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

Season two of Mike White's Emmy Award Winning HBO series 'The White Lotus' is about wealthy Americans vacationing in a luxurious hotel in Sicily and how they manage to mess up their lives

42:25

Other segments from the episode on December 5, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 5, 2022: Interview with Mike White; Review of three new romance songs

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. The HBO comedy-drama series "The White Lotus," one of the TV hits of the pandemic, is wrapping up its second season with one episode remaining. The first season was nominated for 20 Emmys and won 10, including best limited or anthology series. It won our guest, Mike White, its creator, Emmys for both writing and directing. Mike White also created the HBO series "Enlightened." He wrote the hit film "School Of Rock," wrote and directed the films "Year Of The Dog" and "Brad's Status" and, early in his career, wrote several episodes of the TV series "Freaks And Geeks" and "Dawson's Creek." In The New York Times, Alexis Soloski pointed out two themes he's examined in his work - the gulf between the people we imagine ourselves to be and the people we actually are, and how living your best life usually pushes a lot of people into living worse ones. A seemingly out-of-character chapter of his career is being a reality show contestant. He competed on two seasons of "The Amazing Race" with his father and was a runner-up on "Survivor."

"The White Lotus" is about the staff and the wealthy guests at five-star luxury resort hotels in gorgeous panoramic settings. The settings resemble paradise, but the guests are wrapped up in their problems. Season 1 was set at a White Lotus hotel in Hawaii and focused on class, money and entitlement. Season 2 is set at a resort hotel in a beautiful part of Sicily. The cast includes Michael Imperioli, F. Murray Abraham and Aubrey Plaza. Jennifer Coolidge plays the same self-absorbed, insecure, incredibly wealthy character she played in the first season. This season pivots around the sex lives of its main characters - passionate, indifferent and transactional sex, sex from the perspective of sex addicts, sex with and without love, and the suspicion, jealousy, mischief and mayhem that are sometimes the consequences of sex.

Mike White, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm really enjoying the series, and I'm really happy that the first season was so acclaimed. Why did you want to focus Season 2 on some of the ways - some of the many ways sex can make you sad, lonely, distrustful, angry, jealous and add to your misery?

MIKE WHITE: Well, originally, I had a different idea. I was totally going in a different direction. And then, we went scouting for hotels. And we went to the hotel that we ended up choosing, which was in Taormina, the San Domenico Palace, which is a renovated convent. And it's just a very spectacular hotel, and it was - seemed like the perfect place to set the show. The original idea was more, like, heavy hitters in business and more about power. And then, I got there, and I was like, this feels like this is not the right place for that kind of topic. And it just kind of gave me the idea that - maybe to kind of focus more on sexual jealousy and adultery and infidelity in a more kind of operatic kind of bedroom farce.

And, you know, like, the first season, we did so much about privilege and about how money is used as a wedge between - in relationships, both sort of intimate and, you know, just in kind of even surface relationships. And I just felt like maybe we should try to, you know, not repeat that same idea. And it just felt like sex was always such a fertile, you know, theme to explore. So it kind of - the place sort of forced my hand in a way.

GROSS: From the intro I gave, it might give the impression that the series is very sexually explicit. There are some scenes that are, but not that many. It's mostly people talking about their sex lives and brooding about their resentments and jealousies. But, you know, like, nudity and sex helped get HBO off the ground. It's one of the things it first became famous for. So how did you decide how explicit to make this season?

WHITE: I mean, I'm kind of - just personally, certainly as a director, I'm very timid about asking people to, like, undress and, like, get into sexual situations. It's not my wheelhouse. And so, like, this was, like - there was definitely times on this shoot that I was like, what have I got myself into?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITE: Like, I'm just like - you know, I'm - my threshold for awkwardness is very low. So there's a lot of - the actors are much more confident and uninhibited than I am. And so that was new terrain for me. It just felt like it was important because it really is baked into the narrative. So, you know, it's funny, though, how now that the show is airing, how much you realize, you know - like, a graphic sex scene or a sex scene that kind of is titillating for various reasons does just spike and generate interest in the populace, for better or worse. I don't know what that says. But it definitely feels like as far as, like, online chatter and just general, like, I don't know, excitement around the show - it's funny how certain, like, sex scenes have, like, galvanized interest in the narrative of the show.

