Cast: Jemaine Clement, Ben Stiller, Michael Sheen, Luke Wilson, Mike White
Director: Mike White
Running Time: 101 minutes
Synopsis: A trip to Boston with his college-bound son triggers a crisis of confidence for Brad Sloan as he reassesses his own life choices in a bittersweet comedy from writer and director Mike White.
Brad has a satisfying career and a comfortable life in suburban Sacramento where he lives with his sweet-natured wife, Melanie (Jenna Fischer), and their musical prodigy son, Troy (Austin Abrams), but it's not quite what he imagined during his college glory days. Showing Troy around Boston, where Brad went to university, he can't help comparing his life with those of his four best college friends: a Hollywood bigshot (White), a hedge-fund founder (Luke Wilson), a tech entrepreneur (Jemaine Clement), and a political pundit and bestselling author (Michael Sheen). As he imagines their wealthy, glamorous lives, he wonders if cozy middle-class domesticity is the best he will ever achieve. But when circumstances force him to reconnect with his former friends, Brad begins to question whether he has really failed or if, in some essential ways, their lives are more flawed than they appear.
Release Date: November 9th, 2017
I wanted to write something to tell my father I love him and think he is a success, even though he feels like he never lived up to his expectations for himself. I also saw with him that the relationship one has with the world (status) can be as important (or more) as the relationship one has to family, partners, friends. I see that in myself in that " like Brad " I'm always having this running commentary in my head, comparing myself to others and the success I perceive they have " and I'm
always either building myself up or tearing myself down.
I thought movies rarely tackle this aspect of our lives in a relatable way. How our thoughts about ourselves cannibalize most of our time. And how much we feel is on the line all the time. I also wanted to write about comparative anxiety in the culture at large. How we aren't only keeping up with the Joneses, but are keeping up with the Kardashians; through TV and social media we are seeing the lifestyles of millionaires and billionaires and how it creates this sense of lack and envy. Everyone seems to be winning the lottery around us. And how in our consumer capitalist culture this desire to live these extreme lifestyles can be both personally painful and globally destructive.
Lastly, after writing Year of the Dog, Enlightened and Beatriz at Dinner with female protagonists I wanted to write a movie about men and their discontents, to do the midlife male crisis movie honestly " with some satirical teeth " but also compassion.
" Mike White
During a career that now spans almost 20 years, writer, director, producer and actor Mike White has carved out a unique niche as a filmmaker with a surprising and very personal point of view. In a raft of successful feature screenplays including School of Rock, Nacho Libre, The Good Girl and the recent, timely satire, Beatriz at Dinner, as well as his work as a director on Year of the Dog and the acclaimed HBO series 'Enlightened," White creates stories filled with seemingly ordinary people whose lives take unexpected turns.
His latest film, Brad Status, will once again intrigue, amuse and unnerve its audience with a sympathetic, warts-and-all portrait of a man who thinks he wants it all " if he can ever figure out what it is. Brad's Status begins in upper-middle-class Sacramento, as Brad Sloan prepares to take his only child on a tour of East Coast colleges, prompting him to wonder if his life has somehow fallen short of its potential. Modern parent-child relationships and today's overly examined lives are thrust under White's microscope as Brad's anxieties converge in a perfect storm of self-doubt.
Producer David Bernad, who helped White found Rip Cord Productions and served as producer on 'Enlightened," describes the filmmaker as 'one of the most original minds in Hollywood. He has a real humanity and kindness that you don't see in a lot of filmmakers. There's a real joy to the process of filmmaking with Mike."
The development process for Brad's Status was the typical one for a Mike White film, says Bernad: 'Mike writes a script and that ends up being the script that gets shot. He sent it to me in November 2015. I remember reading it on a plane and waiting for the plane to land so I could call and talk to him about it. We were in prep by August and started shooting in September."
White says he was interested in exploring the surge in what he calls 'status anxiety." 'We are not just keeping up with the Joneses today, but literally keeping up with the Kardashians," he explains.
'There are people very publicly living these unprecedented billionaire lifestyles. Even if we have a lot, it's easy to feel like it's not enough. We all curate our lives for others through social media, which adds to this sense that other people have more. Throughout the course of history, people thought it was only a certain elite that lived those kinds of lives. Now there's a belief that we should be able to have all of that ourselves. There's an unsustainable feeling that everyone's winning the lottery " except you."
