'Survivor David vs Goliath': Mike White Looks Back on the "Sublime" Jacket Drama

The 'School of Rock' and 'Enlightened' filmmaker speaks exclusively with The Hollywood Reporter about "Jacketgate," Napalm Natalie and other major events from the season thus far.
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Mike White

Filmmaker Mike White helped put School of Rock and Nacho Libre into the universe. More than a decade later, he found himself trapped on an island competing on Survivor: David vs. Goliath with fans of his work, including Lucha Underground wrestler John Hennigan and would-be rockstar Nick Wilson. 

White, who appeared on two seasons of The Amazing Race and long fantasized about testing himself further through Survivor, now stands at the edge of the merge, one of the most coveted milestones in the game — and he's there with key numbers on his side, thanks to his participation in voting out Lyrsa Torres at the show's most recent Tribal Council.

"When you're on the island, there's a lot of anticipatory talk about 'making the merge,'" he tells The Hollywood Reporter about his journey through the game thus far. "It seemed at that point, the remaining players were actually going to accomplish this — me included. I was excited and hopeful — and starving. I wanted that feast." 

The merge feast looms in Wednesday's Survivor, but first, a feast with Mike White, as the Hollywood multihyphenate joins THR to take stock of his adventure through six episodes of David vs. Goliath.

How did you arrive at the decision to vote out Lyrsa instead of Angelina?

Angelina and Lyrsa brought very different and, in some ways, opposing qualities to the game. Angelina is imaginative, ambitious and calculated, while Lyrsa is loyal, easy-going and blunt. I trusted Lyrsa more, but felt Angelina might be more useful to me in the long haul. Angelina had more moves. She was very socially aggressive on the island in ways that I wasn't. She was good at getting information from people — and building coalitions (for example, the Jeremy elimination). I knew she was a dangerous player, but we had spent 18 intense days together, and while I may not have fully trusted her, I felt she trusted me. I also genuinely liked her. She's an impressive, dynamic person, and a lot of fun. 

The fear of arriving at the merge after voting out two Goliaths — and giving the Davids an edge in the numbers — was also a huge factor in my decision. The Goliaths would rightfully be angry at me. Eliminating Natalie was a defensible decision, but Angelina, not so much. By keeping a Goliath majority on the island, I figured I'd have more options. My entire strategy was based on having options and not painting myself into a corner. I hated voting out Lyrsa, though. She's the best, and I know she'll become the "celesbian" she's destined to be.

In voting for Lyrsa, Nick turns against a fellow David. How did you manage to convince him to vote out one of his own?

Nick was in a vulnerable spot at the swap. He probably would have gone home if we'd lost that first immunity challenge. No way would I have voted for Natalie if Carl was replacing her on Jabeni. After the Natalie vote, I think he felt obliged somewhat to me. I also think he agreed with me that Angelina, a power player who was bonded to us, would perhaps be more useful moving forward into the great unknown of the merge. But I honestly think the deciding factor was that if there had been a tie vote at Tribal, Angelina and Lyrsa would have been forced into a fire-making challenge. Angelina was a ringer at starting fires. She would have smoked Lyrsa, no doubt. And then Nick would have had a vengeful Angelina on his hands, still in the game. Scary! 

This past immunity challenge looked absolutely brutal. Can you walk us through your experience?

That challenge was hell. People have always been quick to peg me as nerdy, weak, albino, whatever. One of my goals playing the game was to prove the haters wrong. I consider myself decently athletic. I felt like I could hold my weight in the challenges. Then they put me on the Goliath tribe with a bunch of monster dudes and killer women, and I really was the weakest. And then that challenge. I have mild carpal tunnel from spending my life typing at the computer. Within a few minutes of holding that disc, my forearms started cramping up so badly. At one point, I was like, "I cannot hold this fucker anymore." What can I say? Humiliation is good for the soul. Give me another chance! With a lighter disc!

Dialing it back to the Natalie elimination, talk us through your perspective on "Jacketgate," from what you heard about it around camp and how you saw it play out at Tribal Council.

Angelina was cold. Very cold. She was freezing cold. This created problems beyond "Jacketgate." We had to rebuild the shelter multiple times, with the goal of protecting her from the wind. And her need for body heat at night led to the whole "showmance" with John accusation, although their relationship was entirely innocent. And then the jacket stuff. I found the whole thing so absurd — but, then again, I've got Nordic blood — and I didn't really get that cold out there. Poor Angelina … when she says she's cold, watch out. She's not kidding.

I will say that when you blindside someone at Tribal Council, you want it to be over with as quickly as possible. So when Angelina leaps up and starts crying crocodile tears and hugging her, like they're in some community theater improv scene, I was cringing on my stool. And yes, throughout Tribal Council, Angelina — apropos of nothing — kept working in strained analogies about friendship and bonding and jackets, I guess in hopes of setting Natalie up for the big ask. Honestly, it was ballsy and sublime, and I'm grateful I got to witness it live.

