Connect with us


Interview: Mike Mills (Thumbsucker)

It’s not difficult to understand why Mike Mills, author of award-winning shorts (The Architecture of Reassurance), documentaries (Paperboys), commercials (Gap, Adidas) and music videos (Moby, Air) chose to adapt and bring to the screen the novel Thumbsucker as his feature film directorial debut.

“The suburbs are a land of appearances. They’re ruled by the need to put on a good show for the boss, the church, the neighbors. […] It’s the mismatch between the surface and the depths that really makes them interesting and a sort of heartbreaking places”.
– Walter Kirn (Author of “Thumbsucker”)

It’s not difficult to understand why Mike Mills, author of award-winning shorts (The Architecture of Reassurance), documentaries (Paperboys), commercials (Gap, Adidas) and music videos (Moby, Air) chose to adapt and bring to the screen the novel Thumbsucker as his feature film directorial debut.

The eerie fascination for the suburban neighborhood, the portrait of youth in a small town, the struggles they endure in finding an authentic identity amidst such a controlling, judgemental environment and the collision between their interests and the life they live are themes that have always haunted Mike Mills.

His first short, The Architecture of Reassurance, was about a young girl who walks around her neighborhood and witnesses uncomfortable scenes that she decides to interpret in a reassuring way, even though they are not.

His first documentary, Paperboys, portrays the life, desires and interests of six boys who live in rural Minnesota and every morning deliver newspapers in their little towns.

Aptly so, for his first feature, Mike Mills has now brought to the screen a novel about Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), a teenager in a small Oregon town who still sucks his thumb at age 17 as a shield from growing-up. As an extreme measure to solve his oral fixation, Justin gets hypnotized by his New Age orthodontist, but this is just the first of his troubles in a long quest towards self-esteem that includes a diagnosys with ADHD and a subsequent addiction to Ritalin, a powerful pharmaceutical drug that gives him focus and turns him into an alienated talent in regional school debates.

In the meantime, around him, we witness the struggles of several grown-ups whose lives are frankly just as imbalanced as Justin’s. His dad (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a former football player who is still wondering what he could have become had he not stopped playing ball; his mother (Tilda Swinton), is a nurse in a celebrity health clinic who harbors a secret passion for a cheesy TV movie actor with addiction problems (Benjamin Bratt); his orthodontist (Keanu Reeves) searches for happiness through different personas and “reincarnations” from New Age guru to Est/Forum-style high achiever; and his school debate coach (Vince Vaughn), both insecure and dominating, lives his life through those of his students, incapable of one of his own.

If for no better reasons, Thumbsucker should be appreciated for its originality in the current cinema landscape. After all, an American independent film about addiction without junkies and about self-acceptance without “coming out” scenes or gay issues involved is already a pretty stunning achievement! But Thumbsucker is more than that.

Quirky (even though Mills hates the term, as he explains in the interview), off, and beautifully unbalanced, Thumbsucker seems to confirm a trend in today’s independent American cinema. Not as daring and flawless as Me and You and Everyone We Know, but definitely more solid and poignant than I Heart Huckabees, Thumbsucker shares with these previous titles (but we can also name the precious and intense Junebug) the desire to reflect on the society that surrounds us by focusing on “problematic” individuals and “dysfunctional” communities, and to address existential, if not even philosophical issues, about life and its meaning in a smart and ironic way.

Featuring incredible performances (newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci won as best actor both at Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals) and a strong vision for the desolate suburbia landscape, Mike Mills’ debut is a unique, original glance at the “emotionally-impaired” society we live in. As Walter Kirn, the author of the novel, says: “Justin has what shrinks call Attention Deficit Disorder. I think we’ve got that as a society at the moment. You haven’t finished one thing before you’re imagining the next; you haven’t met one person, but you’re looking at their defects and comparing them to other persons. And we do that to ourselves, too.”

Ioncinema met director Mike Mills and actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci in New York.

Q: First of all, congratulations for the award in Edinburgh [The Guardian New Directors Award].
A: Thank you, I was super happy about that! I was tired of Lou winning all the awards!

Q: How did you get all these actors involved in your first feature?
A: I know, it’s amazing… it’s actually a loooooong story. I couldn’t get the financing for this film forever. It took me two years since I finished the script. I went door-to-door to all the different production companies and they all said no, including Sony Pictures Classics [the distributor of the film]. They all passed. I started to think that it was the biggest failure I ever committed to. At the same time, I was sending the script to agents and talents, and they all seemed to like it. Even people I didn’t think of read it and called me about it. It was growing. Then, when Tilda came onboard, things started to change. People realized that it would be a certain kind of film, performance-driven and with a credibility, and that attracted a lot of big names. It made people like Vaughn and Keanu and Vincent want to be part of that. It was a long and strange process. It felt like the scene in Apocalypse Now when they are way up the river and they ask: “Who is in charge?” You know what I mean? Tilda was definitely the key. That’s why she got a Co-Executive Producer credit. She helped so much. She is a very specific entity. Casting her first sent a flag. It also made people realize that this film wasn’t going to be ironic and ridiculous, but sincere: it wasn’t my intention to make fun of these people.

