Mike White On Creating HBO's 'Enlightened' Whistle-Blower On the HBO series Enlightened, a naive corporate executive played by Laura Dern wants to change the world. The series' creator and writer, Mike White, says the show's whistle-blowing plot line was inspired, in part, by his own father's experience.
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Mike White On Creating HBO's 'Enlightened' Whistle-Blower

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Mike White On Creating HBO's 'Enlightened' Whistle-Blower

Mike White On Creating HBO's 'Enlightened' Whistle-Blower

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Season Two of HBO's "Enlightened" is released on DVD next week, and sadly, that's the final season because HBO elected not to renew the comedy for a third year. Actor and writer Mike White, today's guest, co-created the series with Laura Dern. He also wrote all the episodes, directed a few and was one of the show's stars.

When Terry spoke with Mike White back in March of this year, he was about to find out the fate of his series, but when they spoke, he still held out hope for a renewal. "Enlightened" walks the line between comedy and drama. Season One began with Amy Jellicoe, played by Laura Dern, returning home after a stay in rehab where she learned to meditate and get in touch with what she describes as her higher self.

As Season Two began, Amy, after being less than successful at changing herself, resolves to make an impact on the world instead. She decides to become a whistleblower at the corporation where she works and tries to convince her shy, inhibited office mate, Tyler, played by Mike White, to use his IT expertise to help.

Here's a scene from early in Season Two, where she's telling him that she's used his password to hack into corporate email accounts looking for incriminating evidence to bring down the corporation.


LAURA DERN: (As Amy Jellicoe) OK, so I started in Damon's accounts, right? And then I just, like, went into every email I could open, all the top execs, and we knew they were plunderers, just screwing their workers, covering up their dirty dumping. That's not the sickest part. They don't care, Tyler. They don't care. They're hurting people, and they know it, and it's a game to them. They make jokes about it in these emails. When (bleep) comes out, we're talking about at least 100 class action lawsuits.

MIKE WHITE: (As Tyler) What do you mean when it all comes out? How's it going to come out?

DERN: (As Amy) There's this guy, Jeff Blender. He's at the L.A. Times. He writes these corporate exposés. He is the perfect journalist for this.

WHITE: (As Tyler) Oh my God, please just don't go back in there with my password. They will trace it back to me.

DERN: (As Amy) Tyler, I have to go back in. I don't have a hard copy. I couldn't get the printer to work. You know it always jams up. I need your help.

WHITE: (As Tyler), No, no, no, no. I gave you that password in a moment of weakness. I'm not getting any deeper into this.

DERN: (As Amy) Don't you feel an obligation? People are living under the illusion that the American dream is working for them, and it's rigged by the guys at the tippy-top.

WHITE: (As Tyler) Well, I may not be at the top, but I'm happy.

DERN: (As Amy) No, you're not. You're miserable. You're a mole. You're paralyzed.

WHITE: (As Tyler) Well, I'm changing. I just joined the company gym, and I got a discount because of my employee badge, and I'm going to work out more. And my aunt died, and I just found out I got her time share. So I'm going to go to the Bahamas for two weeks a year. So, maybe I'm a mole, but I'm a happy mole, and I don't want to lose what little I have, OK?

DERN: (As Amy) You've already lost it. They're shutting us down.


And what they're shutting down is the department that the Laura Dern character and the Mike White character work in. Mike White, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It is so great to have you again. I really loved this season.

WHITE: Oh, awesome.

GROSS: So this season was different from the first. The first was focused on Laura Dern's character coming back home and back to work after a stay in rehab, where she learned how to meditate, and she really tried to be her better self. But it's hard to be her better self when she's back in the world again. The new season, she's working to change the world through bringing down her corporation. How did you decide to take it in that direction?

WHITE: Well, the truth was that the original pitch to HBO was that it would get to that whistleblower place in the first season, but as I started writing it, I realized there was, like, kind of nooks and crannies of her life that I wanted to explore, and, I don't know, I got more interested in the digressions than the overall, like, meta-plot. And so as I got into it, I was like we're not going to be able to this here.