Despite his own success, White admits to having those kinds of doubts swimming about in his own head. 'People around you seem to be living bigger lives," he says. 'For Brad, that means he's sitting in economy on a plane, knowing that his friends are flying private. For me, sometimes it seems like everyone else is having fun and I'm here rewriting a script for the 500th time in my cave. Or I'm not working at all.
Whatever your situation is, the world more than ever can create a sense of comparative anxiety." White also admits that his own self-worth often hinges on how he's seen through others' eyes. 'When I do a film and it gets a good review, I think, yeah! I did it! Then I get a bad review and I'm a complete failure. I presume that if I'm doing it, other people must be doing it too. So I wanted to write something about how our ambition and comparative anxiety fuels insecurity " at least for me. Where do you stand to the world? Have you made an impact? Seeing other people's success starts Brad tearing himself down or building himself up in reaction. That was the initial inkling of it."
As Brad starts measuring his accomplishments against those of his four best college friends, it seems clear to him that they are doing far better than he is. Sure he has a patient and devoted wife, a gifted son, a lovely home and a job at a small not-for-profit he started. But how can that compare to shaping public opinion, handling billions of dollars in investments, living in a magazine-worthy Malibu mansion or sharing a Hawaiian beach house with a pair of bikini-clad young beauties?
'The movie asks the eternal question, is the grass always greener?" says Bernad. 'Are these other people actually living a better life or could his life, which maybe isn't what he had dreamt about when he was 21, actually be better than what he envisioned?"
White remembers seeing his father, a minister, struggling to evaluate his own accomplishments when he retired. 'I could tell my father was questioning whether he felt like he was a success," he recalls. 'I see him as a success and part of my wanting to make this movie was to say that to him. But I also realised that no matter where you are in your career, there are times when you feel like other people have made more of an impact or that you could have done more."
Those feelings of uncertainty are heightened for Brad as he watches his only son on the brink of independence, with limitless potential before him. 'At the age a child prepares to go to college they are ready to break free of family bonds," notes White. 'On the other hand, parents may be hanging on a bit too tight. It's a poignant moment for both, I think."
White remembers being at his most prickly " and awkward " on his own college tour with his father. 'I think it's the first time where you have a real referendum on where you stand in the world. I had a good relationship with my parents, but during school visits I felt like if they said or did the wrong thing, anyone there who witnessed it would still remember it and if I went there I'd somehow have to live it down for years."
Two for the Road
White's shrewd instinct for casting familiar actors in unexpected roles gives the film's accomplished cast the opportunity to confound audience expectations. 'Casting for this movie was a delicate process," he says. 'It's a thoughtful, deliberative movie with comedic moments. We wanted to find actors who have a sense of humor, but weren't the obvious choices. We felt that if we orientated it too much toward comedy by casting people who brought certain kinds of expectations to it, we wouldn't be able to make the movie we envisioned."
Ben Stiller and White have known each other for many years. In fact, Stiller appeared in a cameo role in the 2002 comedy Orange County, which White wrote and produced. 'I've always been a fan of Ben's," says the filmmaker. 'I've really wanted to work with him for a long time, but it never worked out until now. Ben is a kind of comedic Everyman. He's a strong, precise comedic actor who personifies a kind of urban ambition that I felt like we could tap into with Brad."
At first glance, Brad's neurotic doggedness may feel like a familiar tool from Stiller's repertoire, but any assumptions are shattered as the story unfolds. 'The movie quickly launches in an odd and unexpected direction," says White. 'The audience's expectations will be that it's a certain kind of movie, but then it pivots in a way that I think will be fun and subversive."
Stiller connected with the idea of a man just trying to live his life as best he can in a world where good is never good enough. 'The tone of the movie is genuine and funny and smart," says the star.
'It's also emotional without trying too hard to be emotional. We live in a world where we are all very aware of what everyone else has and does. We just want to figure out how to be happy, but we're inundated with ideas of what happiness and success are. On the internet, on television, in advertising and throughout the general culture, we're constantly bombarded with other people's idealised lives and comparing ourselves. You may be doing ok but, wow, look at that guy over there!"
