Can people really change? That's the question Laura Dern and Mike White ask in their new HBO series, Enlightened, which premieres Monday night. The show features Dern as Amy Jellicoe, an ambitious executive who has a nervous breakdown at her workplace. She goes to a rehabilitation center in Hawaii, where she experiences an awakening.
When Amy returns home, she wants to put her new philosophy into practice — meditating, communicating better with her mother (Diane Ladd), and fostering a healthier relationship with her ex-husband (Luke Wilson). But she finds her lessons of enlightenment being put to the test.
Show creator Mike White wrote the series and also directed some of the episodes. White and Dern join Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a conversation about Enlightened.
On the difficulties of meditating, and the challenge of creating a TV show about meditation:
White: "From my experience, meditating can bring up the most stressful thoughts ... To actually try to stop that constant chatter of, 'I need to do this, I need to do that ... this is what's wrong with me.' I think that's the hardest thing for many people to do, especially in our modern, achievement-oriented [environment].
"Everyone is running so manic, and what's interesting, too, is when we turned in the show, the more quiet, meditative aspects of the show made HBO the most nervous. Because people, especially in TV, first they want their comedies funny, and they want their dramas juicy and kind of operative, and this is very internal.
"Especially these moments Amy has when she's going inside and where it slows down a little bit, I think that that's just something in general that makes a network executive worry that you're going to lose your audience, and people are going to click off or change the channel. That's not what people are looking for when they're zoning out in front of the TV."
On whether people can really change:
White: "I think there are certain ways that people are always themselves, but I do think people change. I feel like that is the hopefulness I think the show tries to get at. ... That's a big question both Laura and I have discussed throughout the entire shooting and writing of the show, you know ... how enlightened is Amy? If she's just a fraud ... and in the end .... hasn't really grown, then I think it is a cynical show. I feel like we're all human and nobody's perfect, and we're all sort of fumbling towards something better. But if we don't believe that we can change or get over ourselves, it's a pretty depressing resolution."
Dern: "Mike so beautifully writes about incremental growth, and I think so many film writers want to tackle this enormous growth where this villain becomes a hero in the hour and half that we have with them. In the long form of this season, Mike has this opportunity of Amy having this longing for growth, and longing for some form of self-acceptance ... So there's this complicated and elusive journey toward growth that she takes."
On the carefully calibrated tone of the show:
White: "When HBO came to me, and when Laura and I started talking about a show together, I liked the idea of somebody who had come to the edge and then wanted to come back and get over themselves. We see the comic, flawed aspects of [Amy's] quest to be enlightened. But at the same time, if it was just a satire, taking her enterprise very cynically, I just think it would be an easy target, and it wouldn't be a show — it would be a skit or something. The tone of the show blends some of the wryness, which I naturally bring to writing stuff ... but also, there's a real sincerity to it."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A new HBO series called "Enlightened" premieres tonight. Part comedy, part drama, it's about stress and the difficulty of staying calm and focused. My guest Mike White co-created the show with Laura Dern, who also stars in it. She'll join us a little later.
Mike White also wrote the movies "Year of the Dog" and "The School of Rock." In "Enlightened," Laura Dern is a former executive in a global conglomerate who, after a humiliating emotional meltdown at the office, was forced to take a time out. she went to a holistic mental health treatment center in Hawaii, where she felt at peace near the ocean and learned how to meditate.
But then in the premiere episode, she's just returned home, well, not exactly home, she's moved in with her mother, and now she's facing a strained relationship with her mother and a demotion at work. Mike White plays one of the guys working in the section she's been demoted to.
But she's trying to maintain the calm she found meditating in Hawaii, and it isn't easy. In this scene, she's seated cross-legged on her bed, beginning to meditate.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "ENLIGHTENED")
LAURA DERN: (As Amy Jellicoe) Breathe, relaxing my body, totally present, focusing on one spot. I see my hand. I see wrinkles, my skin. I'm 40, 40. I'm severely dehydrated. I need to drink more water. Relax, breathe, picturing yourself somewhere calming.
