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In Poland, a Jewish Renaissance

Guest host Dave Davies interviews Rabbi Michael Schudrich, chief rabbi of Poland — and a New York native. He moved to Warsaw in 1990 to help rebuild Jewish communities there. It was a homecoming of sorts: Schudrich's grandparents emigrated from Poland before World War II.

21:42

Other segments from the episode on April 9, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 9, 2007: Interview with Michael Schudrich; Interview with Mike White.

Transcript

DATE April 9, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Rabbi Michael Schudrich discusses his work as chief
rabbi of Poland

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in this week for Terry Gross.

My guest, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, has spent much of his career working to
revive a once-thriving culture that all but vanished decades ago: the Jewish
community of Poland. Poland was for centuries the closest thing to a Jewish
homeland in Europe. Before the second world war the country was home to three
and a half million Jews. They were 10 percent of Poland's population and
represented a fourth or more of the inhabitants of its largest cities. But
the German invasion in 1939 made Poland a center of extermination for European
Jews. Most of the Nazi death camps were located there. Soon after the fall
of communism in 1989, Michael Schudrich moved to Warsaw on behalf of the
Ronald S. Lauder foundation, which seeks to rebuild Jewish communities in
Eastern Europe. Schudrich has spent most of the last 17 years in Poland
working to revive religious practice and build Jewish cultural institutions.
Though he grew up in New York, Schudrich is now the chief rabbi of Poland. I
spoke to him last week.

Well, Michael Schudrich, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was left of the Jewish
community in Poland as the war ended?

Rabbi MICHAEL SCHUDRICH: 1939, three and a half million Jews. By the end of
1944, 90 percent of those three and a half million Jews are no longer alive,
murdered by the German Nazi regime. It still leaves after World War II 10
percent alive. Ten percent of three and a half million is 350,000 Jews, still
alive in Poland at the end of the war. Many had survived by fleeing into the
Soviet Union, returning to Poland in the years just after the war. But most
of those Jews realized rather quickly that they needed to make the choice. If
they wanted to maintain their Jewish identity, it made sense to leave Poland.
Poland, which became a communist country. Poland, which had horrible memories
for them inflicted by the German occupiers, and also too much anti-Semitism.
Still, as before the war, there was anti-Semitism. After there was
anti-Semitism. And so it led to the realization of Jewish survivors that if
you want to maintain your Jewish identity, it makes sense to leave Poland, and
the vast majority left.

But some stayed. And those who stayed agreed with those who left, that if I
want to stay Jewish, I should leave Poland but if I want to stay in Poland, I
should leave being Jewish. And because of the communist regime and because of
some element of anti-Semitism in Poland, some tens of thousands of Jews stayed
but no longer maintained their Jewish identity, to the extent that they often
never even told their children or grandchildren. So you have a couple hundred
thousand survivors that left over 25 years. And some tens of thousands had
stayed, many of them giving up their Jewish identity. And only 1989, with the
collapse of the communist system, did these hidden Jewish survivors begin to
tell their children, their grandchildren, `Did you know something? I was once
a Jew.' And so the story of the contemporary Jewish community today is really
about one of discovery.

DAVIES: When you went in 1990, I gather, a lot of people were just beginning
to discover that they were Jewish or ask the question, `Might I be Jewish?'

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: And I'm curious, what prompted people to ask those questions and what
sort of stories and experiences did you note among those who were seeking
their heritage?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: Every person is an individual case but I'll tell you one
story. There was a young woman that came to me when she was 17 and she told
me that--she asked me, `Am I Jewish?' She said, `My mother's mother's mother's
mother was Jewish and she was the last one in my family that actually was
actively Jewish. And my grandmother told my mother, when grandma was on her
deathbed, that "Before I die I want you to know, my daughter, that my mother's
mother was a Jew." And then grandma died. Mom waited a couple of years to
tell me till I was 16. She told me. I became curious. I found somebody in
my high school who was Jewish. I said, `What do you do?' She said, `We go to
the Lauder Camp.' And then she told me that--she came to the Lauder Camp, as
they enter the camp that she felt something come alive in her she never felt
before.

DAVIES: Explain what do you mean by the Lauder Camp. camp.

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: It was a summer program that we ran for exactly these kinds
of people, Poles who were discovering their Jewish roots who were interested
in learning more. Now we're--a very, very important principle is noncoercive.
If someone discovers they're Jewish but says, `Hey, that no longer speaks to
me. That's not who I am,' that's their decision and they have the right to
make that decision. But if somebody says, `Hey, you know, I want to learn
something about it,' then we've created a spectrum of programs that give these
people a chance to be able to taste, to learn, to experience, to be inspired
by their--by Jewish tradition, by Jewish culture.

