Mike Mills: a thumb in every pie

Los Angeles based Mike Mills is a bit of a modern day Renaissance man. He has long commanded a cult-like following for his graphic design in Japan, shot music videos for the likes of Moby and Air, commercials for Adidas, MasterCard and Volkswagen and this summer released his second collection of printed textiles. Thumbsucker, his directorial début, screened at Sundance early this year is now enjoying general release in the US.

Six years in the making, the critics have hailed the film as a quirky coming-of-age story. When I suggest his adaptation of Walter Kirn’s novel seems more about the impossibility of coming-of-age, Mills laughs. “I would love it if it was thought of as an anti-coming-of-age film,” he admits. In a star-studded cast, which includes the likes of Tilda Swinton, Keanu Reeves and Vincent D’Onofrio, Lou Taylor Pucci, who plays the film’s central character Justin, is undeniably the newcomer of the pack. “He didn’t feel overly trained, or like he knew what he was doing entirely,” explains Mills of Pucci’s first auditions with him. “That really spoke to me because it felt right. We are all good at appearing accomplished, and in some way covering up our anxieties and vulnerabilities from the surface. Lou was just really raw, as a person and as an actor and to me that captured so much of what the film was about.”

Sucking his thumb, as the title makes no effort to conceal, is Justin’s nemesis. The film charts his attempts to break the habit, from prescriptions for the Attention Deficit Disorder drug Ritalin, to pot, sex and the interventions of his New Age orthodontist, played by Keanu Reeves. “Justin’s dying to grow up and find some solidity and be as valuable as he thinks adults are,” Mills explains, “only to realize how foolish adults are; but hopefully that foolishness isn’t presented in an accusatory or judgemental way.” In fact blame is not pointed at anyone in the film, not even the suburban doldrums of the film’s setting. “I wasn’t really interested in picking on the suburbs or using them as a theoretical stage on which to set an argument,” says Mills. “I think this family happens to live there and the suburb is one of their dreams they had.” Like much of Mills’ work, there is a simplicity here that is disarming. The characters “are very familiar to real people I know” making the film both accessible and poignant. “It has taken me years to realize that I like to do things that are emotional,” he admits, “but now my audience seeks that out in my work.”

Directing may seem a world apart from the toil of graphic or textile design, but Mills sees them as antidotes. “I’m really eager to start something like work on Humans 03 now. And my graphics, I don’t even know what to call it – my graphic art – that will always be with me.” This year’s Humans 02 collection is based on the theme of transience, or as Mills puts it, “little events happened and I documented them.” The theme was born the day he noticed the circle of fog left by his breath on a window: fleeting, mundane and somewhat perversely difficult material to pair down to Mill’s graphic sensibility and set into a repeating pattern on fabric. But once he hit upon the concept similar moments started appearing everywhere: coloured paper streamers decorating a birthday party for a friend’s daughter, the cracks in his favourite dinner plate, flickers from candles across the LA Basin, near where he lives, on a rare night when the area had an electricity cut; eclectic, to say the least.

When I suggest that there is a certain irony to his work that is atypical of American humour Mills is quick to correct. “I really don’t think of myself as ironic. Everything in the Humans 02 Manifesto [Everything is transient. Everything is a process not an object.] is something I believe.” In his latest venture several designs from the collection have been adapted as iPod covers, making ‘transience’ increasing accessible to nomadic music listeners the world over. Mills is not one, in his words, to “fetishize” the textile. He admits that brushed versus combed cotton are not decisions he looses sleep over. In fact, I suspect he could care less whether his concepts appear on burlap or paper. Citing Charles and Ray Eames and their concept of total design as an early influence, Mills explains that in an ideal world the line would be cheap – available to everyone. “I think about it all the time: someone made out in that t-shirt or someone broke up in that t-shirt. Maybe someone realized a part of themselves that they didn’t before,” he explains of the textile’s ability to record and narrate its own stories. When asked to compare directing to his other design work, Mills concedes, “You can’t watch 500 people try your t-shirt on, which is why it was so great to be at the recent openings of Thumbsucker.”

What now, for a guy who seems to have already turned his hand to so much? “I’m writing a script.” When I ask if writing is a pleasure or a necessary evil he admits it falls “somewhere in between.” “I’m definitely putting all my energy into this script. Sometimes it is really hard. If I draw something, my first try is usually something I can use. It is not at all like that with the writing.” “I like creating the ideas,” he admits. “I still feel, wow, what a lucky bastard, I just get to make up something and its very personal so I get to mull around different parts of my life and try to say things. So that is a really fortunate place to be in.” Hopefully we won’t have to wait another six years to see if Mills has found yet another talent to mine. Based on his record so far, he probably has.

Oyster Magazine (52-22)