GROSS: Mike White, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you back again. Congratulations on this new series. That scene that we just heard is a great illustration of the way you can just start judging or attacking yourself while you're trying to sit still and breathe and get in a meditative state.
But, you know, with the Laura Dern character, Amy, after she gets into - after she starts, like, getting really neurotic about things, she does get to that quieter place. This is the only series I can think of that's trying to deal with, like, the difficulty of getting into a meditative state, of quieting your noisy brain, of trying to be your better self and then the difficulty, once you've gotten there, of staying there.
What made you think of this as the idea of a series?
MIKE WHITE: Well, the truth is I kind of had my own process of getting into some of these, like meditating and yoga. And it came out of a really bad TV experience where I was running a show where, by the end of the show, I was like, sent the crazy email in the middle of the night to everybody and had sort of a nervous breakdown over the whole thing. I was just kind of overworked.
And I had gone through, like, a period of years where I was just burning my candle at both ends and, you know, made like four movies and two TV shows in the span of like five years. And I realized I had to, like, mellow out a little bit and try not to be such a workaholic, and I didn't know how to do that.
And I also wanted to try to assert to everybody else that I wasn't crazy. And so I think that, you know, it took me a while to have the guts to go back to TV because it had been so brutal, but I - when they did, you know, HBO came to me, and when Laura and I started talking about a show together, I liked the idea of somebody who was - yeah, had kind of come to the edge and then wanted to come back and try to get over themselves, I guess.
GROSS: So what was your pitch to HBO?
WHITE: Laura had her own - you know, she actually had the deal with HBO first. She was trying to come up with a show, and she kept talking to me about what writers I would suggest for doing a show with her at HBO. And after a couple conversations, I was like, I would want to party at HBO with Laura. And I started to think more seriously about getting back into TV.
Laura had a desire to do something. That was kind of right after Obama was elected, and this feeling of after she had done some campaigning for him about, you know, these community activists, people that were just kind of regular people but that got more involved in the political process.
Thematically, she wanted to do something about somebody who wanted to be an agent of change. And the idea changed a lot once I got involved, but that part of it was something that appealed to me, as well, to tackle the idea of somebody whose main goal is not so much like, you know, dating or family or, you know, relationships but was something - kind of had a bigger ambition, and yet she wasn't, like, a forensics police investigator.
GROSS: You know, she wants to be her better self, and she was that person, the better self, when she was at the holistic rehab center or holistic therapy center in Hawaii, where, like, it was beautiful with the waves and the beach and the glorious sunrises and everyone, like, singing around the campfire.
Then, you know, she gets home, and, you know, it's back to work and to the grind and the traffic. And it's just impossible to hold on to that better self. Did you experience that at all when you had taken some time away from work, you had studied a little bit of Buddhism and this and that, and then, like, throwing yourself back into - into, like, the stress gain. And then what?
WHITE: Yeah, well, it's interesting. It kind of paralleled, actually, the making of the show for me, because, you know, when I'm not working as much, and I'm not stressed, my better side comes out, and I'm - you know, I can have time for other people, and I can be patient, and the stress of running a TV show is, you know, it's really around-the-clock kind of pressure.
And if you want it to be a good show, you can kind of make yourself crazy. And so yeah, I mean, like all of my old, kind of compulsive tweaker habits started to, you know, emerge while I was even making the show. So it's harder to put some of that, sort of, Buddhist philosophy into practice once you're outside of the cushier berth, the meditation room, you know, or the yoga room.
GROSS: So did you actually go on a retreat like the character in your TV series did, or did you - were you in...?
WHITE: Well, it was more freaky than that. What happened is, like, I had this kind of breakdown at work when I was running this TV show, and I started having panic attacks. And then, basically, I woke up one morning, and I was, like, thinking I was having a heart attack.
I mean, I was having a panic attack. I just didn't - I had never had one before. So I didn't really know what was going on. I thought I was just dying. And so I went to see some psychiatrists, and I was, like, you know, he was like asking me if I was, like, suicidal. And I was like, well, I just want to throw myself in front of a bus, but, you know, it's nothing more than that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Excuse me for laughing.
