David Bernad and Mike White have been producing partners for 13 years — but their working relationship extends even further back than that.
Bernad began his production career in the mailroom at UTA, hustling to produce short films on nights and weekends. “I had this romantic notion of starting in the mailroom. I really wanted to start at the bottom and work my way up,” he explains. He met White through a mutual friend who was working at the time as White’s assistant; when she left the role, she insisted that her former boss interview Bernad. “I went over in my cheap suit, cheap shoes and interviewed with him. I thought it went great. Mike didn’t hire me. I later found out it was because he didn’t like my shoes. But the assistant, Rebecca, would not let Mike interview anyone else. So he finally hired me.”
Eventually he would graduate from assistant to production partner, working first on the acclaimed Enlightened with White, then on various film and TV projects and now executive producing The White Lotus, nominated for 20 Emmys. THR sat down with Bernad to talk about producing with White, the creation of The White Lotus in the midst of a global pandemic and a taste of what to expect in its much-anticipated second season, set in Sicily.
How did you and Mike White become producing partners?
I was 25, 26, hustling, meeting everyone. I think Mike recognized that. He eventually parted ways with his producing partner. Then I went from his assistant to his producing partner at around 28. The first thing we did was Enlightened. We just always got along, taste-wise, and we always connected creatively. But he also recognized how much work I was putting into the job. I went from doing a $5,000 short to being in the room with [HBO’s] Mike Lombardo and Laura Dern on Enlightened. I earned Mike [White]’s trust on Enlightened. I think he saw that I really did the work. From there, we’ve never stopped working together.
How did The White Lotus first come to your attention?
Mike actually pitched me the kernels of The White Lotus in 2007. I’ll never forget, we were on a beach in Tarifa, Spain. He pitched me what is basically the Alexandra Daddario story, with Jake [Lacy], the honeymoon couple. The idea [was to do] a show about a honeymoon and exploring colonialism and tourism culture through the lens of this upstairs-downstairs couple, where you have a character that’s from lesser means, marries rich — seeing it through their lens. We actually brought that to HBO, and they passed. But I never forgot about that [idea]. As you saw, he really had a strong take on that.
Were there other characters you two had been talking about early on as well?
Mike wrote four episodes of a series for Jennifer Coolidge called St. Patsy. We went around and everyone passed. In those meetings, he said, “If we make this show with Jennifer Coolidge, she’s going to win an Emmy.” Mike and I were laughing about it last week, because, knock on wood, hopefully that happens. Mike had developed the Tanya McQuoid character, but she wasn’t called Tanya McQuoid in those scripts. He’s wanted to make something with Jennifer for 15 years, since we met her in 2006, doing a movie together.
We were going to do a movie in Sweden with Aubrey Plaza called Shame and Disgrace. We had the movie financed, and we were on our way to Europe. COVID happens. Movie falls apart. Mike was really devastated. Mike went on a road trip, and on that road trip, he emailed [HBO executive] Francesca Orsi, saying, “My movie just fell apart. I’m around.” She says back to him in an email: “If you have an idea that we can make quickly, that’s COVID-friendly and could be on the air in 2021, we’ll do it.” He goes, “I got it.” That’s how The White Lotus happened. That was the end of July 2020. By October, we were filming.
Walk me through those months — arriving in Hawaii, how the casting went and the unique experience of filming in a luxury hotel in isolation — from an EP’s perspective.
One, I think Mike is a genius. The humanist approach is consistent in all of his work. But the thing that’s incredible is that no one writes quicker than Mike. People will think this is not true: We landed in Hawaii, I would say, like, Sept. 13 or 14 of 2020. We had one script. We started production on Oct. 28. It’s a six-episode series, and he wrote five perfect scripts in five, six weeks — while we were casting, while we were prepping, while we were crewing up. In that six-week time period, we did everything. We had about four weeks to cast the show. Mike is also, as a filmmaker, incredibly decisive. We were focused on finding people that really embodied the characters. Steve Zahn’s casting was Mike’s idea. Murray Bartlett was someone who Mike just saw his initial audition, and was like, “That’s him. Murray is Armond.” Sydney [Sweeney] was someone that I had met in a general meeting. I’d only seen her in Euphoria, and from that meeting, [I saw] she’s so different from her character in [that]. Mike and Connie [Britton] had worked together on Beatriz at Dinner. Obviously Connie is an icon and incredible. I think Alexandra Daddario made a self-tape, and when we both saw the tape, we were like, “That’s it.” We just knew.
Where were you when you heard about the Emmy nominations, and what was going through your head?
Mike and I were in Rome, on set [of season two]. We were in the midst of an insanely dramatic scene in the show, a four-page scene. I got the news that we had been nominated, and Mike had been nominated for writing and directing, and I came over to his monitor, but I had to wait four minutes for the scene to be over because I didn’t want to interrupt. I was bursting, dying to tell Mike. It’s very emotional. To see him finally recognized — I think he should have been recognized way earlier — it was so exciting to be the person to tell him, having worked with him for so long.
How does season two compare to the first? Is the vibe completely different?
What I’m really proud of in season two is it’s a completely different idea. Season one is very specific to Hawaii. Season two is very specific to Sicily and the issues that are going on — the cultural, thematic ideas of Sicily are obviously much different than Hawaii. When you watch season two, there’s going to be no feeling of, “Oh, this is a retread.” It feels like its own moral tale, and has its own vibe. But it also feels in the same DNA. Cristobal [Tapia de Veer], the composer, is back, and it’ll feel connected spiritually, but it is its own complete idea. This is Mike’s brilliance: When you watch the first episode, you will have no idea where the show is going. I think it’ll have that same addictive quality. You’re going to want to find out where these characters are going, but you’ll never be able to predict. And Jennifer Coolidge, obviously, she’s the fucking greatest. She has a lot of amazing things to do in season two.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.