Purple Magazine
— S/S 2017 issue 27

Mike Mills


los angeles nouvelle vague

interview by AARON ROSE
portraits by TODD COLE

All on set pictures of 20th Century Women by Gunther Gampine, courtesy of A24


Few contemporary Los Angeles filmmakers can claim such diversity of practice as Mike Mills. His career has followed the most unlikely of paths. From his beginnings as an art student studying with artist Hans Haacke at Cooper Union in New York, then to his work with Tibor Kalman at the revolutionary design firm M&Co., then to his career as a celebrated graphic designer in his own right, Mills has left a mark on everything he touched. His graphic design practice mutated to embrace film, and he began directing seminal works in documentary, music videos, and television commercials. Three feature films later, Mills truly is an anomaly in Hollywood.

Mills’s latest feature film, 20th Century Women — starring Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann — is in my opinion his best film. Based on Mills’s life as a teenager in late-’70s Southern California, the film tells a very personal story of the three women who shaped his life.

AARON ROSE — Your career as a filmmaker has followed a very unorthodox trajectory. When we first met, you were primarily a graphic designer, and you weren’t even dealing with the medium of film. How did you first discover movies, and what attracted you to them at the beginning?

MIKE MILLS — When we met, I was just getting into it, but it hadn’t happened yet. I was 27 when I started wanting to do it. I actually remember having a conversation with you about it at that time. I remember you were kind of surprised. But the whole thing really started when I was a student at Cooper Union and met Hans Haacke. We were very much involved in what we thought was a critique of the art world. There was this long transition of me wanting to be a fine artist, but learning that the art world was just too rarefied and too enclosed and too moneyed. I didn’t feel comfortable there, and a bunch of us at school were looking for some other way to be. That’s how I became interested in graphic design, and so I began working with Tibor Kalman at M&Co.

AARON ROSE — So your entrance into design was really the result of a rebellion?

MIKE MILLS — Yeah. I had to get out of all the “art myth” stuff. Design was a job for money and all that, but I felt like it was more transparent than art. The myth of the artist as this kind of creative genius person wasn’t so much a part of that. I also liked working in the public sphere and not in the rarefied art scene. That was a big thing for us. We were trying to treat design as an art practice, but I would also get very excited when my record-cover design work was in the windows of shops or my posters were pasted on Broadway because it was out in the public sphere. I felt like I had made it. I had gotten out of the art world. Yet design wasn’t really enough for me. At the time, I was really into Charles and Ray Eames, and I was doing all these slide shows inspired by them. I loved their multidisciplinary way of being. Then I saw Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, which was very graphic and essayistic, and I’d also always loved [Jean-Luc] Godard. Godard is kind of a graphic designer’s filmmaker. His work is very diagrammatic, and the naturalism of live action photography is kind of broken down in his films. He’s really a multimedia artist. Also, I was living deep on the Lower East Side, and as you remember, we would always see Jim Jarmusch around. He was just in the air back then. We’d see him a lot. I used to joke with my roommate that we were living in an unfilmed Jim Jarmusch movie. Being a nonfilmmaker person, his movies were easier for me to understand. It made me think, like, “I could do that!” It’s not Sophie’s Choice, you know?

AARON ROSE — Jim’s films are minimalist. They’re simple, the structure is pretty straightforward…

MIKE MILLS — Yes, and the acting is a little bit different. Like with Godard, the performances lack verisimilitude. That’s not his thing, you know? Also, I was close friends with [director/cinematographer] Lance Acord, and he would tell me stories about filmmaking.

AARON ROSE — But back then, Lance was primarily a still photographer.

MIKE MILLS — He was Bruce Weber’s first assistant when we met. But he was becoming interested in film. Also, knowing Spike Jonze peripherally around that time gave me access to the idea that [even though] I didn’t go to film school, I could still learn about it through making advertising and music videos. So it was all those people and films that actually taught me how to do it. I basically learned how to game the system so I could actually make stuff.

AARON ROSE — What was attractive to you personally about making films that led you to believe you had something to say in the medium?

MIKE MILLS — Well, firstly, I love photography. I love filming things and capturing stuff. Film really is all about capturing an angle on life. Photography gives you something you can hold onto. Psychologically I’m down with that. I find that very pleasing, and I’m hungry to shoot. Also, as you know, I was in bands as a teenager. I was a horrible punk rocker, but music is still probably my favorite thing. Unfortunately, I’m just not good enough at it. But film is a lot like music because it’s created in time. It operates on all these emotional levels that you can’t quite quantify. It’s in flight in time. Even back in the beginning, I had a sense that I could put a lot of ideas into it. It was a truly multimedia practice. Yet it really took me a long time to learn how to actually do that well.