WHITE: Nothing, you know, whatever, the typical stuff. But, and so the next thing you know, I was, like, actually being checked into, like, a hospital, where I was, like, not going to have my own - you know, I was thinking I was going to go to, like, the Ritz Carlton and, like, have a burger and some tranquilizers or something. And it was much more.
Like, you know, people were shuffling around, like, you know, clearly medicated. I was like I'm not crazy, I'm just really stressed. And, you know, I need to - this is just going to make it worse. I'm not - you know, this isn't right. So I, like, escaped this place, just ran to my car and, like, got in my car.
And the psychiatrist had taken it upon himself - I don't know why I'm telling this story, but I might as well - but he had called my office and said oh, yeah, Mike's not coming back, he's going somewhere where he can get the help that he needs.
And I was like - and so there were all these people who were leaving messages on my machine, all of these producers and studio executives and network executives who were, like, crying and being like don't worry about the show, just get the - and I was heading back to work. And I was like this is not - I did not really know what to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHITE: And so, like, within a few days, the show had been shut down, and I was - and it was over. And so I was, like, yeah. So it kind of just - you know, it was like I was like, you know, a cartoon character, like the Wile E. Coyote that is just slammed against a wall and then is like butterflies flying over my head. Like, I didn't know where to go. I didn't know what - I just didn't know what to do.
I just knew that I had completely bombed out. So yeah, I mean, I went through this period where I was just like what do I do now. So - and that feeling, like, just going back and burying myself in work, which is what I used to do, just didn't seem like the healthiest response.
GROSS: So did you go someplace away?
WHITE: I never went to like - no, I never went - I mean, I never did that. I did start, like, meditating and stuff, but I've always been sort of afraid of, like, meditating in, like, a big group setting because I didn't think I could hack it. But I have done that, some of that, more now.
But it was really more just a kind of a walkabout, where I was just traveling and reading and just trying to just calm down.
GROSS: Did you find it hard to do that, and did you find it hard to quiet your mind and just sit alone with yourself?
WHITE: Yeah, well, like Amy in that episode that, you know, you played the clip from I feel is very true to my experience, which is, like, meditating can bring up the most stressful thoughts, you know, especially if you haven't done a lot of it. And to actually try to stop that constant chatter of, you know, I need to do this, I need to do that, this is what's wrong with me, you know, that's - I think that's the hardest thing for many people to do, especially in our modern, you know, kind of like achievement-oriented, you know, everybody's running around so manic. It's I think one of the most difficult things.
And what's interesting, too, is I think when we turned in the show, the sort of more quiet, meditative aspects of the show made HBO the most nervous, and just in general, it was like...
WHITE: Well, just because I think people, you know, especially in TV, first they want their comedies funny, and they want their dramas juicy and kind of operative, and this is very internal. And especially these kind of moments that Amy has, where she's really sort of going inside and where it slows down a little bit.
I think that that's just something in general that makes a network executive worry that you're going to lose your audience, and people are going to click off or change the channel. That's not what people are looking for when they're zoning out in front of the TV.
GROSS: So one more thing. So you have this kind of breakdown because the stress of this TV show that you were running was just too much. And then so you go to a psychiatric facility, escape from there, and then the show is shut down a few days later.
So on top of all the stress you were feeling, did you then feel guilt, too, that the show was shut down because you were gone?
WHITE: Yeah, well also because you're - you know, when you're running a show, there's like at least - you know, hundreds of people, maybe not hundreds but over a hundred people, you know, who are making their living off the show. So when that happened, yeah, you feel like, you know, yeah, you've really bombed and especially when it's a show like - I had, you know, I had actors that were really good...
You know, I - you sort of feel like you're hosting a party, and then the party sucks, and it just doesn't end.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHITE: And so, like, every day you're like - because we - there was so much fighting on that particular show between what I was trying to do and what the network wanted from the show. And by the end - and trying to compromise and make everybody happy. I had just kind of made something that nobody was happy with, not me, not the network.
