Starting fresh with the director of BEGINNERS
June 19, 2011|All of Mike Mills's films--narratives, documentaries, and music videos alike--share a common theme of perspective: how the individual views others, how others view the individual, and the projections that exist on both sides. Although I was somewhat skeptical of its indie quirk, Mills's Beginners left me thinking about the people in my life, past and present; I was genuinely affected by its interpersonal dynamics. As it happens, a major fulcrum of Mills's work is that he creates a dialogue not only between the artist and the masses--he also strives to forge a bond with the individual. After several days of combing through his filmography in preparation for the interview below, I finally discovered that Mills had been keeping a video diary on the official website for Beginners chronicling the sights he's seen and the people he's met on the movie's press tour. It hardly came as a surprise.
At the Lenox Hotel in Boston, the director introduces himself very plainly ("Hi, I'm Mike"), setting the stage for the laid-back conversation that followed. Yet past his easy-going nature lies a strong artistic vision and an authentic intellectual curiosity. He knows he walks a delicate tightrope between idealism and cynicism, and that's never more apparent than when we discuss the human condition. On this subject, he quotes Joanna Newsom: "'I'm in love with the hook upon which everyone hangs.' And maybe me, too." Mills is an engaging interview subject, one who definitely wants to connect with his interrogator; I briefly related to him both my misgivings with Beginners and the images from the film that lingered with me, and he gave me the impression that he'd rather be shooting the shit over a cold beer than within the confines of a cramped press schedule. (The conversation suddenly felt even less formal when I told him that I'd had a fascinating conversation with his wife, Miranda July, ten days earlier.) Furthermore, his beliefs about a subjective reality imply that he'd like to have that specific conversation with as many people as he possibly can. Eventually--inevitably--he offers one last personal touch to our meeting, asking if he can film my notebook for his video diary. "That's some beautiful calligraphy," he says as he readies his small digital camera. "It's like a maze, that's amazing."
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Is
there something about perspective--understanding perspective--that
MIKE MILLS: I think that--especially in a documentary thing--I'm trying to keep my perspective as gentle as I can, or as open as I can. And often, the camera is just very observational and not very directed, so that you can have some air and time and space to see what you want to see. And that's kind of just my own frequency, it runs on that kind of level. My world, or my understanding of characters, and people, like real people, when I do a documentary--perspective is everything, and our world is highly subjective. There's no objective reality, so when I am doing a documentary--like Errol Morris, who lives here--I don't really believe in a shared, common, objective reality. It's all everybody's separate dreams. And I think that's fascinating, and I do think that's something that's kind of central to how I understand characters and real people, and try to play with or present. And in terms of my own filmmaking, I've often been accused of being, like, a little too cold or a little too distant, and I don't feel cold at all. Like, I very much love anybody that gets in front of my camera. But I think that is that kind of--wanting to be sort of softer, more observational, than heavy-handedly pointing you somewhere.
do the subjective perspectives of others affect an individual?
In terms of love, relationships, that's just like this crazy, dense maze-like interaction of two subjectivisms, right? And for me, it's often a place where a person can realize, or see, or finally deal with, all these parts of themselves that they haven't been able to deal with, or all these shadow parts, all these parts you don't want to have. And that only when confronted and in love with another person's "deal," another person's subjective trip, does your trip really become present to your conscious [mind]. And then, [in] terms of families--that's the other relationship I think I'm most interested in--our understanding of the world is so much shaped by the perspective of our parents, that unconscious and conscious view of the world that they teach us overtly with words, and covertly with non-word energy.
that case, then, considering this self-discovery through that
perspective, is it possible to present a complete portrait of oneself?
Oh, no. Or anybody--or understand anybody. Like even me writing this movie, I think sometimes people think I'm an expert on my dad--or my parents' relationship--or an aficionado or, like, the resident academic of their relationship. And ah, boy, I don't get them. There's so many parts to them that I know that I don't understand. Or often I do think I do understand them, but--I'm only 45, and there's so many parts to their ages in life and perspectives in life that I just don't have access to, I don't get yet. Every year I get older, I kind of see a different part of them. So I think that it's really impossible to fully understand even your closest loved ones, I don't think [that idea] is really true. I think, yourself--you're the last person to know about yourself. There's so many reasons for us to hide from ourselves that only love and other people make us confront more. But never fully, never completely.
Do you see life as a
series of coping mechanisms?
For sure. And that's not a bad thing... Humans are fragile little beings--life is a series of strategies and ways to make your way through the world. Coping sounds kind of like a cop-out, or like a failure, or something like that. But I think coping mechanisms and vitality aren't dissimilar...Y'know, surviving as a human requires tons of coping mechanisms, from finding ways to feed all these people to finding ways to understand yourself.
Why do you see fit to
break down your experiences, your films, into components?
I don't know. That's some real deep tendency in me--I really like breaking things down to their composite parts. I love sort of being wildly expository, or wildly didactic. Like, you get so didactic and simple that it becomes something else--it kind of becomes humorous and refract[s] out in a million directions. So I think that partially, it's some deep emotional thing with me that wants clarity, that wants things to be kind of fixed and understood, and I'm old enough to know that things will never really be fixed and understood, but that desire's still fun to play with. And it can be quite humorous at times, and I've found it to be kind of a great pop device, this quest to break everything down.