And so this young woman said--she came to the Lauder Camp, and she said she
felt something come alive in her she'd never felt before. And now as a rabbi
I can tell you what we call that is the spark of the Jewish soul. That what
is really going on in Poland today is something very fundamentally spiritual.
It's people looking for something that they realized was missing in their
lives. When they discover that they're Jewish, they realize that there's this
spiritual void that they've always felt and now they want to look to fill it.
Which is interesting cause it leads people to a more traditional practice
often--not always, but often--than you may find in the United States.

DAVIES: I read that some people are inclined to inquire about their heritage
if they discover that they have many, many ancestors who are dead and no one's
ever explained why. Is that right?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: Right. If one wants to understand in one little short
sentence the impact of the Holocaust is that one of the ways people realize
that they have Jewish roots is when grandma has no living relatives. While
Poles suffered and were killed during the war by Nazis--three million
non-Jewish Poles were killed--it wasn't 90 percent, and so when you realize
that grandma or dad has no living relatives, that's usually a very strong
indication that they're really Jewish.

DAVIES: When one goes to a service--I gather there are services in several
Polish cities now...

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: Yes.

DAVIES: ...what's the age of the people participating?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: OK. I am 51 years old. In the daily service in Warsaw, I'm
usually the oldest person. The average age is--probably the median is
probably 32-33. That's true for Warsaw, that's true in Walcz. In Lodz it's
probably 45. In Krakow, it's older. In Rychwald it's somewhere in the
middle. But as things grow, what we're finding is that younger and younger
people are coming. On a normal Shabbat, Saturday morning, in Warsaw we'll
have, without any of the visitors, we'll have 70 to 80, 90 of our own people,
probably 15 people under the age of 13.

DAVIES: You know, as a Jewish community has begun to emerge in Poland, I
wonder what your sense is of to what extent Jews and the Catholics in the
country have come to some common understanding of what happened in the
Holocaust. I mean Polish, non-Jewish Poles consider themselves, you know, in
some ways, among the most--the victims of the war who suffered the most:
three million dead at the hands of the Nazis. But, you know, some have seen
them as willing collaborators or themselves instigators of terrible
anti-Semitic violence. And I'm wondering to what extent, as the Jewish
community has emerged, that discussion has been generated and what it's
produced?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: You're really touching upon something that is very important
and also very sensitive. Part of the problem stems from the fact that there
was no normal, natural contact between Poles and Jews for 50 years, between
'39 and '89. There were some contacts. But kind of an open, ongoing normal
way, that very old--nearly 1,000-year relationship with its positive and its
negative side, but for 1,000 years, until 1939, Poles and Jews had an animated
relationship. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but it was a real day-to-day
living relationship and whatever the problems were, were real. There was
nothing abstract about it.

And since 1989, we're struggling, both Jews and Poles kind of struggling to
find how to restart that relationship. How do we start that dialogue? Which
was not always good. Which had its problems. Also had its good times, had
its good points. And since considering it's only 1989, only 18 years ago,
incredible, incredible changes to the positive.

Poles are now much more open to understanding that the Jewish suffering cannot
be compared to the Polish suffering. That as horrible and painful as it is
for a Pole to hear this, there were Poles who collaborated, and that's
something that Poland is beginning and has made significant steps in
recognizing. It doesn't mean it's universal. It doesn't mean everybody does.

On the other hand, Jews have begun to realize that Poles also suffered during
the war. I, as a young person, as a child, even in my university years, don't
remember learning that three million non-Jewish Poles--that number today is
questioned, it may not be quite that big--but a significant number of
non-Jewish Poles were murdered during World War II. I didn't know that. And
so more Jews are becoming aware of the fact that there's a sensitivity to the
suffering of the Poles.

We're not playing a comparative game here. From a historical aspect there is
no comparison, 90 percent Polish-Jews murdered by German Nazis and
collaborators, three million Jews out of the six million. But yet that
doesn't mean that we Jews also don't need to be sensitive to another nation
that lost three million fathers and mothers and sons and daughters.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Our guest is Michael Schudrich. He's an American rabbi who spent
much of the last 17 years in Poland, working to rebuild a Jewish community
that had all but disappeared after the Holocaust and 44 years of communist
rule.

There was an incident last May which has gotten a lot of attention, where you
were, I think, were walking to your synagogue, maybe on your way to services
and you were...

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: On my way back from services.