You just sort of feel like you just, like, every day have to show up and be like I know this is - I know this party sucks, but I don't know what to do, and I don't know how to get out of it. And so it was just like this - yeah, and then when it all fell apart, in a way I was kind of relieved just because I didn't have to see everyone. I was just kind of failing alone out back in my house, which I'm more comfortable with.
But it was - yeah, it was definitely - yeah, it was definitely an - you know, but I do think that those kinds of things, and this is very Buddhist, too, which is something that feels like the worst-case scenario at the time can often be the gift. You know, that was a huge kind of life experience and a maturation experience for me, and it was very meaningful to me, and it helped direct me in a way that hopefully, you know, I am living my life a little bit more in a kind of saner way, I guess.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White, and the new series that he created is called "Enlightened." It's on HBO, and he also wrote "School of Rock" and "Year of the Dog" and other films, as well. So let's take a short break here. Then we'll bring in Laura Dern. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're talking about the new HBO series "Enlightened." Joining the conversation is Laura Dern, who co-created the series with my guest Mike White. Dern stars as a business executive who, after a nervous breakdown, learns to meditate at a holistic health retreat. She tries to find that calm after she returns home. Laura Dern became famous after starring in "Blue Velvet."
Laura, welcome to the conversation.
DERN: Thank you so much, so happy to be here.
GROSS: Yeah, I really enjoy the show. Let's hear a scene in which you, Laura Dern, appear with your mother, Diane Ladd, who plays your mother in the series. And this is from the first episode of the series. You've just come back from your holistic treatment center retreat in Hawaii, and you're trying really hard to hold on to the calm that you found there.
So you've brought back with you, an exercise that was recommended at the retreat, and you're going to try it with your mother.
(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "ENLIGHTENED")
DERN: (As Amy) Mother, they've asked me to write a letter to the person I have the most difficulty communicating with. It was not hard for me to decide who that person is.
DIANE LADD: (As Helen Jellicoe) How long is this going to take?
DERN: (As Amy) Do you have somewhere to be?
LADD: (As Helen) No, I just want to know how long this is going to take.
DERN: (As Amy) Not long. I've just got to read you what's on these papers.
LADD: (As Helen) Well, I can read, honey.
DERN: (As Amy) But I'm supposed to read it to you, Mom. That's the point.
LADD: (As Helen) Okay, Amy.
DERN: (As Amy) You and I have been through a lot: dad's death, all of Bethany's issues, my divorce, money problems. You name it, we have dealt with it. I know I have disappointed you in many ways, and yes there have been times that you have disappointed me.
(As Amy) But I want to change that, and I truly believe that we can change. And if we can change, anything is possible. If we can change, the whole world can change for the better.
LADD: (As Helen) I don't know what that means, honey.
DERN: (As Amy) Mom, can you just let me finish? And we'll talk after.
LADD: (As Helen) Is this what they asked you to do up there?
DERN: (As Amy) One of the things, yeah.
LADD: (As Helen) And what medications did they give you?
DERN: (As Amy) Mom, nothing. I'm off my medication.
LADD: (As Helen) Well, why on earth?
DERN: (As Amy) Mom, I don't want to talk about my medications. I'm here reading you...
LADD: (As Helen) I just want to be sure that you are OK.
DERN: (As Amy) OK, this is...
LADD: (As Helen) Look, don't get irritated with me because I just want what's best for you. That is all I have ever wanted. Ginger's been pawing at me. So I really need to take her - I want to take her out to the kitchen. Come on. Come on with mama.
GROSS: And Ginger is, of course, the mother's dog. Who hasn't experienced something like that, where you're trying to, like, get a fresh start with a relationship of somebody who you were really close to and really care about but don't get along with well, maybe your parent, maybe somebody else. And it's just not possible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Like they're not willing to talk to you on your terms. You're speaking two separate languages. Did you feel like you had been there, Laura Dern, when you were performing this clip?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DERN: Yes. It just is so perfectly captured and so tragically funny to me.
GROSS: Did you go through it with your mother, who you're enacting the scene with?
DERN: You know, in my own way, I've been talking about what it's like working with her, and I've got to say the pleasure of working with her - as a 40-year-old versus a 20-year-old - was extremely different.