Q:This film seems an ideal development of your earlier works, like Paperboys and Architecture of Reassurance: in particular the fascination for the suburban landscape and for teenagers struggling in a judgemental environment and looking for their own identity. Do you perceive a continuity in your work?
A: Yes, definitely. I also think, for example, of Deformer, a documentary I did about this strange outsider [the famous skateboarder Ed Templeton] who tries to deal with a “normal” world. I am particularly fascinated with younger people because they are like houses without their walls up, and you can see how they are made. They are more transparent, and yet, I feel they are not that different from us. We still keep doing all the stuff that we learned in high school. Even though it’s taken from Walter Kirn’s novel, for me, Thumbsucker is a very personal story because it came into my life right after my mom passed away. I was looking for a project that was particularly meaningful. I was asking myself, “What can I do for the world? What am I doing? Life is short and I need to do something that has value.” And then, this book came along. At first, I thought I liked it because it felt real and honest and it wasn’t about fixing yourself but accepting yourself, but quickly, I realized that I liked it for a more intimate reason: I am Justin, and his mom is my mom. To write it was a way to keep talking to my mom and to love her through these characters. It quickly became a very personal project.

Q: The soundtrack too is very interesting…
A: That is also a long story. Long time ago Elliot Smith read the script and really liked it. Then, he had lots of problems, really went underground, but he came back just when I was finishing the film. I thought we could work together on it. One of my best memories is actually Elliot watching the movie with us in the editing room. He totally identified with Justin and wanted to work on it. We decided to do a series of covers from Leonard Cohen, John Lennon and Cat Stevens. He said, “I’ll try ‘Trouble’ first, let’s see how it goes.” So he did the cover of “Trouble”. It was great! He gave it to us and died 5 days later. It was all very traumatic. Editing for me is already very hard and dark for me because it drags you into scary places. Months later, I was very depressed, and I went to a Polyphonic Spree show. They made me feel way better. They made me understand that the mood I was in wouldn’t bring me anywhere. I left the theatre feeling very uplifted, and I said to myself: that’s how I’d like the audience to feel when they leave my movie. So I went to Tim [DeLaughter, the composer of all the original songs in the movie performed by The Polyphonic Spree] asking him to do that, and even though he never did a score before, he did an amazing job.

Q: It’s funny that you mention Cat Stevens since in the film you can perceive the influence of a filmmaker like Hal Ashby.
A: Definitely! I love Harold and Maude. I know I probably went too far in making a cover of “Trouble” for my film, but I still did it. I love Hal Ashby because I feel like he gave us, in all of his films, the permission to be a little messed-up. All of his characters are super flawed, but he treats them all with a lot of compassion. I think Being There, Shampoo, Harold and Maude, are really amazing films.

Q: Can you tell us more about what you struggled with during the editing period?
A: It’s hard. I’ve talked to a lot of directors who have more experience than me, and they all said: “Oh yeah, watch out for editing!” The first 3 weeks seem absolutely great. Then, you spend all the other months dealing with scenes that didn’t come out so great, and you have to live with your mistakes. A year later, I did some reshoots because I insisted a lot on the adults having an active role in the film, but then in editing, I understood that it was so easy to lose track of the main story! It’s there that I realized that we could focus on the adults as long as they were still talking about Justin. In a way, I was a first-time director learning my own mistakes through editing. Plus, post-production is also a place for a lot of political fights. They wanted to fire my editor. We had a big fight about that, and that whole time, my dad was sick with cancer. Yes, the editing period was definitely not a good time for me.

Q: Feel free to disagree, but there seems to be a new trend in the American independent cinema: a new existentialism, the desire to raise ambitious questions about life and its meaning within the society we live in by focusing on quirky and strange individuals in dysfunctional communities. I am thinking about the work of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Wes Anderson, and more recently Napoleon Dynamite, I Heart Huckabees, Junebug and Me and You and Everyone we Know. Do you see that?
A: I think that my film is probably more realistic and less quirky than some of those films, but I guess I am getting more and more allergic to the word “quirky”. It’s used often, and in the past, I tended to use it a lot myself. Then, I found out its real meaning which is “not real” and “not significant”, and I don’t like that. Take, for example, Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. It all seemed so real to me, and I’m afraid that to say that these people are “quirky” is like saying that they are not as legitimate and real as the other characters. I want to say that no one is quirky! I don’t like that word. I know that people don’t use it in a mean way, but I fear the risk of putting people in a box and judging them. I relate to all the characters of my film. For me, they are all very ordinary. This is why, for example, I don’t like Donnie Darko. Instead, I do love all the Charlie Kaufman scripts, even though, in a way, I’d like them to be a little more real and warm, emotionally speaking.

Q: So, what is your take on the suburban environment?
A: You know, I did the mistake of reading the reviews of Thumbsucker on Rotten Tomatoes, and one says, “It suffers from the misunderstanding that people from suburbs are all messed up.” It hurt me so much! The last thing I wanted was to be harsh and make fun of the suburbian landscape. I don’t think that the artists’ environment in Soho, for example, is any more real! Plus, this country is, for the most part, a suburbia. That’s our reality! The last thing I wanted to do was American Beauty. I really don’t like that film! I don’t like what it does to the people of the film, making fun of them and laughing at them! That’s really the anthitesis of what I was trying to do.

Q: Are you already working on your next project?
A: Yes, I’m writing my next script, and Tilda is going to be in it. I think that Thumbsucker might actually be the biggest film I’ll ever do, I mean in terms of budget. I have no interest in doing anything bigger right now. I actually would like to work on a smaller budget. The new script is about being in love and how complicated is that, how love brings out the most regressive and crazy parts of you. But again, I don’t want to treat this issue like a bad thing. It’s actually something very normal that all of us have been through. Basically, it’s a film about family and love.

Thumbsucker opens in New York and L.A on September 16th.
Tomorrow we feature interviews with actors Lou Taylor Pucci & Tilda Swinton.

Continue Reading
You may also like...
Click to comment

More in Retro

To Top