And so it became a two-season - instead of one season. But I did also find that as I was - you know, as the show went out into the world, some of the things that I think are interesting and I felt like would, you know, bring people back week to week, that she was a polarizing character and that - so some people just kind of retreated from her.

And I felt like at the same time, you know, you had a show like "Homeland," where the character is, you know, equally, like, manic and, I don't know, off her rocker in a sense and that, you know, it became such a consensus kind of show, and that was because I think it was, you know, very plotty.

And while our show obviously would never be "Homeland," and nor did I want it to be, I felt like, you know, it might help the second season, too, to build it out a little bit and to give some of that sense of, you know, cliffhanger kind of moments in our own enlightened way, which is really more about character than it is about plot, hopefully.

GROSS: So I'm going to ask you to describe your character, Tyler, and one of the episodes in this season of "Enlightened" was told from the perspective of your character.

WHITE: I felt like Amy needed to have, like, her Ethel at the office or like Ethel to her Lucy. And it felt like, you know, Amy has these kind of - in a way she's feminine, but she also has this kind of - she has some traditionally masculine aspects. She wants to be part of the public, so she's very, you know, extroverted. She's very kind of in her own way aggressive.

And I just thought it would be interesting from, like, you know, a gender place to, like, have her help-mate be, like, a guy, but he's, like, the supporter, more passive, the one who's just kind of helping her and is more kind of the introvert. And so it was basically his, like, unreciprocated crush on her that kind of drove him to continue helping her.

And then in the second season I thought it would be interesting, you know, since he's the one that's been helping her, that then it becomes - he's become at cross-purposes because he in the process of helping Amy, you know, fight the man, he ends up finding someone who could actually be his, you know, soul mate or someone who would love him back and that those things would end up being in jeopardy or, you know, only one can win.

GROSS: And, you know, Amy thinks that in order to get access to corporate emails that can help blow the whistle on what the corporation's doing wrong and help, you know, bring, you know, charges against the CEO, she asked your character Tyler, who, you know, knows a lot about IT, to basically break into the hard drive of the CEO's assistant, who's played by Molly Shannon.

And in order to do that, she wants you to kind of, you know, maybe go out on a date with her and pretend like you're really interested in her. But the thing is you get really interested in her. You do go out on a date with her. And she gets interested in you. And just as you're finally having, like, a woman in your life, and you're finally truly connecting to somebody, you're also feeling so guilty about it because you know that even though it's not your agenda, you're being deployed as part of an agenda and that she's going to get hurt.

So I'd like to play a clip from the scene in which you are together at your home for the first time, you and the Molly Shannon character, and you're both very shy. She's very worried about getting hurt because she's been hurt before. And so you're sitting on the living room couch and, you know, starting to get to know each other a little bit. It's a little bit awkward. And you're exchanging your first kiss.



WHITE: (As Tyler) Do you want to spend the night?

MOLLY SHANNON: (As Eileen) You know you don't really look me in the eye that much.

WHITE: (As Tyler) Sorry.

SHANNON: (As Eileen) Look, I just don't want to get hurt, OK? I'm just at the age where I don't want to go through all that, you know? I don't have expectations. I don't care. Whatever. But I just don't want to deal with a jerk or someone who's fake or mean, you know.

(As Eileen) You seem sad and sweet, and I like that. But are you? Are you sweet?

WHITE: (As Tyler) I think so.

SHANNON: (As Eileen) I'm just too old to get kicked in the face, you know.

WHITE: (As Tyler) Well, it's not my plan.

SHANNON: (As Eileen) That's not your plan?

GROSS: I love that scene because, like, your character isn't fake and mean, but he's now in the position of inadvertently being fake. And she's so vulnerable in this scene. She's so good, Molly Shannon. So, you know...