She's, you know, obviously an incredible pro, and despite not bringing the relationship into work, there is some inevitability to it. But this is such a different dynamic. You know, she and I kind of say everything to each other, and this is the opposite kind of mother-daughter relationship. But yet still to look in her eyes, you know, there's forever a lot unsaid, you know, in a parent-child relationship.
So you - you know, it's moving and also hilarious. But she gets the joke. So that makes it possible.
GROSS: Did you know when you wanted to do a series for HBO that you would want your mother in it?
DERN: I didn't. You know, when Mike and I first started talking, we were focusing on so many other issues, just about what Mike wanted to say, what I was hopeful to, you know, hear and witness in Amy's character.
WHITE: You know, they've worked together in so many great projects before. You know, usually Diane plays the sort of more kind of domineering or just kind of larger than life, you know, and I just thought it would be interesting because the mother in this is so kind of shut down and trying to keep a lid on all of the emotional issues, and I just - it kind of felt exciting to have that sort of dynamic turned in this between them as actresses.
GROSS: Mike, can you talk about writing the scene that we just heard, in which Amy is trying to really have this communication with her mother, and her mother doesn't speak the same language?
WHITE: I feel like I've been on both sides of those kinds of moments. You have people that - you know, like in AA, you have friends who go to AA, and then they come back, and they want to, like, do their sort of come to Jesus with you and sort of like go, hey, I'm sorry I did this, and have their catharsis. But it's kind of on their timetable.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WHITE: It's like okay, great, you're fixed now, but I'm not really ready to have this conversation, and, you know, like maybe you feel like this is, like, you're saying sorry for all the things you did, but it's kind of like - in a weird way, in the moment it almost feels selfish. It feels like it's really just about getting something off their chest for them.
And I can relate to the mom sort of being like why now, why - you know, like I don't want to talk about this now. You know, like, this isn't for me. At the same time, I think there's just something very moving about - at least to me hearing it, you know, when Amy says, you know, if we can change, the whole world can change.
You know, when certain relationships are so entrenched in a certain kind of narrative, where somebody's this, and, you know, the mother's - you know, whatever the backstory to certain relationships, and you feel like there's no way this can ever change.
And when she's asserting, like, look, if we can change our dynamic, anything is possible. This would be the most hopeful experience that would be transcended beyond just our relationship. It just means that things, people can actually change, and then - and yet they don't change.
GROSS: Mike White and Laura Dern will be back in the second half of the show. Their new HBO series "Enlightened" premieres tonight. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests Mike White and Laura Dern co-created the new HBO series "Enlightened," a blend of comedy and drama, which premieres tonight. White also wrote the films 'The School of Rock" and "Year of the Dog." Dern's films include, "Blue Velvet," "Jurassic Park," "Rambling Rose" and "Recount."
In "Enlightened," Dern plays a business executive who has an anger problem and has a public meltdown in the office. She goes to a holistic mental health center in Hawaii where she learns to meditate. She finds a new calm within herself and feels transformed. When she returns home, she not only wants to maintain her new self, which she finds really difficult to do as the stress builds and anger resurfaces. She wants to change her relationship with family and colleagues, even though they resist it.
There's a question I think the series asks that I wanted to ask you your opinions of. Do you think people are capable of change or that you in particular are capable of change? Do you feel like when...
WHITE: I do.
GROSS: You do?
WHITE: Oh yeah.
GROSS: Prove it. I mean...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: So I mean like what have you really changed in your life?
WHITE: I mean I, you know, I, you know, I think that there's certain ways that people, you know, are always themselves. But I do think people change and I feel like that is the hopefulness that I think the show tries to get at. And I do think that, you know, that's a big question that, you know, both Laura and I have discussed throughout the entire shooting and the writing of the show and, you know, how the enlightenment is Amy.
And I feel like if she's just a fraud in a sense, if she's just somebody who, you know, bloviates and that in the end she's really not, you know, she hasn't really, you know, grown, then I think it is a cynical show. And I feel like you know, yeah, we're all human and nobody is perfect, and we're all sort of fumbling towards something better. But if, you know, if we don't believe that we can change and, kind of, like, maturate in some way or kind of get over ourselves, then I don't know, it's a pretty depressing kind of resolution, I guess.