AARON ROSE — How to build that collage…

MIKE MILLS — Yes. I had to learn how to practice it in a way that the world would accept. I feel like film offers you the biggest toolbox. I also love that it’s so public! Even when I was doing music videos, I loved that all kinds of people saw them! Film offers such a diverse audience … much more than a gallery. Whenever I do a gallery show, it’s always weird. I’m never sure if anyone even saw it. What did that mean? You know? I always doubt what kind of impact something like that actually has. The audience reaction to art is often kind of muted. Even if it goes well, it’s still a kind of limbo, an odd place to be as a creative person. I like being part of entertainment and popular culture. It’s very exciting to me, and it kind of happened very naturally. Also, it worked out better than being a musician.

AARON ROSE — When you’re in the process of creating a work of film, you’re constantly charging it with the use of multiple mediums at once. I’m curious if, in the early stages, you think of a film in that way, or do you delineate between disciplines during the process?

MIKE MILLS — I only compartmentalize it with regard to how I interface with the world out there. To me, everything I do comes from these little notebooks I keep, and I don’t differentiate between ideas. They all end up in each other’s business. The ideas cross-pollinate. With regard to my films, especially the last two, and with Beginners, I was becoming brave enough to start to put everything in. I felt like I finally knew how to do it, and in the end it went well enough where I could say, “Okay, that’s my deal now.” I really felt like I could do it for a long time. There were all these drawings I did for Beginners, but then I wrote those drawings. For example, “Man on ground underneath huge rock, rock says history, man says now!” Then, while we were filming, I had to go look at my script and draw what I wrote. Everyone on the crew was, like, “What?” When I write scripts now, there are always art references. I always describe the art. I think like Hans-Peter Feldmann. Like the artworks that Abby’s character makes in 20th Century Women are photos of all her objects. Likewise, often if I’m doing an exhibition or a piece of graphic design, I’ll write out a word list. Tibor Kalman made us do that. We had to write out all of our ideas, but not finessed…

AARON ROSE — That’s a common free-association technique.

MIKE MILLS — Sure. Maybe it’s also a conceptual art thing. Where my practice isn’t defined by the medium or the look or the aesthetics, but rather the underlying idea. I’m sort of like a philanderer when it comes to medium.

AARON ROSE — That’s a common free-association technique.

MIKE MILLS — Sure. Maybe it’s also a conceptual art thing. Where my practice isn’t defined by the medium or the look or the aesthetics, but rather the underlying idea. I’m sort of like a philanderer when it comes to medium.

AARON ROSE — There are brokenhearted mediums all over town!

MIKE MILLS — I’m a happy adulteress. I have no loyalty to medium. Often, what’s wrong is the best choice or the most exciting choice in a film. Like in proper film, if you cut to a still image, people think you made a mistake. But that’s how I think. If in a scene, a person walks through a door, I always want to write about why that person came through the door, and who invented doors. And who invented walking, and look at all those different versions of walking — where did those come from? That technique is considered the opposite of cinematic. I like the idea of a historical inverse telescope. Nobody wanted to make Beginners, and really in the end only one person did, but halfway through that years-long process of everyone saying no, I had to really think about what I was doing by including all these visual essays. I would tell people when they read the script that all the essays could come out. I would have to convince producers that without all that, we’d still have a story. I had to start pitching it that way! People were balking at those elements. Once we had rough cuts of the movie, everyone thought they were great, though.

Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women

AARON ROSE — Let’s talk about 20th Century Women. I really see so much of you personally in the film. Perhaps even more than in Beginners. All of your films are personal, but there’s something about your new film where I feel like you were really able to rip yourself open. You’re letting elements of your very deeply personal life into the public sphere. Do you feel like you’ve learned to be more open, or is this something that happens on an unconscious level?

MIKE MILLS — Well, I’m 50 now. I’ve lost my mom and my dad, and I started doing therapy when I was 28. So when I’m doing interviews and stuff, the older I get, I feel like there’s definitely nothing to hide. I feel like I have a responsibility to show my confusion and my vulnerabilities. I can’t just be self-promoting. There’s a great book of Allen Ginsberg’s interviews that I’ve been reading forever. He totally lays it bare in that book. He offers up human compost.

AARON ROSE — How autobiographical is 20th Century Women?

