'The One And Only Ivan' Writer Mike White On Writing For Animal Characters And The Legacy Of 'School Of Rock' [Interview]

Mike White has made his name as a renaissance man of modern entertainment. He's written beloved family movies (School of Rock), blockbuster sequels (Pitch Perfect 3), and critically acclaimed dramas (The Good Girl). He wrote for a television show that ranks among the finest one season wonders of all time (Freaks and Geeks) and created a beloved HBO shows that felt a few years ahead of its time (Enlightened). He's directed personal indie films (Brad's Status, Year of the Dog). And he's been a contestant on more than one reality show (Survivor, The Amazing Race).

Now, White can cross "write a Disney movie" off his list with The One and Only Ivan. Based on the book by Katherine Applegate, the film is a charming, cute, and sometimes melancholy tale about a gorilla who learns to dream beyond the mall enclosure he calls home. I spoke with White over Zoom ahead of the film's release on Disney+ to talk about what it's like to write for animal characters and why people like me keep asking him about School of Rock nearly 20 years later.

I feel like when you're adapting something written for children, one of the big challenges has to be, how do you make sure the adults in the audience are enjoying this as well? So what were the challenges here for crafting the narrative in a way so the parents are as on board as the kids would be?

Mike White: You know, it's funny: even when I was a kid, I didn't really read kids books. So adapting a kids book is not something I'd done nor was I particularly looking to do, but when I read the book, I was kind of taken aback by the emotional complexity of the book. It was obviously a kids book, but it had a kind of drive and a sensibility that I felt like as an adult, touched me. It reminded me of a Terrence Malick movie with animals. (laughs) There was something very thoughtful and poetic about the voice of Ivan, and it had a very powerful hook. I just felt if we were able to stay true to the spirit of that book, we would be able to hook in adults as well as kids.

I think one thing that's really refreshing here is that the character of Mack is the closest thing the film has to a villain, but he's not a villain. He genuinely cares about our heroes and seems like, at his core, he's trying to do the best for them, even if it's maybe not in the right direction. Can you talk about a movie that doesn't really have a clear, black-and-white villain and whose antagonist ultimately means the best?

Right, I think that was a thing that we really worked hard with Bryan [Cranston] and Bryan brought a lot to it. But also, Disney – trying to find the right balance of, he wasn't villainous in a pure mustache-twirling villain kind of way, but at the same time, not softening him so much that it undermines this general idea that it's a reckoning for him. I think there's something very timely about the Mack character in general, with what's going on in the culture right now. Which is, things that were maybe just a few years ago or a generation ago were not considered to be poor form as far as how you treated animals or other people or whatever, he went into it maybe with some selfish intentions but also didn't think he was doing anything that was harmful. It's about the raising of his consciousness that's what's going on in the movie. I think even 20 years ago, the idea that circuses are bad for animals was not part of the collective consciousness at that point. Our ethics change as our consciousness grows and certain things are pointed out to us. So I think that's the story of Mack. He does love those animals, but he's also trying to run a business. It's a complicated situation, so you want to do justice to the complexity of his situation.

I feel like that's the bitter pill of the movie – one that's delivered really well in between lots of fun animals and fun moments – is that loving animals is not the same thing as recognizing what's best for animals.

That's what excited me when I read the book. This is an interesting thing for Disney as a platform to put out there, which is: everybody loves animals, Disney movies are populated with animals, and it creates this legacy of thinking of animals, in a way, as entertainment. And wanting to participate with them in some way that is fun for humans. I think the movie, its message is: that environment may not necessarily be the best one for the animals themselves. We need to be respectful to the natural habitat of these animals and not necessarily just co-opt them into zoos and circuses and our own way of wanting to be entertained by them. I think that's something that is not always built into these kinds of movies, and I think it's cool.

Speaking of animals as characters, I guess one of the pitfalls you have to sidestep is that in a movie about treating animals as animals, you want to be careful not to anthropomorphize animals to the point that they're essentially humans in animal skin. So when you're writing animals and putting dialogue in their mouths, how are you making sure that it's always there that these are animals and not just people?

I think that if the accusation is that you're anthropomorphizing animals, I think we are guilty of that. But at the same time, I have complicated feelings about that part of it. I think that in the end, humanizing and giving voice – what's fun about it for someone like me, and I'm vegan and an animal activist in certain ways, being able to give a voice to these animals, even if it's not necessarily a documentary, how they would actually speak. But being able to speak to people that is using human ways of communicating to get the message across that animals are unable to do on their own, I think is something that's potentially a worthwhile endeavor. At the risk of anthropomorphizing them, you've gotta take the good with the bad, I guess.

I haven't read the book, so I'm wondering if there's a scene, sequence, concept, character that is not in the book that you're particularly proud of? That you added purely for yourself?

That's a good question. The whole escape scene where they all escape, that's not in the book, and I thought it would be interesting for them to escape, thinking that then they'll find freedom and then realize that it's more complicated than that. That there's not really a – the idea of nature outside of the mall doesn't really exist. That part of it was one of the bigger plot points that wasn't in the book and I think was kind of an interesting, natural progression for the story, so I was happy that it kind of worked for the movie.

When I told my colleagues that I was going to be interviewing you, they begged me to ask you about School of Rock in some capacity. I revisited it a few weeks ago, almost 20 years later, and I think that movie holds up in a really wonderful way. How do you feel about that movie having such a long life almost two decades later?

It's funny, because you never know. At the time, it was well-received and it was successful, but it wasn't like a big blockbuster by any means. That it's had this long life, I think it speaks to the kid empowerment story of it. It's very gratifying to see kids that are now adults in their twenties saying they became a musician because they saw School of Rock and it inspired them to start their own garage band or whatever, yeah, it's unexpected but it is cool. I'm certainly proud of the movie.

And there was a sequel that was planned that never happened, right?

Yeah, I actually wrote a draft. It's one of those things where, just like it's hard to get the band back together, it was hard to get Rick [Linklater, the director] and Jack [Black, the star] and me and [producer] Scott Rudin and everybody at Paramount all on the same page at the same time. I think because the original was so beloved, everyone was approaching it very gingerly to try to recapture that magic. The timing and the expectations made it difficult to actually happen.


The One and Only Ivan hits Disney+ on August 21, 2020.