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|| He's done album covers for Sonic Youth, music videos for Air, and TV ads for the Gap. Editor Ella Chrisopherson spoke with Mike as he was putting the finishing touches on his film, Thumbsucker.
ELLA: You started your film production company The Director's Bureau with Roman Coppola nine years ago.
MIKE: The Director's Bureau should have self-destructed every single year since it's been around. Our goal has never been to make money. Our business policy has always been, "Expect zero growth. If we make it through, we're lucky. If it doesn't work out we'll do something else." It's surprising to see how well that attitude has served us.
ELLA: But that confidence came from knowing that you could do other things.
MIKE: I've never set out to identify myself as a director of music videos or commercials. If it hadn't worked out, it wasn't going to be a problem. Right now, I'm also working on a line of accessories called Humans. I've made ribbons with little messages on them.
ELLA: So that will be part of the Mike Mills band of clothing and accessories that you market in Japan?
MIKE: Yeah. Imagine a lavender ribbon that a girl might wear in her hair. You know how the Hermes ribbon says, "Hermes, Hermes, Hermes" on it? Well, instead of "Hermes," imagine phrases like, "Children live out their parents' unconscious."
ELLA: Do you consider yourself as a good businessman?
MIKE: I'm a weird businessman. I get involved in the business side of everything I do, much to the annoyance of the people I work with. But I'm not a Mick Jagger or a Spike Jonze they're really good businessmen. My parents, who grew up during the Depression, raised me to be very conscious of money. Also, you always have to be aware of the costs when you make commercial art.
ELLA: Like the cost of printing a poster or filming a movie?
MIKE: Yeah. If you're savvy about the role that money plays in modern society, you're better equipped to exploit it to subversive ends, and less likely to be fucked over by it in the long run.
ELLA: You first made your name as a graphic designer.
MIKE: That kooky band Dee-Lite made me their art director in 1994. I did their singles covers. That floated me for, like, six months. I was lucky to be part of the East Village world at just the right time. Then in 1995, I met Kim Gordon through a friend. She asked me to do a Sonic Youth cover. Later that same summer I met John Spencer, who was touring with the Beastie Boys. I ended up designing t-shirts for both bands.
ELLA: What was your approach to design at that time?
MIKE:I was really into the Situationist movement, so if anything, I was trying not to get boxed in. If I had just done an illustrated cover, I'd insist on using photography for the next cover, and then a text-only one, and so on. A lot of my designs look nostalgic, but that's because I was trying to avoid contemporary design. I just didn't buy what everyone at Cranbrook and Cal Arts and Raygun were doing if the design was jagged and hard to read, it was supposedly subversive? Whatever. That kind of elitism is exactly what I hate most.
ELLA: You studied with the conceptual artist Hans Haake at Cooper Union, right?
MIKE: Yeah, Haake taught his students how to really think, how to manifest an idea and consider its ramifications. He also taught me that anything could be art. To slip something unexpected onto a record cover seemed much more political and powerful than exhibiting a piece in a gallery.
ELLA: Were you already interested in film and video when you were in school?
MIKE: Early on, I thought I was just going to make documentaries. After Cooper, I studied semiotics and film theory. In the early '90s, I took a lot of classes on documentary filmmaking. I saw Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line around then. That's really stirred my interest in documentaries.
ELLA: Who else were you looking at?
MIKE: Charles and Ray Eames did some educational documentary films that really influenced me. They were short and simple, like segments you'd see on Sesame Street but on topics like how to make a chair. I began to think about making documentaries or educational films interesting, unusual things for kids. Get them while they're young. [laughs]
ELLA: Were you interested in children's TV shows as well?
MIKE: I think Mr. Rogers is a great American icon. I loved his whole demeanor and his anti-war stance. A figure like that on children's television is incredibly powerful and positive.
ELLA: Then in the mid-'90s you started making music videos.
MIKE: For two years, I told every band and record company person I met, "I'll do your video for free." The first one I did was for Frank Black, just after he left the Pixies in '96. It wasn't very good. [laughs] Growing up I loved punk a lot of my favorite music is mistake-ridden, or imperfectly beautiful. When I make a video, I try to bounce off the buzz that the music gives me. Music videos are very personal to me almost beyond words. But I love the fact that they're also so accessible and so public. Videos like the one I did for Air's track "All I Need" are played all over the world.
ELLA: That video is a short documentary about two skate kids' teenage love. It focuses on them, talking very candidly in front of the camera, rather than the actual song, which plays quietly as the soundtrack.
MIKE: I like empowering people who don't feel quite right with the world, listening to everything they have to say, and in turn embracing them through the camera. I felt like I was giving that kind of compassion to Missy and Mark in the video.
ELLA: You've also directed big-budget television commercials for major companies like The Gap, Nike, and Adidas. Did those clients respond to your music videos?
MIKE: I'd only done three or four music videos when I landed my first ad. I shot my first two commercials for Nike in 1998, a week apart. I got the job on the basis of my graphic design work. Raquel Elfassi, my agent, really worked overtime to get people to hire me. Her hook was, "Well, he's an artist." Raquel was really good at convincing people that they were missing out if they didn't hire me.