GROSS: You know, I think one of the reasons why people, like, in their late teens or early 20s have to leave home, whether it's to go to out-of-town college or just like to move to another place or start a new life some place else, is because sometimes in order to change you have to leave behind the people who insist that you are who you are and you can't be anybody different.
GROSS: But that's an opportunity that adult life doesn't always offer you. You know, you may have children; you're not going to leave them. You may have a job and you can't, you know, you may have reasons why you can't move or change neighborhoods or go anywhere. And it makes it so much harder to change when people insists that you are who you are, and it really, I think, sometimes people won't allow you to change.
DERN: And this is something that we continue to see in Mike's writing, and it's such a delicate art, but that Mike so beautifully writes about incremental growth. And I think so many film writers, you know, want to tackle this enormous growth where the villain becomes the hero in the hour and a half we have with them. And in the sort of long form of the season, Mike has this opportunity and so beautifully walks this line of Amy having this longing for growth and longing for some form of self acceptance. But this drive, you know, it's like I will change everyone in my life if it kills me and them too. If we all go down I will make sure the world is a better place.
And so there's this very complicated and elusive journey toward growth that she takes that has, you know, as you said, have grown in our own life? You know, yes she grows, and hopefully I have in my own way. But there's always, you know, the 10 steps backward that we can take at any given moment back into old pattern, you know?
GROSS: Mike, anything you want to add to that?
WHITE: Well, I think that what your question is very - it is interesting to me, because I think that, you know, I think why certain relationships fall apart is because people get tired of the person that they have become in the relationship or the way the narrative is framed about the relationship. And it's like I'm not this person and I'm of tired of being, kind of, reflected in this way.
And, you know, there's an episode where she takes her ex-husband up to the Kern River where they used to go when they were still in love and young. And she thinks she's going to, kind of, I don't know, somehow escape the hard darker parts of their relationship, somehow she's going to reclaim this kind of innocence. And instead, she realizes he's brought drugs up there and all of her sort of idealism is kind of squashed.
But by the end, you know, as she goes back into her internal monologue, we do see that there's - yeah, that some kind of incremental change has happened inside of how she feels about him and how she feels about herself and it is a positive change. And so, you know, we can't, you know, sometimes we fall short of our idealistic goals for other people, ourselves, our relationships, but that there is this hope that there isn't just a complete failure of imagination and that you can, kind of, you know, find some positive way of transforming those relationships.
GROSS: I think in that episode Mike - that you've written very sympathetically about the ex-husband who does drugs, in the sense that like he really makes a jerk of himself using them and you want him, you know, as a viewer you want him to like give them up. But at the same time, I hope I'm not giving too much away here, but he says at one point, you know, he talks about how hard life is and how it's harder when he's sober. And you realize that, like, he's doing through drugs - he's trying to do through drugs what she's trying to do through meditation. They're both looking for the same thing.
WHITE: Yeah. They're both trying to escape some of the pain of their life, their relationship. And so, you know, to me, I did want to be able to have him articulate in a way that she could understand, why it's not just about a pleasure fix for him, it's not just about him being weak or him, you know, that there is some kind of something that she can understand about why he needs that escape route.
GROSS: Laura Dern, you co-created the series and you had to deal with HBO and brought Mike White on to write the series. Do any parts of the series come directly out of your life?
DERN: When Mike and I first talked about it, I had expressed how much I'd love to explore rage. And growing up I was always in love with two different films, "Network" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." And I think in the last so many years of American politics, I was like, you know, maybe the only person who could be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington today, like true naivete, is someone who is naive or hopeful enough to take their rage to the street, who just says everything they feel and doesn't consider how you're supposed to do it and express it.
So yes, so I always had this great longing to explore that idea that perhaps, you know, rage isn't just this negative thing but something that could be used in a positive way because there had been this cultural apathy so many of us - and I know Mike and I - had been feeling. So my own fury at about every single news story that exists is pretty much what is taken from my life.
