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Past Article

Mike Mills and "What 'Film' Is"
By Jonathan Marlow
September 20, 2005 - 3:48 PM PDT

"I just got so hypnotized by that film."

JM: It's the sign of an accomplished filmmaker to allow scenes where the dialogue is only indirectly referencing the actions or the actions aren't directly saying anything outside of subtext. There's one moment with Vincent where there's an argument between him and his son. His son retreats to his room and the father walks down the hallway, opens the door and there's a pause, a moment where he's going to commit to the truth, and then he simply shuts the door. "I'm not ready to go there yet." There isn't a single character in the movie that's not conflicted in one way or another. Were these character conflicts difficult to maintain when trying to schedule the scenes around the actors' availability?

MM: With Vincent, Tilda and Lou, who were the key, and Chase, the younger brother who lives in Portland, they were there for the duration. We shot the film almost completely chronologically.

JM: That's a good support system for Lou.

MM: And for me, too. I was thinking about it for him. I need him to experience it and usually you shoot out all the scenes you have in the kitchen, then you go outside and you shoot all your outside scenes and then your hallway scenes, you shoot them all out of order if you're production-savvy. Being me, I was like, "No." If those four pages that we're shooting started outside, go inside, go back outside, go downstairs that's the way we shot it just so it would build. It drove everybody insane, production-wise.

JM: It's more natural for the actors and, as a result, you get better performances.

MM: I realized that this was all about performances. It isn't a really showy, visual film. It's really performance. That's what I want. I want to have things happen that I didn't predict, that I didn't know about, that I can't tell you are going to happen before. That's what I'm gunning for. I need the film rolling while that little look happened.

JM: At what point in the production design did you decide to shoot at 2.35 and then to push the camera in so it all seems very claustrophobic, where the camera has to drift a bit to catch the characters in motion?

MM: I just love 2.35. I got too in love with In the Mood for Love before I made this movie. I was having a deep, deep affair with that movie. If anything, it influenced me a little too much. There's a lot of In the Mood for Love in Thumbsucker, weirdly. So that format... I knew that my world outside the camera, the world I was shooting, was going to be pretty dang real. I wasn't going to mess with sets very much. A lot of the world... I just go into a room, done. Location scouting, you know, "School room, done. Fine." I'd just pick a location and basically... Judy [Becker] did a great job of enhancing things but basically that was it. Clothing and all that stuff, I just wanted to be kind of as real as possible. That was the documentary part.

Then, the camera, I wanted to be a dream, because I really believe that there isn't anything real in the world. There really aren't documentaries, everything is subjective, and everything is a projection that you're throwing out in the world. Everybody's making a movie twenty-four hours a day. That's just a contradiction in my life and my belief system, where I said, "Hmmm, let's make that the film." I said that to Joaquín, the DP, "The film is a dream and it's a documentary." He's like, "That's impossible!" Perfect. If it's not contradictory, it's not true. Part of the reason we picked 2.35 was... we shot anamorphic, not just 2.35, so it's the real deal, real anamorphic... the depth of field on film [when shooting with an anamorphic lens] is usually a quarter of an inch or less, which became the biggest pain in the ass you can ever, ever, ever imagine, but...

JM: Hey, not your problem. That's the DP's problem.

MM: No, my problem! It really became a problem. I had nightmares about it. Doing this [lateral tracking movement] is huge. That's like five pieces of tape on the thing that the AC is trying to keep up with and there are scenes with Vincent in a dark room visiting with Justin at night and it's just a miracle that any of it is in focus. It's really a testament to how hard they worked. I wanted that really low depth of field and I wanted to stack everybody on top of each other. We found this real house outside of Portland that was small. Everybody said, "No, you can't shoot in a house that small." I was like, "No, this is exactly what I want."

In a family, all the boundaries are blurred between each other. That's what it's all about. I wanted the focus to be blurred between people. I'm always shooting people like that, stacked on top of each other, and I wanted everyone to be mixed in together. That house that we happened to shoot in had mirrors everywhere. Every room had a wall of mirrors. So you'd see in the movie it's always mirrors and people seeing each other through mirrors and mixing up, "Are they in the room or is that them over there?" And that's very In the Mood for Love, you often don't know where you are. We crossed the line all the time. We didn't follow the line. So I wanted all that boundary-crossing that happens emotionally in a family to happen to the camera. I'm not sure how much that really communicates, but that was the spiel. The line.

JM: I'm usually the first to be critical of crossing "the line" and yet, if it's consistent and used thematically, you can get away with anything.

MM: It's amazing how much you can cross the line and no one even notices. You have to really do it wrong to have it show. Wong Kar-wai does it all the time. You can tell he doesn't even know about the line. It's not even a contest.

JM: He doesn't care. It's in the way he shoots, since the footage will end up in whatever fashion he cuts it together later.

MM: There are scenes that are definitely a dialogue-driven scene that he'll do that are so weirdly shot and I really like that.

JM: Does that mean you want to work with Christopher Doyle at some point?

MM: Not at all... I want Wong Kar-wai's sensibility. I want his unformulaic-ness. That, I really like.

JM: That's a very difficult thing to achieve. You often see other people try to mimic it and fail.

MM: I regret having such a beautiful lover as a first girlfriend. I would have been much easier if I had picked a little bit more of a humble girl. I didn't plan it. It didn't have anything to do, thematically, with Thumbsucker. I just got so hypnotized by that film. I would deny that I loved it, but it would just creep out in all of these things that I was doing.

next >>>

"Film is a conversation between you and people via a screen."
"I've purposefully disassociated my 'design-self' from my 'film-self.'"
"I'm really into surprise and corruption of purity."
"I just got so hypnotized by that film."
"I don't have a lot of hopes for the system."

back to past articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

February 6, 2007. Mark Savage & the D.I.Y. Aesthetic by Jeffrey M. Anderson

February 3, 2007. Seeing the Humor in Sexual Identity by Michael Guillen

January 29, 2007. Smokin' Aces with Joe Carnahan and Jeremy Piven by Sean Axmaker

January 26, 2007. Include Me Out: Interview with Farley Granger by Jonathan Marlow

January 25, 2007. Grindhouse: Chapter Four - The 1960's by Eddie Muller

January 19, 2007. Charles Mudede: Zoo Story by Andy Spletzer

January 19, 2007. Mark Becker: Merging the Personal and the Political by Sara Schieron

January 19, 2007. Micha X. Peled: The Lives of the Sweatshop Youth by Hannah Eaves

January 16, 2007. Djinn: A Taxi Driver Dreams of Perth by Jeffrey M. Anderson

January 12, 2007. Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War" by Jeff Shannon

view past articles

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