‘The White Lotus’: Mike White on Sex Work, Coolidge and Italian Cinema

On the third episode of “The White Lotus” Season 2, a group of American tourists visit a location from “The Godfather,” which leads to a multi-generational debate about the patriarchy. (“Men love ‘The Godfather’ because they feel enthralled by modern society,” Albie, a recent college graduate, told his father and grandfather.) But not Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning classic is the only film referenced in Sunday’s installment.

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In fact, a striking moment involving Aubrey Plaza under the steps of Noto Cathedral is a shot-by-shot homage to a scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film “L’avventura,” starring Monica Vitti (who was name-dropped by Jennifer Coolidge). in last week’s episode). In “L’avventura,” a woman goes missing, and, in the midst of their search for her, the woman’s boyfriend and best friend strike up a romance. According to “The White Lotus” creator Mike White, “L’avventura” is “an elliptical, very mysterious film about an existential psychodrama.”

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In “L’avventura” and “White Lotus,” respectively, Vitti and Plaza walk around the same courtyard and begin to feel the eyes of a couple dozen men ogling around them. Discussing the scene he imitated, White says Variety, “As someone who watched it young, I was like, ‘Is this what it’s like in Italy? Are the guys like this there?’ They are so obvious and aggressive with her, and there is such a threat in the air.”

Monica Vitti in “L’avventura” (1960)

Aubrey Plaza in “The White Lotus” (2022)
Fabio Lovino/HBO

She added that because this episode of “Lotus” is about “men and women and some of the dynamics of classic gender politics,” it felt right to “lean into the archetypal Italian men coming at a woman on the street .” (While the scenes in “L’avventura” and “White Lotus” are shot almost identically, you can probably guess which one contains the blunt comment: “A lot of horny dudes in Noto.”)

The idea to pay homage to Antonioni’s film came from cinematographer Xavier Grobet, as he and White were shooting in Noto and realized they were standing in the exact location where they filmed “L’avventura.” With Chapter 3 referencing that film as well as “The Godfather,” White says he finds it fitting to paint Sicily as an inspiration for classic, Italian and American cinema.

The thematic similarities between the two films are also not lost on White, who says, “’L’avventura’ is as much about the desperate search for the meaning of life as the disappearing woman herself. Obviously, ‘White Lotus’ touches on the malaise of rich people and that kind of search for meaning when you’re lying by an infinity pool.”

While Season 1 of “Lotus” was shot entirely at the Four Seasons Maui in a COVID bubble, the second season allowed White to expand the series outside of the Italian hotel and into the city . “Sicily is so rich, it felt like it would be a crime not to at least try to expose people to some of the amazing cultural places, these crazy palazzos and Noto as a town,” he said. “There is so much to show off.”

Shooting in the streets of Sicily and nearby towns was a creative and practical choice. “At one point we got the boot from the hotel,” he said. “I knew going in there it was going to be a series of weeks where we needed to shoot but we couldn’t shoot in the hotel.”

To immerse herself in Southern Italy, the showrunner moved to Sicily for a few months before they started shooting Season 2. White wanted to get a better sense of the city and its surrounding areas because, he says, “If you go you to Italy, you’re not just going to stay at the hotel. “

Below, Gwyn answers some of Varietyburning questions so far about Season 2 of “The White Lotus.”

How did you integrate Jennifer Coolidge’s character into the new cast and new setting? Do you see “White Lotus” as an ongoing anthology with her character returning as the through line?

Because the seasons are so different thematically, the locations are different, the cast is generally different, it felt like it would make sense to have someone be the connective tissue between the two seasons. And if we went to Italy without Jennifer, she would be so mad [laughs]. Obviously people loved her, and she is my friend. So it made sense that it would be Jennifer. With Jennifer, I was like, “If we went to Italy, what would you want to do?” And basically, it was like the scene in this last episode that aired where she was like, “I want to be on a Vespa with a lot of hot guys in sharp suits, trying to like my cigarette.” So that conversation brought up the idea that she wanted to have this ultimate Italian vacation. Tanya is such a fun character to write, and Jennifer is one of the highlights of my experience on this show as well as my career. So I’m definitely open to continuing with Jennifer, if HBO, lets us continue in general.

Episode 3 ends with Cameron (Theo James) and Ethan (Will Sharpe) partying with Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò). Since this season seems to be focused primarily on gender and gender politics, what conversations do you hope viewers will come away with about sex work?

You will have to see how the show resolves itself. But any conversation about sex work is scary and terrifying… I’m not trying to be coy, I just don’t want to give the ending away. I don’t look down on sex work, and at the same time, I know that exploitation often happens with sex work. So it’s important to show, or at least discuss, both sides of that. I don’t have a moral disapproval of it, but it doesn’t happen very often apart from some kind of exploitative context. Usually people involved in it do it because they need money. They don’t just do it because it’s fun. But that is not necessarily always the case. Sometimes people get into it. Michael Imperioli’s character, I don’t think, often acknowledges the context [of sex work]… Get [his son] Albie [played by Adam DiMarco] being able to speak to the aspects of him that are more complex, more ethical, that I don’t think Michael’s character is really interesting. Having that be part of the conversation felt important.

You previously said that you wanted the characters in Season 2 to feel more natural and “less scripted” than in Season 1. How does that affect your process, and what specifically did you feel had to overwrite that you wanted to modify?

Well, I wasn’t necessarily criticizing the first season. In Season 1, I knew we were going to be in a bubble in a hotel, and there were all these mandates on keeping it a COVID-friendly production. There was more pressure to have the dialogue itself that the show. I didn’t have the ability to have a lot of plot twists and a big canvas. The banter was the incident. And with all the Twitter-talk of the first season, I didn’t want to do something that we had already done. This season, some of the plot twists come from the ideas of the season, and less about the actual content of the conversations. It’s a different approach. As far as the characters, I wanted to make it a little less edgy and let their actions speak for some of the ideas I’m trying to get across. What’s fun for me is doing a shapeshifting show and trying not to repeat myself. You need to have enough so that it makes it feel like it’s all of a piece, but the content—and the form itself—can change and be fresh.

In Episode 1, Aubrey Plaza’s character says that she doesn’t watch “Ted Lasso,” which became an instant meme on Twitter. Do you watch “Ted Lasso”?

I am… [Laughs] I don’t watch “Ted Lasso,” to be honest. But I haven’t been watching anything. For the last year, all I do is this show. Not just “Ted Lasso,” you could ask me any show and I’d probably say “no.”


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