How ‘The White Lotus’ turned a $9,000-a-night resort into the ‘hotel from hell’
At the Four Seasons Maui, guests can stay in a one-bedroom suite overlooking the golden sands of Wailea Beach for about $9,000 a night, take a private helicopter ride to an organic farm for $26,450, or drop $23,750 on a morning of whale-watching.
But in late October, the high-end resort hosted an experience that was truly priceless: the filming of HBO‘s “The White Lotus.” Amid a lethal COVID-19 surge and bitter presidential election, cast and crew lived in a luxurious bubble at the hotel, which had reopened to accommodate production on writer/director Mike White‘s dark satire. The six-episode series, which premiered in July, follows the guests and staff at the fictional White Lotus resort over the course of a particularly un-relaxing week of microaggressions, breakdowns, marital strife and death.
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Unlike other shows about the ultra-wealthy, though, “The White Lotus” is anything but lifestyle porn: It portrays a tropical retreat for the 1% as a simmering cauldron of class conflict, environmental despair and white privilege — somewhere to unravel rather than unwind.
“This sense of apocalyptic anxiety — sometimes I feel it the most when I’m on vacation,” said White in a recent phone interview. “You go to these places where you’re supposed to be escaping from all of the problems of the world, and you realize that you can’t really escape them. The sense of unease you feel is almost amplified in the places where you’re supposed to feel so relaxed.”
“The White Lotus” ably mocks the wealthy patrons of a tropical resort. Its knives would have been even sharper if it had spent more time on the staff.
The seed for the series was planted last summer, when White, cooped up at home and pulling his hair out watching CNN, received a call from HBO.
Hampered by pandemic-related production delays on several of its shows, the network was in need of programming to fill its lineup. They wondered if White — who has a reputation for writing quickly — could come up with a COVID-friendly show, set in a single location, that could start filming as soon as possible.
The idea of a hands-off development process was especially appealing to White, who dislikes the protracted gestation period typical of the TV business. “Maybe I’ll just be able to go and do exactly the show I want to do,” he remembered thinking. White began writing in August, and by late October cameras were rolling. “They were basically first drafts,” he said of the scripts.
White had always wanted to do a show about a couple on a honeymoon coming to the sudden realization that they have wildly different values because “you just start to see people in different ways when you’re on vacation,” he said.
In “The White Lotus,” Shane (Jake Lacy), a nightmarishly entitled bro from a wealthy New York City society family, arrives in Hawaii with his beautiful bride, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a freelance writer from a modest background. When the hotel’s tightly wound manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), mistakenly books them a room without a plunge pool, Shane — to Rachel’s chagrin — becomes singularly obsessed with getting into the coveted Pineapple Suite.
At the resort, they are joined by the Mossbacher family, led by mom Nicole (Connie Britton), a tech executive and “Lean In”-style corporate feminist. She’s crammed in a one-bedroom suite with her emasculated husband (Steve Zahn); their porn-addicted teenage son (Fred Hechinger); performatively woke daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney); and Olivia’s best friend from college, Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Also staying at the White Lotus is Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a needy heiress who unloads her emotional baggage on compassionate spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell).
White’s previous series, “Enlightened,” the critically beloved dramedy starring Laura Dern, explored one woman’s quixotic effort to make change within a soulless corporation. In contrast, “The White Lotus” is about “trying to get into the mind-set of the people who have money and the power,” White said, “and why they are so defensive right now.”
Creating a palpable sense of dread is the fact, revealed in the series’ opening scene, that someone at the resort will wind up dead by the week’s end.
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“It’s such a trope at this point — the dead body at the top of the series,” said White, who is known for oddball critical darlings like “Year of the Dog” but also understands how to write mainstream fare like “School of Rock.”
“I don’t usually have dead bodies in my show,” he continued. “But I was like, ‘Give the people what they want: here’s your dead body!’ And I do think it helped stoke this sense of ‘What’s going to happen?’, so that there’s a little more blood in the mouth than a ‘California Suite,’” the Neil Simon comedy set at a luxury hotel.
White has a personal connection to Hawaii dating back to childhood vacations with his family. He bought a home in Hanalei, in Kauai, after filming some of “Enlightened” there a decade ago, and has befriended members of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement, which views the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in 1898 as illegal and advocates for self-determination rights similar to those granted to other Indigenous groups.
Over time, White has come to understand the complexities of a place where tech billionaires shop for vacation homes on sacred lands, seeing it not only as a place of wondrous natural beauty but also a microcosm for pressing global issues like income inequality, climate change and American imperialism.