GROSS: You know, this season is also about generational differences and what it means to be a man or generational differences in perceptions of harmless flirting versus sexual harassment. And I want to play a scene in which three generations of men - a grandfather played by F. Murray Abraham, his adult son played by Michael Imperioli and Imperioli's son played by Adam DiMarco - are vacationing in Sicily, staying at this luxury hotel. And they take a trip to where the Sicily scenes from "The Godfather II" (ph) were shot including the scene where Michael Corleone's new wife is killed by a car bomb that was intended for him. And so they're right near - just a few feet away, really - near where that scene was shot, sitting in a restaurant talking. And the grandfather's talking about why he thinks this is just an amazingly fantastic film. So here's the scene, and F. Murray Abraham speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")

F MURRAY ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) The best American movie ever made.

ADAM DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) No, it's not.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) No? Why not? I think so.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Well, yeah. I mean, you would.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) All right. And what's that supposed to mean?

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) It's because you're nostalgic for the solid days of the patriarchy.

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) They're undeniably great movies.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Men love "The Godfather" because they feel emasculated by modern society. It's a fantasy about a time when they could go out and solve all their problems with violence...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Italian).

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) ...And sleep with every woman...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing) Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) ...And then come home to their wife, who doesn't ask them any questions and makes them pasta.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Hey. Hey. Hey. That's a normal male fantasy.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) No. Movies like that socialize men into having that fantasy.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Movies like that exist because men already do have that fantasy. We're hard-wired.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Comes with the testosterone.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) No, gender is a construct. It's created.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) You spent all that money on Stanford; he comes back brainwashed.

GROSS: One of the things I liked about this scene is that - I mean, I think "The Godfather," especially "Godfather II," is just, like, an undeniably spectacular film. And it's not because I'm a male nostalgic for the days of patriarchy. But there are some people who can't see a film as a film, that are just seeing the politics in the film and the representation in the film. And I sometimes find that frustrating.

But specifically, like, with older movies - and I mean movies even older than "The Godfather" movies. A lot of older movies are from an era where sexual politics just weren't good. I mean, you know, like, women were, like, wives and housekeepers. And, you know, occasionally, there'd be a working woman in a movie, and she'd often be punished for it or just, like, give it up for marriage in the end. But they're sometimes still great movies. And I'm wondering how you separate that when you watch old movies, how you separate, like, the sexual politics or any of the, you know, colonialist politics from just the moviemaking and the - you know, the way the story is told that might still be, like, quite good.

WHITE: Well, it's - I mean, I'm of two minds. I wrote the first season. And it talked about a lot of - whatever, thorny political and social issues. And a lot of people embraced it. And then, you know, there were certain kind of criticisms where it was - you know, when you start reading everything about the value of a piece of art by how it lines up with your political philosophy, or how it should, you know, deal with certain kinds of representations and whether - marginalized groups or how - you know, it's like, it just starts to feel like, as a creator person, you start to feel like you're in a box. But, like, as far as, like - there are tropes that are just inherently racist or sexist. And, obviously, that's, you know, not something I'm looking to try to reboot.

But, like, this whole season of the show is sort of a little bit, like, kind of going into a certain, like, constellation of tropes and try to, like, play with those tropes in a way that hopefully feels fresh. For me, it's like, you know, some of the most problematic movies have things in it that spark my imagination, that have some kind of mischievous appeal that I go back to that, you know, on their face are, like - you know, you would reject some of the - yeah, the politics of it or how things are represented. But to me, it's like, I don't - I'm not always going to movies to have my politics affirmed.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. He created, writes and directs the HBO series "The White Lotus," which is in Season 2. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike White, the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." Season 2 is about the American guests vacationing at a luxurious hotel in Sicily. This season's focus is on the characters' sex lives and how sex is leading more to unhappiness than fulfillment for most of the characters.

I want to play another scene, which is similar to the one that we heard. It has the same characters in it. And this is about, like, the generational difference between flirting and sexual harassment. And the setup is F. Murray Abraham, the grandfather, is at the luxurious restaurant in the luxurious hotel with his son, played by Michael Imperioli, and Imperioli's son. So the grandfather, F. Murray Abraham, starts flirting with the young, attractive waitress.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WHITE LOTUS")

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) We just flew all the way in from Los Angeles (laughter) just to be here in Sicily because we aren't Sicilian. You Sicilian?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, from Catania.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Oh. You married?

