Mike Mills made his feature-film directing debut with Thumbsucker, but he had already made a name as a graphic designer, self-made fashion entrepeneur (see Humans), founding member of the Director's Bureau, and director of music videos, commercials, and short films. We spoke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on August 8, 2005.
Groucho: In prepping these interviews, I read a lot of background, and I was reading the novel. And you start to feel like you know your subject a little bit when you read all this stuff. And as I read the novel, I was really struck by the similarities of sensibility that I was picking up in the novel, and philosophy that I was also getting from what I read from you. So how do you perceive your connection with the book?
Mike Mills: What do you mean "philosophy," real quick? Just like world view?
G: Yeah, well, like the themes—we'll get into some of this later about humans and animals—and in sensibility: a few pages in, there's a reference to the orthodontist having these rainbow-colored posters—
MM: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. My reaction to the book—it's kind of a weird story. I read it in '99. My mother just passed away; I decided it was time for me to make a film. It was time for me to really be myself. I started to write a script that was coming out incredibly maudlin and self-serious and self-pitying and way too heavy, you know? Someone showed me Walter's book, and I was just jealous of how funny and light [it was], but at the same time really getting into all the complications of being a parent and a kid, and a family and all the doubt and just craziness that Justin goes through. I thought it was so real. At the same time, it didn't fall into being self-pitying or too heavy. So at first, I was just really jealous of it as a writer. And then, when I started to adapt it, I was like, "Oh, wait, wait, wait. This is my family." We don't look like that. We're not the same details, but emotionally, I always thought my Mom was going to go. And so it became this really cathartic, intense personal thing of kind of dealing with my relationship with my Mom and my Dad. So for me it became really personal. It became very cathartic and very intense in a lot of ways, and I take it really personally. And I think Walter kind of embraced this. I dealt with Walter very little while I was writing it. And he was very nice and very like—he was a lot like my Perry Lyman. Like he would just kind of let me go. He didn't want to infringe on me. He kept his distance. Like he didn't want to influence me in a way. And he really just let it go. And the one time I talked with him, I was at my house, and he was—I thought he was going to hate it, you know? I could tell it was his life, and I could tell it was his parents, and all this kind of stuff, so I was like, "This guy is going to hate this. " And he was really encouraging. And he started saying to me, "You know, you understand what the book's about. It's not about fixing yourself. It's about sort of accepting yourself. All of us humans—we don't ever know if we're doing the right thing anyways. All we can do is guess." And he started to say what became Perry Lyman's last kind-of monologue. And he pretty much said that whole spiel. And I was like, "Wait a second. You sound just like Perry right now. Can you say that again, please?" I basically wrote it all down and put it in. So for me, my relationship to the book—the book's relationship to my family—it's all kind of mixed up. I feel like Justin. I feel so like Justin. Walter and I are a similar age. So I connect with a lot.
G: I could really sense that empathy in the film...in reading the book, I think it could be easy to read the Dad as a kind of a stereotypical bad Dad—
G: Whereas in the film, you really feel his love and his trying, striving to do the right thing.
MM: Yeah. That's great if you did. That's great.
G: Talking of that, what were Vincent D'Onofrio's feelings about that role, and how did you two develop it together?