DAVIES: On your way back from services, and you were insulted and attacked by
an anti-Semitic man. What happened?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: OK. So it was on a beautiful sunny May afternoon. I was
walking after services. I was walking with five young people in their 20s and
30s and two little kids, five and seven years old, and a man--also I thought
he was in his 20s, turns out he was in his 30s--yelled at us, "Poles for
Poland." It's a well-known anti-Semitic pre-World War II slogan, which the
whole slogan is "Poles for Poland, Jews to Palestine," meaning, "Jews get out
of Poland." And I've heard such things before, once, twice a year, and when I
do hear them, if the situation is right, I confront the person because I see
no reason to ignore it and I see no reason to run away. And so I confronted
him and I said, `Why do you say that?' And for the first time--and I've been
in Poland for a fairly long time, since 1990--for the first time, rather than
responding verbally, he hit me. And I responded, as I like to say, went into
New York mode and I hit him back. I don't know why I did that but I have to
say that is certainly one very appropriate response when somebody hits you. I
hit him back, at which point he had pepper spray and sprayed me in my face.
Started to run and I chased after him. He ran faster than I did, which is
probably a good thing because I have no idea what I would have done if I had
caught him.

And as serendipity would have it, it happened at a very interesting juncture
in the year, because the next day Pope Benedict XVI was going to Auschwitz.
Here was this German pope going to Auschwitz. Incredibly important, moving
experience and the day before the chief Rabbi gets attacked in Warsaw by an
anti-Semite by a Polish anti-Semite. So there was a tremendous sensitivity.
And in a very meaningful way, important way, the government took it very
seriously, very quickly. They actually caught the guy, which is very hard to
do. Was served two months in jail and then received a two-year suspended
sentence. I don't know anywhere else in the world where somebody got two
months for pepper spraying somebody in the face.

And more importantly was the response of the leadership of Poland. The prime
minister called me immediately after Shabbat and said, `What happened? Are
you OK? What can we do?' The president invited me on the following Monday to
the presidential palace to make a very public statement in front of the Polish
news media, and it wasn't the world media, it was the Polish media, saying,
`This is unacceptable in Poland today.' And this is what I really heard from
successive Polish government since 1989, anti-Semitism today is unacceptable.

DAVIES: You know, I wonder if your response got as much attention. It sounds
like the attack itself was what was really the focus of all of the attention
of it, but your response of fighting back struck me as interesting. And I
wondered if you or others saw it as a message, or a metaphor, of fighting
back, not being passive in this place where millions, you know, had suffered
extermination in a different generation?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: It's very hard to comment on myself. Reality is in the
moment of when it happens. You're working not on intellectual level. You're
working on certain things that are so primal inside of you that they just come
out without even thinking. And I have a real allergy at people hitting me.
And it's clearly my response, having grown up in a fully democratic,
pluralistic society here in the United States, that when somebody does that to
me, I respond in the way that he has attacked me, and if he hits me I'll hit
him back. And even--the truth is when I saw him later in a police lineup, I
took a look at him and I said, `This guy is like a lot bigger than I am.' And
I said, `Did I really hit that guy back?' And I don't know why I did it, but I
guess it is--I know why I approached him. I don't know why I hit him, but I
do know why I confronted him verbally is that too many good people are silent.
The problem never, in society, never is the evil person because society's
always going to have evil. I don't know why but it does. The problem, or the
collapse of society happens is when the good are silent. And so very much, I
try to live my life and to teach my community that when you see something
wrong, you have to react. You have to speak out. And at times, even to punch
back.

DAVIES: You know, you've devoted a good part of your career to rebuilding the
Jewish community in Poland. And I wonder, is that mission a matter of making
it safe to be Jewish in Poland and building a vibrant community there or is
part of it also a statement to the world, to reconstitute a presence in what
really was, for centuries, the Jewish homeland of Europe?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: No. For me the most important thing is the individual
person. This person has been denied access, information about something that
is in his past, the Jewish part of his past. And so my first goal, really, is
even before rebuilding a Jewish community is rebuilding Jews. Giving these
Poles with Jewish roots a chance to find out what it means to be Jewish. And
along the way also it's--I've found a great--I have a great amount of
affection now for Poland. I know a lot of Jews find that strange but I've
seen a part of Poland which unfortunately many Jews have never had a chance to
see, and that is this part of Poland that wants to be pluralistic, is
pluralistic, treasures the fact that Jews played such an important part in
Poland. And that may seem to be heresy to some but there are such Poles out
there. And while we need to identify and always fight anti-Semitism, and I
think that when I did last year, I certainly think no one's going to argue
that I do that. But on the other hand, if we only identify anti-Semitism and
we fail to nurture, to support, to empower those natural allies that want to
also fight anti-Semitism within the Polish community and want to preserve
Jewish culture and tradition, then we're making a huge mistake.

DAVIES: People who weren't aware of their Jewish heritage for years, even
decades, probably held a lot of stereotypes about Jews. And I'm wondering
when they discovered that they were in fact Jewish, was there a weird thing
where they felt compelled, maybe, to embrace a stereotypical view of what a
Jew was?

