Mike Mills

[Interview by Brian Hendricks / Photography by Todd Cole]

Silver Lake, February 15th, 2011. Mike Mills is the writer and director of Thumbsucker and Beginners. He is a well established music video director and graphic artist. He has absorbed the essence of punk culture, skateboarding mythology, eastern mysticism, French New Wave, Ewan MacGregor, and personal experience to become an accomplished voice with an evolving story and a solid history.

Brian Hendricks. — Hello Mike.
Mike Mills. — Hey.

— The word on the street is that your latest film, Beginners, really works on every level. You feeling pretty good about it?
— Um, yeah, you know I think for me, for filmmakers, once you’ve written and directed something and all the years it takes, it’s not like you sit there and go “Oh, I love this, it’s so great,” you know?

— Right.
— It’s a very long relationship and considering the film is about pretty personal things, I’m surprised that I’m not losing more sleep.

— I know you’ve said in the past, and I think most artists kind of agree with what Winston Churchill once said, “Success is going from failure to failure with optimism.”
— Yeah, exactly. I didn’t know he said that, I’m going to quote that now.

— Yeah, I employ it in my own journey and when talking to students and other artists. The idea that one probably needs to be humble, and every work informs the next work, I suppose.
— I think almost everybody I know really feels like they fuck up every time. But this one is different in that it was so hard to make. I was so happy when we were making it. I had such a good time with the crew and actors, and shooting this stuff that was dear to me, it was pretty different than most projects. And even though it was about some serious issues, to me it’s not all sad, but there is sadness in there. I was sort of elated during the whole process. I was super lucky to make it and to make it with Ewan, and Melanie and Christopher. I was pretty fortunate.

— Great to create a film that’s got your own identity in terms of coming from your own experience and in the way you were able to make it. Also, you must be really satisfied with the cast you managed to put together.
— Yes, and also beyond it being about my dad and personal things. I felt super fortunate that I wrote the things that I wrote and came up with a way of presenting these ideas that I had, and then met people who were nervy enough to finance them. And that it kind of worked out. There’s a whole history section to this film that is fairly unusual and not how most narrative films are enjoyed. But it seemed to work out, and that part truly felt like some odd, magical gift that came to me. That I got to do something that I’ve dreamed of doing for years just in terms of storytelling and doing sort of a multimedia film.

— Absolutely. I found it interesting with your cast that you’ve got representation from France, Scotland, Canada and Croatia.
— And there’s no Americans.

— Was that serendipitous, or did you think of this project as being an American indie film and at the same time tapping into an international feel?
— Well, my life, my friends, and my world is a fairly international thing. I have European, Canadian, Japanese friends. Even my parent’s world was fairly international, so it sort of suited our world to have it be populated with more than just Americans, and have the actors and characters be from Croatia and France and elsewhere. I think it’s pretty much a modern California, New York experience. But then it was funny casting Ewan and Christopher in that I didn’t think of this at first. As I got into casting, it was strange how I gravitated towards non-American men. I guess there is something a bit un-American about my family, particularly all the guys in my family, such as our spiritual dispositions, that really fell on the shoulders of Ewan and Christopher. It sat on them just so much more naturally.

— It seems as if the actors had an incredible time making it as well.
— There is something about directing that when people get in front of the camera, some strange thing happens to me that I don’t totally understand yet. There is some part of directing to me that is really about loving the person that is in front of the camera. Love in the most platonic sense of the word. I so appreciate the vulnerability that they’re putting forth.

 

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— Did you stay pretty close to the script? Was there much improvisation?
— With everybody I really encourage improvisation, for wordings and for sittings. It’s more importantly about energy on set, for it to be real for the actors than about anything I wrote. With that said, with Ewan and Christopher, both are pretty gentle in nature, they didn’t improvise that much. There would be little moments, like at the end of a scene, they would do whatever felt right in there. Ewan and I worked closely, all of us did, and we had long rehearsals. Ewan and I just really hit it off from the beginning. I think as guys we share a certain frequency, so a lot of it came very naturally and Ewan is just a very fluid, organic actor. He is incredibly well trained and experienced, he knows everything he needs to know. But then I think what he enjoys the most is when the emotions get going and you’re not really in control and you’re just in the moment. And that’s what I love the most, and that’s what I’m trying to encourage the most as a director – to get past anything any of us have preconceived, see where mistakes lead us, and see what surprises happen.

