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Past Article

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

"I don't have a lot of hopes for the system."

JM: It seems as if the timing for your film is perfect because there's something in the zeitgeist. Thumbsucker and Bee Season, also an adaptation of a novel of the same name due for eventual release, even Miranda [July]'s debut feature, to a certain extent - all of which deal with these people who, on the surface, are relatively normal but just barely below the surface have a lot of stuff going on. It seems to be a better reflection of the reality of life than we've seen in motion pictures for the better part of a decade. Do you feel that you're tapping into something that's already out there or is it just a coincidence that all of these things are starting to match up?

Let's put it another way. Everyone talks about how theater attendance is down and that no one cares about movies anymore. A lot of it, clearly, is that these films that play in the multiplexes are not about people anymore. When folks look back at the heyday of the 1970s, there were a number of awful movies made then as well, but the films that broke through, like Cassavetes's Husbands and things like that, are about real people doing real things. That resonates with an audience. The audience that doesn't consist entirely of sixteen year old boys.

MM: I'm preparing myself... Cassavetes and al-Qaeda, in my head, are weirdly coming together and becoming the answer. That's my business plan for the future, much to my accountant's chagrin. My and Miranda's film came from such a different place, I'm very honored to be thought of, at all, in the same bubble. I do think that we're both making films about fragile people with compassion. We're not making fun of them at all, trying to say that we're all like this and let's celebrate that.

Is that a larger thing? I hope so. That'd be really great. I agree with you. I don't go watch movies in the theaters. I hardly go see a film. I do think that, especially with these film festivals, there are so many good films that you normally don't hear about. In America, there's this huge underground that in other countries is above ground. I have more faith in that than I do in anything else these days. This is the most public thing I've ever done, and in a way you would think it's me going, "Ok, I'm here." This, my first day of press [and his second interview in an eight-day press tour], and I know in my head that I'm gone already. This is probably the most I'll ever be seen, because the next thing's going to be smaller, and the next smaller still, and I just have to find a way to exist in a more Cassavettes realm...

JM: Do you think that this film will allow you the freedom to make that kind of a film and to put the money together? When you go to Sundance, the big difficulty is that people have invested everything they can to get to that point, not to even mention the thousands of folks that never even get there. The majority of filmmakers that have their films at the festival, even in competition, that's it. They don't get picked-up. They don't get distribution. In a way, you're theoretically at this point where the money might get a little easier to raise.

MM: I don't know. It was so hard to get Thumbsucker [financed], I'm so browbeaten. I don't have any high hopes. I know how hard it is from people who have done other films. It doesn't really get a lot easier. You have to have a smash hit and even then you still have to have Bill Murray in your movie. You have to have one of these big people to get even three million dollars. I'm not looking to the system with any great feelings of holiness. That's what I really mean by Cassavetes, in that he paid for them. He made them at his house. He made lunch for the crew. I'm thinking that's the answer more than, "Great, I got to make a film for three, next time nine, next time twelve, next time twenty."

JM: You just don't want to play that game.

MM: Well, maybe I will. Maybe I'm contradicting... maybe I'm wrong...

JM: You're not going to seek it out, in other words?

MM: I don't think I am. You know, the thing I think I accomplished most with Thumbsucker is that I did a film with Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn that got into Sundance and got a certain amount of play. It really is a personal film. I really didn't cater to the market that much besides packing the cast to get the money. They worked in the film and I think that's what I achieved in terms of public marketing-ness. I basically made a medium to big-ish personal film. Which, in this day in age, is actually really hard.

JM: It's the sort of film that supposedly can't get made anymore.

MM: Yeah, it kind of is. I think that's the only real achievement in a way. I'll tell you, it's the hardest thing I've accomplished times four. People think that advertising is tough and competitive and backstabbing and commercial. Making this film was more commercially-minded than anything you could imagine. You know, like, the bottom line and all that crap. It was intense and every inch, including casting Lou, was a big fight. So I guess I don't have a lot of hopes for the system. I'm friends with Miranda and once in a while Miranda will say something like, "I have hope about this system changing." I'm like, "Wow, I wish I did." I have hope in finding a little boat that'll get me all the way across the Atlantic. I'm just looking for a tough, rugged little boat.

JM: Still, in the midst of all of this, you'll still direct videos and you'll still do commercials?

MM: I've actually retired from the Bureau. I'd like to keep doing videos. I'm not going to do ads anymore. I don't know how I'm going to make money. I just did it two or three months ago, so I don't know what I'm going to do. My mom passed away right before I was starting Thumbsucker, my dad passed away as I was finishing. I'm 39, it's time to stop doing anything that I feel... Doing all of that, it was like my film school and it totally helped me. I didn't do an ad that I wouldn't show people, but I can't sustain any more of the contradictions between the world that I think is good and the world that I'm helping by doing ads. I've learned enough. I feel like I'm not some genius, but I've learned enough. I'm doing this thing which I very much like to do. Once in a while, just completely burn down the house and wait for something else to happen. I don't know what it is right now, but that's where I'm at.

JM: Well, you have some time before you have to worry about it.

MM: Not much! It's amazing how much money life requires. It's funny, part of me is just very disappointed that I'm 39 and not married and with a family, and the other part is like, "It's very easy for me to go way down money-wise and not need anything." My dog eats very little and I do, too... and see what I can do this way. I don't know what's going to happen. I really don't. I feel like I just had to turn off that radio station to wait for the new radio to come. If I kept my involvement with that going, it fills up my cup, so I had to throw that cup away. I really don't know exactly what's going to happen, but I know what I want to do. I don't know how, production-wise, how it's going to work out. I just trust it. Something will happen.

JM: As we discussed earlier, you were nervous about taking the characters and altering the story to send Justin Cobb from Oregon to New York. You've created a similar situation for yourself, in that, "I have no idea what's going to happen when I get there, but I'm willing to try it. It might be uncharacteristic for where I was, but that's exactly where I need to be right now."

MM: The relationship between the film and my life is really odd, in that Justin wanted to get his mother, to save his mother, and this was everything I was dealing with. It was a lot about my mourning. At the end of the film, he says goodbye to his parents and I said goodbye to my parents this year. Yeah, I feel very nineteen. I feel like, "I'm just starting." I really feel like that. With this film and all, I'm in some ways an already established music video, commercial director veteran. What? I really feel like, "I know that... It all really feels lame, I should feel more established." I really feel like, "Don't even watch Thumbsucker. I'm just getting started. That was just practice and then we'll get going." There's a part of me that really feels that way. It's like high school. Then we'll start again.

back to past articles >>>

"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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