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: It's very varied. I mean, I could share with you very
quickly one story, which is probably the most unusual of all the stories.
There was a young couple, they're now 30 years old. They met and fell in love
in high school. They got married right out of high school. When she was 20
she discovered she had Jewish roots, but they didn't mean anything to her. At
23 she decided she wanted to do something Jewish. She decided every Friday
night she was going to make a Shabbat dinner, and her husband went along with
her and said, `OK, sure, why not?' His parents got very upset. `You can't let
your wife do Jewish things. Don't, don't. It's ridiculous, stupid. Don't
let her do it.' And the more they pushed on their son to be against his wife,
the more he supported his wife. And finally the parents admitted to the son
why were they against his wife doing Jewish things was because they were both
Jewish. So it turns out he's Jewish, she's Jewish, the two little kids are
Jewish.

The interesting part to the story is when they fell in love in high school,
they were both skinheads. So it's very romantic. Two Polish skinheads fall
in love, get married, and then one after the other discover that they're
Jewish and today are observant, very observant, very active members of the
Jewish community of Warsaw. As a matter of fact I have a title for the book
not yet to be written--or the book yet to be written, and that is "From
Skinheads to Covered Heads."

And so you can imagine the changes, the challenges. As a matter of fact
there's a young guy, who's very sensitive, said to me about a year ago, he
said, `You know, sometimes, rabbi, I look at myself in--sometimes I get up in
the morning, look in the mirror and can't believe that it's me.' And so there
are all kinds of issues, including people who had anti-Semitic feelings about
Jews discovering that they're really Jewish.

DAVIES: Wow, that's quite a journey. Well, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, thanks
so much for spending some time with us.

Rabbi SCHUDRICH: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Rabbi Michael Schudrich is the chief rabbi of Poland.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Mike White, actor, director and writer, on his new
film "Year of the Dog" and past works with Jack Black
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

Mike White is an actor and writer whose best known work is the Jack Black film
"School of Rock," which he wrote and appeared in as Ned Schneebly, Jack's
timid roommate. White's other screenplays include "The Good Girl," "Nacho
Libre," "Orange County" and "Chuck & Buck," which he also starred in. White's
also written episodes of several TV series, including "Freaks and Geeks" and
"Dawson's Creek."

Now Mike White has made his directorial debut with "Year of the Dog," a new
film he wrote starring Molly Shannon, Peter Saarsguard, John C. Reilly and
Laura Dern. Shannon plays Peggy, a single office worker whose closest
relationship is with her pet beagle Pencil--that is, until he dies
unexpectedly. She's crushed by the loss of her companion, so a neighbor she's
barely spoken to before, played by John C. Reilly, asks her out to dinner.
Here they are at a restaurant.

(Soundbite of "Year of the Dog")

Ms. MOLLY SHANNON: (As Peggy) So you were saying you had a dog who died when
you were young?

Mr. JOHN C. REILLY: (As Al) Tessie. I loved that dog. Had her since she
was a puppy. We did everything together. She's my right hand bitch. Sorry,
I mean in the dog way of being a bitch.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Mm-hmm.

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) Yeah, she died way too young. She was only six.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Oh!

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) Yeah.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) How did she die?

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) I shot her in Wyoming. Do you want some more wine?

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Wait, what do you mean?

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) It was an accident. A hunting accident.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Oh.

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) I still feel terrible.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) And what were you hunting?

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) Hunting moose. Mooses. But they got a lot of moose up
there, don't worry about it. You ever been hunting?

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) No.

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) Can be a rush. But, you know, accidents do happen.
And, you know, the gun is a very powerful weapon. I learned that the hard
way. That's why I never keep guns in my house.

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Mm. Well, that's good.

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) Yeah. Just knives.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Well, Mike White, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Well, Molly Shannon is
at the center of this story. Is it true that you wrote this script with her
in mind?

Mr. MIKE WHITE: Yeah. I had just, you know, the inspiration for the movie
was, I was doing this TV series for Fox, was a half hour sitcom with Molly and
Jason Schwartzman called "Cracking Up" that was like a short lived disaster.
And it was one of those things where like just constant fighting with the
network, never a moment of peace. You know? Just one of those really bad
professional experiences, and I was just sort of overstressed and underslept.
And over the Christmas breaks, where sometimes you try to catch up on scripts,
I had this stray cat who lived behind my house who sort of unexpectedly died
on me one day. It was like on Christmas Day, actually. And I didn't even
know I was that attached to the cat, but I was so sort of emotionally kind of
unhinged by this cat dying, and, you know, I ended up writing the like most
depressing half hour of that show, and the network hated it more than the
other stuff I had already been doing, and ended up getting even more behind,
and it was just--basically, the show shut down. And I really think if that
cat hadn't died, it wouldn't've had such a sort of profoundly depressing end.

