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Fade to Black: Mike Mills, director

Mike Mills is not that impressed with rational discourse, at least not as a means to directing films. Mills, a top-tier commercial and music video director, premiered his first feature, Thumbsucker, last month at Sundance to very positive buzz. The director finds it difficult to put into words exactly how the experience of making Thumbsucker differed from his many outings in short-form filmmaking, but he insists it was a unique experience emotionally.

Of course, it was a far more drawn out process making Thumbsucker than it was creating any of his spots for Nike and the Gap, videos for Moby and Air, or his highly acclaimed short films Paperboys and Architecture of Reassurance. It was nearly five years between the time Mills first became interested in Walter Kirn’s novel about the17-year-old with the thumb-sucking compulsion and when he began presiding over the 25-day shoot in Portland.

With Lou Taylor Pucci in the title role, Thumbsucker also stars Keanu Reeves, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Tilda Swinton. Mills had invested quite a bit of time preparing for the day when he would direct a feature with such a top-notch cast, attending prestigious acting classes and reading as many books about acting as he could get his hands on. But he quickly realized, “You have to throw all the books out.” When push came to shove he determined that interaction with his actors would have to be a much more intuitive, emotional thing. “Surprisingly so,” he says. “Each actor is different, and I just would get a feel about how I could approach them individually. It’s a lot like going out a first date.”

Much of his interaction with cinematographer Joaquín Baca-Asay was similar. The two are already quite familiar with one another’s likes and dislikes due to their many previous collaborations, so Mills was able to communicate his visual idea using a rather surprising point of reference.

“I played him Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’ album,” the director says. “I explained how he made this album at his house and how he used a great guitar player to play piano on it even though he didn’t really play piano. I also went over pictures and scenes from other films, but I think the album said more about the way I wanted the film to look than any of that.”

Of course, this was after the two had literally spent several years working out their ideas about Thumbsucker‘s shooting style and minimalist approach to lighting during production of their other projects. “So many people think you have to light everything,” says Mills. “So when we would work together, we’d light less and less. We’d use more practicals inside and fly fewer silks outside.”

Mills did find that his low-light approach was a bit trickier on Thumbsucker, which was shot in the 2.35 anamorphic format. The longer focal lengths required to shoot anamorphic combined with the wider apertures needed for low-light shooting left a very limited depth of field. “A lot of shots we had less than 1/8in. depth of field,” he says, crediting Baca-Asay’s crew for keeping the movie in focus.

The director is used to working from boards, but he didn’t storyboard anything for this feature. “I’d learned before Thumbsucker to let the room talk to me, to get a feel for how the scene plays with the actors on location and not be too tied down to a pre-planned way of shooting something,” he explains. “On short stuff like commercials you’re more constricted about that, but it’s still always the unexpected thing that you get that makes it really work.”

It wasn’t until Mills started working with editors Haines Hall and Angus Wall at Wall’s company Rock Paper Scissors that Mills realized how much more personal and emotional an experience it was making a feature than working on his previous endeavors. “I was surprised by how much personal stuff of my own got into the film,” he remarks. “I didn’t have the problems of the kid in the story, but I had problems at that age and some things in the film are really personal.” He won’t say what, but if you see Thumbsucker, he promises, you’ll feel what he means.

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