By Jonathan Marlow
Graphic designer, music video and commercial director Mike Mills has made his first feature, Thumbsucker. In a wide-ranging and candid talk with Jonathan Marlow, he recalls the challenges and triumphs, confesses to an obsessive love for one film and speculates about his wide open future.
JM: After meeting you at Sundance for the premiere of Thumbsucker at the GreenCine/RES Magazine "Art of Storytelling" party and again shortly thereafter at the European premiere in Berlin, I see that you've been busy. With all of the collateral material around the film - posters and so forth - obviously, you have a habit of working all the time.
MM: That's the way I am. It's much easier... Actually, that's only one small part of what I've been doing. I have a first draft done for my next script, which I started just after Berlin. I have a Japanese clothing line that I did a second version of. I guess I'm a workaholic and I'm fairly prolific. In doing these Thumbsucker posters, the reason there are so many is because I have a hard time just doing one thing. If I let myself go, "Okay, there's ten," they come much easier. It's not so important, especially my kind of stuff. It's not about creating a belabored, long drawing of something. It's more of a quick idea. I showed them all of the designs and they're like, "Well, we like them all." So that's how this multi-panel doing-many-things world started. I guess I'm lucky that they embraced it rather than saying, "This is annoying."
JM: All of it fits very nicely because Thumbsucker is unconventional. The way that you're marketing the film should be unconventional, too.
MM: Spread the word...
JM: Someone else read the book and passed it along to you. Is that right?
MM: It was my friend Bob Stephenson, who's one of the producers. He didn't even read the book, he just read about it in Spin Magazine, and then I read it and... You wanted to know how I got interested in it?
JM: First of all, he thought that you would be good for it.
MM: Yeah. He just read teenagers, sucking thumbs, suburbs. All the kind of... Even though he's my friend, he does stereotype me. The reason it connected with me is sort of a longer story. Six months before, my mother had passed away and I was really at the time of my life where I was like, "Okay, it's time to start. It's time to start being me, doing something that's more..." I mean, I've been doing stuff that's "me" before, but trying to take that to the next level.
I started writing a script that was horribly maudlin and way too serious, too heavy and way too self-pitying and all that. Bob showed me Walter [Kirn]'s book and I started to read it. I was just so fucking jealous of how authentic, real, sincere and funny it was. It didn't take itself too heavily and it opened all of these doors with its humor. At first I was just jealous. "How did he do that?" Just wishing I was a more talented person. Then I said, "Yeah," and I convinced everybody to let me adapt it. I started adapting it and I realize, "Wait... This isn't my family, this is me. I am so Justin and this is so my relationship with my mom." It became a very cathartic, very personal journey for me. All the facts with my family and me are completely different than the one in the movie, but the emotional architecture is actually quite similar. I think my unconscious kind of brought this thing to me to work out some stuff.
Now this next script I'm working on is completely personal, even more about me and my family and my world... and more revealing. Now I can see it as this path that I've been on, looking back. The thing that really got me, you could just smell it was real, the book. And you could smell that it wasn't just someone fucking around with you. It was someone showing you stuff about themselves that was maybe a little hard to show, but doing it in a way that you can see the ridiculousness of life. How odd and strange and funny life is. That to me... I love that combination of funny and sad together. To me, that's the way it always happens...
JM: Were you always very insistent on doing the script yourself or was it something that you had kind of passively introduced...
MM: When people were first sort of showing me the book and what the idea was, they were like, "Mike, why don't you do this?" I was like, "Who's going to write it?" At first, I wasn't at all considered a writer. No one even thought of me writing it. No one even thought that was an option. I hadn't proven myself at all. So when I started, luckily, Bob Stephenson, my friend and producer, was totally behind it and helped me very much in the writing of it. He was my main first editor. That's why it wasn't financed at the beginning. That's why it had to be done for free for a couple of years. No one thought that was a good idea at all. I think it's from doing music videos, where you come up with your ideas. To me, coming up with your own ideas is perhaps the most important part of directing. To not write something that you know is going to be so important or to not adapt something that you think is going to be so important... Why? How is that showing you as a director?
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