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In the men’s room at LAX, on his way back from the Sundance Film Festival last January, Mike White realized his life had changed. “I was relieving myself and the man next to me, who obviously had also been at Sundance, said, ‘I feel really uncomfortable pissing next to you,’ and then ran out of the bathroom.”
Sitting in the dining room of the Regency Hotel, toying with a medium well-done burger and fries, the writer and actor doesn’t look quite as weird as he does on-screen in Chuck & Buck (opening Friday), nor quite as fresh faced as in the ads for the movie. A strawberry blond with freckled skin, a thin, unaerobicized body, and a simultaneously nervous and nonchalant manner, White has perfected the art of the sidelong glance—which, given his pale, virtually nonexistent eyelashes, has a more comic than seductive effect.
Chuck & Buck is a disturbing stalker comedy about a lonely guy who’s emotionally fixated on a childhood friend with whom he had a sexual experience. Locked into his 12-year-old self, Buck (played by White) can’t accept that Chuck, a hotshot music exec who’s about to be married, has become an adult. Although Chuck & Buck is directed by Miguel Arteta, White, the film’s screenwriter, is clearly its dominant creative force. Both White and Arteta went to Wesleyan, as did Matthew Greenfield, the producer, and Paul Weitz, one of the lead actors. Weitz and his brother, Chris, who plays Chuck, are best known as the makers of American Pie, which, in the genre of geeky sex flicks, is Chuck & Buck‘s antithesis.
White had intended to write plays in New York after graduating in 1992, but another Wesleyan alum offered him a job in Hollywood, where he eventually became a supervising producer on Dawson’s Creek and then on Freaks and Geeks. “Security is really important to me, but when I wrote Chuck & Buck, I was desperate to do something closer to the bone, something that took a creative and a personal risk. I read a piece about why Lanford Wilson titled one of his plays Burn This—because he wrote ‘burn this’ on the top of every page. After writing scripts for hire, I wanted to write my Burn This. And I know people are going to be upset by it and speculate about who I am.” For White, the film is extremely personal, although not autobiographical. “My life is much more twisted than Chuck & Buck,” he says. Then he slumps back in the banquette and waits for the interviewer to take the bait.
Growing up in Pasadena, White was addicted to movies at an early age. He liked Ingmar Bergman—”anything that was depressing.” Later he turned to comedy, although his idea of what’s funny is not exactly obvious. “I love movies that have an ambiguous tone, where you’re going, ‘Is this supposed to be a joke?’ My two favorite American movies are Safe and Badlands. I’ve heard Todd Haynes talk about the issues of sickness in Safe, but to me it’s hilarious. It’s scary and sad and funny at the same time, and it keeps you at arm’s length.”
His father, Mel White, a minister, often objected on religious grounds to the art films his son wanted to see but also encouraged the boy to form his own opinions. Mel White came out as gay to his family when his son was 12, but he was closeted until his children graduated from college. Writing books for Jerry Falwell paid for his children’s education. When Mike graduated, his father became a gay activist. He now runs Soul Force, a gay Christian ministry in Dallas. “My father wants to see positive representations of gays, but his pride in his child overcame the problems he has with the movie. Sundance was definitely a weird thing for him. After the close-up of Buck’s rotten teeth, he turned to me and whispered, ‘Why do you have to show that side?’ ”
At Sundance, it was immediately apparent that the film was controversial. The connection between homosexuality and arrested development was upsetting to some. “I wanted to play with the Rain Man/Forrest Gump archetype, but in a way that was more sexualized,” says White. “People don’t want to talk about children and sex in this society at all, and gays especially don’t want to talk about it because of the bullshit prejudice that conflates gayness and pedophilia. But children are sexual—that’s certainly my memory of my childhood. I don’t want to shy away from that. In terms of the homosexuality, I think that right now there’s a real emphasis on genetics. That’s part of the agenda for gay rights, and it’s important, but my experience of sexuality is more ambiguous. I think the sexual identity of both Chuck and Buck is grayer than what you’re used to seeing. Is Buck gay? I think he’s more like the bear cub who comes out of the cave and falls in love with the first thing he sees. Everyone has that first experience, and when you’re a kid, it’s much more ambiguous.”
Made on a tiny budget, Chuck & Buck was shot on digital video, and the smeared, muddy color, which makes it look like old VHS dubs of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, is oddly expressive of Buck’s inner life. But the movie’s strongest element is White’s no-holds-barred performance. “When I wrote the movie, my basic emotion was a mischievous giddiness,” says White. “I knew I was writing something kind of demented, but I was laughing a lot. I saw it as a comedy. There were moments toward the end when Buck’s pathos took over, but I didn’t realize until I was acting how much of a tragedy it is. When you’re writing you have more of a godlike view. But when I was acting, I had to get into his desperation. I was crying every day. It was exhausting.”
White says he read a lot of Freud before writing the script. “It’s about the alter egos of a self. Chuck is the face you show the world and Buck is his shadow, the one you’re afraid you really are. That’s why I thought it would be an interesting and also a ballsy thing for me to play Buck. It also gave me a bit more control over the tone. The movie is so problematic in terms of what you’re supposed to feel about the character. If someone else had played it, I know it would have rubbed me the wrong way. Now I only have myself to blame.”
In recent months, White has written scripts for Tim Burton and Adam Sandler. He’s currently working on two TV pilots and a script for producer Scott Rudin, and he has The Good Girl, a more personal project, ready to go into production. The protagonist is, he says, a bit like the bad-girl character in Freaks and Geeks (a total extrovert who’s as narcissistic as Buck). She was the focus of an episode White wrote that NBC refused to air. “They said it was too upsetting and that no one would ever come back to the show again, but I thought it was one of the best episodes. I guess I just like sociopathic characters.”
White considered directing The Good Girl himself, but decided against it when it became clear that as a novice he’d never get final cut. So once again he’ll be working with Arteta. “I’m a preparation freak. I won’t direct until I know exactly what I’m doing.”