MM: Mmm. Well, all of us, Vincent and Tilda and—mostly those two because they have these trickier roles. Our pact that we made was people can't write off these characters. People can't call the Dad Great Santini, and they can't call the Mom cold. If that happens, we've failed. And to me, it's really the part I'm most excited about in the film in a way is the parents, really. I feel like they're kind of the most complicated film characters that I've created. Because they are sort of uneasy in their role as an adult. And both those people said to me, independently—both Tilda and Vincent said—"How can I be the adult? I feel like I'm a 19-year-old." In character, in our improvisations, in our rehearsals: it's all improv. So that was kind of what we were tugging around with. And I think all actors—they don't want to dislike or talk down to the character they're playing. And especially people as sensitive as Vincent, you know? And Vincent's a very big-hearted person. You know, it's just in his nature. You know, I think he plays a lot of kooky characters, but Vincent is a deeply hearted person. So it was always our goal to show Mike's—while Mike's a big, tough football guy, that he—yeah, like you're saying—he's trying really hard. And also, that actually Mike is really sensitive. And Mike is really fragile. And he never was allowed to be. So that was always under the surface. And so, developing with Vincent, that's what we always talked about, was how fragile Mike is. And we never talked about how tough Mike is. And his toughness was just the mask or the reflex—that all Vincent was feeling is fragility and fear—that Tilda's gonna leave, and Justin's got something he doesn't have. And then with the thumbsucking, the thing that we worked out was that—and it really works, if you watch the film, knowing this—when Vincent gets mad at Justin for thumbsucking, it's because he wants to suck his thumb, and he can't anymore. 'Cause he doesn't want to be grown up. He doesn't want to have all this responsibility. He doesn't want to have to be seemingly okay. You know?
G: I think the pivotal scene, in that respect—that idea of the parents feeling unprepared to be parents—is the scene in the counselor's office—where they're trying to decide what to do about the medication. I think the expected thing—[when] you see that scene in a movie—is that the parents will come down and say, "You're taking these drugs," and the kid will rebel. But that's reversed.
MM: Yeah. I like that too. (Laughs.) I love the scene where Tilda gives him the pill. And all the—it was so complicated what she was doing there. She doesn't know if this is right, but she feels for him, and he wants it and he's in pain. He's struggling. She's trying to help him. It's against her will. She feels like it's the best thing. She doesn't know, though. And that's the big thing for Tilda, I remember, all the time, was "I don't know". And actually, I remember Lou saying that too. Weird that I just remembered that: like, them both, in their rehearsals and stuff, saying, "What's this person always saying? 'I don't know.'" And I think Tilda's really good at capturing that, in her face. And Vincent too. Vincent's character, Mike—his way of dealing with it is to get stoic. So it's more of a wall. That's the kind of stuff that interests me most....Towards the end of the movie, Tilda says, "Having a seventeen-year-old's a trip. You're supposed to have all the answers, but you don't have one." That was from an improvisation that we did in the middle of shooting. And I was like, "Whoa. That's a great line! Let's try to make a scene out of that." And her and Benjamin were just improvising. I just had people improvise. I would never go through the script very much. So that popped out of that. And I thought, "Oh wow!" That, to me, is so exciting to see. To give adults that slack. Or to show that we aren't adults. None of us. Like we're not—we're as child-like as we are adult-like. And I think that's a big theme throughout the film. And it's like Justin is this kid trying to act like an adult, trying to save the family, trying to win everybody over. And all the adults are people struggling with the box they've been put in. You know, like, all the adults. Keanu, Vince Vaughn: everybody's not really acting very adult-like.
G: Let's backtrack a bit to what's probably become known to you as your "year of hell" in developing the film. What finally did it take to get Thumbsucker made, and what did you learn in the process?