The actor's reaction was exactly what White was hoping for. 'I so got excited when he was into it. Ben brought the character to a deeper level than another actor might have. He never went right to the obvious comedy on the page. He didn't lean on familiar things and it was exciting to watch how intense he was about making sure he wasn't doing something that felt familiar."
Stiller, who has a 12-year-old son himself, was moved by the film's honest portrayal of a father-son relationship. It is an intimate slice of their life during a period when they are getting to know one another in a new light. 'It's not a road trip and no hijinks ensue," says the actor. 'It's a journey that a father and son take together. We get a window into Brad's connection with his son and his own insecurities. I think we've seen moments like this from the son's perspective in other films, but this is the reverse. Troy is the one with a clear sense of self. He has not been affected by the world yet. Brad has dealt with failure, success, rejection.
Those things are all ahead of Troy. Brad is not an archetypal father. Mike takes that on and looks at it in a sensitive way without judging."
Despite their long friendship, working with White was a revelation, says Stiller. He created an on-set atmosphere of collaboration and urgency the actor had not anticipated. 'You can't know what someone is like to work with until you're in the trenches with them. I was already really excited because he wanted to direct this. It meant this was personal and that he had something special to say. He spends a lot of time on the script and has a meticulous sense of what it should sound like, feel like and look like. On the set, he exudes this relaxed intensity. He trusts that actors come with a point of view. He gets what he needs without being obsessive or painful. And he has a funny, dark and cynical sense of humor."
As Brad's son, Troy, Austin Adams provides the perfect foil for Stiller's amped up angst, as a boy who stays deliberately cool when his dad is running red hot. Abrams, who turns 21 in September, has been acting professionally for just five years and has already racked up an impressive resume that includes a pivotal role on 'The Walking Dead" and the lead in the feature Paper Towns.
'We brought lots of people in for that role," says Bernad. 'The final step was a chemistry read with Ben. The minute Austin walked in, we could tell it was a perfect pairing. He doesn't feel like a Disney star. He feels very real, which was important to Mike."
Abrams' naturalistic, instinctive approach to the part was key to White's decision to cast him. 'He instinctively got the idea that, at that age, everything your parents do is like nails on a chalkboard. You just kind of shut down and try not to exacerbate any issues. He did that so well."
For any young actor, the opportunity to work so closely with White and Stiller would be a careerchanging experience. Abrams says he felt doubly lucky because the part and the story were so rich. 'I thought it was one of the best scripts I had ever read," he says. 'I kept reading it over and over again and I never got tired of it. There were new things to discover on every page. The maturity that Troy has seemed very fresh and that was really interesting for me.
'Mike and Ben were great to work with," he adds. 'Mike is so confident in what he wants. Because he wrote it, I could ask him very specific questions and get the answers I was looking for. He's a very generous and empathetic director. And Ben works as hard as anyone I've ever seen, but he's still able to be really nice to everybody he meets. Being famous doesn't give anyone the right to be unkind or arrogant, but he goes out of his way to be kind to people."
Stiller was impressed by the professionalism Abrams displayed at such a young age, going so far as to compare his lack of artifice and ability to create an inner life for his character to that of James Dean. The pair prepared for their father-and-son scenes with a road trip from Montreal to New York, even working in a stopover at historic Fort Ticonderoga to set the familial mood. 'Being in a car with someone for hours is a great way to get to know them," says Stiller. 'You learn what kind of music they like. You share your relationship histories. It was helpful because it gave us a little background to draw on."
In keeping with White's concept, the film's supporting cast is packed with well-known players who can handle drama and comedy equally well, including Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson and Jenna Fischer. Wilson, who plays Brad's college buddy Jason, now a wildly successful financier, worked with White previously on the HBO series 'Enlightened." The actor says he has followed White's work since breakthrough directorial debut, and has been impressed by his seemingly endless range as a filmmaker. 'I'd never seen a movie like Chuck & Buck before," Wilson remembers. 'It was uncomfortably real. Then I saw School of Rock and I thought, my gosh, that's the same guy? They were such different projects. There's nobody like him. The through line in all his work is about people just wanting to belong somehow, which everybody can identify with. I have followed his work for years and was lucky enough to finally get to work with him on the series.