WHITE: I can't believe you played the sounds of us kissing. That was...

GROSS: I did that for a reason.

WHITE: It's like ah, this is killing me.

GROSS: I did that for a reason.

WHITE: The smacking of the lips.

GROSS: No, you know, I'm always interested - it seems to me now - I did that for a reason. It seems to me now that in the movies, kisses are miked more closely than they've ever been before, and you actually hear the sound of the kissing. And there's, like, different kinds of sounds for the different kisses. And in this case, it was, like, short, staccato, chirp kisses, like...


GROSS: And I was wondering, like, so when you wrote that scene, did you describe how the kisses would sound? Did you - when you talked to Molly Shannon about that scene, did you agree on, like, what the percussive qualities of the kiss would be, the tonal and percussive qualities?


WHITE: I mean, it was just - it was built to be awkward in so many ways. I mean, the characters would clearly be awkward. But, you know, Molly and I are really good friends and have been friends for a long time. And, I don't know, the idea of, like, suddenly kissing her, it was - but, you know, I just felt - you know, obviously Tyler's not, you know, a sexual dynamo.

He probably had very limited sexual experience, and it sounds like she has, too. So, you know, that kind of like junior-high kiss seemed like the way to go with that.

GROSS: Yeah, and it said to me, too, like, they were afraid to have a sustained kiss.


GROSS: Like short kisses were safer. We could see, like, uh-oh, do we want to do a second kiss, a third? OK, settling in, fourth kiss.

WHITE: Right. Anyway, yes, Terry, what's your question?

GROSS: Well, that kind of was the question. And choreographing it, too, like making sure that it looked authentic but really uncomfortable and uncertain.

WHITE: Right, well, we - it was - I mean, yeah, I don't know. I think we were just kind of, I don't know. We were just in character and did it. I don't - there wasn't really a lot of discussion beforehand about how it would go. But it seemed right, at least to the director, you know, at the time felt like that was the right approach.

BIANCULLI: Mike White, the co-creator, writer and co-star of the HBO series "Enlightened," speaking to Terry Gross in march 2013. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's March 2013 interview with Mike White, the co-creator, writer and co-star of the HBO series "Enlightened." It was not renewed for a Season Three, but Season two will be released on DVD next week. Laura Dern, who co-created the series, stars as Amy Jellico.

GROSS: You know, in talking about your character, Amy played by Laura Dern, of turning her into a whistleblower, I'm thinking a little bit about your father, who I don't know that I would describe him as a whistleblower, but in some ways he was a whistleblower...

WHITE: Yeah. He was. Yeah, he was.

GROSS: Yeah. Your father, Mel White, had been the ghostwriter for some of the really big born-again televangelist preachers, including - it was Jim Baker, right? And Jerry Falwell and...

WHITE: Pat Robertson and Billy...

GROSS: Pat Robertson. Yeah.

WHITE: Yeah. Billy Graham. Yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. And then your father came out as being gay and eventually started really talking about some of the homophobic things that had happened behind the scenes in that world, and then he started, like, showing up at Jerry Falwell's church to protest the homophobia that he was creating and fostering. So what did you see of, you know, the gifts and the consequences for your father of having been a kind of whistleblower?

WHITE: Well, I think that Amy reminds me of my father in a lot of ways. I mean, I've said this in certain interviews and I think, you know, I hope he doesn't take it the wrong way. But, you know, I think that, you know, when he came out, he wanted to in a sense make restitution for having participated in the world of the kind of right-wing religious extremism and feeling like, you know, that was really at odds with his own soul and that he wanted to, yeah, become an activist in the sense of trying to explain how this kind of hate speech that he feels like he is, you know, coming out of this religious world has real implications and creates suffering amongst people.

And he wanted to tell these, you know, in a sense father figures to him how much they are hurting him and the other sort of gay children in the religious world. And at the same time it was also important, like Amy, to not just do good but to be seen as being good because that part of it was, like, his own, I don't know, it was his own struggle to feel like he's worthy and worthwhile.