MM: It was more like two or three years. And we actually looked for money for more than a year, I think, with a done script and largely cast. And what I learned? I learned different things. One thing I learned was that I never heard "No" more in my whole life. Never ever. And it wasn't like my career was given to me on a platter. But I've had success. I never ever had this much rejection. And I thought, like, "Well, this just won't work." And for a while there, for months, I kept going to meetings and kept fighting just out of ego. Or just out of like—I don't know what I was doing. I didn't really think it was going to work out. So I just had to keep going because I can't lose. You know. I can't die. So I just have to keep fighting. But I felt very dead in lots of ways. So just to get through that and have it actually be made is like a totally life-changing, you know, like, paradigm-changing shift. I learned that the film world is the most commercial world that you could ever enter. Even the independent film world: it's more commercial than doing commercials. It's more commercial than doing music videos. It's more money-based than anything. And it's because you're asking people to pay ten, fourteen bucks to come and see it. It's a totally different economic venture than anything I've done before. Everything I did before had a built-in audience. This one, you have to go and get it. And you have to really bring 'em in. And I also learned that the independent film market is dropped out. I had a lot of peers who made films for $10 million—you know, their first film. And I thought, "Okay, great, I'll cut that in half." And then what I learned is, no, I have to cut that in a quarter and maybe even less, and then maybe I'll get to make my first film. You know, just the money isn't there anymore. And then, I didn't go into my first film thinking, "Yeah, I'm gonna get Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn and all that." I thought—I didn't think I was gonna have any of that. And it was only after year one, year and a half, year two of waiting around trying to get money that I just kept accumulating actors. Within the actor world, it grew a lot. And it was only with the power of people like Vince and Keanu that the money came. It's just that crass. That's the way the film world is. Doesn't matter who you are or what the script is. It's who's in it.
G: Your careers in film and in graphic art seem to me to have been kind of a series of leaps of faith on your part in order to keep it going. You were in debt, you were scraping by, you were offering to do your work for free or on the cheap in order to keep going. Were you your own support system for that, or how did you get by in those periods?
MM: Financially or emotionally?
MM: Financially, I just—well, I was in debt a lot. Not super debt, but I remember, and I think you read this, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday thirty grand in debt—at a time when that was a lot a lot a lot of money. And I just thought, "Well, this is my life." I'm just screwed. And I lived off a lot of change, and for some reason I was able to just do that. I don't know why. Maybe it was because I knew that if all else failed, I could go back to my parents. But my parents were Depression-era kids. Like, they didn't give me money—they were like, "Go tough it out." When I was in fourth grade, they gave me an allowance. But that allowance I had to buy everything I needed with. Like my clothes. My school supplies. And if I spent my money, I had to do more chores to earn more money. So I've been kind of used to this life. And then, emotionally, I think I'm happier when I'm starting over than when I'm on the top of the arc. Or if I'm settled or if I feel at all kind of set. Somewhere I learned that you have to throw everything away to make things good again. Or you have to be willing to trash everything to keep going. If you just accumulate and accumulate and accumulate, it's hard to get new stuff. So now, I've retired from the Director's Bureau, and I've stopped doing ads, and I don't know how I'm going to make money again. Once again I'm back to, like, zero. But I feel like you have to do that to allow the new thing to come in.
G: Since we're on this subject, do you have an idea or a game plan about where you're heading?
MM: Yeah, I have three big things that I'm doing. One is I'm writing a new script, which I'm fairly well into, which is going to be probably a much smaller film than Thumbsucker, or more personal, more raw. Thumbsucker just whetted my appetite for doing stuff more complicated like that. I'm gonna be doing a series of documentaries with IFC. The first one's about anti-depressants in Japan. And I have all my graphic-arts stuff sort of condensed into this thing called Humans. And it's like a—we make fabrics, posters and shirts, and it's kind of like all my graphic-arts stuff, but I don't want to show it in a gallery; I want to make it like totally accessible, cheap, easy, non-pretentious, hopefully. So...those three things are my game plan for the next five years.
G: In terms of film, I was going to ask you about the style of this film and if it's something that you intend to keep refining, or if you want to try on a whole new set of clothes stylistically. This movie, I think—there are stylized moments, there are dream sequences and so on, but the visual style is mostly low-key and kind of gentle. And you reference, in the press notes, Dogme.
MM: It's funny. Everybody picks up on that. That's funny.
G: Why did this low-key style seem right for Thumbsucker? I think a lot of filmmakers would have tried to overplay the irony and undersell the characters.