You know, I've never been someone who is outwardly angry, so I just kind of hold stuff in and don't know what to do with it. And I think, you know, Amy's this miraculous excuse to get to explore the feelings that I certainly hold in and I think a lot of us do...
DERN: ...then figure out a way to do something with them.
GROSS: So you found something to do with it, put it in a TV series.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DERN: Yeah. There we go.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, Laura Dern, it's great to talk with you. We're going to have to - we have a line in New York and a line to L.A. Right now and we have to end our line to New York, so we're going to lose your end of the conversation, I regret. But thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on the new series.
DERN: Thank you. Thank you so much for your support.
GROSS: And Laura Dern stars in and co-created the new HBO series "Enlightened." Mike White, I hope you can stick around with us?
GROSS: Great. So thank you, Laura Dern. We'll be right back to you, Mike White. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike White and he co-created the new HBO series "Enlightened," about a woman played by Laura Dern who has this kind of, like, breakdown at work, goes to a holistic treatment center in Hawaii, learns how to meditate, comes back feeling like she's become her better self and is really transformed. But then a lot of that just kind of fades away when she enters the real world again and has to go back to work and deal with all the problems of life. So the series is about her trying to maintain some of what she learned on this meditation retreat and bring that into the real world and the difficulty of doing it. And it's, you know, it's part comedy and it's part, just, a real sincere expression of the difficulty of being your better self, but the possibility of actually changing.
And Mike White wrote the first few episodes. He directed several of them. He also wrote the movies "Year of the Dog," "School of Rock" and "Nacho Libre." So...
WHITE: I wrote all the episodes, Terry.
GROSS: Did you really?
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GROSS: Wow. I've only seen the first five, so I...
WHITE: I wrote them all.
GROSS: It's going to be hard for you to calm down with that much work.
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GROSS: Wow, that's a lot. OK. So when you first started writing the series for HBO, how far ahead did you have to think of what was going to happen to each of the characters, where the story lines were going to go? Do you have to have a whole season mapped out before you can really begin, so you know what your destination is?
WHITE: Well, when you usually when you pitch a show you kind of give them a sense of where the show would be going. I think it's helpful as far as sort of them getting their head around what it is. I was in a really fortunate position because they picked up the show pretty quickly. And Laura was still committed to a movie that was shooting, so we had kind of a long prep period before the pilot started shooting. And because I'd had this experience before in TV where, you know, people are like oh, we want to be in business with you and you sell them something but they really don't want what it is that you're trying to do, you know. And that's happened to me more than once - where it feels like they kind of don't want the thing that you're doing, but they don't want to lose you. So I was like I really want to just write the season before we get too far down the road with this, so that HBO, if they do pick up the show they really know exactly what it is that I want to do here.
And it'll be fine if they don't want to pick it up, but I don't want them picking it up and then being like oh, we want, you know, X. And I was just kind of like a junkyard dog. And even though my agents were like well, this isn't practical because, you know, you're kind of doing free work in a sense. It would just made me sleep easier because I just didn't want to be in some situation where I was kind of trying to transform the thing I wanted to do into something else that I didn't know how to do or didn't want to do.
GROSS: There's another scene I want to play from "Enlightened." And this is a scene from the fourth episode. And it doesn't give away any plot. But Amy, the Laura Dern character, and her ex-husband are going on this rafting trip. And there they meet the guide for this group of people who are rafting. I just want to play him introducing himself to the group that signed up for him to guide them on the rafting trip.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rick) I've introduced myself to some of you. For the rest of you, I'm Rick. I used to write for television.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Wow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rick) "Rockford Files," Mr. James Garner.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Oh, you wrote "Rockford Files."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rick) "Kojak."
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Great.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rick) Yeah. They took all my ideas, who loves you, baby? That was my line. I did the whole Hollywood thing. But there's a special layer of hell down there. And really (beep) sick. So I'm poet of the river now.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Cool.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Rick) What we're going to do today, we're going to be kayaking...
GROSS: So that's a scene from "Enlightened." And Mike White, I think that scene is so funny. And honestly watching it, I thought like this guy has got to be the real thing, like this is definitely a former Hollywood writer who now does...
