'Thumbsucker' wraps up filming
by Ron Cowan
Tilda Swinton stars in the movie “Thumbsucker,” which is being filmed in Oregon cities such as Beaverton and Tigard. Film reel photos (left) from top to bottom: Lou Taylor Pucci, writer/director Mike Mills, Vincent D’Onofrio and Swinton. Keanu Reeves and Benjamin Bratt also star.
TUALATIN — A little Hollywood glamour has come to Oregon, and last weekend that glamour found itself roosting in a hot, dusty rock quarry that looked eerily like the set of a cheap science fiction movie.
But the movie that brought stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Tilda Swinton, Keanu Reeves and Benjamin Bratt to Oregon is “Thumbsucker,” a wry coming-of-age story adapted from the Walter Kirn book about a teenager with an oral fixation. The film completes seven weeks of Oregon location work this weekend.
“I love this quarry,” joked the elegant Swinton in an English accent, far from her home in Scotland and such roles as the time-traveling heroine of “Orlando” and the desperately protective mother of “The Deep End.”
D’Onofrio is himself a cult figure from films such as “Men in Black” and “The Cell.” He also stars in television’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” He, Swinton and newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci, 18, seemed a lot like the family unit they play in the film, although not nearly as dysfunctional.
“It’s really gotten very weird,” Pucci joked. “I call Tilda ‘Audrey’ (her character’s name) all the time.
“She gets very annoyed by it. Yes, it feels like they’re my parents.”
The three were in the quarry for a scene involving the staging of a TV show about the adventures of a border patrol in New Mexico.
Beaverton, Tualatin, Vernonia, Mount Hood’s Trillium Lake and other settings provide the vast amount scenery of the low-budget $3 million film.
“Out of the 282 scenes in the film, one scene is in New York,” said producer Anthony Bregman of This is That Inc., the production company.
Writer-director Mike Mills even has moved the setting to Oregon from Minnesota and updated the time to the present, among several changes to the popular book.
The story remains focused on Justin Cobb (Pucci) and his parents, Mike and Audrey Cobb, played by D’Onofrio and Swinton.
Reeves, who was in town for four days, plays the kindly orthodontist who hypnotizes Pucci to stop his thumbsucking, which only sends him off on new fixations. Vince Vaughn plays his debate coach, and Bratt is a TV announcer whom Audrey fancies.
The theme of “Thumbsucker” is people who feel incomplete, said Mills, an affable man who wore a ratty straw hat and a toothy grin.
“They all have some kind of insecurity to admit and do everything to cover it up,” he said.
“You kind of have to deal with the fact that we’re not perfect, shiny, that sort of thing. They all come to terms with that fact.”
Actors such as D’Onofrio were willing to sign on for negligible salaries because of Mills and his vision.
“I read the script, and I liked it,” said D’Onofrio, dressed all in black with gray tinging his dark hair. “It was a tough story to tell. Whether he wanted me to do it or not, I wanted to do it.”
Mills, who said he is a great fan of local directors Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, said he is echoing some of their attitudes in a cinematic look and a personal rather than formulaic feel.
“I think ‘Thumbsucker’ has a lot of those qualities,” he said of the work of Van Sant and Haynes.
Mills was drawn to the Kirn book.
“It felt really real; you can kind of smell it happening to me,” he said.
Swinton said she bought into Mills and his vision.
“I met Mike 18 months ago,” she said. “We started a conversation, and it kept going.”
Swinton’s character, a nurse who has spent her life looking after others, is a little like herself.
“How do you ever settle down and decide?,” she said of Audrey’s dilemma. “How are you going to wrap your life around any five ingredients?”
Pucci, who celebrated his 18th birthday doing a scene in which the debate team gets drunk, said Justin is another seeker.
“He has no clue what’s going on,” said Pucci, his blond hair dyed red for the role.
“He tries Ritalin, he tries girls and other things in the book.
“At the end, he’s really ready to leave, and his parents are ready for him to leave.”
“These characters are so complex. We’re not taking the easy way out,” said a clearly pleased D’Onofrio.
“We approach each scene as uncomfortable as we can. It’s a very good feeling to have.
“It’s moment-to-moment things happening. The air is thick with chemistry and magic.”
Although Pucci is a newcomer to film, he has plenty of fans on this set.
“He’s so way ahead of any actor I’ve met for his age,” D’Onofrio said.
“From the very first day of improv, he was neck and neck with me.”
“Honestly, Lou is a total gift from God that came on the last day of casting,” said Mills, who auditioned 150 teenagers.
“There are a lot of people who are good at pretending to be this or that; Lou is this magical little chameleon.”
Soon after this film wraps over the weekend, Pucci will be doing an HBO film, “Empire Falls,” an adaptation of the Richard Russo novel, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Helen Hunt.
Pucci also is up for a role in “Constantine,” another Reeves project.
“I love Keanu Reeves so much, I wish I could do more with him,” Pucci said.
Executive producer Cathy Schulman said expectations are high for this film, in spite of its tiny budget.
“Our hope is that although it’s a small picture, it will find a big audience because of the issues it speaks to,” she said.
“There is no chance this picture is going to disappear.”
“Thumbsucker,” which may be released next spring, came to Oregon not just because Mills liked the look of the Oregon locations or the help of the Oregon Film & Video Office, but because Gov. Ted Kulongoski authorized a production incentive, which gives the filmmakers a 10 percent rebate on their first $1 million of spending in Oregon, up to $100,000.
Another independent film, “Mean Creek,” the story of a group of young men confronting a bully, has been filming on a $500,000 budget in the Estacada area, with a cast including Rory Culkin, the young star of the M. Night Shyamalan movie “Signs.”