MM: Yeah. I guess 'cause I'm really not interested in irony or being sarcastic or being too clever with these characters. All I really wanted was I get to the emotional truth of the people and the performances. And the emotional complications. Like when someone does something that's surprisingly real. Or not stereotypical. That's what I was kind of shooting for. So that lends to a quieter style. Or not having a style be so upfront. And I'm not really interested in that. Even my videos and commercials and all that—they're actually a lot like Thumbsucker, more than people would think. They're very downplayed; they're very kind of like—people like Ozu are big influences on me. So that's a very straight kind of way of shooting. And letting the content in the scene and the content between the characters kind of come to the fore. And there are like lyrical, surreal parts to Thumbsucker, and that's basically this contradiction that I have in my head that I wanted it to be a documentary, and I don't believe in documentaries at all. And that's what I told Joachim, my DP: "It's a dream. Life is a dream for everybody, like you and me. Like our ideas of this crazy room and interviewing me in life. It's a dream that you're making. But at the same time, it is real. And that impossible combination was what we kept playing with with Thumbsucker. And I like that. I'd like to keep doing that. I don't think I'm gonna do another film anamorphic....I think the things that will continue in my next films are a certain kind of—more of a mood and more of a perspective on people than formal things. I'm not really attached to formal things. And of my videos and stuff like that, I'm very happy to completely change. And someone like Lars von Trier I admire a lot for his willingness to disenfranchise himself every time.
G: You have quite a backlog accumulated of short films and music videos and commercials. Is there going to be a venue that will collect those?
MM: You know that "Directors Series" thing?
MM: Yeah, they want to put one of those out. It won't be for a while. But, yeah, I'm going to stick all that on there and try to get it out.
G: Polyphonic Spree and Tim DeLaughter—that's an inspired choice for the score. What direction did you offer about what you were looking for?
MM: Yeah. Well, it's a little bit of a long story with Elliot Smith's side and then the Tim DeLaughter—Tim DeLaughter is in the Spree—he's the leader of the Spree. Elliot was going to do all the music, and it was going to be all covers. And he did "Trouble" for us, the cover. And it was very inspired by Harold and Maude and the Cat Stevens kind of singer-songwriter score. And Elliot's always been just an art hero of mine and like an emotional hero—the generosity he had in showing so much of himself. So he started and then he passed away. And he was in our edit just like a week before he died, so that's why we have the Elliot songs. And then Tim came in—I went to a Polyphonic Spree show—and I don't know if you've ever seen them, but it's like thirty people in robes with an orchestra and a choir, and it's crazy and intense and doesn't let you off the hook of—like it's very easy for me to feel depressed. I'm not like depressive—I'm not on Prozac or anything—but it's easy—like being an old punk rocker, it's easy to feel down. Tim kind of cornered me in the audience, metaphorically speaking, and said, like, "Why be down? Why choose down?" Like "You're only here for a little bit. What's that getting you?" And that's what I felt when I left the show, and I was like, "Whoa, that's kind of what Thumbsucker is saying." That's what I want to say to Justin, in Thumbsucker. And to the people watching it. So it just kind of hit me as I was walking out—the feeling I'm having leaving the Spree show, I want people to have when they leave the thing. And it also seemed great because they're an orchestra and they have a choir, and Neil Young had been a huge influence on me and the film, weirdly, and I had a picture of Neil Young on the cover of my script. And mostly, the record Harvest, and the way it was made. He made it at home. And it's when he really stopped worrying about production or slickness or being winning even, or being particularly good, and just started wanting his emotions to be really right on. And I told that to Tim; Tim totally got it. Tim came back, like, within a week with, like, three of the songs that are in the film. And they had this amazing kind of looseness and real alive-ness. And I think it was Tim's first score, but I think he's a genius at it. He's really good at understanding the emotions of a scene and drawing them out. And then I really liked that Thumbsucker is positive. I like that Thumbsucker shows negative, sad, dark things, but ends up positive.
G: The ending diverges from the book. That, maybe, is the trickiest bit of navigation. How did you navigate that?
