October 9, 2005|With wistful "it" boy Lou Pucci turning cartwheels on the berber carpet and his Thumbsucker director Mike Mills horsing around in a way more fraternal than paternal, I suddenly found myself in a conference room with a couple of guys who have no use for "cool." What I vetted from these unaffected souls not caring in the slightest what I thought of their rumpus room acrobatics was this sense, undeniable, that they couldn't care less that I was even there--and less still what species of banal question I had ratting around in my proverbial pet carrier. But it wasn't arrogance (I've been around that a lot--been the arrogant one, too, if tales told out of school are to be heeded): it was something more like fatigue driven to the grist of blithe indifference--that feeling you get during finals week when you realize that after a semester's worth of fear and tension, you just don't give a good crap anymore.
So I relaxed, Mr. Mills and Mr. Pucci stayed relaxed, and we talked all around Mills's debut Thumbsucker, an adaptation of Walter Kirn's cult novel that comes armed with the Sundance stamp of approval and wins at both Sundance and the Venice Film Festival for Mr. Pucci's performance. Mr. Mills proved himself a cynical and articulate voice--the kind that carries a frank opinion backed by a strong safety-net career in graphic design and music-video direction should he burn his feature-film bridges. Meanwhile, Mr. Pucci, with his guileless, open face, demonstrated the kind of ability to listen and pipe in the occasional well-considered remark. Not out to change the world, for a couple of hours, they were just in town waiting for a flight out of it, and there's a lot of freedom in the conversation that bubbles out of that. I'm pleased to have caught them on the way through.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about the kissing scene, the way it's shot with a sun-flare and then the light suffusions that recur throughout.
MIKE MILLS: Wow. Right, it's a flare as you say that we got there, but it wasn't so much an idea of a theme--those white suffusions--as sort of attempting to sketch out this idea of contradiction: that half of what you're seeing is real, and half of what you're seeing is most definitely a fantasy. That here in that kissing scene you have sort of a collision and you see that reflected in this visual cue. My idea is that life is a movie that we're making.
And a dream that we're having?
MM: Absolutely. I believe that in my own life, in that contradiction that half of life is real and half is fabricated. I wanted to use a film style, there are a lot of flares in the movie and I wanted to shoot in anamorphic so that the depth of field was really low. It helped me to articulate that dream idea--to put you visually in that gooey sort of malleable world. The white, in particular, wasn't so much the theme, whiteness--there were a couple of times where we look at chemicals and that scene where Lou talks about Moby Dick that seems to get at the idea of purity--but the intention really was not to talk about the purity so much as to indicate this sort of looseness between two aspects of reality.
Lots of pink, too. Not the least in the music of Polyphonic Spree.
MM: (laughs) Yeah, the titles, right, and the interior world with clouds...You know, I'm going to backtrack a little because I think you're onto something with this idea of whiteness and pinkness, come to think of it. Innocence and vulnerability, right, I mean, is there any more vulnerable colour than pink? It's that feeling of euphoria mixed with a real tenderness that informed my wanting Polyphonic Spree to do the music--and the tension that I like in my film, inasmuch as their music has that darkness in of itself, I thought was provided in a really authentic way by Elliott Smith.
Last project for him, right?
MM: It was. We wanted to emulate the Harold & Maude, Cat Stevens soundtrack a lot and I approached Elliott as one of my heroes, and he was really, really into it from the start. He was really frail, he did some covers of Cat Stevens stuff (including "Trouble" which is astonishing -Ed.) and he was working on these other things, he seemed like he was in a good way--he was working on John Lennon's "Isolation" and he had his own songs "Let's Get Lost" and then a cover of "Thirteen" and then, snap, gone. Five days later, he's gone. Somewhere on some master tape is his cover of "Isolation." But editing the film with that music that Elliott did for us--and my dad was dying at that time, too--it was a horrible time. My girlfriend and I [went] to a Polyphonic Spree show in that time and I asked myself, why not choose happiness? I was feeling so badly about the film at that time and that pulled me through. At the end, you know, the two really complement one another in that they both evoke The Beatles if different aspects--again that duality--of them.
Pull it together for me with the film.
MM: I guess when you come down to it, that is what the film's about--Lou's this warrior for vulnerability: championing a tolerating of it, and facilitating this of all of us for a return to it.
Justin's transcendence, and the parents' return?