— Your background and affinity with skateboarding and the punk movement… There is a certain anarchy and improvisation that those worlds derive from. When you put that in your own art in terms of taking risks and growing during the process of the actual making of the film. I’m imagining Beginners was one of your best experiences in taking that energy and really putting everything out there.
— I think that happens a lot. In filmmaking it’s about creating those sacred days, and  following the religion of what’s happening now. You get all these people who are collectively, not just the cast but the crew, really in tune with that, really alive and really in the moment. It is a very fun, invigorating experience. And all those people are really key to that. Melanie Laurent is perhaps the most fiery in the best organic way. She sort of hurls herself in a scene, not sure where she is going to end up. And I love that, to me that means real commitment and real belief in the magic in what can happen. So that happened a lot throughout the process. Ewan again is the hub of this experience, he’s been with me the longest, we spent half the time shooting with Christopher and half the time shooting with Melanie. We did everything chronologically and we experienced the whole thing together. Ewan was the bed upon which everything worked, it was his casualness, easygoingness and comfort. It was his deep comfort with what he was doing that made all this possible.

— That’s great. Looking at romantic comedies and love stories that are being told these days, there seems to be a bit of a drought. It’s so refreshing to have a film come on the scene that fits into the coming of age genre, I suppose just as Thumbsucker does, but a story with characters in their 30’s and 70’s, and being able to explore something that really needs to be explored. Was it a cathartic feeling to tell a story that was deeply personal to you, but also a story that will resonate with a lot of other people as well?
— Well to me that kind of stuff is the highest stakes stuff you can talk about; relationships, love, someone’s emotional life. But then to treat all these things as historical events, or as historically derived things, or to put it in another way, to kind of explore how we’re all products of history. So my dad’s love life, my dad both in the 1950’s and when he was seventy-five years old and “coming out,” what emotions and sexuality were possible to him in these historical contexts? And Oliver and Anna fall into what people think of as a romantic comedy story. I hope that what I brought to this genre was to treat these people and their ages, their love, their emotions as historical artifacts in a way. My dad was forty-one when my parents had me and my mom was forty. He was born in 1924, grew up during the depression, experienced WWII, got married in ’55, and I was born in ’66. We went through quite different historical periods. When he was eighteen, he graduated form high school and got drafted into WWII. What was available emotionally when he got out of the war in terms of his sexuality, even in terms beyond sexuality, one’s acceptance of oneself in post war America, was utterly different than mine in the 70’s and 80’s. Towards the end of his life we would have lots of very fun arguments about my love life and his love life, and we would talk to each other across this pretty big divide with great zest, with more zest that we ever had when he was straight. Those conversations and arguments that we would get into was sort of the beginning of the film for me.

— The father’s role becomes a mentor to your character in terms of the risks and uncertainty in face of the cancer, in his coming out at a late age, his sudden zest for life. This must have been a very dramatic time for you personally.
— I think what really happened in my life, and what I tried to write, a lot of what instigated me to want to make the movie, was when my dad came out. He was seventy-five, it was very messy in lots of ways. He found love, but that was also very messy and out of control and very uneasy. And that taught me a ton, but my dad embraced all of that turbulence. He was just so hungry for it and he knew the clock was ticking so he went for it and got into the mud of it all. I think that was something I didn’t have a lot of exposure to in our family before he came out. Before, there was a lot of respect between my parents, and a love of a kind, after being married for forty-four years, that resembled roles everybody was playing. He went from playing this distinct role into very uncharted territories. I sometimes found it difficult, but it was always shaking me up in a positive way.

— The opening line in your earlier film, Thumbsucker, “I have to find something distinctive about myself” is something that informs events within that film. Could one say there are certain aspects of Thumbsucker where you’re dealing with issues of the maternal and with your mother? And Beginners perhaps being a similar “coming of age” story that is dealing with the paternal and the father role?
— I think you saying “coming of age” is interesting. I think you’re also implying that for the seventy-eight year old character, which I think is great. I think that Thumbsucker and Beginners do have a thematic relationship and it is like individuation, another word instead of “coming of age.” I think those are the same things, or the first line of Thumbsucker that you just mentioned is essentially “Who am I?” or “How I can figure out who I am?” I think that’s definitely what Christopher Plummer’s character is doing, it’s what Justin’s character was doing in Thumbsucker, and it’s in relation to two things. It’s “Who am I?” in relation to these stories, conscious and unconscious, that are stories I’ve inherited from my family. And all these stories, conscious and unconscious, I’ve inherited from this larger historical river that I’m in.