“Hawaii is a very paradisiacal and idyllic place, but also the more time you spend there, the more you realize how complex the history is, and also how the history is a living thing — the colonial legacy is still a living issue, obviously,” he said. Yet tourism — along with the military — is an essential local industry, employing more than 200,000 people statewide and attracting 10 million visitors as of 2019, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
“It’s not a simple paradise postcard,” he added. “But I think there are a lot of tourists who go there and aren’t aware of the issues.”
These tensions come to the fore in “The White Lotus,” largely through Paula and her budding romance with Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), a staff member whose family claims hereditary rights to the land where the hotel stands. Paula goes on vacation “expecting to just have a good time and do drugs” while reading Judith Butler poolside, said O’Grady. But her perspective shifts over the course of her week as an elite interloper and seemingly the only person of color staying at the White Lotus.
“She walks this line where she can go on a nice vacation with her friend, but she is not one of them. She can sit at the table, but the world sees her differently,” said O’Grady.
Over long, excruciating meals, Paula bites her tongue as the Mossbachers complain about the supposed excesses of #MeToo and the indignity of having to prove their “anti-racist bona fides” — circumstances O’Grady, who is biracial, related to deeply. “I’ve been at so many dinner tables where people just say things and you’re like, ‘What?’” she said. “I’m Black, but a lot of people don’t see me as a Black woman. I have privilege going into spaces at times but then I’m still impacted by anti-Blackness.”
In the series’ fourth episode, “Recentering,” Paula becomes upset as she watches a bare-chested Kai perform a traditional dance for the hotel’s rich, white clientele — including the Mossbachers, who seem unfazed by the spectacle.
“She’s seeing how tourism has affected his life every day, and she doesn’t think that Olivia” — who jealously flirts with Kai — “was raised by people who are conscious of that,” said O’Grady.
White and a team of producers arrived in September to begin prep and received a standing ovation from the staff at the Four Seasons. Cast and crew were tested for COVID three times a week, and their movements were strictly limited.
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Everything was filmed on location at the hotel, in guest suites transformed by production designer Laura Fox. White, who directed all episodes, filmed the resort from off-kilter angles to create a sense of unease rather than serenity. A hypnotic score by composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer adds to the atmosphere of impending doom.
The result is not exactly an advertisement for luxury tourism.
“They were happy for the business,” White said of the Four Seasons. “But the fact that this is now the visual for the hotel from hell probably escaped them to some degree.” (A representative for the Four Seasons Maui politely declined to comment on the show and its portrayal of the tourism industry.)
After several weeks of filming, outside guests began to trickle into the Four Seasons. Some were not pleased about sharing their vacation with a TV production, creating a situation in which the cast and crew were making a class satire while watching the real thing unfold between takes.
“It was fascinating to see some of the characters from the show” among the resort guests, said Bartlett. His character is one of the few white employees at the resort and is initially the poster child for the more dehumanizing aspects of the service industry. (White said he cast Bartlett because the actor was “so front-of-house,” and to American ears, his Australian accent “sounded posh.”)
When we first meet Armond, he is cheerfully lecturing a new employee — a native Hawaiian woman concealing her pregnancy for fear of losing her job — about suppressing her individuality in order to be a “pleasant interchangeable helper.”
White said he was trying to show how our identities “are defined and in some ways perverted by who has the money. People who are working are less able to be a self compared to the people who are paying the bills.”
But the Pineapple Suite snafu sends Armond, who is in recovery, hurtling off the wagon , and his obsequious veneer quickly gives way to years of pent-up resentment. “The more he tries to maintain his grip, the more it kind of slips away as these people become more and more obnoxious,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett latched onto a relatable biographical detail that was ultimately cut from the series: Armond once aspired to be an actor. “We see a week of his world. Imagine working in that world for a couple of decades while having to manage your shattered dreams,” said Bartlett, who like many actors, has experience in the hospitality business.
The themes of “The White Lotus” also made everyone involved in the series acutely aware of how they treated the resort employees.
“They were really understaffed with COVID and as I was picking up the phone to call the front desk to say, ‘I put my laundry in three days ago, where is it?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a d—!” Bartlett said. “We are all these characters at some point.”
White also felt conflicted: “You want to be this cool guest that doesn’t stand on ceremony, but it can often come off as condescending. As much as you want to break down those barriers that money and power can create, there’s always a reality to it. Sometimes you just can’t transcend those roles.”
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