The Designer as Filmmaker: An Interview with Mike Mills
By Sue Apfelbaum June 10, 2011
Header Image
The Designer as Filmmaker: An Interview with Mike Mills
By Sue Apfelbaum June 10, 2011
The Designer as Filmmaker: An Interview with Mike Mills
By Sue Apfelbaum June 10, 2011
Header Image

You’re never too old to be a beginner at something—whether it’s a relationship or a career or just a new way of seeing the world. That’s the premise of the latest film by writer-director Mike Mills, Beginners. Mills began his career as a graphic designer, but is now known for his commercials, music videos, documentaries and narrative films. In 2007 he adapted the Walter Kirn novel Thumbsucker into a feature film, his first foray into long-form storytelling. Beginners marks a beginning for Mills, too, as it’s the first movie he’s both written and directed. Based so closely on events in his own life that the lines between autobiography and fiction blur, Beginners centers on Oliver Fields (Ewan McGregor), a graphic designer, and his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), both of whom are dealing with the death of Oliver’s mother. For Hal, it’s an opportunity to start living the life he denied himself for 75 years and embrace the fact that he’s gay; for Oliver it’s a chance to get to finally know this man who raised him and to find a love of his own. As with all of Mills’ work, it is deeply human and visually brilliant. No matter what his medium, Mills captures honesty, with all its flaws, and Beginners is no exception. When I interviewed Mills around Thumbsucker’s release, he was in the process of writing this script. At the time he said, “Every film I’m going to do in the future has to be totally myself, totally as authentic as I can make it, and totally as personal and as weird, and that only I can do.” And that’s just what he’s done. We spoke again recently, and here’s what he had to say about making a film so close to home and his unique perspective as a designer-turned-director.

There aren’t too many films I can think of that are told from the perspective of a designer.

I know, right? I was excited. I have great designer pride, even though I’m sure most designers probably don’t think of me as a designer anymore, but part of me, I really strongly identify with that life. Working at a desk like [Oliver’s in the film]… those are all my notebooks and those are my drawings. And I’ve been in the position Oliver’s been in so many times, so… I don’t know, I was very psyched that he was a graphic designer.

You show Oliver coming up with elaborate concepts that are not what the client wants, like they’re missing the genius of his ideas. But when I think of you in that position, it’s hard for me to imagine that you faced that much resistance. Working with bands like Air, that you created an entire visual identity for…

Oh my god, but the thing that ends up on the Air record cover is not my first pitch to them at all. For better or worse—I think I got this a bit from working at M&Co and Tibor’s way with his clients—I would fully go for it, and if I felt like I was doing something other than what the client wanted, I wouldn’t let that stop me, so I’ve been fired many times [laughs] or told to stop and go another direction. But the reason that’s really in the film, I felt like that was a way to talk about grief, in a strange way. Because grief to me, part of it isn’t just sadness and being down, but this strong insistence to, like, live life, and do what you want, and not just play by the rules. And there’s this kind of unreasonableness that Oliver, the graphic designer, is doing when he keeps not doing what the client wants.

That’s a quality that your father, I mean Hal, in the film represents. It’s never too late to live life to the fullest and to defy expectations.

In a big way, yeah. My real dad did come out of the closet when he was 75, after my mom passed away, and did that in a big, deep way, I mean, overcame so many fears and so much self-loathing that he had internalized from our history and the way we’ve dealt with homosexuality [as a society]. And when he did that, he blossomed in so many ways, emotionally, as my dad he became such a more exciting and engaging dad. He became so much more emotionally alive and vivid. You could really talk with him about so many things.

So, I have to ask you, since I’m interviewing you for AIGA, I found an old AIGA Journal with your writing in it, about Herbert Bayer. That must have been whole other life ago for you, right?

Right, and that refers to many lives ago because I met Herbert Bayer through my father [Paul Mills, former director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art], because he lived in Santa Barbara at the end of his life, and my father was really involved with getting his big Chromatic Gates sculpture put up publicly. And Herbert Bayer told me to go to Cooper Union, because I got into Cooper and RISD, and I was trying to figure it out and he was like, [impersonating Bayer] “Oh, you must go to Cooper Union,” so I was like, of course I have to listen to Herbert Bayer [laughs].

You use graphic imagery to communicate the different eras of the film—1955, when your father and mother married, and 2003, the year she died and he came out. It’s especially interesting to see what the era was like for your father, who obviously did not feel free to live life as he might have wanted. You convey that by showing those advertisements that showed the ideals of the time…

A lot of those, we got them from Look, and Look had to give their whole thing to the Library of Congress, so we could use them for quite cheap. Oliver is trying to think about what it was like in 1955, and so it becomes all these representations. Like, if I show you the stars, does that help? Or if I show you pets, or if I show you presidents. How do we get closer to knowing what this historical context was like? And I knew just from doing graphics and stuff, this could be quite kinetic. If I show a whole string of people kissing, that’ll actually have a lot of movement, a lot of life in it.

Before I was a filmmaker I loved Godard as a graphic designer. He does the best design, to me. And a lot of my graphics being very, almost sort of didactic or presentational, or sort of centered and clean, to me really comes from how Godard uses type and still imagery in his films, in Tout va bien or One Plus One or Pierrot le Fou, so Godard’s been influencing me for a very long time. And the graffiti in the film is much more sort of May 1968, sort of Situationist graffiti rather than being like hip-hop graffiti.