MIKE MILLS — Well, my mom was the inspiration for Dorothea, Annette Bening’s character, and Greta Gerwig’s character was based on my sister Meg. Meg moved to New York, went to Parsons, saw the Talking Heads at CBGB, then got cervical cancer and had to come back home. Her life basically exploded. She was the seed of that character. The Julie character that Elle Fanning plays is a combination of different people. My first girlfriend’s mom was a therapist, and we went to teen therapy together, with her mom as the therapist. Like in the movie, there was a wooden tree stump that we would beat on to get our frustrations out. Then there were these girls who were the same age as me, but very pretty and more advanced than me socially and sexually. They would go out and screw around with older guys, then roll around my bedroom around 4 AM, after fucking and drinking, and tell me all about it. I was the “friend” guy. So it’s all kind of based on things I saw.

AARON ROSE — I see real elements of your own personality in every one of the characters.

MIKE MILLS — If you see that, then it means a lot. You know me really well, and that’s a very nice compliment. I would hope that there are elements of myself in the film, but it’s really hard to understand what your own films are. I mean, I’m trying to be myself, and I think I have the talent enough to say it and communicate it. But I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin lately. One thing I so admire about him is how “him” he is! Every expression is so pure. I very much admire people who speak from a totally unique place. Being a straight white dude, I have many less external obstacles, so oftentimes I wonder if it’s even interesting to write from my perspective.

Mike Mills’s index card from his early writing days

AARON ROSE — Do you struggle with that?

MIKE MILLS — All the time! I think that’s why in my last films, I’ve focused on characters like my gay dad or the dynamic women in my life. I feel like they’re more interesting than me. It’s actually funny because in each film, I always forget to shoot the actor that plays the “me” character. I’m serious. I literally forget to shoot them. Also, I think I’m much more comfortable as a female character than I am as a male character when I’m writing. For me, my emotional bandwidth is a little more easily put behind a female face.

AARON ROSE — How do you know when a character is working on the page?

MIKE MILLS — My main benchmark would be if anyone feels like the character is congealing.

AARON ROSE — Are you confident when you write a script?

MIKE MILLS — It’s a very nebulous thing, and I never feel 100% confident. I really need outside comments. Especially since my tastes are so weird. I’m into fragments. I’m into things that don’t make sense. I like all the real nitty-gritty details. Sometimes, I think, too much so. My writing process is often based on reality, like a collage or reportage, but then switches into the seemingly unimportant details. When an actor reads it, I start to think that maybe it could work, but before that, I’m always filled with doubt. My depression appears most frequently in self-doubt. I like characters the best when they’re based on real people. It gives me an external object that I can test myself against.

AARON ROSE — Can you talk about your process for writing a script?

MIKE MILLS — At the beginning, I start writing memories or details on 5×7 cards, and I don’t even think about structure or story. I just want a whole bunch of collage elements to deal with. It can be a piece of clothing, a line someone said, a photograph, really anything. These are things that are very much from the person or a situation that actually happened. I don’t even know what all these elements are. I just have this big pile that I start going through, and I start organizing it. The characters in 20th Century Women were originally called “25,” “16,” and “Dorothea.” I would organize the cards based on which character each one felt like. There were a lot of characters that didn’t end up in the film. There was a dad character at one point, but it just started to feel like it was causing problems. When I’m just inventing stuff, I’m constantly asking myself, “Why?” But when it’s based on an actual person, I feel like they deserve to be honored. As someone who is often a lone wolf, there is a deep part of me that really does love people and wants to connect. This is a way for me to do that. It’s a compensatory practice.

Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening in 20th Century Women

AARON ROSE — You mentioned Godard earlier. One of my favorite quotes from him is that “cinema is not a series of abstract ideas, but rather the phrasing of moments.” Would you agree with that?

MIKE MILLS — Well, acting is certainly that. All you’re ever really capturing are a series of moments. Regardless of what you told the actor, all that matters is what ended up on the sensor. I’m so interested
in being surprised on the day by all the things that happen that neither the actor nor I could have anticipated. I’m always hunting for moments. You know, sometimes I’ll work and rework a scene for years and years, and then it’s shot in 30 minutes.

AARON ROSE — That’s a nice segue because you have a wonderful ability to bring out fantastic performances from actors. How do you work with actors to get these intangible results?