And also, he wanted the world to see, you know, gays can be good people and that they're not, I don't know, whatever the image was. So it's - with Amy, I see her as somebody wants to be good and also wants to be seen as good, and maybe that's a redemption story for herself, and so I see that in him.

GROSS: But what about the consequences that your father was maybe not prepared for - just as like Amy isn't prepared for certain consequences?

WHITE: Well, you know, it's funny because we went on "The Amazing Race" together. And when you do "The Amazing Race" you sit down and you take this like - all the psych tests under the sun you have to take. And then afterwards you sit with a psychologist, with the team, and they kind of go over your results.

And it's funny because, you know, you see the people on these reality shows and some of them are just can be so off the beam. But like, my dad actually failed the test.


WHITE: Like we weren't, like, going to be able to go because his answers to the test. And they were like you come off on these tests as completely paranoid. You respond in the same way that young African-American men in certain dangerous cities respond, like in a place, like, you think people are trying to kill you.

And he was like, they are. And he's, like, I get hate mail every day. And the thing that I don't think my dad realizes that by trying to like, in a sense, bang his head against the certain kind of wall. You know, he would go into like these religious schools where he would be spit on, you know. And people would put up posters with the most, you know, hateful speech on it.

And he would go in, like, week after week, and face that kind of hate. And I think that I don't think he realized how much that hate would, you know, like, impact him. And that part is - it makes me proud of him, but I also feel for him.

GROSS: We've talked about your father before on the show and your father has been on our show several times. I'm thinking about your mother now because you have written such an interesting and complex mother character in the character of Amy, Laura Dern's mother, on "Enlightened." And she's played by Laura Dern's actual mother, Diane Ladd.

And last season, there was such a beautiful episode where Diane Ladd is at the supermarket, and she runs into one of her old friends who she hasn't seen in a long time, and everything seems to be going so well for this old friend, like children and grandchildren, whereas in Diane Ladd's life she's kind of shut herself down because she's been hurt so much, and she seen her children hurt, and she's been hurt by her children.

And it's just a really sad and beautiful episode in which we developed some empathy for a character who had previously just been so standoffish and cold. And this season, there's a very interesting scene between Diane Ladd and Laura Dern, toward the end of the season, in which Laura Dern figures like it's, like, time to tell her mother, since they live together, that things are about to change because she's blown the whistle on the corporation she works for.

It's going to be in the LA Times and things are going to be different. And so this is the scene where she breaks it to her mother.


DERN: (As Amy) Mom, we need to talk. Things are coming to a head. I feel like you need to know.

DIANE LADD: (As Helen) Oh no.

DERN: (As Amy) Oh, no, no. It's not bad. It's not bad. I've blown the whistle on Abaddonn. I found this really damaging information about the CEO, and I leaked it to the LA Times, and they're running a huge story, and I'm in it.

LADD: (As Helen) Why would you do that?

DERN: (As Amy) Because the guy is a criminal and the company is really crooked, and they hurt a lot of people, you know?

LADD: (As Helen) Now why is that your business?

DERN: (As Amy) Mom, it's everybody's business.

LADD: (As Helen) No it's not, Amy. They brought you back after all that you did, and this is how you repay them? You know Amy, you have done a lot of foolish things in your life, but this is too much. What's next? You going to blow the whistle on me?

DERN: (As Amy) Forget it. You know what? The LA Times thinks what I did is brave.

LADD: (As Helen) Oh do they?

DERN: (As Amy) Yeah.

LADD: (As Helen) Are they going to pay you? Are they going to get you a job? Are they going to get you out of debt? Are they going to put a roof over your head?

DERN: (As Amy) Mom, there are things that are bigger than me.

LADD: (As Helen) Yes, there are things bigger than you, and I cannot stand by and watch you destroy your own life.

DERN: (As Amy) Then don't. I'll move out.

LADD: (As Helen) I think you should.