MM: Yeah, I think that's right. A lot of it is about this desire of a return to innocence for his parents, isn't it? And it's complicated by the fact that the parents probably got to where they are as the film opens because of this desire for comfort--a dream of home that you try to inhabit, like this illusory expectation of wholeness through property ownership and a salary and a kid. And suddenly you realize that this hole isn't being filled and there's a lot of frustration.
Like the father's reaction to his son's thumb-sucking.
MM: Yes--during rehearsals the topic of a lot of our conversations was why it was that Vincent [D'Onofrio] was so repulsed by the habit, you know, why was he so dedicated to breaking Justin of the habit? When anybody gets that mad, he's scared--but scared of what? And Vincent, really matter of fact, was just like, "It's because I want to be sucking my thumb, too. That I'm pissed I have to be a fucking adult." It's another way of looking at this idea of loss and return.
Tricky. More so for how often these themes seem to get worked over in our independent literature and cinema. Were you intimidated approaching this project as so young an actor?
LOU TAYLOR PUCCI: I was. The more I thought about it the more freaked out I got about it so I didn't really think about it. I only asked the questions I needed to ask and even then I only asked right at the moment that I needed to know. I wanted to have the feeling of Justin and I have to say that I couldn't have done it without the long rehearsal period that we had. The rehearsal was everything. On the set it was easy--the whole thing was the relationships we developed in the rehearsal.
Tell me how you say "I'm sorry" and make it sound un-trite.
MM: I want to answer this one
MM: There's a line where he's sitting on a bed with Tilda [Swinton] and she says, "I've been watching you my whole life," and Lou says, "You have?" And he's crying and it's this potentially corny, cheesy moment, and you know most actors, when they're given that scene, would shake the shit out of it--would seize on it like it was their Oscar moment, you know, the Oscar clip that exploits themselves. But Lou never thinks that way. Look at him, he has no idea what I'm talking about.
After that first take, he came up to me to apologize for crying and if you watch that scene, you see that he's crying but he's also trying to suck it up which, to me, is so much closer to the reality of what a kid that age having that kind of conversation with his mother is likely to do. No tearing of shirts or rending of flesh, you know, just this kid struggling with his emotions and he nailed it where a lot more experienced--or a lot less intuitive--actors would just butcher.
MM: (laughs) Yeah--maybe I just got him early enough, but I think it's his intuition that's going to give him some real longevity. He's very small and in the moment.
See, at this moment, Lou's actually seeming like he's listening to what you're saying.
LTP: (laughs) And I've heard him talk for what seems like days and days and days already. Pretending that he always says neat things: genius!
I know you come from a performing family--more music and Broadway than film. Has it helped not being overly burdened by too much movie experience?
LTP: Maybe, maybe--I dunno, I've really been watching everything I can lately because I was so ignorant about film. I didn't know who Tilda was, I didn't know who Vincent was...
|Pucci and Tilda Swinton in Thumbsucker|
LTP: I'd heard of Paul Newman (laughs)--but, no, I didn't really know what actors had done, I didn't know anything about acting in front of the camera. I was just fifteen when I did Personal Velocity, but now I feel like it's part of this job and this persona that I have to cultivate for you guys where when you ask me what I watch, I need to be able to tell you something or else I look stupid. I have to say though that a lot of the stuff that I've been seeing lately has been just so fucking bad. I feel like, sometimes, the filmmakers are laughing at me for having spent my money on this stuff that they know is crap. So I've been trying to fill in gaps, anyway, classic, old movies. But the stuff that I really like is Edward Scissorhands and The Neverending Story and Falling Down and Donnie Darko.
That's pretty diverse.
Your film is being compared a lot to Donnie Darko.
MM: (laughs) I know it. I don't really like Donnie Darko.
MM: I saw it a long time ago so I really should see it again. I should anyway because people compare the flick to it really favourably. But, like I tell Lou, I wanted Thumbsucker to be a lot more like Ordinary People: to really be more grounded in the real than I thought that Donnie Darko was. I wanted human interactions and family interactions--and Donnie Darko seems more surreal and enigmatic, wilfully, and my film isn't I hope just strange for strange's sake, even though there's definitely some strangeness about it--which I guess is what I'm accusing Donnie Darko of being.
Do you think that the comparison could be more in that they're both about teens making choices about freedom?
MM: Donnie Darko also, you know, deals with sadness and I don't think that a lot of films do that much anymore. A lot of young sensitive guys love Donnie Darko and I think that tends to be the audience for Thumbsucker, too--young guys being sad and being alone and sad doesn't sell.
Am I sensing strife in the selling of Thumbsucker?
