CS Interview: Writer/star Mike White on The One and Only Ivan
ComingSoon.net got the opportunity to chat with Mike White (School of Rock, Beatriz at Dinner) to discuss his work on Disney’s live-action/CGI adaptation of The One and Only Ivan, in which he both stars and penned the screenplay!
When the Katherine Applegate children’s novel first hit shelves in 2012, White recalls that he wasn’t really “looking to do an adaptation of a kids’ book” but after picking it up and giving it a read he found he was “kind of gut-punched” and that it was “really powerful for a kids’ book.”
“It’s melancholic and it’s poetic, there was just something about the tone of Ivan’s voice and the tone of the book and the message of the book, which was very, in a way, heavy, which was talking about animal rights in a way that was like, you’re really feeling it,” White described. “So I felt like it’s cool that Disney wanted to take that on and has such a big platform and has such an interesting relationship with animal movies. And this feels like a kind of continuation of that in a way that’s raising the consciousness, in a sense, just like the character of Bryan Cranston’s where it’s like he started off in a world where zoos and circuses weren’t a bad thing, and suddenly now he’s having to grapple with the ethics of it. And I think that that part of it got me excited to write.”
Though the novel doesn’t set a specific time period for its tale, the Ivan upon which it’s inspired by did live around the ’70s and ’80s and when it came to choosing to set the film in the past, White credits part of that to director Thea Sharrock as “creatively I think it was fun for her to do that” and to “get that flavor in it.”
“But I think it just spoke to that in the ’70s and ’80s, circuses were not politically incorrect,” White explained. “Certain things, you know—our consciousness as a society has changed a little bit. So it’s like, in a way, we’ve already gotten to that point, where we know that animals in a small little cage, like just for our entertainment isn’t necessarily something that is kosher anymore. So I think that that helps tell the story as reflective of our overall culture.”
When it came to bringing some of the novel’s visual language to life on screen, White praises Sharrock for her work and the visual effects department while joking it was easy from the writer’s position to translate the source material’s imagery to script.
“All you have to do is put a slug line in it or say, ‘Ivan crawls across the thing and jumps on,'” White chuckled. “You know, actually rendering that and making that real takes so much effort, like the kind of effort that at one point early on it was like, ‘Should I throw my hat in the ring to direct this?’ And then, three years later, as I’m watching Thea like, have to grapple with every little movement, and I was like, ‘Thank God I didn’t throw my hat in the ring on this. This is just too, too painstaking and exacting for me.’ So yeah, as a writer, it’s not that difficult, to be honest. You can just let your imagination run wild and then they are the ones who have to—the director and the CGI team have to like, actually make it happen and clean up your mess.”
In addition to penning the script for the film, White stars in the film as the frantic seal Frankie, as well as a cameo appearance as a driver passing by the mall, which isn’t the first time he’s starred in a film he’s written after co-starring in Orange County, School of Rock and The Good Girl, amongst others.
“It’s funny because I think people think I probably am bugging these directors to put me in the movie, but I think it’s the opposite,” White expressed. “I think they’re tired of me just standing around on set like wringing my hands and they’re like, ‘Why don’t you go do something? Like why don’t you participate? Put on a different hat.’ So Thea just thought, I don’t know, the neurotic, obsessive seal, she’s like, ‘We’ve got one right here.’ Me [laughs]. But it is fun for me. It is fun to like, be able to participate in the movie in some different way. When I first started out, I’d write a script and then they would take the script and then they’d say, go back to the cave and keep writing. And you feel like there’s a party happening and you designed it and you don’t get to actually participate in that. So it’s kind of fun to be able to have that aspect of the experience.”
White is one of a large ensemble with everyone from Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) to Helen Mirren (Hobbs & Shaw) and Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and when it came to building the cast, White does note that most of the casting came from Sharrock and Disney but that he threw “in my two cents” and had a lot of fun working with the rest of the voice cast.
“I was there for a lot of the recording sessions, and it was just crazy to have Angelina and Sam and Danny DeVito and Helen Mirren and it was very—I mean, I’ve obviously worked with stars over the years, but it’s a lot in one room for a few hours, like, this is fun,” White brightly recalled. “The voicing was just fun and that was easy to be honest. The biggest challenge as far as adapting it was trying to make sure we’re staying true to the spirit of the book and the people who loved the book are going to love the movie. But you know, we had to build it out a little bit and give it more plot. And the things that are required to make a movie feel like a big event type of movie. So you know, the book really delivers as far as emotion and character, but just having a plot and feeling like it had movement, that was the biggest challenge.”
Though now available to stream on Disney+, the film was originally planned for a theatrical release and while White concedes that “the writing was kind of on the wall” that it may shift to a digital release much like other titles from the past few months, he stepped back to “adjust your expectations” and find the positive in the release.
“We obviously made this movie to be seen on a big screen and we wanted that, but we also want people to see the movie and I wasn’t really wanting Disney to sit on it forever until things get clarified,” White explained. “So my feeling is a lot of people are going to see this movie on Disney+. It’s a big movie visually, and so, you want that to come across. But it’s also a very intimate movie, too. So I think it actually will work as a movie that you see at home. So you know, it’s a mixed feeling, but it’s not about the disappointment of that particularly, it’s more just about this overall sense of like, what is the movie business now? You know, it begs bigger questions than just The One and Only Ivan.”
An adaptation of the award-winning book about one very special gorilla, Disney’s The One and Only Ivan is an unforgettable tale about the beauty of friendship, the power of visualization and the significance of the place one calls home. Ivan is a 400-pound silverback gorilla who shares a communal habitat in a suburban shopping mall with Stella the elephant, Bob the dog, and various other animals. He has few memories of the jungle where he was captured, but when a baby elephant named Ruby arrives, it touches something deep within him. Ruby is recently separated from her family in the wild, which causes him to question his life, where he comes from, and where he ultimately wants to be.
The heartwarming adventure, which comes to the screen in an impressive hybrid of live-action and CGI, is based on Katherine Applegate’s bestselling book, which won numerous awards upon its publication in 2013, including the Newbery Medal.
The film features a star-studded voice led by Oscar winners Sam Rockwell (Jojo Rabbit) as Ivan, Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) as Stella and Helen Mirren (The Queen) as the voice of Snickers the poodle along with Danny DeVito (Hercules) as the voice of Bob the dog, Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) as the voice of Ruby, Grammy winner Chaka Khan as the voice of Henrietta the chicken, Mike White (School of Rock) as the voice of Frankie the seal; Ron Funches (Trolls World Tour) as the voice of Murphy the rabbit and Phillipa Soo (Hamilton) as the voice of Thelma the parrot.
It will also star Emmy winner Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) as Mack, the mall’s owner. Ramon Rodriquez (Iron Fist) as the mall employee George, and Ariana Greenblatt (Monster Problems) as George’s daughter Julia.
Based on the true story, The One and Only Ivan is being directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) from the screenplay written by two-time Independent Spirit Award winner Mike White (Pitch Perfect 3, The School of Rock). Oscar and three-time Golden Globe winner Angelina Jolie (First They Killed My Father, Maleficent) is producing along with the late Allison Shearmur (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Cinderella) and Brigham Taylor (Christopher Robin, The Jungle Book).