ELLA: Wasn't your lack of experience a problem?
MIKE: There I was with this big crazy job and I couldn't admit to anybody that I had no idea what I was doing. When it came time for me to do the storyboards, I had to ask the accountant at the film production office the difference between a wide shot, a medium shot, and a tight shot, and how to intercut them. I ran out of his office, finished the boards, and bullshitted my way through the rest of it.
ELLA: How much creative control do you have when you do a commercial?
MIKE: With those first Nike ads I was given a script. Even though I was limited to the narrative I was given, there were still a million choices to make. There was real room for creativity. But I've done a lot of ads where I've changed the content or even the whole idea. Sometimes, they don't even have an idea and come to me with a vague notion like "kids doing things they don't normally do" and want me to come up with the concept. But with music videos, you pitch all kinds of different vignettes, which really trains you to be a writer-director.
ELLA: Then in 1999 you moved back to L.A.?
MIKE: I'm originally from California. After fifteen years in New York I was homesick. I'm not sure if I like L.A., but I do like California the eucalyptus trees, the weather, having a house. There's so much less to do here! But the isolation of L.A. has certainly helped me. Once I moved back, my work got much more personal. My short film, The Architecture of Reassurance, was one of the first things that I did.
ELLA: That film is all about the potential beauty of suburbia. That is something I see in a lot of your other work.
MIKE: My relationship to suburbia is very strange. I wasn't raised in a suburb. I grew up in Montecito, where it's always foggy and gloomy, in a 1910 Spanish Colonial house with a rose garden maze. It was a rarified, fairly wealthy environment. Suburbia was an exotic dream for me I always wanted to be part of it. I would walk through the suburban developments every day on my way to school and think, "Wow, this is normal life. This is where there are no complications and weird feelings that I don't understand. Everybody here must be happy."
ELLA: You often use slow panning shots to take in landscapes and interiors. You seem to have an obsession with the inanimate world.
MIKE: Totally. I was a very quiet kid. I grew up in an environment where talking and asking questions weren't encouraged, so I just observed. I would imagine animating all my toys. I even tried to figure out my parents through their belongings because they didn't tell me who they were I was like a detective in my own house. To me, every single object is a manifestation of a mindset, a history, and a culture. People usually think of everyday objects as quiet. To me they're very loud and filled with information.
ELLA: I think the film director Jacques Tati saw that, too.
MIKE: Mon Oncle and Playtime are both about animating inanimate objects. I've always been totally obsessed by how Tati framed things. I also relate to Yasujiro Ozu's films from the '50s, like Tokyo Story and Good Morning. He loved to shoot a whole scene in one shot. His camera was always a lot further back than anyone else's would be. He found the most meaning in the most banal moments.
PETE: It seems like you rebelled against your California roots after growing up there.
STEPHEN: Yeah. I lived in New York for a long while. New York is an incredible place when you're in your twenties and thirties if you're in the arts. There is an alternative community in Portland, but it's small. In Portland you're going to get left behind by the child bearers, which I'm one of now too.
ELLA: Much of the cinematography in your films has a flat quality. Does that relate to your graphic design background?
MIKE: It's related to my work in graphics, but keep in mind that not all graphics are flat. The flatness comes more from the way I think I think it's the look of my brain. I like things simple a clean background with one object in the middle. I have an almost childlike need to order things simply.
ELLA: Thumbsucker, your first feature film which debuts this September picks up that theme too. You started working on it five years ago.
MIKE: Adapting Walter Kirn's book took me a year and a half. Then I sent the final screenplay to film companies in both the U.S. and Europe. They all read it and were intrigued, but no one actually wanted to make it. Nothing else in my career has been as nearly this difficult to accomplish.
ELLA: Why the reticence?
MIKE: The script wasn't perfect, and I was a first-time director. And the film itself presents marketing problems. It's neither a comedy nor a drama. It's about stuff that a lot of people just don't find intense enough to sustain a film like vulnerability.
ELLA: The film has a muted feel, but I think there is real intensity in Lou Pucci's and Tilda Swinton's performances.
MIKE: I'm very attracted to acting it scares me on a very human level. At first, I was nervous about working with actors, because that was the area in which I had the least experience. But that was also why I most wanted to try it. I even enrolled in acting classes when I thought the film wasn't going to happen and I had all this time on my hands. The rehearsals with Tilda, Lou, and Vince D'Onofrio were really intense.
ELLA: How so?
MIKE: The process really forces you out of your box. It breaks down the boundaries of permissible behavior. I had a notebook that I wrote in during the filming of Thumbsucker. On the front, I put a picture of Neil Young, and on the inside cover I wrote the word "surprise" as a reminder to myself that if I hadn't been surprised that day, I had fucked up. If everything went exactly as planned, I knew that I hadn't gone far enough. Your work should always take you exactly where you're most afraid of going.