'Watching him interact with people as a director is inspiring," the actor continues. 'He's in charge, but it is always a team effort. The most talented people in our business seem to be the most collaborative."
Wilson says he read the script in one sitting and found it to be different from anything he had ever read before. 'It's extremely unsettling, because anyone can identify with being envious of someone else's life. It doesn't make me proud to admit that. I'd like to think I don't have that kind of envy, but we all do."
His character is a hedge-fund manager described by one of the other characters as 'a pillar of the community and a crook." With his patrician wife and four towheaded children at his side, Jason zooms from coast to coast in a private jet. But all that privilege, Brad learns, is not enough to protect him from tragedy. 'When I meet those guys, I definitely think they have it made," admits Wilson. 'But you never know what people are going through. Brad imagines that Jason has a perfect life, but it turns out that he is dealing with the same kind of heartbreak we all go through. In the end, Brad has to have empathy for him. Like all the characters, Jason inches Brad toward the realization that the people he envies have problems of their own and that he has a great life."
Wilson's professional relationship with Stiller dates back to when they were both unknowns trying to make it in Los Angeles. 'Ben and Mike are a good fit creatively," the actor says. 'They are both writerdirector-actors and very driven in their own ways. It's a good match and an incredibly good movie. I'm just lucky to be in it."
White originally had Wilson in mind for play the role of Billy, a part that eventually went to Jemaine Clement, the bespectacled half of the fictional band, The Flight of the Conchords. A tech wunderkind who sold his business and retired to a Hawaiian beach at 40, Billy is a party animal who has committed himself wholeheartedly to a sybaritic lifestyle that has Brad's imagination working overtime.
'We wanted each of the friends to have different looks and personalities," says Bernad. 'Billy is hedonistic, fun-loving and lighter than the others, and Jemaine is so funny and so great. We were super excited he agreed to do it."
The actor has little in common with his hard-partying alter ego, according to White. 'He's actually the opposite of a party animal. Jemaine doesn't even drink. I thought it would be funny to have such an unexpected choice play a guy who is living it up in Hawaii."
While in Boston, Brad reconnects with former classmate and current political pundit Craig Fisher, played by Michael Sheen. On a dinner date, Craig's made-for-television sincerity and empty charm evaporates, exposing a sadistic arrogance and a finely honed talent for ruthless gossip. 'Craig is capable of delivering his self-satisfaction in a cheery, pleased-with-himself way, but he's crushing Brad with every comment he makes," says White. 'I knew that Michael would be able to get that quality."
The script won Sheen over with its deceptively simple portrayal of Brad's very complicated journey, he says. 'It resonated with me. I like a story that is engaging and accessible, but has a lot going on beneath the surface. This film uses its entertainment value to cleverly cover up how rich and challenging it really is." Sheen and Stiller have one lengthy and complicated scene together that reveals Craig's true colors.
'The rest of what we see of Craig is just glimpses of him in Brad's imagination, but that one scene made the film worth doing. It's quite long and quite surprising. Mike had us play it lots of different ways. He has a fine instinct for comedy, as well as for what is real and surprising."
The private side of a public figure is not always pretty, says Sheen, who has previously played television journalist David Frost and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (twice) on film. 'On the whole, what you see of Craig is not the real Craig," he notes. 'You've heard about him for a while and know what he means to Brad. But when you meet him that all changes. I like that it pulls the carpet out from under us. It was a funny moment, as well as real and truthful."
For Melanie, Brad's long-suffering wife, the filmmakers wanted an actress who exuded warmth. Enter Jenna Fischer, a longtime friend of White's best known as Pam, the receptionist on the long-running television series 'The Office."
'I've known Jenna personally for a while," says White. 'She's such a talented comedian who brings something very authentic to the screen. She feels very mother-next-door in this. Melanie is only sprinkled through the movie, but Jenna's natural likability, humor and intelligence make such an impression. You can totally see why they would be together. I also like that their relationship isn't too sentimentalised. It's a longstanding marriage with a companionship that's deep, but some of the romance has faded."