— Yes, that’s it, isn’t it? The real narrative of one untangling all of these things in the story of one’s life, and finding the proper platform to be able to tell that story within art, within film, to reflect all of that.
— Yeah, what you said before, that most people don’t think of it that way. These episodes in one’s life, people tend to assign to only adolescents or whatever age, or at the end of your age. I don’t really believe that they happen in such a neat order. My dad coming out at seventy-five, he was like a teenager in love. He was uncontainable in the best way so I feel like we carry these ages with us through all of our ages; the twenty-four year old has an eight year old in them, the fifty year old has a twenty-five year old in them. All these unresolved pockets of all our different phases of life can come up at any moment.

— Absolutely, yeah.
— I would love to think of a “coming of age” story as it happens at the end of the voyage.

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— So many of those nuances and unique and universal stories don’t get told in mainstream Hollywood with its mostly youth oriented demographics. When they do, I think people are immediately awakened and respond to them in a very receptive way.
— I think even in promoting these films, sometimes even with Beginners people will ask “Is it for young people or for old people, is it for people over forty or under twenty-five?” Those are just horrible marketing terms, but there is a lot of truth to it. I feel like we’re living in a time where demographics and the whole idea of demographics is falling short and it is a much more psychographic world, where I’m forty-four, but if you did some sort of marketing test on me, I’d probably come out like a twenty-five year old. Such as my dad, when he was towards the end of his life, he would skew quite young. I feel like age is a fluid, moving position, not a fixed permanent thing. We’re all different ages at any time. I didn’t quite think of that but it’s very much Thumbsucker too.

— The unique way that you and your Danish cinematographer, Kasper Tuxen, captured L.A. with a Red (Griffith Park, Silver Lake, and other landmark areas of the city). What’s your relationship with the city and its visual role within the film?
— The L.A. thing is all pretty much stuff I’m familiar with. I do live in L.A., for better or for worse. I wanted to do something that has the parts of L.A. that I love in it; having an L.A. river, having houses with gorgeous funiture; that really had some age and patina to it. And when they’re driving on Sunset Boulevard, they’re driving in the right direction. I wanted to do it right. All these places do have a lot of history to them. People think of Los Angeles as not having a lot of history but every house is picked very specifically to show different angles on L.A. The Biltmore Hotel, where we shot lots is built in 1923, has a ton of history to it. The Academy Awards used to be there so every place has a neat little story behind it. Kasper is really a kind of tourist and is new to L.A. He just loves the light, loves the backlit sunset moments in Beginners, and that is partly due to Kasper just loving California light and sort of pointing it out to me with fresh eyes.

— That’s great. Did you do any specific prep when it came to the revisiting of films that have informed your vision over the years before you started production?
— I’m a pretty voracious film watcher, I probably watch three or four films a week just for fun. That’s how I live my life. So there are a bunch of movies that feed into this. There is a film by István Szabó called Lovefilm, a 1970’s film, it has a lot about memory and it really influenced the structure of this movie. For me, Woody Allen from 1977 to ’87 is the most interesting turf. But there is a ton, I mean I got addicted to Shoot the Piano Player around that time. It doesn’t have a super specific relationship to it besides the tone and sort of joy and happiness I feel in the filmmaking, that it just made me happy. I did want some of that non-plot directed happiness that I felt all through Shoot the Piano Player.

— When I revisited Thumbsucker, and from what I’ve seen and gathered from Beginners, I thought of what Truffaut once said, “The film of the future will be an act of love.” I just watched Shoot the Piano Player to do some writing on it and felt a connection with your work in that it resonates with the French New Wave. Also, all of Godard’s early films in terms of dealing with complexities of love and the randomness of existence. That kind of playfulness is really quite serious but to find your own process of getting to the bottom of these ideas where you could present them in a way that’s really heartwarming and filmed with a certain joy.
— And Shoot the Piano Player on the surface is a gangster plot and it’s pretty sad. It’s a road that’s not going to get any better, the farther you go down it but people go down that road with a certain subversive humour. And that’s definitely very alive with what happened with my dad’s illness and that’s what I think I loved about this film. If you’re in a hospital and you’re with someone who has a chronic illness, it’s a lot like the characters in Shoot the Piano Player. They are in this sort of gangster plot that’s going to end with their demise but along the way they are trying to find any little moment where they can add some humour back into it.