MIKE MILLS — I write very character driven stories. My movies are like actor feasts. They’re about people and not about aliens coming or a bridge collapsing. So they’re places where an actor can really shine. I love actors, and I love acting, and my shoots are very actor-centric. Also, I do two weeks of rehearsal where we do lots of improvising and lots of weird stuff. We almost never do the script. It’s
like I’m trying to cook the actor into this stew place where [the actor’s] all mixed up with the character’s life. I try to find things that are going on in an actor’s life that connects with the character. Ultimately I really do believe in the unconscious. I believe that films are magic tricks, and you have to enchant everyone into believing in very irrational things. At the same time, I like to feed the actors with all kinds of real stories. I give them all these details and all this access to all these paradoxes and contradictions that all people have, but that most film characters don’t always have. That’s really exciting stuff. We try to create safe spaces where we can do all sorts of crazy shit.

Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women

AARON ROSE — Do you have a personal method to prepare the actors before shooting?

MIKE MILLS — On 20th Century Women, we’d do dance parties every morning. What’s happening when the cameras are rolling is essential, but I couldn’t do it without the preparation. For example, Julie, Elle Fanning’s character, is a big liar. So I made Elle lie a lot. Like I would have her tell the other actors four things about her real self, but two of them would need to be lies. She was so good! We could not tell which ones were true and which were false. But after these types of conversations, they have this connective tissue that they didn’t have before. But an actor will only go as far as a director does, so I had to make myself that raw and exposed as well. I also feel like the tempo of my shooting helps. I shoot for performance, and I don’t care that much about lighting or other things. Also, I shoot in script order as much as I can. All these things help. Your most meaningful scenes happen at the end of the film, so if you allow your actors to work their way up to them, the relationships have accrued all this meaning. That way, when something big happens, they really feel a lot. Also, in the edit room, I hang on people’s faces a little longer than most Americans do. So you’re going to get more acting bang for your buck. I like to show those little lost moments. It’s funny, though, when they’re giving out awards for directing, all the techniques I just described are not considered. It’s not macho enough. It’s not “man” enough.

AARON ROSE — That’s so interesting because I consider those things an integral part of the job.

MIKE MILLS — Maybe if you’re [John] Cassavetes? I can get screenings with Screen Actors Guild, but it’s really hard for me to get a screening with the Directors Guild. The dominant American understanding of what a director does is not what I just described to you.

AARON ROSE — Well, I’ve never considered you a Hollywood guy, anyway. Just looking at your background in art and design, I see you’re a very untraditional candidate to be making the types of films you make. I’m curious how you’re able to navigate the waters of the entertainment industry.

MIKE MILLS — Well, I’m barely in it. But, at the same time, I am, and it’s super odd. But really, I just have my toe in the door. Especially since I make my movies so far apart. To the industry, I’m like barely legitimate because of that. That just baffles them. Like with Beginners, I wrote it in a year and a half, but then it took two years to get it financed. Then it took another year and a half to shoot and edit. The thing that’s normal about me is that I write parts that big actors want to do. Also, I really like working with big, famous people. I’m fine with it. But then who are my big actors? A 79-year-old man and a middle-aged woman. Ryan Gosling and Joaquin Phoenix have never been in one of my movies. But I’ve figured out the game enough to be able to write these roles that actors like, and things get financed based on an actor, not the script or the director. Having a star actor allows you a seat at the table. So I can get it figured out just enough to make it make sense financially. But it’s always a weird thing, and I’m really lucky and privileged that someone wants to make my movies. But at the same time, I always feel like I’m two gusts of wind away from nothing.

AARON ROSE — What do you consider your role in society as a filmmaker?

MIKE MILLS — Well, when I started making movies, the world was different. The way people see movies has changed so much. I feel like making films now is kind of like being a 19thcentury novelist. It’s like this old art form that has much less relevance than it used to. I mean, the idea of a theatrical release of an “arty” film is like an arcane thought nowadays. So, when I started in this industry, part of my excitement was being part of popular culture and being able to be part of that larger sphere. To me, that seems like the highest place to be. I truly believe that the way films then and now — film and TV — can impact the national conversation and emotional politics is huge. It’s much bigger then anything I could have achieved in the fine art world. Even the smallest, most minute disruption in the film world is much more powerful to me than the largest disruption in the art world. At the same time, films take so much time, and I still wish I were more prolific. But I also feel that by embracing the theatrical model, I’m still protesting a bit. I make movies partly as a tribute to the movies I love. I make movies to be hopefully a little bit like Mr. [Federico] Fellini and Mr. [Alain] Resnais and Mr. [François] Truffaut. It’s like I’m sending a telegram to my heroes that never gets returned. I’m fine with that. That gives me meaning.


Annette Bening in 20th Century Women

[Table of contents]

S/S 2017 issue 27

Table of contents

purple NEWS







purple BEAUTY

purple LOVE

purple SEX

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