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Dad, why don't you let her put our order in so I can get a drink?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) My son is a big muckety muck in Hollywood, so he's very impatient.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I'll bring you your drinks.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Thank you.

DIMARCO: (As Albie Di Grasso) Thanks. Sorry.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Thank you.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Dad, you got to knock it off.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Oh, what's the problem?

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) What are you doing? I mean, what's the point?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Flirting is one of the pleasures of life.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) Do you actually think you have a chance with any of these women?

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Oh, don't be rude.

IMPERIOLI: (As Dominic Di Grasso) I'm just saying you're 80 years old.

ABRAHAM: (As Bert Di Grasso) Well, I'm still a man. And I get older and older, but the women I desire remain young - natural, right? You can relate to that.

GROSS: Natural, right (laughter)? You must have seen flirtatious behavior where you're really embarrassed for the older man and uncomfortable for the younger woman, the man who thinks, you know, flirting is harmless and it's charming and adorable and the younger woman who feels, like, really, you know, annoyed or harassed by it.

WHITE: Well, I actually have had that with my own dad, who's gay. And we went on a trip. We had a similar trip to Sweden. His roots are Swedish, which, I guess, are my roots, too. And, you know, he would still say stuff like, oh, that guy is really handsome or - I don't know. Or, like, I could tell he would be sort of - you know, find some guy attractive and then start, like, having not necessarily a flirtatious, like, overtly - not like, maybe, as bad as, like, what Bert is doing. But, like, something about it - I think that seeing yourself in that. And then it's also your dad. And he's 80 years old. You're just like, oh, please. Like, I don't know. I just - I revert back to the 12-year-old me, where I'm like, do not - please, do not embarrass me, Dad or - you know? So...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

WHITE: So I think it's - I can relate to, yeah, the part where it's just like, you don't want to think about that side of them. And you also don't want to think that, like, at a certain age, they're still feeling that way or still having those desires that you see in yourself and want to try to disown. So it's like, I think there's just so many layers of, like, wanting to be more than just, yeah, having those base instincts, and then also wanting your, yeah, parent to, even more so, live up to that. And they never do.

GROSS: And also feeling that that person is blind to the reaction they're actually getting. That they're so...

WHITE: Right. And also it's like, it's the guy who, yeah, was handsome and was able to get women at a certain age and still thinks he's - maybe he's still got that charm and still has a chance.

GROSS: So I want to confess, I started watching Season 2 of "The White Lotus" after the first episode. So then I went back and watched the first episode to catch up and was surprised to find (laughter) that in the opening scene, one of the characters, after talking about what a great vacation this is, what a perfect setting, what a perfect place, goes into the ocean for a swim. And shortly after leaving the shore, sees a dead body. It turns out there's several dead bodies floating in the ocean.

So after the first scene, you know, this is in part a murder mystery. And you said before - because the first season is like this, too, where there's - you know that there's been a murder. But you don't know, like, who's behind it - that it keeps people watching. You know, once there's a dead body, you have to find out, like, who did it? But you must be laughing about that, too, you know, knowing how you're intentionally using that as a way to keep people watching.

WHITE: You know, I've been making stuff for a long time. And when that first season became such a kind of - I don't know - watercooler show where people were talking about it, I was like, actually, had I only known if I'd put a dead body at the beginning of "Enlightened," maybe people would have watched "Enlightened." I don't know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITE: Like, you know, you realize these kinds of hooks, like, do actually get viewers. And hopefully, you can, you know, still try to - you know, it's like, you know, that is not what drives me to make this stuff. But I do - you know, I enjoy it when people see it and are engaged in it. So it felt like, obviously, that device did work the first season. And as far as the second season, I was like, you know, since we're doing a new hotel and new actors and new characters, it was like, well, what is "White Lotus" as a franchise? And maybe this device is a part of it, which is just feeling like there is going to be - you know, that there's some - it's building to a kind of operatic or, you know, tragic ending for one of these characters.