Their long friendship notwithstanding, Fischer says she found acting in a film directed by White intimidating. 'He's one of my creative heroes," she says. 'When I'm at dinner with him, I can suppress my nerves and admiration and gushing, but working with him is different. It's not because he's personally intimidating, but because I'm watching the magic happen up close. I've been an admirer for so long that I had to keep pinching myself to believe I was working with him."
Fischer felt similarly about co-starring with Stiller, whom she had previously worked with on the ice- skating comedy, Blades of Glory. 'It was kind of the same experience working with him," she confesses. 'I remember one day, we were in a conversation and then I started thinking, he's the man who made Reality Bites, which is the quintessential movie about Generation X. That I was working with a man whose body of work I so admire was astonishing and exciting."
The most difficult part of the casting process, White and Bernad agree, was finding an actress to play Ananya, a former classmate of Troy's now attending his first-choice college, Harvard. The filmmakers had a list of requirements that weren't easy to fulfill.
'She had to be Indian-American, beautiful, a gifted actress " and she had to be able play the flute," says White. 'Unbelievably, we found all that and more in Shazi Raja. She completely got the character and checked off all the boxes, so we were really lucky the day she walked through the door."
White makes a brief appearance in the film as the fourth of Brad's classmates, a Hollywood honcho with a luxurious Malibu pad that sends Brad into paroxysms of envy when he sees it featured in Architectural Digest. White confesses that it was a purely practical decision for him to take on the role. 'The actor needed to work in Montreal and Hawaii and didn't have any lines, so I was it," he says. 'In fact, the cinematographer, Xavier Grobet, plays my husband and Jason's wife is played by our costume designer, Alex Bovaird. We basically needed people who were going to be in both locations anyway, so we didn't have to add more travel expenses."
Brad's Status is set primarily in Boston, with some additional scenes in Sacramento and Hawaii. While many of the exteriors were shot during a short stay in Boston, Montreal stood in for a majority of the city's interiors. 'We went to Cambridge to get iconic spots like the quad at Harvard, the bridge and the scullers on the Charles River," says White. 'But most of the stuff in Boston was shot in Montreal, which turned out to be a fun city. It was a real pleasure to shoot there."
It was familiar territory for Bernad, who, like his father and brother, graduated from McGill University. 'I knew it would cover well for Boston, plus it's a great city to be in," says Bernad. 'I felt like my college experience was research for this movie. A lot of the scenes on campus are actually McGill. We were struggling to find a place that would stand in for the Harvard alumni room. I asked my brother and father for ideas and they suggested the McGill Medical Library. It turned out no one had ever shot there. I had to cash in all my McGill chips to get that location."
A fast-paced 33-day shoot was aided by a lucky break in the weather, says the producer. 'That aspect of the shoot was charmed. Montreal and Boston in the fall are notoriously rainy. Even in Hawaii, we filmed during rainy season. Every day we flew into or out of a location, it was raining, but it almost never rained on shooting days."
White says he worked with cinematographer Xavier Grobet to create a very active, almost frenetic shooting style that reflects the restlessness of Brad's mind. 'I felt like the movie should not ever feel still," he says. 'It has many short scenes and fantasy sequences that are quick blips interwoven with longer conversational scenes, some of them really long. We used a handheld approach, which I don't do often, but it gives a sense of movement that feels like an expression of Brad's thoughts. By the time we get to the end where he's building to a revelatory moment about himself, it slows down a bit. The idea is that consciously or unconsciously the audience starts to feel those changes and feel the emotion of the scene in an unexpected way."
Being part of Amazon Studios sweeping slate of original films was crucial to making the film that White envisioned, both he and Bernad agree. The company was, both men say, the ideal partner for an unusual and ambitious movie. 'Amazon's been amazing," says Bernad. 'As a producer, I salivate over the opportunity to have a partner that is so involved. It's really rare to work with a studio that gives you total and complete freedom. They have complete trust in the filmmakers and in the process." White adds that as a filmmaker his dream is to sit across from the people who are willing to take a chance and say make the best version of the thing that you envision. 'Sometimes people are afraid that things will be too edgy or too unusual, but they never tried to water it down or neuter it. For that I'm very grateful."
Release Date: November 9th, 2017