And when the dust settled on it, I just--I looked back and I thought, `Well,
that's kind of an interesting life experience, and you know, the thing was
that one thing I'd gotten was I'd just had such a great time with Molly, I
just felt like it's like, you know, when you throw--when you like, you make a
movie or you have a TV series, you feel like you're throwing a party and you
invite all these people to your party and you tell them it's going to be fun,
and then it turns out not to be fun and it just goes on forever. And it was
just one of those things, where it was like, `I'd like to throw a party for
Molly where it actually was fun and we had a good time, and it turned out
good.'

DAVIES: Right. So the story kind of revolves around people, adults who are,
in some ways, obsessed with their pets. Was their something about that idea
that connected to Molly Shannon?

Mr. WHITE: Well, not so much the pets, but I do think that, like, there's
just sort of an innocence about Peggy, and a sweetness. And the thing about
Molly is she's just--she's kind of preternaturally like positive. There's
just something like--she just has, she's such, just such a kind, like--she's
so giving, as just in communication and in life. And I just thought, you
know, people think of her as like the girl who's like sniffing her armpits and
falling over bleacher chairs from "Saturday Night Live."

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. WHITE: And I just, you know, it's like there's such a--there's such a
sweet warmth to Molly, and I just wanted to create a character that she got to
show some of those colors, too.

DAVIES: I think she is terrific in the role, and I thought maybe we would
share with the audience a moment from the film. This is where, this is after
she's had the experience of a pet dying, and she ends up going out for dinner
with her next door neighbor, who's a regular guy played by John C. Reilly.
And in this scene, they've just come back from dinner and they're sitting in
the front seat of John C. Reilly's truck, and this conversation ensues.

(Soundbite of "Year of the Dog")

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) Thank you. This is--I had a nice time.

Mr. REILLY: (As Al) So you ever been married?

Ms. SHANNON: (As Peggy) No. No. I was--I had boyfriends, but I never, you
know, I guess I never got that--that never happened, but, you know, I think
some people just aren't as, you know--I don't even know what I'm saying, just,
you know, whatever. What're you going to do? And the whole dating thing just
kind of--yuck, no thank you, so. Yeah, so, that's basically how I feel.
Just, I don't know.

(Soundbites of movement)

Ms. SHANNON: I'm, you know, I don't know. Just like that.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly in the film "Year of the
Dog," written and directed by my guest Mike White. You know, I love the way
she delivers that, and I wondered, how much of that is written and how much is
improvised?

Mr. WHITE: Well, somehow it feels like I'm patting myself on the back, but,
you know, like, it was definitely--it was weird, that Molly actually memorized
all of those ramblings that were on the page. It was like oddly exactly--I
mean, it was--she did it her way, but it was not improvised. I tried to do my
best version of a stuttering, muttering fool.

DAVIES: You've, of course, written a lot of movies, and you've acted in
movies. This is the first time you've directed one, and I wondered what the
experience was like. Whereas in the past, you've sort of--you've come up with
the words, but then it's someone else's interpretation that gets on screen.
What was it like to run it, to be in control?

Mr. WHITE: Well, you know, the truth is I've had really great experiences
with directors, and have been able to be--since I've acted on some of the
movies I've been in--you know, to be able to be a part of the production. And
I've never really had the experience where I, I mean, at least in the features
I've done, where I go, you know, `Gosh, they blew it in the interpretation.'
I've always felt like they, you know, they were pretty uncharacteristically
close to the script. You know, for screenwriters, usually they get frustrated
by that. But it was--it definitely, after a while, you become a backseat
driver anyway. You know, you just become more and more of a like, you know, a
hand wringer, and you start to irritate yourself.

DAVIES: As a writer, you mean?

Mr. WHITE: As just, as like the person on the set who's like, you know,
going, `Well, you know,' like trying to, you know, put your two cents in and
knowing when the right time is, and like, you know, you sort of end up feeling
like you're passive aggressively manipulating everybody to try to do it the
way you want them to. And that ends up becoming more stressful than actually
directing, because so--being able to just go over and say, `Well, why don't
you try it this way?' or whatever, and not feeling like it, you know, `Is this
my role?' or `Am I stepping on somebody's toes?' It was actually, made it a
lot less stressful for whatever reason.

DAVIES: Our guest is Mike White. We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is actor, writer and now director
Mike White. His new film is "Year of the Dog."

