Mike Mills makes his directorial debut with an adaptation of Walter Kirn’s cult novel Thumbsucker (which you can buy from CHUD.com right here). No, it’s not the Mike Mills from REM, but rather a guy who has spent a lot of time making his bones doing commercials and videos.
His debut is not just well made, it’s really well-cast, with people like Vincent D’Onofrio, Tilda Swinton (read my interview with her HERE), Vince Vaughn and up and coming great actor Lou Pucci. Mills himself is an unassuming guy, and his voice and speech pattern really reminded me of Spike Jonze quite a bit. But first we had to discuss the REM connection.
Q: Do you get people confusing you with the guy from REM? Do you get his mail?
Mills: One time I did this thing that Michael Stipe contributed to, this book, and he gave it to his secretary and said, ‘Send this to Mike Mills.’ So they sent it to the other guy, who was in like Bulgaria.
Q: What was it about this book that made you want to leap into features with it?
Mills: I really wanted to leap into features. What happened was that it was 99 – this is my sixth year in Thumbsucker-land – and my mom had just passed away. I was at this very palpable moment where I was like, ‘Life is short, what are you doing? What are you up to?’ So of course I wanted to try to creatively do the the thing that was going to be the harder, bigger stuff. But I was also trying to do the thing that was going to be more contributative back to the world. That was somehow going to be helpful or kind in some weird way, in a way that Harold & Maude always has been to me. Harold & Maude – when I’m on a limb I always watch that movie and it brings me back down, you know?
I was in that mindset and someone showed me Thumbsucker and at first I thought I liked it because it had those qualities, where it was about we’re fucked up, let’s admit it. Let’s not kill ourselves over it, it’s part of being human. I got that message and totally identified with it, and it was real and it was humorous without making fun of the people. It was that life is funny. To me that’s really empowering – if I know that life is funny and odd and tweaked that gives me so much more permission to be myself than if life isn’t funny.
Then when I started adapting it the thing I really realized is that Justin is so me, and that was my mom. It became a way to continue this conversation with her and to keep her around and to process what happened between us. It became really personal and cathartic really quick.
Q: Was the big carthatic moment when you were done shooting, or done editing, or when you saw it?
Mills: It was a huge catharsis when I showed it at Sundance. My father died while I was editing it, so the film took the five or six years between their deaths, and there’s Justin, waving goodbye to his parents at the end of the movie, and I’m ‘Baaawl!’ The film became so conflated with my life at certain points.
The film is about him trying to individuate from his parents and learn about his family which, at that time in your life when you’re dealing with all your parent stuff, it was so right on. It was so the right thing.
Early on it gave me this charge, it made it feel so personal when every film company said no. Part of the reason I kept going is because it was my family at that point. But the moment when I really felt it the hardest was at Sundance. I couldn’t watch it without crying, and I’m not a big crier. And I don’t even really like Sundance. It was an odd moment.
Q: Lou was great in the movie. Obviously he had to audition – what scenes did you have him read?
Mills: He did the break-up scene with Kelli [Garner]. Kelli was already cast, and she was sitting there when he came in and broke up with him like ten times. He did this great thing where I could tell he was really there and really alive. There’s a line in the movie where he says, ‘That’s so fucked up.’ In the script it was like, ‘That’s so manipulative.’ I said, when you get to that part of the scene, just say whatever you want, say what you’re feeling. And it came to that part and we’re sitting in a room like this and all of a sudden it’s this crucible and he says, ‘That’s so fucked up.’ The room was just like ding! I was like, OK, you got the job. I remember thinking it was awesome he could go there, that he could get that mad and show it.
Q: You have a great cast – Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio – how did you get this cast together?
Mills: It’s a long story. Seriously, every film company you can think of said no to this. Including Sony Classics [who is releasing it]. I went around door to door, including 550 Madison, and everyone said no. It takes two years to do that. It takes two years to get all those meetings and have them not work out. Simultaneously for those two years, the script’s going out and growing. Everybody is saying yes. I had so many more people who wanted to be in the movie than who were in the film. I had Viggo Mortensen and Scarlett Johansson and Steve Buscemi and Elijah Wood and Garry Shandling. This crazy list of people who were all intrigued and wanted to be in the movie. It was working there and it wasn’t working on the other side. It was this long process, this long, crazy Apocalypse Now kind of story.