— And Oliver’s character is a graphic artist with his own doodles, sketches and graffiti. That strikes me as something Godard did as well.
— Oh yeah, to me that is something not spoken in the film. I made Ewan watch A Woman is a Woman and had him think of his graffiti not as hip hop world graffiti, and of his character as someone who loves the Situationists, as someone who loves Godard. Oliver knows about all that stuff.

—I love the risk, putting something out there like having the Jack Russell terrier and using subtitles, bringing the dog into the dialogue, it really fits in with the quirkiness and playfulness of the film.
— That came out of a very real situation. I inherited his Jack Russell terrier when he passed away. And those dogs just stare at you. So you end up talking back to them and projecting your own conversation onto them and as I was writing my script I had this little guy looking at me the whole time. I am very interested in how we negotiate our relationship to animals and animal rights. These things that are very important to me all found a weird way to get expressed in the movie and I didn’t really look back, I was just going to take a stab at this.

— The film is set for wide release in early summer?
— Yeah, June in America. I’m not sure what’s up with Canada, but June 3rd. I am very lucky that a company like Focus picked it up. It’s not a normal thing in this day and age. I was very fortunate it got bought in all the territories you can think of internationally.

— Another Godard reference from the early 60’s where he said, “everything is still to happen,” this idea that even though we feel like we’ve reached the end of certain eras of film and artistic expression, we’re always entering into a potential renaissance.
— I definitely feel like everything is yet to come. And anytime you feel like everything has been done, you’re just dating yourself tremendously, thinking you’re at the end of any cycle, it’s just an easy illusion to fall into. It is very exciting what the 7D can do, what the Internet has done in terms of a certain level of filmmaking, and I do think it’s ready to bust wide open.

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— With all your other interests: illustrating, graphic design, music videos, after two features now with Thumbsucker and Beginners, do you feel like there is a pent up energy that you can’t wait to get on set again to do another film, or do you have enough other interests that you can just go with the flow for now?
— I guess I’m some kind of workaholic type of person. I really love doing all these different things. Everyday I do something. Which is nice having all these other things because you can’t make films that often, especially when you’re writing them. Today I was doing some drawings for a Beginners book. I need a lot of stuff to chew on all the time. I have to say I adore directing, I love directing something I have written with people I love, it’s the best thing in the world. I would be pretty psyched if I could shoot a film a year, but that’s not going to happen.

— Such as the Woody Allen model.
— [laughs] Right, if only I could write that fast. But the film industry isn’t quite like that anymore. But I just shot an ad, I just love being around the crew, I love recording and filming things. It’s just this very galvanizing thing for me.

— I am reminded of Truffaut playing the character of Ferrand, the director in Day for Night, where he says, “We’re the kind of people that are only happy when we’re working.”
— Yeah, yeah, I’m not quite like that, I know those people too [laughs]. I am very happy taking a nap or walking in the woods. I just read a Federico Fellini thing where he said, “When I’m directing, I’m the most healthy, I don’t need to sleep, I’m the most happy and I’m the most engaged with humanity.” And that’s how I feel. In all the other aspects, my life is fairly solitary or it’s much more alone. And when I’m filmmaking I feel like I’m out in the world and that I’m engaged with these people and I like that a lot.

— Do you see yourself as a director who needs to be working on somewhat personal projects wherein you’re totally invested as a storyteller and a writer as well?
— Oh yeah, it’s so fucking hard to make a movie. It’s basically like you’re going to lose your arm, so you better lose your arm for a good reason. I also feel like making a film is like operating on the big stage. It’s the most public, biggest thing you’re going to do, so it might make you think you should do things that aren’t personal. But because it’s so important, because it’s so public, I feel like I have to do things only I know about. That’s my contribution and that might be small, but what makes it valuable is that it’s concrete, specific, and something that I can really report about.

— You see so many films where there is really no evidence that there was love going on, or a deep personal attachment, either in the conception of the idea or the execution. Great to talk to you and witness a film where you can tell everybody on board was passionate and in love with what they were doing.
— Yeah, I hope that’s what I do, what I’ve done, that would be nice. [laughs]