MM: Yeah, that was hard. I had the Mormons in there forever. For years. And it was just getting too episodic. It was really hard to, like, in ten, fifteen, pages of script, have the whole family fall into Mormonism and then not. So with great reluctance, I had to just take it out. And then, with great fear, I had to come up with a new ending that was still kind of the same. And I kind of just went with the simplest thing I could think of where, okay, he goes to college, and he did get in. And then the only thing I really had to do was have his acceptance—I mean, his application—be sort of a piece in itself. So, yeah, I really—that was done with great reluctance...while you have to...Walter told me this, you have to destroy the book to make the movie. I didn't want to at all. I adapted that book because I liked it a lot. And I like Walter a lot. And I wanted to have great respect for both of them.
G: We should talk about your young star as well. What convinced you that he was the one?
MM: It was very simple. You know, with all these people, like when I met Keanu and Vince and Tilda and all those guys—yeah, they don't audition. Like, they're too big. I don't get to audition them. So I just had to practice my psychic skills with walking in a room with them, seeing them for half an hour and going, "Oh my God. Are you going to work out, for this most important thing in my whole life?" I have to figure this out in this next half-hour. So you just get really—your ESP gets really heightened. Lou did audition, but I knew as soon as he came through the door, and he was really nervous. And he was showing it. And I was like, "Oh, I have high hopes for this person. Because he's not hiding everything. And he can't." He's an extremely expressive entity; he just can't hide it. And a lot of kid actors are really good at hiding their true selves or becoming whatever you want. And I really like that Lou is himself. And his first flight in his whole life was to our rehearsal. And the second flight was to the film. And then Lou's just—I cared for him within about three minutes after I met him. And identified with him. And he had that kind of, like, vulnerability and fragility. But at the same time, he had a lot of will. Which I think is—Justin has both those things. He's tricky. In some ways, he can seem very passive because he is so sensitive. But it's not true. He's actually a very willful person. And Lou embodies, or can embody, both those things really great. And then I like that Lou—I really like that—just the way like, in my crowd, starting over all the time. I like that Lou wasn't anything that you knew about. As a director, it felt great to, like, make the sandwich on my own rather than buy the big, fancy sandwich, you know?
G: You talked about having to size up actors without an audition. When you work with someone like Vince Vaughn who has a reputation for being kind of unpredictable, is there a period of kind of taming them to the film's vision?
MM: Well, I think I was really lucky. I didn't really have any issues with any of the actors. And I had all these big, really different kinds of people. And I think it's because I'd been prepared for so long and I also wrote it. Like, people were kind of more sympathetic to me. And I'm basically a mellow person. And all our rehearsals were just improvising the background. And I think they were like really relieved and happy about that. And my whole goal is: if I'm not surprised in shooting, something went wrong. Like if I'm not surprised in rehearsal, or shooting, if it's just what I expected or just what I wanted, then it's gonna be too narrow and too little. So I'm always inviting and wanting the actors to kind of do something and not get locked in and not do the same thing every time. And to surprise themselves and me. That's what you really want on film, is when everybody gets—trips, and goes over the line. So Vaughn is great for that. Like, he's always doing that. But Vaughn was really nice to me and helpful to me 'cause, you know, I think his experience is as—he's a filmmaker himself. So he was very nicely kind of big-brother, fraternal-ish with me about the industry and some other things and protective of me, a little bit, with his scenes. And I definitely encouraged him to improvise, and a lot of his stuff is improvised. But it's always on the beat. Like he knew the beats of a scene. And he would do it nicely. You know, he would do it where it could be. And he has a great sense of that. So when you cast someone like him, I would hope that you're doing it because you know he's so genius at that, and you're going to try to milk that, you know what I mean? A lot of the stuff that's in the film is improvised. The scene's the same scene. He's getting you the same direction. He's getting you to the same place, but he's adding some words or doing something. Yeah, yeah.
G: Well, I have to say, I love the film, and I hope you have a big success with it.
MM: Thank you very much. That means a lot to me. I've had enough negative reviews to be really appreciative of that. (Laughs.)