GROSS: That's Laura Dern and her real-life mother, Diane Ladd, playing daughter and mother in a scene from "Enlightened," which was created by my guest Mike White who is also a co-star of the series.

It's another example where they're kind of both right, like Laura Dern is right about how sometimes there's things bigger than yourself. And her mother's right, like you're in debt, like maybe this isn't the greatest time to be a whistleblower. And you really feel for them because they just have such a hard time connecting even though you're sure they have deep feelings for each other.

But it made me wonder about your mother and how she took it, like, when she learned that your, you know, that your father is gay and then also when he came out publicly and had all this like hatred directed against him, like you were just describing.

WHITE: Well, I'm really glad you asked the question because I do think that some people have wondered if, like, there's parallels here. I mean the truth is my mother is an activist, herself, like as - or she is a pillar of her community as far as, like, working with, you know, disenfranchised people and she does not take the position of Diane Ladd's character in the show and has really been actually my dad's biggest supporter.

I have a very non-tortured relationship with my mom. People sometimes seem surprised because often, you know, you know, there's a lot of tortured characters in the stuff I write. But she's like the happiest person, the most like functional person in our family. She's the rock in my world.

BIANCULLI: Mike White, the co-creator, writer and co-star of the HBO series "Enlightened," the second season of which comes out next week on DVD. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's March 2013 interview with Mike White. He's the co-creator, writer and co-star of the HBO series "Enlightened," the second and final season of which comes out next week on DVD.

"Enlightened" stars co-creator Lauren Dern as Amy Jellicoe, who learned how to meditate in rehab, but after returning to her life, has trouble keeping her equilibrium.

In season two, in her attempt to become an angel of change and make her mark on the world, she tries to take down the corporation where she works.

GROSS: Amy, so much, you know, the Laura Dern character, so much, wants to kind of connect to a larger world, a bigger world, a world with like issues and activism. And part of the reason why she's a whistleblower is as a way of entering through the door to a more interesting world. And I wonder what it was like for you when you tried to start establishing yourself as a writer and to get into that world, to get into the world of movies and TV shows and to have, you know, a voice as a writer.

WHITE: Well, I think I mean that's interesting. I do, I relate to Amy in that way. I remember I grew up in Pasadena in a very, kind of, homogenous, kind of, suburban existence and then I went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. And there were all these, kind of, hipster New York kids who were so cultured and had so much, you know, like knew all the references and, like, already had their look down. And I have always felt like, I don't know, I miss the first day of French class and like I started the second day and I was like what do they teach on the first day because it felt like it was like how did - and that's how I always have felt about this certain kind of these people who all, you know, I don't know, I felt like I was always fighting to find like-minded people or, you know, I had to go to the library and, you know, look up, you know, like I don't know, it was kind of like I had to self teach myself certain things and learn about culture in a way because it wasn't so accessible in a sense.

GROSS: So when you were teaching yourself about culture, what were some of the books or TV shows or movies that made you feel like you weren't alone and that...

WHITE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, that you could connect to things that were bigger?

WHITE: Yeah. I, you know, my second-grade teacher was Sam Shepard's mother.

GROSS: You're kidding.


WHITE: No. And like I really loved her, and she was this cool teacher and it was the first time I'd heard of like a play - she was proud of her son, obviously an...

GROSS: He's a playwright, for people who don't know him. He's a playwright who's also done some acting.

WHITE: Yeah. And he had written that play "Buried Child." And I was maybe eight years old or something, and I wanted to get that - I wanted her to love me. And so like I had "Buried Child," and I like, of course, I didn't understand it really, but I remember walking around with it and like looking at the way the words laid out on the page, and I think that was when I first started writing little dialogue between characters.

And then, like, I got into "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" I remember seeing, I was at a record store and I saw like a recorded version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and - I honestly couldn't have been more than 10 years old - and I insisted that my parents buy it, and I recorded it on a tape, and then on, like, long drives I would follow along on in the script and then like listen to the actors say the words. And I would, like, perform it with Matchbox cars and stuff.