Q: Who would Garry Shandling have played?
Mills: The teacher.
Q: I haven’t read the book, but just going by the synopsis on Amazon, it’s obvious that you changed quite a bit. You left out a whole Mormon subplot, for instance. How did you choose what to keep and what to lose?
Mills: First of all, let’s get this straight: the book’s better than the movie. It really is. And partly because it gets to go down so many crazy angles, which I love as an audience and a reader. It’s harder to do that in film. Film is like this long gang plank that you don’t get to walk off of very much. Walter likes it, and Walter agrees with this – it’s the spirit of the book, and the message of the book that is still there. The key elements are still there. Lots did change – the Mormon element, like you said.
What stayed and what left? The Mormon thing stayed forever, but it was too hard to get them in Mormonism and out in like ten or fifteen pages of the script. It was too hard. The things that stay are the things that show you the most about what’s happening to Justin and his parents tied together. They always had to be tied together. When something happens to him, it affects them, when something happens to them, it affects him. Which I guess is what a family is. All of the scenes had to have that capacity to them. I did have scenes which I shot and I deleted and I reshot three days, which were all scenes mostly with the parents, to get the balance right. It was key to me that this is not a teen film, that the adults have an arc and are interesting.
Q: Why was it important for you to shoot this in Oregon, where it’s set?
Mills: I like having the place be important to the story. I didn’t want to shoot in LA and pretend that it’s somewhere else. The book is set in Minnesota, and it’s during the school year, so you’re like, where’s the snow? And the accent? I didn’t want to deal with the snow and the accent. To me in my weird mind, Oregon is kind of the sister state to Minnesota. They’re both similarly not a destination state, and they have similar lots of woods.
Q: Did you grow up there?
Mills: No. I grew up in California. But I felt like I had permission to shoot on the West Coast. I felt like I knew enough about the landscape and the light and the world, and in Minnesota I felt out of place. I shot a documentary there called Paper Boys, testing it out. I felt a little bit like a foreigner there, and I feel like you should only shoot things you know about. And I knew enough about Oregon and the West Coast to feel OK.
Q: You have this great soundtrack featuring the Polyphonic Spree. How did you get them on?
Mills: It’s kind of a long story. Everything took six years!
Elliot Smith was going to do the music. Harold & Maude is a big influence on this movie, and it has that Cat Stevens soundtrack, so I wanted something like that. Elliot was into it, I was so amazed that one of my biggest heroes was watching the movie with me and liking it and identifying with the main character and wanted to be in it. We were going to do all covers. He had this cover of Thirteen that he had already did, which was going to be perfect. He had a song from this record he was working on, Basement on a Hill, that he thought was perfect, and then he did a cover of Trouble, the Cat Stevens song, and then he died. Like a week later. I was left in the lurch and really despondent. And editing was really hard.
So I went to see a Polyphonic Spree show, just for myself. I don’t know if you’ve seen the, but it’s thirty guys in robes on a stage and it’s super happy making.
Q: I’ve seen them. It’s an incredible show.
Mills: I can choose depression really quickly. I’m really good at that. That show just kind of really made me rethink that, it just changed all my molecules. It made me feel different and openhearted, and it made me feel silly for feeling negative. It made me feel like negative is a waste of time. And that was what I really wanted, for people to leave the theater and feel openhearted. I called Tim and I was shocked that he was totally into it, and that he totally got it. He had never done a score before, but he nailed it. The first songs he did were right on.
Q: You mention that Garry Shandling was going to play the teacher, but in the film it’s Vince Vaughn, and his lines feel very Vince Vaughn. Does he come in and ad-lib, or had you tailored those lines for him?
Mills: Vince Vaughn turns any line into a Vince Vaughn line. Some of the funnier lines, like ‘Go get the girls into the bathroom,’ and Justin says, ‘It’s a men’s room,’ and Vince says, ‘No, no, I’m a teacher’ – that’s in the book. Or ‘I wish I was bald,’ that’s in the book. He did improvise a lot and I very much encouraged him to.