You know, you've covered a lot of different subject areas, when I look at the
body of work that you've written. But it seems that a lot of your central
characters are sort of on the fringe of worlds they inhibit, sort of restless,
dissatisfied people. Were you like that growing up?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I definitely relate to somebody who feels like they're
interests or their persona or whatever is somehow outside of the mainstream,
and that the sort of conventional world is something that they feel slightly
alienated from. And so I tend to like to write characters that kind of, you
know, that are--by their passion or their goals or sort of who they are--are
sort of subverting the status quo or the world they're in.

DAVIES: Right. Now you went to Wesleyan University and were lucky enough to
get writing work in Hollywood pretty quickly, did a lot of television work.
And then in 2000, you wrote and started in "Chuck & Buck," which is this film
where you play Buck, this guy in his 20s who's sort of has the social
development of a 12-year-old and who's trying to reconnect with his childhood
friend Chuck. And here is a scene where Buck, who's the kind of socially
stunted guy, visits Chuck in his office. I think we have a clip.

(Soundbite of "Chuck & Buck")

Mr. WHITE: (As Buck O'Brien) After you left, I didn't really get into school
at all. You know, I didn't like the other kids so much, all the homework and
sports. Just wasn't fun. It's weird you have this office. What're you doing
here?

Mr. CHRIS WEITZ: (As Chuck Sitter) Sign bands and produce and negotiate
contracts. It's not all that interesting.

Mr. WHITE: (As Buck O'Brien) That's funny. That's really funny. Because
you remember, we used to play games like we were businessmen. Remember, we
bought all those office supplies? And now you're like really doing it. Is it
real now, or is it still like a game?

Mr. WEITZ: (As Chuck Sitter) It's pretty real.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's my guest Mike White, along with Chris Weitz, in the film
"Chuck & Buck," which Mike White wrote and starred in. You know, in this
film, Chuck, the kind of more socially stunted of the two, is sexually
attracted to his old friend, but kind of sees sex as an adolescent does. And
he sort of becomes a stalker. What's interesting about this, though, I know
that you didn't direct it and didn't do the casting, but you ended up playing
the lead. And you inhabit this role so completely convincingly that I wonder
if it sort of followed you and people assume it's in some way
autobiographical.

Mr. WHITE: Well, I did get a lot of that when the movie first came out, and,
you know, certainly, the first--it was a weird thing to, you know, have your
first movie, and be in it and be sort of recognized to be that character and
have all those sort of, I don't know, assumptions or questions that come with
that. But, you know, in a way it was a really creatively liberating. Because
when you have--once you kind of like jump out of the airplane and to have that
kind of real sense of just like, `Gosh, you know, all these people either
think I'm crazy or I'm this character.' It just sort of like--you realize you
can't control that, and, you know, you'll never win the popularity contest in
a sense, so you can kind of just give up that goal and just kind of pursue the
stuff that makes it, you know, that's meaningful to you.

DAVIES: Did it open doors for you, though, this film?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, weirdly. I mean, it was like one of those moves that like,
when I wrote it, you know, and said I was going to make it, and I mean, people
would read the script and say, `Not only do I not want to like, you know, give
you the money to make this, but I think you really shouldn't make this. Don't
make this movie' kind of thing. So it was interesting that when it, you know,
actually, once it was made and we put it out there that, you know, it was a
movie that, you know, kind of seems to have stuck around, and certainly it did
open doors for me in terms of, you know, people. You know, screenwriters
suffer from anonymity, I think, in a sense, in whether--even if, like, people
think maybe I'm a crazy stalker, at least they recognize me and can identify
me with the work that I do. And that has certainly been helpful in some sense
in this business.

DAVIES: Right. A lot of people know your film "School of Rock," which you
also wrote, and which stars Jack Black as this out of work rock musician who,
desperate for money, gets a gig as a substitute teacher at a private school,
and then kind of uses the kids to create a rock band which he can star in.
Where did that idea come from?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I was living next door to Jack for a few years and became
friendly with him, and sometimes he would give me scripts that people, you
know, had been offered to him. And, you know, I wasn't really in the big sort
of comedy rewrite world or whatever, but I kept reading these scripts and I
was like, `You know, I could write something for him that would be more
appealing, potentially, than these scripts that they're giving to me, he's
given to me.' And I just--there's something so winning about Jack, and up to
that point it felt like he was really just getting the parts of like the drunk
frat guy or, you know, he's falling through windows or whatever. And I just
thought it'd be fun to kind of make a movie with him with kids and try to like
open up his audience base and try to do something that's sweeter.

DAVIES: Well, it really worked. Let's hear a clip from "School of Rock."
This is Jack Black, where he has his students who he's making into, he's
crafting, molding into a rock band. And here's where he's explaining to them
the nature of rock 'n' roll.