MM: Believe me. Your hair would turn white. People just do not fucking want to feel bad. I kept getting this note, this horrible fucking note from the producers while we were editing: "Less self-pity, less self-pity." Just over and over. Horrible, man. I mean I was like feeling sick all the time because I was never thinking that "introspective" was the same thing as being "self-pitying" so I had no idea how to do less of what I didn't think I was doing in the first place.
Fine line between Byron's melancholy searcher and just being a mawkish prick, I guess.
MM: (laughs) That's right--and weirdly enough, I was reading all about Byron here as I was shooting this so you're onto something there, too.
Sensitive artist in a cruel world, right? I mean, let's face it, Byron can be a little much, but I don't know if it's so much self-pity as, what, existentialism short of suicide?
MM: (laughs) You hope. It took so long for this project to get off the ground: everyone hated the title, everyone hated the script, weren't too fond of the idea, even, ultimately speaking--so I was feeling a little Byronic myself. (laughs) Look, I was reading a lot of Thoreau at that time, a lot of the transcendentalists over that time--a lot of Ginsberg and the Beats--and here: (Mills pulls out an old driver's license displaying a grizzled hippie the opposite of the clean-shaven hipster before me) this is the Mike Mills that Lou met at the beginning of this project.
More about shifting realities in transcendentalism.
MM: You're right, I had never thought about it like that but it does all fit in to this journey that I took, too, you know, this arduous, soul-sucking journey in making this film and right there in Thumbsucker is sort of a diary of all that struggle and the places that I was every step along the way. And I think that's why I bristle so much when people talk about Justin being this aimless character because in my mind Justin is this very driven, very dogged, very stubborn character. He asserts himself repeatedly throughout the film and by the end of it, I think he's the spine of it.
LTP: Definitely--and I think that part of my fear initially in this role was how much of a catalyst he was to all the action of the movie. He's the last thing from passive--he sort of lays it on the line to all of the authority figures in his film and in the end, you see him breaking away from it to be his own person.
Let's clarify here--are you saying, as Scorsese has said, that your philosophy of film is that it's akin to dreaming?
MM: Well, I don't think I'm saying that film is dreaming so much as life is dreaming--illusory. I mean, me meeting you right now is a series of projections that I have. My whole life, all of my experience, is projecting onto this moment and onto this conversation and what my perception of you might be. I have no idea who you are, but I have this blueprint for understanding and as I know more about you, I replace that perception with reality... I'm not making a lot of sense. When I collaborate with a DP, I'm always trying to express this tension--this contradiction in my perception of the world that on the one hand there's what can be known and on the other there's what we provide to compensate for what we don't.
Have you lost a parent recently?
MM: (laughs) That's weird that you say that because a lot of my stuff is informed by the fact that after my mom died I feel like I'm living with a ghost and so my stuff--videos and art and now this movie--is about lightness, temporariness, and a certain interiority about our day-to-day. I want how our minds work, how they deal with loss and otherness, to be expressed in my work somehow. I'm used to living in this other world in my head while in the "real" world.
There's nothing quite so existentially dislocating as losing a parent.
MM: Yeah, and the thing of it is that without getting metaphysical about it, you never really feel completely like your parents are gone.
I noticed a lot of "tethers" in your work--a lot of feeling that but for the grace of being anchored to something physically, you'd fly off into the ether.
MM: That's true, and that's the tool that film can be if you use it the right way. With emotions, time, space, you can look through walls and across decades and generations--you can bend film like your memory bends time, it can be exploited in that way.
When you talk about American Transcendentalism, you're also dealing a lot with the idea of Nature as a testament.
MM: Absolutely--and so the suburbs as I see them are an extension of that desire to experience nature but, at the same time, to restrain it somehow. You're talking about this rigid segmentation of plots but with these sixty-foot pine trees, and there you're smoking pot in this fake wilderness, and then Rebecca's association with the Sierra Club. So much of it's trying to get back to something that's not there anymore so that this setting in suburbia is just this patently, archetypically, artificial expression of a real desire to re-establish a relationship with a more natural state of self.
A lot of indie filmmakers bring up Ordinary People nowadays. Why is that?
MM: I dunno. I think it's just a really amazing, a really subversive film. So much of it, structurally, I stole for Thumbsucker, the idea of the parents going through a regressive discovery at the same time as the kid is going through this journey. It's really hard to do that, to have these multiple storylines, and in watching that film I saw that it's possible for the parents to have a private conversation so long as they're talking about the kid. It's just as simple as that--and on top of all that, I find Ordinary People to be an amazingly subversive, challenging film.