And clearly, it - definitely, you know, just based on, like, online chatter and just friends and different people, it feels like it clearly is something that drives interest in the show. And hopefully, you know, you'll - you know, people will decide at the conclusion whether it's satisfying or feels just device-y (ph). But at this point, I'm excited about the finale. I do feel like it sort of feels like it's - there's a justification for it. But, yeah, it's not really my natural wheelhouse. But, you know, as somebody who's been kind of working in the margins, like, it is kind of nice to have viewers (laughter).

GROSS: You've been a contestant on reality shows, including "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race." And in a way, part of "The White Lotus" is like "Survivor" in the sense that you know people are going to get, you know, voted off the island or, in this case, like, murdered off the island because - and it literally is an island that it's set on. So do you think you were influenced by "Survivor" in kind of creating that suspense of, like, who's going to survive and who's going to be forced off?

WHITE: It's funny. It's embarrassingly true. It's funny because I was - Jeff Probst, who is the host of "Survivor," is a friend now. And I was with him not long ago, and he was talking about how much he loved the show. And I was thinking about - I was, like, thinking about it. I was like, there's all these devices that are literally out of "Survivor," which is - yeah, who's going to die at the end of the show? And then we use these transitions and, like, this kind of music.

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

GROSS: You made a half-joking reference to "Fantasy Island" in an interview saying that your series is, in a way, a version of "Fantasy Island." And "Fantasy Island," for people who don't know the series, was, you know, a comedy series - can I call it a comedy series, comedic drama? I don't know - from the late '70s and early '80s where people would come and vacation on "Fantasy Island," where their fantasies would be fulfilled. And it was such a formulaic show. I mean, it was kind of hilarious to watch because it was apparently a fail-proof formula but, you know, just an unembarrassed way of fulfilling the formula week after week. So tell us why you made that comparison.

WHITE: (Laughter) Well, the truth is, like, I grew up - I'm definitely the "Fantasy Island," "Love Boat" generation. I was - you know, I was probably 10 to 13 years old when they were in kind of their heyday. And I loved those shows. And I also - my other favorite show was "Laverne And Shirley," which was the same time. And I was like, OK - because the two prostitutes in the show - I was like, this is - there's something very "Laverne And Shirley" here of these girls, like, trying to, like, you know, like - because Laverne and Shirley were always trying to break into the - like, you know, the party that they weren't invited to. And, you know, like, they were kind of these, like, underdog, working-class girls.

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

GROSS: But it also has elements of, like, classic American theater, like Edward Albee and Eugene O'Neill's psychodramas.

WHITE: I mean, you're hitting all my references. Yeah. I mean, when I was a kid, I was, like - my second-grade teacher was Sam Shepard's mother. And so I, like, got "Buried Child" as a script and then started reading like, yeah, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And I bought the - I mean, I was 10 years old. I had, like, the record of, like, Uta Hagen doing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And I would follow along in the book of it, the - you know, the printed play of it. And so, you know, rich people ordering drinks and getting drunk and starting to have, like (laughter), arguments and - when I was young, I felt like that was the pinnacle of, like, sophisticated art. I mean, I was growing - you know, growing up in this, like, religious community in Pasadena. Like, it was just like - I just felt like that was what - that's what high art was. That's what high society was. So I'm still working through that, I guess.

GROSS: Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. He's the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." Season 2 will conclude on Sunday. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRISTOBAL TAPIA DE VEER'S "RENAISSANCE (TITLE THEME)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mike White, the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." Season 2, which concludes Sunday, is about the American guests vacationing at a luxurious hotel in Sicily. The season's focus is on the characters' sex lives and how sex is leading more to unhappiness than fulfillment. Season 1 of "The White Lotus" was nominated for 20 Emmys and won 10 including for best limited or anthology series. It won Mike White, its creator, Emmys for both writing and directing. Mike White also created the HBO series "Enlightened." He wrote the movie "School Of Rock" and wrote and directed the films "Year Of The Dog" and "Brad's Status."

Your father, who we've talked about before on the show, was an evangelical minister and ghostwrote memoirs for such homophobic evangelical leaders as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson. And then, your father came out and became a gay activist. You were 11, I think, when he came out. You had mentioned that, because you grew up in, like, a religious environment, you were basically taught that expressing sexuality was kind of a sin. Can you talk a little bit more about what you were taught about sexuality in that environment both by your parents and by school? I don't know if you went to a public school or an evangelical school, but I know you went to a religious camp. Was it, like, a Christian camp?