You and Natalie shared the same beach for the entire length of her game. What was it like playing with Natalie? Was it as tense as depicted onscreen?

Natalie is a strong woman, to the point where admission of any kind of vulnerability is anathema to her sense of self. Which is problematic for someone like me who communicates through self-deprecation. I would say she was a bit of a dark presence around camp. She would pace back and forth in the moonlight, the wind blowing all around her, then approach the entrance of the shelter — a shadowy silhouette, her braids flying — and say things like, "Your pants have fallen off the line, Mike!" Or, "The shelter is shaking. The shelter is shaking!" It gave me goose bumps. I've never met anyone like Natalie. I wish her the very best, and I'll leave it at that.

Turning to the initial days of the season, from what we saw on the show, you were outside of the core Goliath alliance — but we saw just how strong that group was when Alec turned on Natalia. What can you say about your relationships with the other Goliaths, and your time together in the first nine days of the season before the swap?

I liked the Goliaths all individually, but as a group, they were a little much. They would lie around in a big flesh pile and tell inane stories, all talking over each other. At times, I felt like some old pedophile, hiding under a tree, spying on young people, waiting for one of them to peel off from the group so I could pounce and worm my way into his or her good graces. It was pathetic. I would try to impress them with stories about how I once was on a private plane with Jennifer Aniston or whoever. At this point in my life, I'm used to people coming to me. It was humbling. 

In the first episode, we saw you singled out for searching for the idol. What's your side of that story?

On the first day, Natalie and Natalia were arguing about how to build the shelter. Turned out, neither of them knew what they were talking about. But it was so heated and awkward, I slinked away. Suddenly a camera crew started chasing after me — with an urgent intensity — and I realized, they think I'm going to go look for an idol. And then I thought, maybe that's because there's an idol right around here. And then I started looking for an idol. Then, of course, Natalie appeared from behind a tree, issuing one of her ominous warnings: "You've got a target on your back, Mike!" Faced with the reality I might actually go home first, I promptly changed my strategy. I decided to make sure the others felt I was safe and not playing too hard. 

In the early days of the game, you were very close with Jeremy. What was it that bonded you together, and what convinced you to write his name down at your first Tribal Council of the season?

The other Goliaths — John, Dan, Alec, Angelina, Alison, Kara, Natalia — had so much in common. They are all young and attractive, extroverted hardbodies. It felt like the first week of college and I was in some freshman dorm where everyone is walking around in their underwear, all excitable and horned up. Jeremy could sort of roll with them, but not totally, so we bonded. He is truly a comic genius. His mind is like a machine gun, firing off hilarious, original observations about the other castaways and the experience. He made me laugh. I was torn when he got targeted, because I was also on the chopping block. Jeremy loved the cameras, which I think was part of his downfall. He thought the crews paid special attention when we talked strategy, so he would talk strategy all day long, just to keep them trailing him. He got ahead of himself, which was a bummer for him and a tragedy for all Survivor viewers everywhere, because Jeremy is reality TV gold.

Following Jeremy's departure, it appears Nick became your new closest ally. What drew you to Nick, as a person and as a player? And how did you really feel about "The Rock Stars" as an alliance name?

Nick has been shown as sneaky and game-fixated, but he presents as a sweet, affable guy. Unlike a lot of the Goliaths, Nick would actually listen to me — which, of course, I appreciated. I felt I could work with him in a real way. Since I was in a power position, I hoped he would be grateful I helped him survive the swap, and perhaps he would reciprocate down the line. As for calling ourselves the "Rock Stars," I didn't have the heart to tell him it was goofy and embarrassing. It was so early in our friendship. I honestly never thought it would end up in the show. But it did … and now, I'll never forgive him.

Who had the biggest reaction when meeting you, whether that was someone who already knew about your work outside of Survivor, or someone who found out once you hit the beach?

I think it was Nick, to be honest. With the Goliaths, all that stuff just put me in the crosshairs. I was happy when Nick came along. I felt with him, it might actually work to my advantage. 

Last up: You knew Jeff Probst before you were a castaway. What surprised you most about your interactions with him during the game? Any fun observations you can share?

What surprised me most is just how committed Jeff is to every aspect of the game and the production. He is deeply involved in things others in his position might just delegate or "phone in." It's season 37, and he has the enthusiasm of someone who is thrilled by the work. You sense there still is the possibility of discovery here for him. He's also very kind to the contestants. He's a host in every sense of the word. You feel he is personally hosting you and giving you this experience, like Mr. Roarke in Fantasy Island. He's magic! And if this sounds like I'm kissing his ass, I don't care.

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