I ask that by way of asking if you're worried about the charge that your picture is over-familiar and derivative.
MM: That's hard because I've been working on this for so long and in the meantime so many movies have come out that try to deal with a lot of the same things that we were trying to work out along the way. It's been frustrating, I'll say that. Let me approach that question by saying that I wanted desperately for the movie to be more than just a collection of styles, some avant-garde "quirk-fest," you know. I wanted it to be genuine in its relationships to the extent that I could portray those relationships and my success for me has to be the only way for me to judge its success--especially now that I've lost any kind of distance from this thing that's been a part of my life for so long.
What're the pitfalls for your project as you finally let it go?
MM: The big one is that people aren't used to not being talked down to anymore. I'm not saying that Thumbsucker is the best picture in the universe and that if you don't like it you just don't get it--I'm saying that you might have to work a little more for it and that a lot of people, a lot of critics, don't want to put in that effort. And more, there's this huge aversion to thinking and feeling now--we're in this anaemic, vapid bath and we've been tricked into thinking that Twinkies are sustenance.
Don't you think, though, that people aren't buying it as much anymore?
MM: I think so, absolutely, and you're seeing that in people staying home and becoming skeptical of our president's abilities now, finally, when it doesn't make a difference anymore--it's a time of retreat and I think it shows up in everything. It's a time of recoil, not investment or interest. I mean, this country is completely divided ideologically--there's this movement, it seems like, to anaesthetize thinking, the comfort in being a thinker, in this country, and you see it so much in how our culture manifests itself in this dumb, cookie-cutter shit.
So that leads us back to how Thumbsucker was treated at Sundance.
MM:You know, this is my first experience out here and I was really caught with my pants down through all this. I was already out there as an artist, you know, my graphics have been pretty widely disseminated and I thought of myself as something of a pro to this game already, you know, but it's a completely different beast. When I went to Sundance, suddenly I'm very conscious that I'm in a competitive environment--I have a creation there and I have my picture taken, and suddenly I'm getting negative reviews that aren't just about the film, but are really speculating about who I am and what I believe on the basis of this first film and my background. I feel like all the bands I worked for: now I have a creation myth and now I have backlash for having Keanu and Vince Vaughn in my film, and now my emotional authenticity is being questioned. You're at Sundance and your agent reads you the positive reviews--and when you go home, there's this stack that the production company has provided of just brutal, undiluted shit. I mean, you don't know low until you're called "the lesser Garden State."
Ouch, holy shit. Is that even possible?
MM: (laughs) I have yet to get a handle on it--it's really brutal. I mean, Garden State, Jesus.
They're just looking for a hook.
MM:Yeah--but I'm self-hating enough that I just need a little push to go devastate my kitchen.Let me tell you a story about this process and, again, this is totally new to me. Sundance, right, here I am in the screening with cast, crew, family, friends and stuff, and I get out and the publicist has a list of all the critics and editors that came and their first, flash reactions to the movie split between: positive, mixed, and negative along with maybe a sentence or two that they mumble as they're on their way to another screening or lunch or bed, I don't know. By the next morning, our producers have this shit and are distributing it to everyone they're selling the movie to and suddenly they're basing the selling price of this film on these little blurbs and this really broad, three-category system. Worst part, the scary shit, is that these critics that they're polling know that this is part of their role here and how do you separate now between being a critic and being an auctioneer and a distributor? How do you reconcile that power dynamic in your creative process?
I dunno, Mike, but I do know that people hate "sad" and I suspect that a lot of the reason I'm only as popular as I am is because unlike a lot of those guys who decide how much your film sells for and if it gets distributed, I go about 50/50 good to bad instead of the industry standard of, what, 75/25.
LTP: That's the scariest thing I've ever heard.
MM: Yeah, but the rules are that if you don't play ball then you don't get the "big" interviews--that if you rub the right people the wrong way then the advertising dollars go away, right, and eventually it all just goes away. Listen, so this publicist says, "We have to isolate some tastemakers and get them on board," and they ask me, they say, "Can you sit in a room with like Kenneth Turan and edit the film?" And I said, but I'm done editing the film--and they push you, you know, they say, "Well...is there anything else that you need to do?" I ask them, I ask if they want me to pretend to be editing this movie with Kenneth Turan in the room so that he can feel special and give us better coverage and they throw up their arms: "No, no, no, no!" But "yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," that's exactly what they're doing. When you do an ad or a video, you're never put in a position like that--in fact, you're overappreciated, almost.
Nail it down for me: a position like what?