WHITE: Well, I mean, from my actual parents, I don't know if it was talked about too much. Once I realized my dad was gay - and I found out he was gay prior to him, like, coming out to the family just because he'd had a lot of therapy and kept all these notes about the therapy. And I stumbled upon that and realized that this was - that there was this whole other side to him and what was going on. I was just always taught that - in the greater community that my parents were a part of, that, you know, sex was a - you know, mostly sinful and kind of unspeakable. And it was - you know, it was something that everybody kind of kept under wraps, you know?

I went to a secular school, and so I got more of a sense of - you know, it rounded out my perception of sex. But, you know, the truth was movies were the way that I got my education on sex, for better or worse. You know, like, I - we had cable or - you know, early form of cable in our house in Southern California. And I - you know, they had Z Channel. And, like, late at night, I would turn on movies. And I - you know, I just - yeah, I started seeking out information on my own.

GROSS: You know, you mention that you found out your father was gay before the rest of the family knew because you stumbled on his papers and read that. And so what happened? Did you ask your father to explain it to you? Were you upset by what you'd read? You were 11. I don't know how much you understood what you were reading.

WHITE: Well, my mom - I didn't find out before my mom. My parents were earnestly trying to go through the fact that my dad had these gay leanings or desires together, you know, and - but I knew before my sister and certainly before they told, you know, people in our - in their kind of social circle. When I was young, it felt like such a betrayal because I - and so I kind of kept it to myself for a while. And then, finally, it - yeah, it came out that - you know, that I knew. And, you know, I was - it was a very tortured time because my - you know, my parents didn't have - couldn't provide any solace for me because they were still so - it was still so confusing, and they were so tortured over it themselves.

And so it was - you know, but it was weird. I accepted it sooner than he did. Like, I - like, it didn't bother me so much that he was - like, the actual fact of him being gay. It was just more how it was going to impact our nuclear family and all of that. You know, everything is embarrassing, and that's just another thing - but it never felt like any more particularly embarrassing than just the fact that my, you know, parents had sex lives at all.

GROSS: What was your father's reaction when he realized that you knew and that you had read things that were meant to be private?

WHITE: I don't - I mean, I think it was - oh, man. My dad was - you know, he was going through electroshock - I mean, he was going through such - I mean, he was - he - you know, he so earnestly did not want to leave the family. He did not want to be gay. It was very painful for him. So it was hard to - you know, it was hard to be mad at him. And it was hard to - you know, it's like - he's - so he was - yeah, he was upset and, like, you know - and he - you know, it was all very sad. You know, it ended up - you know, my parents have a great relationship. You know, they soon had a - you know, like, everything kind of worked out, in a way. But it was - yeah, there's a - years of a lot of, like, painful, transitional process.

GROSS: Season 1 of "The White Lotus" was set in Hawaii at a luxurious hotel there. You're speaking to us now from Hawaii. You have a home there, and you lived part of the year there. You also went there to recover - tell me if I got this wrong - to recover from a nervous breakdown that you had in the, I think, early aughts after things weren't - were not going well on a series that you were writing, and you were having a lot of disagreements with the execs at the network that you were writing the series for. And in "Enlightened," the main character, Laura Dern, when she has a nervous breakdown at work, goes to Hawaii to recover. You first started going to Hawaii, vacationing there, when you were a child with your family. Why were you going to Hawaii to vacation? And what did Hawaii look like to you from the perspective of a child?

WHITE: Yeah. We - my dad - he had a friend from Fuller Seminary, another professor or one of his students - I don't know - who lived in Honolulu. And this guy had children the same ages as my sister and I. And so that was our first trip there. But, yeah, when I was young, it was - you know, it was the first place that I had been that wasn't home. And the feeling was so different, and the vibe was so different - and the colors. And it felt like that was where vacation was. That's where - I don't know. That was where the elsewhere was that wasn't Pasadena and my home.

And I guess, you know, you always are trying to reenact your childhood somehow. You know, like, I - when I got a little money, I was like, oh, I'll buy a little place in Hawaii, and I can get my parents out there. It was like almost, like, trying to, like - you go back to the scene of the original happiness and, you know, obviously all of - there's a lot of cliches involved with Hawaii, too, which is, like, the aloha culture. And everything is - you know, it's like this kind of, like - you know, like, it's the child's view.