(Soundbite of "School of Rock")

Mr. JACK BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) You guys have been doing real good in here.
And if I was going to give you a grade, I would give you an A.

(Soundite of guitar strings)

Mr. BLACK: But that's the problem. Rock ain't about doing things perfect.
Who can tell me what it's really about? Frankie.

Mr. ANGELO MASSAGLI: (As Frankie) Scoring chicks?

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) No--no. See, no. Eleni?

Ms. VERONICA AFFLERBACH: (As Eleni) Getting wasted.

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) No--come on! No. Leonard.

Mr. COLE HAWKINS: (As Leonard) Sticking it to the man?

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Yes! But you can't just say it, man, you got to
feel it in your blood and guts. If you want to rock, you got to break the
rules. You got to get mad at the man. And right now, I'm the man. That's
right. I'm the man. And who's got the guts to tell me off? Huh? Who's
going to tell me off?

Mr. KEVIN CLARK: (As Freddy) Shut the hell up, Schneebly!

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey) That's it, Freddy. That's it! Who can top him?

Ms. ALEISHA ALLEN: (As Alicia) Get out of here, stupid ass.

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Yes, Alicia!

Ms. MIRANDA COSGROVE: (As Summer Hathaway) You're a joke! You're the worst
teacher I've ever had.

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) Summer, that is great. I like the delivery
because I felt your anger.

Ms. COSGROVE: (As Summer Hathaway) Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #1: You're a fat loser and you have body odor.

Mr. BLACK: (As Dewey Finn) All right. All right!

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that is Jack Black from "School of Rock," written by my guest
Mike White. It's just so much fun to watch Jack Black in this role. It's
sort of hard to imagine anybody else having done it. Were there certain
mannerisms or certain styles he had that you wanted to get into this
character?

Mr. WHITE: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, again, it was just like with Molly, it
was like I really wrote something specifically for him. And, you know, I knew
he was going to bring a lot of his own stuff to it, but I tried to write
something that was as much in his voice and, you know, with his mannerisms as
I had observed in my time living next door to him. He's just, you know, the
thing about Jack--and I find that's true about Molly and certain people that
are, you know, at the highest level of, you know, comedy--that they just are
funny. Like, I don't think Jack has ever left a message on a machine that
wasn't humorous. And I don't think, it's not necessarily that he's always on
or trying really hard, there's just something sort of funny about the way he,
you know, words come out of his mouth. And so that makes it easier to write
comedy, when you know you have somebody who can just kind of sell it.

DAVIES: Now, you also had to--you had kids in this, which were a critical
element of it working. How did you picture the kids in "School of Rock"? I
mean, it's not quite "Fame," not quite "Bad News Bears."

Mr. WHITE: Well, I felt like, it's like, you needed, I mean, with Jack, you
need somebody who's like crashing the sort of the party, so in the sense that
you--I felt like it was important to like make the kids in a more sort of, you
know, uptight, you know, very academic and competitive school, because it felt
like then he would really be the fish out of water in that world. And I had
gone to a school growing up that was pretty rigorous and similar to the school
in "School of Rock." But Rick Linklater really deserves the credit for finding
these kids, especially the ones that were in the band. It was really
important to him to find kids that really played that music and could perform
so it just didn't feel like some cheesy, you know, like some cheesy TV show
where everybody's lip synching in the big finale.

DAVIES: Right. You know, a colleague of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News
said that that movie was like a life-altering experience for his kids, who
were playing music and really got into classic rock after that. I mean, was
there any kind of mission here? I'm wondering, did you have any particular
relationship to rock 'n' roll that informed this idea?

Mr. WHITE: I mean, for me, it's more the creative impulse. I mean, I went
to a school that was very sort of like focused on the mathematics and the
sciences and, you know, very preparatory. And I was this sort of creative
person and felt like that part of my education wasn't as much focused on, and
had sort of wished it had been. And so whether it was rock music or, you
know, writing or just anything that was more creative, it was what I was kind
of trying to do, was, talk about, you know, and--you know, the thing is, when
I was a kid and watched movies, I would come home and sort of re-enact the
movie, especially if something that really caught my inspiration, and so there
was a part of me that was writing to that kid in me, which was sort of saying,
you know, `Go out and do it,' you know, like, just a sort of call to, you
know, follow your creative impulses.

DAVIES: Now, I know you also grew up in a conservative Christian home. I
mean, did that make it harder to explore creative stuff?

Mr. WHITE: I mean, not so much. I mean, my dad was in a--yeah, he was a
minister and he came from a really conservative Christian background, but he
was a filmmaker and a writer, so it wasn't so much that, you know, my parents
were squashing that creative impulse at all. But, yeah, so not so much. It
doesn't actually affect the fact that, like, I don't have a very long sort of
rock musical education because, you know, we had more sort of, you know,
gospel and Christian music in our house, and so I think people think that
since I've written "School of Rock" that I was some sort of rock aficionado,
and there's actually huge gaps in my rock education.

