life has somehow fallen short of its potential. Modern parent-child relationships and today’s overly examined lives are thrust under White’s microscope as Brad’s anxieties converge in a perfect storm of self-doubt.
Producer David Bernad, who helped White found Rip Cord Productions and served as producer on “Enlightened,” describes the filmmaker as “one of the most original minds in Hollywood. He has a real humanity and kindness that you don’t see in a lot of filmmakers. There’s a real joy to the process of filmmaking with Mike.”
The development process for Brad’s Status was the typical one for a Mike White film, says Bernad: “Mike writes a script and that ends up being the script that gets shot. He sent it to me in November 2015. I remember reading it on a plane and waiting for the plane to land so I could call and talk to him about it. We were in prep by August and started shooting in September.”
White says he was interested in exploring the surge in what he calls “status anxiety.” “We are not just keeping up with the Joneses today, but literally keeping up with the Kardashians,” he explains. “There are people very publicly living these unprecedented billionaire lifestyles. Even if we have a lot, it’s easy to feel like it’s not enough. We all curate our lives for others through social media, which adds to this sense that other people have more. Throughout the course of history, people thought it was only a certain elite that lived
those kinds of lives. Now there’s a belief that we should be able to have all of that ourselves. There’s an unsustainable feeling that everyone’s winning the lottery — except you.”
Despite his own success, White admits to having those kinds of doubts swimming about in his own head. “People around you seem to be living bigger lives,” he says. “For Brad, that means he’s sitting in economy on a plane, knowing that his friends are flying private. For me, sometimes it seems like everyone else is having fun and I’m here rewriting a script for the 500th time in my cave. Or I’m not working at all. Whatever your situation is, the world more than ever can create a sense of comparative anxiety.”
White also admits that his own self-worth often hinges on how he’s seen through others’ eyes.
“When I do a film and it gets a good review, I think, yeah! I did it! Then I get a bad review and I’m a complete failure. I presume that if I’m doing it, other people must be doing it too. So I wanted to write something about how our ambition and comparative anxiety fuels insecurity — at least for me. Where do you stand to the world? Have you made an impact? Seeing other people’s success starts Brad tearing himself down or building himself up in reaction. That was the initial inkling of it.”
As Brad starts measuring his accomplishments against those of his four best college friends, it seems clear to him that they are doing far better than he is. Sure he has a patient and devoted wife, a gifted son, a lovely home and a job at a small not-for-profit he started. But how can that compare to shaping public opinion, handling billions of dollars in investments, living in a magazine-worthy Malibu mansion or sharing a Hawaiian beach house with a pair of bikini-clad young beauties?
“The movie asks the eternal question, is the grass always greener?” says Bernad. “Are these other people actually living a better life or could his life, which maybe isn’t what he had dreamt about when he was 21, actually be better than what he envisioned?”
White remembers seeing his father, a minister, struggling to evaluate his own accomplishments when he retired. “I could tell my father was questioning whether he felt like he was a success,” he recalls. “I see him as a success and part of my wanting to make this movie was to say that to him. But I also realized that no matter where you are in your career, there are times when you feel like other people have made more of an impact or that you could have done more.”
Those feelings of uncertainty are heightened for Brad as he watches his only son on the brink of independence, with limitless potential before him. “At the age a child prepares to go to college they are ready to break free of family bonds,” notes White. “On the other hand, parents may be hanging on a bit too tight. It’s a poignant moment for both, I think.”
White remembers being at his most prickly — and awkward — on his own college tour with his father. “I think it’s the first time where you have a real referendum on where you stand in the world. I had a good relationship with my parents, but during school visits I felt like if they said or did the wrong thing, anyone there who witnessed it would still remember it and if I went there I’d somehow have to live it down for years.”
White’s shrewd instinct for casting familiar actors in unexpected roles gives the film’s accomplished cast the opportunity to confound audience expectations. “Casting for this movie was a delicate process,” he says. “It’s a thoughtful, deliberative movie with comedic moments. We wanted to find actors who have a sense of humor, but weren’t the obvious choices. We felt that if we orientated it too much toward comedy by casting people who brought certain kinds of expectations to it, we wouldn’t be able to make the movie we
Ben Stiller and White have known each other for many years. In fact, Stiller appeared in a cameo role in the 2002 comedy Orange County, which White wrote and produced. “I’ve always been a fan of Ben’s,” says the filmmaker. “I’ve really wanted to work with him for a long time, but it never worked out until now. Ben is a kind of comedic Everyman. He’s a strong, precise comedic actor who personifies a kind of urban ambition that I felt like we could tap into with Brad.”
At first glance, Brad’s neurotic doggedness may feel like a familiar tool from Stiller’s repertoire, but any assumptions are shattered as the story unfolds. “The movie quickly launches in an odd and unexpected direction,” says White. “The audience’s expectations will be that it’s a certain kind of movie, but then it pivots in a way that I think will be fun and subversive.”
Stiller connected with the idea of a man just trying to live his life as best he can in a world where good is never good enough. “The tone of the movie is genuine and funny and smart,” says the star. “It’s also emotional without trying too hard to be emotional. We live in a world where we are all very aware of what everyone else has and does. We just want to figure out how to be happy, but we’re inundated with ideas of what happiness and success are. On the internet, on television, in advertising and throughout the general
culture, we’re constantly bombarded with other people’s idealized lives and comparing ourselves. You may be doing ok but, wow, look at that guy over there!”
The actor’s reaction was exactly what White was hoping for. “I so got excited when he was into it. Ben brought the character to a deeper level than another actor might have. He never went right to the obvious comedy on the page. He didn’t lean on familiar things and it was exciting to watch how intense he was about making sure he wasn’t doing something that felt familiar.”
Stiller, who has a 12-year-old son himself, was moved by the film’s honest portrayal of a father-son relationship. It is an intimate slice of their life during a period when they are getting to know one another in a new light. “It’s not a road trip and no hijinks ensue,” says the actor. “It’s a journey that a father and son take together. We get a window into Brad’s connection with his son and his own insecurities. I think we’ve seen moments like this from the son’s perspective in other films, but this is the reverse. Troy is the one with a clear sense of self. He has not been affected by the world yet. Brad has dealt with failure, success, rejection. Those things are all ahead of Troy. Brad is not an archetypal father. Mike takes that on and looks at it in a sensitive way without judging.”
As Brad’s son, Troy, Austin Adams provides the perfect foil for Stiller’s amped up angst, as a boy who stays deliberately cool when his dad is running red hot. Abrams, who turns 21 in September, has been acting professionally for just five years and has already racked up an impressive resume that includes a pivotal role on “The Walking Dead” and the lead in the feature Paper Towns.
For any young actor, the opportunity to work so closely with White and Stiller would be a career changing experience. Abrams says he felt doubly lucky because the part and the story were so rich. “I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read,” he says. “I kept reading it over and over again and I never got tired of it. There were new things to discover on every page. The maturity that Troy has seemed very fresh and that was really interesting for me.
Being part of Amazon Studios sweeping slate of original films was crucial to making the film that White envisioned, both he and Bernad agree. The company was, both men say, the ideal partner for an unusual and ambitious movie. “Amazon’s been amazing,” says Bernad. “As a producer, I salivate over the opportunity to have a partner that is so involved. It’s really rare to work with a studio that gives you total and complete freedom. They have complete trust in the filmmakers and in the process.”
White adds that as a filmmaker his dream is to sit across from the people who are willing to take a chance and say make the best version of the thing that you envision. “Sometimes people are afraid that things will be too edgy or too unusual, but they never tried to water it down or neuter it. For that I’m very grateful.”