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GROSS: ...like who is now a river guide. Who is he?
WHITE: That character is a version of me, honestly. He's like this like gruff man of the river, which is not me, but there's those moments where screenwriters, TV writers feel real put upon, you know, like feel like they've, you know, I think that's the kind of quintessential condition of the TV writer - feeling like they are being pushed around by the powers that be. And so, you know, in those moments you fantasize about, you know, oh, I could move up the state and, you know, just I'll become a river guide. Or I'll...
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WHITE: ...do some alternate form of, you know, I'll escape from this and I just, I sometimes I have that fantasy myself, which is like I'm just going to open a donkey sanctuary somewhere by the beach somewhere.
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WHITE: And so I thought that would be a funny character to send them down the river.
GROSS: Okay. I want to go back to kind of where we started from, which is that, you know, after you kind of had this stressed out meltdown because of pressures from a TV show that you were writing, you took a break, learned how to meditate for a while and then went back to work. Now you've been on the show several times and we've talked about this before, but you grew up in, you know, a religious family of, you know, fundamentalist evangelicals. And your father, Mel White, ghost wrote the memoirs for Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and other people on the Christian right, and then later came out as gay and really tried so hard to get Jerry Falwell to change his beliefs about homosexuality. I think he failed on that.
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WHITE: I think so.
GROSS: Yeah. But anyways, you know, a lot of people, when they went through the kind of meltdown that you had would have turned to a more Western religion. You turned to Buddhism, but not in a religious sense, just in, like, learning the practices of meditation...
GROSS: And, you know, and studying, you know, just studying - I don't know exactly what you studied but, you know, studying Buddhism. But anyways, how did you know that what you wanted to turn to was that, was something that had more to do with meditation than with something more literal about God?
WHITE: Well, truthfully, I - somehow I to into reading certain Buddhist self-help books. There's writer Pema Chodron, and then from her I would start reading other books. So I was just kind of autodidact or dilettante, just going through the different - those sections in my bookstore. But the truth was that those books became - I mean I still read them all the time. In fact, that's mostly what I read these days. I just - I find it very, I don't know, it can kind of, you know, if I'm not actually sitting and meditating I can get into that frame of mind.
And I did grow up in a Christian household, but I always felt like there's this element to the organized aspect of religion as I was - I just never got it. And then I, you know, in the secular world and this, you know, schooling that I had, you know, I went to college during the early 90s when, you know, all of this French deconstructionist philosophy, this critical theory stuff that I was reading so - and it was all about how nothing is true and all our institutions are false. And how, you know, all of the constructs that we create that are these fallacies that we live our life under. And all - at the time I was like this is really - this is the truth. This is the truth.
And it was, you know, really stimulating and exciting for me. And at the same time at some point you come to the end of it and you're like okay, well, what now? If everything is false and it's all a lie and, you know, we are all, you know, even our personalities are fraudulent or whatever, you know, how do you live a constructive and creative, and positive, hopefully, life beyond just poking holes in all of the falseness?
And I think that's what attracted me to Buddhism in a sense, because I think it comes from the place where it starts that, you know, you are, you know, every day isn't, there is no Truth, with a capital T and there is no, you know, there is no, you know, there's no self even, but that there's something about, you know, engaging in the world of compassion and other people's suffering. That is what our purpose here is. And that that's something, as a writer and as a person, I could - it just didn't bump me.
You know, there's just when I would read other sort of religious writings there was also something that I just was never comfortable with. And something about the some of this particular Tibetan Buddhist writing, it was just like oh, I could read this and I'd be like, you know, I - all of this I agree with and it actually feels nourishing in some kind of internal way for me. And so I enjoy reading that stuff.
GROSS: Well, that's a nice thought to end on, and very much connect to "Enlightened," your new series. So thank you so much for talking with us. And good luck with the series. So, be well and thank you.
WHITE: Awesome, Terry.
GROSS: Mike White co-created the new HBO series "Enlightened" and wrote all the episodes. It premieres tonight. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.