DAVIES: My guest is Mike White, and we'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is actor, writer and director
Mike White. His new film is "Year of the Dog."

Well, after "School of Rock," you did another film with Jack Black that was a
vehicle for his energy called "Nacho Libre," where he plays Ignacio, who is a
cook in, I guess, a monastery that's raising orphans in Mexico, and then
decides to get into--adopt a secret life as a wrestler in the Lucha Libre
contest to make--so he can afford fresh ingredients for his orphans' meals.
Where did this idea come from?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I was working on this script with Jared and Jerusha Hess.
Jared directed "Napoleon Dynamite," and they wrote that movie together. And
the three of us got together and, you know, Jared was really excited about
writing a movie about Mexican luchadors for Jack. And so we, you know, I
don't know, we spent a few weeks in Salt Lake City and kind of came up with
this story of this, It was one of the best sort of, or the most fun
collaborative experiences I've had.

DAVIES: Well, let's hear a clip. Here, Jack Black as Ignacio has come upon a
bunch of the orphans that he cares for wrestling, and Sister Encarnacion tells
him they can't do this, and wants Ignacio to explain to the kids why wrestling
is bad.

(Soundbite of "Nacho Libre")

Mr. BLACK: (As Ignacio) Orphans! Listen to me! Listen to Ignacio! I know
it is fun to wrestle, a nice piledrive to the face.

Unidentified Actor #2: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BLACK: (As Ignacio) Or a punch to the face. But you cannot do it
because it is in the Bible not to wrestle your neighbor.

Unidentified Actor #3: So you've never wrestled?

Mr. BLACK: (As Ignacio) Me? Nah. Come on. Don't be crazy. Listen, I know
that wrestlers get all the fancy ladies, the clothes, the great creams and
lotions. But my life is good. Really good. I get to wake up every morning,
5 AM, make some soup. It's the best. I love it! I get to lay in a bed by
myself all of my life. It's fantastic!

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that is Jack Black as Ignacio in the film "Nacho Libre," written
by our guest, Mike White.

You know, this seems like an idea that really could miss. And, you know, you
have like Jack Black here, who's, you know, has this accent. Was there ever
any concern that you'd be seen as sort of showing the culture sensitivity of
the Frito Bandito?

Mr. WHITE: Well, I was, I mean, because the idea came to me through Jared, I
was concerned. And certainly Jack was concerned about all of that. But, you
know, Jared is such a real deep fan of this world and, you know, he spent--you
know, he's a Mormon and spent years in South America on his mission and speaks
fluent Spanish and is just a real sort of like, you know, die-hard fan of the
luchador culture and South American cultures, and it just felt like it was
coming from such a pure place. You know, even though his stuff is sort of
twisted and it does have sort of an absurd take on humanity, it didn't feel
like it was sort of playing on stereotypes. It felt like it was--there was
just something more interesting about where the humor was coming from.

DAVIES: Well, you know, you're now a Hollywood triple threat, a successful
writer, actor and now director. Does acting more appeal to you?

Mr. WHITE: You know, I just did a movie with Diane Keaton where I acted, and
that was superfun because she's a friend of mine, and she's, you know, she's
like a, I don't know, a hero of mine. And that was fun. But, you know, it
takes so much time to get the things that you are writing, you know,
manifested that it's hard for me to warrant walking away from that for a few
weeks to go act in something. You know, I like acting, but if I was told I
never could do it again, I could survive. But I don't think that's true about
writing. I feel like I'll always be writing. That's kind of how I come to
this business, I guess.

DAVIES: Well, Mike White, thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. WHITE: Oh, cool, thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Actor, writer and director Mike White. He's written and directed a
new film starring Molly Shannon. It's called "Year of the Dog." Here's Jack
Black from the soundtrack of "Nacho Libre."

(Soundbite of "Singing at the Party")

Mr. BLACK: (Singing) I am a-singing at the party
I am singing; it's my turn to sing at the party
Everyone is dancing, happy party
Well, Ramses is not dancing; he does not dance at the parties
At night I play my games, I go to sleep, I think of Ramses
The people in the streets, they give him treats, they give him candy
Will he ever lose? We'll never know. He'll never fight these!
Ramses is the greatest, even though he rhymes with pansies

(Spoken) (Foreign language spoken)

(Singing) Ramses is number one, he knows the secrets of desire
Buh-buh-bilia, buh buh...
Ramses number one, he...

(End of soundbite)

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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