But I get the comment all the time that Vince Vaughn is different in this movie, that he’s toned down, and how did I sit on him. I didn’t sit on him – he’s a smart guy, and knows that this is a different kind of movie and didn’t want to do everything the same. I like it when an actor is really alive in the moment, and not just going through something they do. I like being surprised, and I want them to be surprised, and I want them to be sort of tripping in mid-air. That’s the best part to shoot. Someone like Vaughn is so fucking good at just knowing what’s specific about this very moment and just capitalizing on it. I definitely laughed everytime he did something, so I was going for it.
Q: So for you the film has a positive message.
Mills: The idea that our problems are failures is a very poisonous idea. We all have problems. Problem and human can be interchanged in my mind. Just accept that we have problems and don’t try to eradicate them. Justin’s problem, Justin’s secret is his thumbsucking. But you have a secret that you don’t tell your girlfriend or your mom or your boyfriend or the closest people because you’re afraid that they’ll think that you’re unlovable or not acceptable or less than. The film is trying to encourage us to not be so afraid of our secrets.
Q: This may be the first movie about teenagers and anti-depressants were the anti-depressants aren’t exactly evil. Is that the same in the book?
Mills: The book shows him have this meteoric rise. And he’s taking Ritalin – he has ADHD, it’s not that he’s depressed. And it’s really speed, and you give speed to just about anybody and they do well. They achieve. The book does have that where it shows what he got out of it but also that it was a kooky diagnosis in the first place. And that it was another dependency for him. It was like the thumbsucking. I didn’t want to just slam it, but I don’t think I’m coming out positive to it either.
Q: What went into your approach to Justin smoking pot?
Mills: I think that drugs and being a teenager in America go hand in hand. I did all the drugs I could find. To me it’s like he wears clothes, he eats, he does drugs, he goes to school, he drives a car. I tried to treat it like that, just as a part of life. I didn’t want to moralize or make a big comment.
Q: This is your first feature, but you had been working for a while on smaller projects. What prepared you for this?
Mills: Everything did. I was 33 when I started doing this and I was 37 when started shooting it. All that I had been practicing, and I had the same crew the whole time, and we would take jobs just to practice for Thumbsucker. The goal when I first started doing film stuff was to eventually do that. So everything was preparing you.
But yeah, nothing actually prepares you for the experience because there were things you didn’t expect and it’s way more fucked than you could imagine.
Q: That shot in Times Square at the end – was that permitted?
Mills: Oh, of course not. We just had a van, we didn’t have any lights, it’s pretty easy to steal a shot like that.
Q: I’ve seen [Thumbsucker star Vincent] D’Onofrio shooting stuff in Times Square. You could have had him pull strings.
Mills: The City of New York practically subsidizes Law & Order. That’s a huge New York source of income.
Q: Speaking of Vincent, this may be one of the first times he’s playing a normal kind of father. He’s an amazing actor, but this is new for him. What did you do to work with him on that?
Mills: It wasn’t a big hump to get over. He’s really smart, he’s a really sensitive and smart guy. He knew what this guy was about. He knew this guy. Same thing with Vince Vaughn. People thought I had to talk him into it, to coax him – they took the film because they wanted to do new things. He was the first one to say I’m doing something different. The normalness excited him.
Vincent was on this a long time. We thought we were going to get financed and we didn’t, and then we were in his TV time and we thought, fuck, we lost him. But little did we know that we would go through that one season and then we would go through the next one too. We called him then and he was like, Oh really? You still want me? This still exists. Vincent’s a dad and a husband, and he knows that stuff. For me there was no issue at all. He was right in that guy right away.
Q: Do you know what you’re doing next?
Mills: I’m doing a new script that Tilda will also be in that’s even more personal and more emotionally raw. Thumbsucker whetted my appetite. It’s going to be smaller and harder to finance, and it’s going to be more fucked – with a capital F.
Q: How was the relationship with Tilda, since she was the lead and the producer?
Mills: She was the producer because she stuck with it the longest. She was calling people and helping me and being a shoulder for me to cry on. She was really supportive and helped us get financing and helped us talk to other actors – she’s a real activist. When she’s into something, she goes the whole distance. And we wanted to show that.