You know, now I'm old and cynical. And like you - you know, the hotels. And, you know, like, you peel the paradisiacal onion, and you see how fraught the history is here with colonialism and how you're not necessarily a welcome guest to the people here. But, like, when you're a kid and you're like going to those, like, kitschy, you know, Hawaiiana luaus or whatever, it just - there's something about it that just locks in my head as some kind of - like, this is what paradise is. And I think in the first season, I was kind of playing with that, which is like, you know, it is paradise. And then it is. Obviously it's paradise in someone else's, you know, home who's not really (laughter) - who got screwed over to have you there. But I am that kid, you know? So it's still trying to capture the magic of that fantasy.

GROSS: I mean, one of the points of "The White Lotus" is that you can be in a setting that resembles paradise and bring all your troubles with you. Like, you bring yourself. You bring your troubled self to paradise. And your troubled self remains troubled. And I'm wondering, you know, having lived in LA and lived in Hawaii, is being depressed in a paradise-like setting any better than being depressed in a suburb or a city, you know, in Los Angeles?

WHITE: Well, the thing is I think the show tries to get at this a little bit, too, in just a macro thing that - like, you know, when you're wealthy and you don't have, like, situational problems that have to do with money, then your problems become existential. It's just like, you know, you have all of the tools to, like, figure out your life, and you can't figure out your life.

I think the same is, like, in the setting. So it's like if you're in some gloomy, urban, dystopic spot, you can always say, oh, it's, you know, my surroundings that are making me depressed. Or this is - it's like, but if you're in paradise and you feel like something's missing or you're melancholy or you're, you know, tortured, you know, it's not the ambient nature of what's going on. It's something in you. And so I feel like there's - you know, as somebody who likes to write in an existential way about, like, the questions of happiness and whatever, fulfillment or frustrations or whatever - that it sometimes feels like it draws me to try to take all the sort of situational, like, excuses for unhappiness off the table.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White. He's the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SAMBA DE PARIS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike White, the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." Season 2 concludes on Sunday.

"The White Lotus" has been a really big success. I mean, it's already renewed for a third season, and the second season isn't even over yet. The first season won 10 Emmys and received 20 nominations. That's, like, a lot. You received one for writing and one for directing. And what was the third?

WHITE: Well, just for the series itself as a producer.

GROSS: Yeah. So that was great. And, you know, I felt really happy for you.

WHITE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And I know, like you said, you worked in the margins for a long time. And "Enlightened," a series I loved, was canceled after the second season, which I know was a great disappointment for you. What's it been like for you to have a series that has really caught on? I mean, it's a kind of zeitgeist series.

WHITE: You know, honestly, it's very - it's fun because I've - I mean, I've worked really hard on this series. It's really been a ultramarathon, especially doing this last one right after the first season. It's just - you know, I'm writing and directing them all, so it's intense. But I've done that before on other things that have just sat on a shelf in some executive's office, and I can't get them to release it. Or, you know - or, like, it comes and goes and doesn't even seem to make a register in the culture. And so it's - I have to say it's - yeah, it's nice. It's not something that I ever expect or - and to me, I feel like this is just - I just feel like I'm like a surfer who's been in the ocean for, like, 25 years and, like, suddenly caught a wave. And I guess maybe just being out there long enough, you know, you're going to catch a wave. But it's good that it happened as I'm old because I'm just like - you know, I know to try to chase this is foolish because it's - you know, you never know. You know, it's just a happy fluke.

GROSS: Has success changed your self-image or how other people see you?

WHITE: I do think it's changed me in certain ways that I didn't expect. And I think it's informed my work and probably for - to some people, maybe not for the positive. But, you know, it's like when I was younger, I always identified with the young person and the - you know, as the underdog, the - you know, like, the - you know, as you get older and you become in charge of people, like, I guess I have more sympathy for, like, the older person and the person with power, you know? Like, it's like, when I was young, I was like, oh, you know, you're always wanting to stick it to the man. And I would write scripts about sticking it to the man. And then it's like, you become the man. And you're like, well, the man has problems, too. The man - it's not so easy for the man, you know?