WHITE: And so, I don't know, like even when I was little I would write these like plays about, you know, people having cocktail parties and talking about adulterous affairs and stuff I had nothing - like way more pretentious than anything I write now.

GROSS: The last time you were on the show, during season one of "Enlightened," we talked about how Amy's experiences in rehab, and then her difficult reentry into the world of her home and her neighborhood and her office, you know, and the difficulty of that was based in part on your experience after having this really big anxiety attack because of something that happened at work on the TV series that you were working on. And so as I recall, you were, you were basically taken to a mental hospital where you thought like, I don't really belong here.


GROSS: It's like work related anxiety. I'm not, you know, I'm not like schizophrenic or mentally ill or anything. But that's when you started reading Buddhism, or at least when you started reading it like very seriously.

And I'm wondering, are you still reading that? Are you still trying to hold it on to something of that calm place that you know exists, that's so hard to find when you're stressed out and working on deadline?

WHITE: Yeah. I mean, I do. And honestly, I feel like that experience and reading those things have changed me. And I feel like there's something about what those books do - did for me that I guess I - you know, was what I'm trying to do on "Enlightened" in a sense, which is trying to - it's like the hope is - you know, it's like at some point you're like, OK. My mind's been blown. It's like how do I stitch it back together?

You know, it's like how do I create something that is - it's cliche, it's a new age cliche, but like be the change you want to see. It's like how do I create the things that I want to see and how can you make something that is compassionate and potentially can be healing to someone?

Or, you know, they talk about in Buddhism like there's tonglen practice which is, like, someone, you know, breathing in, like, the suffering of either yourself or others and then breathing out, like, a kind of hopefulness. And, you know, you can see art or fiction or whatever being a version of that where you try to create something that's hopeful but that also recognizes pain, you know? It doesn't run from the pain. It, like, it actually acknowledges it.

Because I feel like so much of entertainment now is so much about distraction and, you know, like a bombarding of, you know, it's like it's all light and noise. And, you know, for me after having that experience, a lot of that stuff feels very empty or something. Or it just feels like it's, you know, adding to this sense of anxiety that you get in life because there's just so much coming at you.

And, you know, whether I've succeeded in that or not I feel like there is an impulse there that I feel like, you know, even if "Enlightened" fails I don't want to, you know, walk away from what I'm trying to, I guess, achieve. Which is I try to make something that is, you know, a little bit more, maybe, contemplative or a little slowed down and a little bit more about, like, how do we live.

As opposed to just, you know, like, something that's about distracting you from those questions.

GROSS: Well, I think you articulated...

WHITE: Can I say one...

GROSS: ...why I like the series. Yeah.

WHITE: Can I just say one thing?

GROSS: Sure.

WHITE: Is that when, you know, years ago I was on your show for "The Amazing Race" and the head of HBO happened to be listening that night and told, you know, the people that worked with me, you know, it's like, you know, we should do a Mike White show. Something I said in that thing made him want to be in business with me.

GROSS: Really?

WHITE: And out of that, was born "Enlightened."



WHITE: So it's very ironic that, like, we're talking about...

GROSS: That makes me so happy because I like the series so much.

WHITE: Oh, awesome. Well, we were talking - it's just it's funny how full circle, like, that you're the last person I'm going to be talking to before I go in there and have this final sort of, like, you know, what is the future. But, yeah. So thank you for "Enlightened," Terry.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. Wow. Wow, you've made my day. Well, Mike White, it's really been great to talk with you again and I wish you the best. Thank you so much. And thank you so much for "Enlightened."

WHITE: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Mike White, the co-creator, writer, and co-star of the HBO series "Enlightened" speaking to Terry Gross last March. The second and final season of "Enlightened" will be released next week on DVD.

Coming up, we remember a man who popularized the art of Tuvan throat singing. This is FRESH AIR.


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