Nevada City Film Festival

Q-and-A with guest filmmaker Mike Mills

Mike Mills.

Mike Mills.

So, before becoming an official indie filmmaker, before making Thumbsucker, you worked in commercials. Tell us about that.

It was a necessary room in my film school. It really helped me. And I really felt like I was Robin Hooding, ’cause I could go make a decent amount of money and then not worry about making money for an art show or for a documentary or for anything else. And really keep myself very clean in those categories.

How did that work?

I did an ad or two and I was very fortunate that they were very creative and they did well. So that put me in this very good position where I could pick just the right kind of ad that suited me. So I actually had a very positive experience in terms of creative control and all that. In a way, I was treated more like an artist and like an auteur when I did ads than when I did my independent film. With the film, you’re actually creating an object that has to go and be sold and needs to attract people, and the people who invested money need their money back. When you do an ad, you don’t have that. You have a captured audience. And if you’re doing the right kind of ad, they want you to be weird and free and to break the rules. So in my experience, the indie world and Sundance and all that was actually more restrictive than the very particular kind of ads I’ve gotten to do. But, that said, I have very mixed feelings about doing ads. Just because an ad is very creative and interesting … maybe that makes it all the worse for society … ’cause you’re just doing a better job of disguising what’s really going on, and that’s basically just consumerism. Although I do these kinds of ads where you’re not really selling anything. You’re just doing kind of a brand thing, like, “Hey, Volkswagen!” But the whole thing is corrupt. Maybe it’s a little more highbrow, but that’s actually more specious when you think about it.

Ah, but what about music videos?

Music videos for me were and still are one of my favorite things to do. There are so many amazing video directors that I’ve admired. When you do a video, you write the idea. So to me it’s where the American film industry is breeding auteurs. It’s the only place. You practice writing ideas, you practice realizing your own concepts. I mean, when you do ads, the concept starts with the ad agency and then you put your spin on it. But getting to do all that on your own and practice that and figure that out, that’s the real nuts and bolts.

Obviously it helps to be into music.

Oh, yeah. I was a teenager right when MTV came out, and music’s always been so important to me and my identity. In high school I was in so many punk bands, and that’s where I really figured out who I was. In more than a superficial way, I think that culture helped me be more willing to be on my own path. And not just like a clothing look but it’s actually kind of a form of spirituality or something, where you’re getting past yourself and past what you know, and being in a hot sweaty crowd really provided that for me.

Well that’s something a video can’t give you, right?

A lot of people would argue that videos ruined or diminished the power of going and seeing a band in person, which is totally true. But once you’re living in this mediated world, a music video—a good music video, which is very rare, you know, not just a publicity video but a creative one—is a great experience. If you’re interested in visuals, as I was as a kid, it was an amazing thing to bump into. And it gave you a lot of pretty subversive creative little blips to have on our TV. If you’re a filmmaker and you’re watching Godard or Antonioni or whatever, and you’re working and trying to develop your way in a commercial context, music videos are a way in which you get to exercise some of that stuff and have it be shown to the world.

How do you feel about screening your stuff for a festival audience?

A lot of it’s just embarrassing. I think part of being a filmmaker is that you want to be behind the camera. But that’s sort of an interesting challenge, to have to be there. Most director friends I have, we don’t watch our stuff. Once you make it it’s kind of over. So it’s a little bit like the day at school where you have to go and talk to the principal with your parents there.

So it’s like being punished?

Well, you know, just showing your work in front of any group has a piece of that. Like, OK, here’s what you really did, not what you dreamed up in your mind that you did. But especially when you do a feature film … you’re working so long alone with an abstract idea of an audience in your head, so it’s a real gift to be able to have an actual audience.

What do you make of Nevada City?

It’s a great town. There’s something weird and special about all the kids there.

I know you mean that in a good way. What about the fest itself?

From what I can tell, what I like the most about it is that is just these local guys who just did it on their own, and in their own way. And that’s so nice. We need less Sundances and more little film festivals. I’ve been to Sundance and Toronto because I had a film there. But what normal person’s gonna pay 400 bucks to get the pass to get into the big festival? It’s still too hard and inaccessible. And the bigger festivals, they all tend to pick the same films. It’s a little mafia of its own. So, more little regional things that are created by local people trying to create a little artistic community. That’s so much more valuable. Like, you guys are having the county fair up there about now, right?

Um …

It’d be awesome if film festivals were more like county fairs, or a part of the county fair. That would be great. The more easy it is and the more odd, with stuff you really can’t see anywhere else, the better. Then filmmaking really would be like a live show and you’d really have to go see it.

Has Thumbsucker made a big difference in your career?

(Laughs.) No, I wish. Thumbsucker did well, and got awards and stuff at festivals and did pretty well critically, but it wasn’t any gangbusters at the box office. So it’s not like people are calling me that weren’t calling me before. If anything, it’s really sort of cemented this idea for me that you are your own producer, and you are your own little miniature film industry. And no matter what happens in the big industry, you just have to keep going and keep making things, and you have to be willing to work even if it feels like no one’s really wanting you to continue.