So it's - so maybe that's just the sad march toward the - you know, you lose touch with the underdog or whatever. Yeah. You want to hold on to your values that made you want to change the world and, yeah, not become a sellout or not become somebody who's just, you know, wanting to defend the status quo. At the same time, I don't know. There is something about being in power where you start to see how, you know, it's hard to be in charge. I don't know. You know, so I do think it's changed me a little bit but hopefully not unrecognizably so or irredeemably so.

GROSS: In one of your acceptance speeches for the first season of "White Lotus," one of your Emmy acceptance speeches, you thanked your father. And you said, you know, you are grateful that you had the chance to honor him, that he was struggling right now. What was going on, and how is he? Is it OK to ask?

WHITE: Yeah, it's OK. I actually wanted to tell you - is that - yeah. My dad has Lewy body dementia, and he has Alzheimer's.

GROSS: Oh.

WHITE: And he has - he's in - yeah, he's in really bad shape. Like, he can't stand up. He can't walk. He can't roll over in bed. His brain is still there. He - you can talk with him, but he gets confused a lot. And he's not the person that he was. It was crazy because a year ago I went on a trip with him to Sweden. And when we did the trip that they did in the show. And within a year, it's like - he's like, I can't - he can't do anything. So that's distressing.

But I always remembered us going onto to your show, and he was so proud of that. And so I did want to bring that up just because it's something that, you know, my dad always wanted. You know, he wanted some kind of public approval and him being gay and being seen as, like, a good person. It was funny how being on "Amazing Race" together, he got certain things out of that show that he wasn't even able to do in all these years of activism because people saw him as, you know, like, a good dad and a funny guy. And so yeah. So when we went onto your show, which - he's such a fan of yours - it was a cool, cool thing for both of us.

GROSS: Does he have any sense of the success that you're having?

WHITE: Yeah, for sure. I brought one of the Emmys down, and we left it with him. And he's - yeah, he's so proud. And, you know, it's like I've been away for the last year because I've been shooting in Italy. And, like, my dad was always, you know, he - you know, he loved - you know, it's like he loved me going off and achieving and being able to have, you know, the natural parental bragging rights. But now in the last year, you know, what he wants is just for me to be with him.

GROSS: Yeah, of course. Yeah.

WHITE: And so it's - I feel like I've spent my whole adulthood trying to impress my dad by, you know, going out and making things. And obviously, it wasn't just for him, but for me, too. Then, like, now, it's like, I think he just wants me to be near him.

GROSS: So do you want the series to be renewed? Like, do you know if you want to do this again, especially given the circumstances that you're describing with your father?

WHITE: Well, I definitely...

GROSS: Maybe you don't want to tell all of us that (laughter). Maybe that's a conversation between you and executives at HBO.

WHITE: No, I definitely want to do it again. And this is a gift horse as far as, you know, having a platform to be able to - you know, they're basically letting me do whatever I want. And, you know, HBO is a place that has the resources, so hopefully, you can do it right. So I - you know, I feel like I don't want to mess this up. Yeah. As far as how to juggle all of the stuff that's going on, you know, my mom's getting older, too. You know, it's like I, like, have all my friends. It's like, I don't want - my fear is that I'll come back from, you know, another season, and, like, every - you know, like, no one knows who I am. And, you know, I have no personal life anymore.

But at the same time, I love being able to do this and also being able to incorporate travel into it and and try to - you know, shooting in Italy was such a fantasy. And to maybe do this again in another culture, another country would be really cool. And I feel like, you know, this - the idea is elastic enough that it's not like I can, you know, I don't feel like I'm stuck in some formula. I can try to come up with a new theme and new characters and a new reason to do it. And so it's really on me.

GROSS: And new people to kill in the opening scene (laughter).

WHITE: Yeah, as long as someone's dead in the opening scene, I can do whatever I want.

GROSS: Mike White, it's been great to talk with you again. I've really been enjoying this season, and I can't wait to see how it ends. So thank you so much for being on our show.

WHITE: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Mike White is the creator, writer and director of the HBO series "The White Lotus." The season finale is Sunday. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review singles by three artists, including Carly Rae Jepsen, each dealing with past romance. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "SUGAR RUM CHERRY (DANCE OF THE SUGAR PLUM FAIRY)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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