But if you're aware of
this, and you try to tackle it, do you ever find yourself overtaken by
Maybe a little bit, not really. I think I'm old enough and I've had enough therapy and I've been doing it long enough that it's become sort of like a known entity. I like kinda making fun of it--Oliver wants to do the whole history of sadness. That ambition is pretty funny. Like, "The history of sadness? Are you kidding? You're gonna actually try to do that? Especially as a record cover for a pop band?" It's just not right. So I enjoy all that--the impossibility of that task, and even sort of having fun with my desire and ambition to do something like that, to understand everything.
is it about the construction and format of "Looney Tunes" that
..."Looney Tunes" is just so fucking good. The level of invention on those is just wild, and so funny. It's like Groucho Marx and Chaplin and Keaton combined with amazing drawings--with this rebelliousness, and then just formally there's such plasticity. They break so many rules. I get the same buzz looking at "Looney Tunes" as I do looking at Godard. There's this tremendous will to break form. And have you seen "Duck Amuck"? I mean, "Duck Amuck" is--that's some crazy shit! That's amazing. My first great love was punk, and to me the Looney Tunes are totally punk.
What is it about
chronology that you feel the need to tamper with it?
Well, it's kind of like the story that Oliver tells the dog in the dog park: "You were invented by this guy. You don't know the story that's running through your DNA, your every action. That you were sort of bred to be fourteen inches tall, and go into foxholes and be brave--and now, that's not even your life anymore, and you're bought to be cute and you're chasing tennis balls, that's as close to a fox as you're ever going to get." So that's that dog's chronology in a way, that's the chronology of that species. And often, our chronologies--or our stories, let's use that word--we're very unconscious of. That dog has no idea that that's why he's chasing that tennis ball. But [I'm] interested in trying to figure that out, because that's the only way we have towards freedom or to be a bit happier. We all have stories running inside of us that we know and don't know that are shaping our ideas of what can happen. And those stories are concoctions of our own private souls and a larger public story, like our history--and it's maybe an impossible task to ever really break out of that story, but I feel like you can at least hold it at arm's length for periods of time and have a little bit of clarity, or a little bit of freedom. Like I said, I believe that those little bits or freedom are all that you really get. And that's great, that's not a failure. Like the part in the film where Oliver's talking about Anna. Born in '71, and he says, y'know, there's a point when the stories in our head stop, and I can see her saying this. I can see her crying, I can see her doing all this. I'm very interested in that, personally, just as a human and as a filmmaker.
So tell me about the
frustrations of being a graphic designer, then--you're putting that
experience on display.
Well, nothing exactly like that has ever happened to me. But of course, like anybody--I'm sure in every job, that everybody has, someone tries to think of you in one way, and you feel like you're many ways. I feel like that's really common. And what I was really trying to say with that--I definitely know about that kind of experience of showing work and having it not really understood. But Oliver's really unreasonable in that whole sequence--like he's going way too far. And in doing that, I was trying to describe grief. Because part of grief--part of being alive after someone you love has just died, especially like you're parents--is you're really cranked up, and motivated, and life is short, and I should be doing what I wanna do, and you're very emotionally raw, and all of life's assumptions kind of stop working so well. And you become like an amazing Marxist, sort of--like everything breaks down, like our assumptions about the world. So I was trying to show that, and I don't know quite how my intuition led me to try to do it through those scenes. But it's really more about grief to me than it is about what it's like being a graphic designer.
But what effect do those
kinds of projections have?
...You're trying to unravel yourself from your story, your projection. To have like a little bit of freedom getting past what you thought you could do. And like for the Dad character, for the Hal character, it's [an attempt to] get out of the self-hatred and the shame, and the fear of being gay--it was real, actual sexuality. But it definitely didn't work, right? That happens all the time. That happens in films all the time--the film's a projection, and there's as many projections going on on top of that film as there are audience members. Some are more open, and some are really not going to accept it, or see it in a way that you intended.
Considering your concept
of subjective reality, can you accept that?
Yeah, yeah, that's life. Sometimes, people say like, "I didn't get X or Y or Z, explain it to me." Well, I don't mean to be evasive, I'll explain it to you, but that's kind of like the most boring thing to happen. You not understanding it--or thinking whatever you think--is as legitimate as my thoughts as the author, because I don't really control it. Sometimes I'll try to answer the question just to be a good host. I don't want them to feel weird--they wanna know. But that's the crazy thing about film, you don't control what it means.
How does your wife's work
affect your work?
Mostly, we work very separately. We had been working for a long time before we met each other. It's the constant in our lives. And the thing about us when we meet is like, she's the thing in my life other than my writing and directing. So we don't talk a lot about our work, back and forth. But she's inspired me in that, like--I love her stuff. I think she's amazing, so brave and interesting, and I'm always like, "How the hell did you come up with that?" I don't really identify much as a writer--it feels, like, too big for me. I was never a good student, writing never came naturally to me. So it was very difficult. But then watching and living with Miranda, who I think is an amazing writer--and y'know, I'll say, like, "Honey, I just don't know what to do, I'm lost, I don't get how this works," and she'll say, "That's how it is. That's writing, that's how it is." And that helped me tremendously, because I have so much respect for her, and then she's going through a similar process, and I'm like, "Oh, it's not just that I suck, and I'm a failure, or I shouldn't be writing. It's that, it's tough." And that sounds really simple, but it wasn't. It was a real profound food to get. But mostly we're really separate--we don't talk about work that much, we don't read each other's scripts, we don't see multiple cuts of each other's movies.
Is there an unwillingness
to do that?
(laughs) Maybe. But I think it's also it's [that] we're different, and that's not why we're together, actually. We saw this amazing documentary that Agnès Varda made of Jacques Demy...and Jacques Demy says, "We live in the same house, we have children here. We raise our children here. I work over here, she works over here. But we don't work on each other's stuff, or intermingle much, because," and he said, "Directing's very personal." I was like, "Wait, that's your wife." But the more that we've been together, the more we're like, "Ah, that was an amazing truth that he said." That's her business, and this is my business.