And this again is drawn from your experience.

I know [laughs]. Believe it or not, I didn’t want to make a narcissistic memoir, but I thought, OK, if I write about things I know, in a really concrete, authentic, specific way that just feels real, that is the best bet I have to communicating with people, really reaching out to people.

Things like, This American Life—you know, the radio show, which I adore—does it all the time. People speaking, really revealing and honestly about specific personal things. Because it’s so specific and authentic, that is what makes it catching to a larger audience. Always my goal is to talk to people, not make a documentary about my family.

Anyway, I was really excited to have a graphic design film character. And Ewan really loved it. I taught him how to draw. And he’s really crafty. Ewan builds bicycles and motorcycles and cars. And he has this crazy personal aesthetic. He gets old VW’s and leaves the outside all rusty but then he redoes the inside with Tartan upholstery, it’s really specific. And his motorcycles, he likes old, slow motorcycles. But he always leaves them slightly rusted but then fixes up one part of them. He had never done design, but he really appreciated the drawings and wanted to learn how and picked it up really quickly. A few times in the film I started drawing and just handed it to him, and you see him finishing the drawing.

I think the only reason the drawings ended up staying through the cut is that, I think it was interesting for people to watch a drawing happen, but then emotionally speaking, it was a weird way to find out what the Oliver character was thinking. Because often a scene will happen and you don’t really know how he feels about the scene until you see him draw, like, a reaction to it. So it became a part of the story.

The drawings you/Oliver create in the film—and that you published in a book—bear a lot in common with the artwork for Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, the new Beastie Boys album.

Yeah, similar drawing world going on. It was funny, Adam Yauch saw the movie when it premiered in Toronto—and I used to do graphics for them, and posters and stuff—and he said I just got back in his mind. And they were finishing the album and he was like, “Mills, come out of retirement,” jokingly. And then I started doing those drawings as one way to realize the Hot Sauce Committee. And then at one point he was like, can you draw us? And then he slapped himself on the forehead—like, he knew he was recreating the film.

In the movie you/Oliver design CD artwork for The Sads. Isn’t that also a side project for you?

No, but I have done record covers for them really. There’s a real band called The Sads, that’s my friend Aaron [Rose], and then I ended up getting all doppelgangers to play them, and I made Aaron black, which was very fun… I have done record covers for them really, in the past, but I didn’t do any of those record covers in the movie. Sort of all of that blurring of things I have and haven’t done in real life and fictional life, [it seemed to be a] kind of really strange and odd and exciting way to go in making this film that is in so many ways about questioning what’s real.

There’s a poignant moment where Hal explains to Oliver what the rainbow sticker means, and Oliver says, everyone knows what the rainbow symbolizes, to Hal’s surprise. Talk about a powerful example of design.

And then I go into the Gilbert Baker design, or, you know, the film does. It goes into the history of the gay pride flag and where it comes from, and what all the colors meant. That’s funny, I never thought about that. I get asked about that all the time, “How did you come up with that, breaking it down to its colors and what they meant?” And I never thought, well, because I’m a graphic designer. Of course I would. That’s, like, natural.

It’s a very powerful scene in the film, how each color of the rainbow fills the screen as Oliver narrates the history. It’s a beautiful visual.

That’s one of my favorite little things. All those little history essays that happen, often with stills. People strictly from the film world are kind of like, how could you think to show 1955 just with stills? Well, if you come from a design background or if design was the first instrument you played, thinking in stills and in live action isn’t that big a deal. Stills can be as important. I feel like as a designer you learn to work with all these small, simple elements, or at least I did, so it’s easy for me to think of them as being as important as live action film.

Do you want to be recognized more as a filmmaker or do you like getting to be a director, designer and artist all at once? Since you were willing to do the cover for the Beastie Boys, obviously you haven’t packed in design completely.

It was fun. And I’m also doing a Wild Flags record cover right now. It’s weird, the film brought record covers back into my life. I love doing record covers. I have to admit, though, I don’t love being a designer for hire anymore. But I love doing design and I do it in an art context all the time.

Film comes first now.

I love doing everything. But I might try having my things be, whatever you want to call it, more multimedia. Being a writer-director is the biggest stage I play on, and I got out of art and into design because I wanted to be in the public sphere more. And with film, it’s really crazy, all these strangers go in a dark room and watch your story for 100 minutes, it’s like the most intense audience interaction I’ve had with anything. So I think I’ll always keep doing different things. I think I am my happiest when I’m a writer-director, when I get to play with an expanded film language that Godard brought to us.

But I really, maybe it’s also that I’m turning 45 and I want things to be integrated, and I was really happy that in Beginners I got to have the graphic sensibility and the film and the drawing, and drama and comedy, and all things that I like. Sort of more integrated than they’ve ever been and hopefully more feeding each other than they’ve ever been in my work. Because that’s how it is for me in life. They all help, they all bounce off each other and they happen at different paces. Films take a long time, but I could do a book of fireworks for Nieves in like a month. And so while I’m waiting and waiting and waiting, I’ll do other projects, so they end up feeding each other. But I’m glad to have it in one place, and maybe working better than it ever has in one place.

So design is still important to you?

[Say] if I was a musician, I might be playing guitar now, but the way I learned music was on the piano. For me my first instrument was doing design, and doing flat, still art, and I feel it in all my photography and all my filmmaking.

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