Mike White wasn't intending to star in Chuck & Buck. But both he and director Miguel Arteta (Star Maps) realized that he was the best choice. After all, he wrote the script about a gay geek who moves to L.A. to stalk his childhood pal.
It has a risky premise that refuses to swerve off course. The result is a movie that's earned rave reviews from critics who admire its honesty and originality.
Drawn detractors It's also drawn detractors who see it as a pro-stalker film that gives the gay rights movement a black eye.
But that's a short-sighted and reactionary take on one of the year's bravest films, a movie that makes you squirm, think and feel.
"When I was writing, it was all about alter egos, the side you show to the world and the side you're afraid to show to the world," says White, who plays the lovelorn Buck.
"I thought with Buck, it shouldn't be about performance. If you have Ethan Hawke playing him, you're really aware of an actor playing a role. Buck is such an unusual character and I wanted the feeling that he walks onscreen out of the real world. I thought, the tone of the movie is so weird and the character walks such a fine a line that if I do it and fail, then I'll only have myself to blame."
White is in Toronto for a press day, and I've been invited to lunch with him at the Sutton Place Hotel.
He's nervous and a little uncomfortable. He's a writer at heart, not an actor. He's made a living in Hollywood producing and writing for TV's Dawson's Creek and the series Freaks And Geeks.
Mischievous script There's no show-offy vibe coming from this red-headed, freckle-faced man. So it makes you wonder what it was like for him to step in front of the camera and bare all.
"When I was writing the story, I was laughing," remembers White. "I thought of it as a mischievous script -- it was making me giddy. But playing Buck I realized that he has no perspective on things, and for him this story is a tragedy. I hadn't counted on going onto the set and bursting into tears."
White says he wrote Chuck & Buck entirely for himself. He eventually showed the script around to friends and colleagues. The reactions were powerful.
"Some people were saying, 'You have to make this movie, how can I help you make this movie?' And other people were saying, 'Why do you want to make this movie? No one will see it, you're wasting your time.'
"But Miguel loved it and said he'd fight tooth and nail to get it made --he's exactly the kind of person I needed because I certainly didn't have that confidence.
"It's telling that people who were really hostile toward me at that time were at the premiere going, 'Good job, Mike.' I'm thinking, 'You told me to give up on my dreams, you asshole, what are you doing here?'"
Surrogate geek The downside of having an art- house movie that gets mainstream attention is that suddenly White has become a kind of surrogate geek, someone people identify with.
"The part I still don't know how to deal with is how everyone needs to tell you to your face what they think about the film. I get people who come up to me and tell me their own crazy life story, or people who have issues in their life and feel they can discuss them with me. It's been great, but traumatic.
"I don't know, maybe these are things I should save for my analyst," says White quietly, "but I've been a little bit of a neurotic mess for the last couple of months. I'm a private person and then I see myself up there, and people think I may be insane or a freak.
"To be honest, all the good I'm going to get from this movie has already happened, so I kind of wish it were all over. I'm not really able to deal with all the crazy people in the world."
CHUCK & BUCK, directed by Miguel Arteta, written by Mike White, produced by Matthew Greenfield, with White, Chris Weitz, Lupe Ontiveros, Beth Colt and Paul Weitz. 96 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (July 28). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 67.
CHUCK & BUCK Rating: NNN
Twenty-seven-year-old Buck (Mike White) has never matured beyond early adolescence. He's spent his life playing with matchbox cars, sucking on lollipops and taking care of his ailing mother. When she dies, his childhood best friend Chuck (Chris Weitz), who has become an successful L.A. record producer, shows up for her funeral, and Buck's dormant homosexual hormones come alive. Finally free and with his dead mother's money in hand, the smitten Buck heads to L.A. in search of Chuck.This film makes you squirm in your seat -- not because of its latent and then later overt gay content, but because we can relate to both Buck's and Chuck's dilemmas. Trapped in a constant state of rejection, Buck's needy desires hit a nerve with anyone who's ever been spurned. And Chuck's fear of rediscovering the part of himself that he let slip away makes us question whether we have lost part of ourselves.
At first, Buck comes across like a sexualized Howdy Doody toy, but he shows another layer of depth when he sets out to write and put on a play about his childhood with Chuck. White, who wrote the script, allows Buck small and reasonable steps in his development.
The film will work for you if you believe in Chuck's redemptive act toward Buck. It's the key to a film that is all about childhood experiences as opposed to childhood innocence. IR