with Thumbsucker, director Mike Mills has crafted a moving film... about a boy and his thumb
by Peter Davis
Photographs by Mark Borthwick | Styling by April Napier / Magnet NY | Shot at Smashbox Studios
Actors often describe film sets as being like weird, dysfunctional families. That perfectly describes the impressive, eclectic cast of Thumbsucker: By the end of filming director Mike Mills's feature debut, the actors had become as tight-knit as any loving but sometimes screwy clan. The indie film focuses on the emotional bonds and breakdowns of the Cobbs, a suburban family of four living in the Pacific Northwest. Mills, who earned hipster cred for his work as a clothing designer, video director and graphic artist -- he created album art for French synth-pop duo Air and music videos for Moby and Cibo Matto -- is obsessed with family dynamics. "Everything in your whole life somehow ricochets from your family," he says, sipping lemonade at a cafe near his house in Silver Lake. "That's a lot of what the film is about."
Mills adapted the movie (which took years of financial wrangling to reach the screen) from Walter Kirn's moody novel of the same name. The Cobb clan consists of Audrey (Tilda Swinton), the mother; Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio), the father; and Joel (Chase Offerle), the precocious youngest son. Firstborn Justin, however, played by relative newcomer Lou Pucci, is at the film's emotional core. Wise beyond his 17 years, Justin grows convinced that his mother is having an affair with a troubled TV star (Benjamin Bratt), whom she is treating at a nearby drug-rehab clinic. The boy's compulsive thumb sucking emblematizes the anxiety he feels over his family's dissolution. "Justin thinks that his mom is too good for the family, that she is going to leave," Mills explains. "I can completely relate to that. When I read that in the novel, I started crying." Rounding out the cast is Kelli Garner as Rebecca, Justin's first girlfriend; Keanu Reeves as Perry, a New Age orthodontist who mentors Justin; and Vince Vaughn, who plays Justin's rambunctious but cripplingly insecure debate coach.
Mills made the film at a time when his personal life was being turned upside down. Shortly before producer Bob Stephenson gave him Kirn's novel in 1999, Mills's mother died. "I was with her a lot. It was one of those big life shifts. When I came out of that, I had to do something important." At the time Mills was toiling on an original script about a family but found it to be too "heavy and self-involved." But after he finished reading Thumbsucker, he was determined to secure the rights to adapt it into a film. "I realized that the family was my family, especially Justin. I didn't suck my thumb or anything, but I so relate to his relationship with his mom. It became a cathartic movie to me in more ways than one." By the time he had finished the film, Mills's father had passed away, too.
Art-house queen Tilda Swinton, the ethereal star of Orlando, The Deep End and Young Adam, was the first actor to sign on. Swinton was so smitten with the project that she became an executive producer. "As with anything worth doing, there were lots of people who said we were insane," she recalls, her green eyes narrowing. "It took a while to get funding." Mills was often convinced the plug would be pulled on the project. Swinton rallied to keep his hopes alive. "We met for the first time with this film, but I feel like we've known each other forever," she says. Mills shares the sentiment: "If I have a problem, I call Tilda. She was my biggest confidante. Making this film, I was told no and that I'm not good enough more than I ever have before in my whole life. Tilda was always there, giving me encouragement to be myself and do the things I wasn't sure I could."
The director's previous, longer-form narrative projects include a documentary called Deformer (about skate legend and artist Ed Templeton) and a tour diary for Air. Thumbsucker has a similar cinema verite feel. The scenes in the Cobb house are played as though the camera were hidden in its walls, capturing the family in their rawest moments. A lengthy rehearsal process and lots of improvisation helped create a natural environment. "By the time we started shooting, we already knew each other so well and had built the characters so much," Pucci says. "The improv was scary as hell. You're putting yourself out there. It's one of the weirdest things to come up with ideas that aren't exactly yours but are from your character." At one point Scarlett Johansson was set to play Rebecca (Kelli Garner's role) and Elijah Wood was cast as Justin, but by the time the money had been raised, Wood was 21, too old to portray Justin. It's hard to imagine anyone but Pucci in the part. Mills admits that the producers were eager to cast a bigger name, but Swinton credits Mills's knack for casting as one of the reasons why the family members feel so familiar and real. "We were all very compatible. We got used to each other very quickly."
Also evident is Mills's obsessive attention to detail. To prepare Pucci for filming, he instructed the novice to wrap his thumb in duct tape for two weeks. "I couldn't tell anyone what the duct tape was for," Pucci recalls, flipping a sheaf of his pin-straight hair off his forehead. "If anyone asked, I had to make up a new reason every time. Having that tape on your thumb makes you feel embarrassed." Justin eventually winds up with a Ritalin habit and does a stint as a stoner. Pucci claims that he never dabbled in drugs at school, so to ensure he projected the physical and mental appearance of being high, Mills had Pucci wear weights on his legs during rehearsal. Even with the cameos, like Bratt's send-up of a TV star with an inflated ego and a nasty dope problem, Mills was meticulous. "I was knocked out by the level of attention that Mike paid to finding the lives of these characters," Bratt says. "I worked for only three days of shooting. Before I arrived on the set, Mike had given me a four-page bio on my character. A director has never done that for me before. Usually that is the job of the actor."
In another small role, Keanu Reeves manages to transmit deep emotions in a few short scenes. Crowned with a shaggy wig, Reeves's hippie-dippy, soul-searching orthodonist is both comic and poignant. "I really liked the script," Reeves says, sucking deeply on a cigarette. "I asked Mike if I could play Perry. Perry is a mentor, but he is an adult going through what Lou's character is going through. He's searching. It's a beautiful and emotionally smart film. It was nice to go from the formalism I felt in The Matrix to the naturalism in this film." The showiest of the small roles is Vince Vaughn's Mr. Geary. "Vince is so funny and improvisational," Mills reports. "You just have to let him go and do what he's so good at."
Born in Berkeley and raised with two sisters in Santa Barbara, Mills says that television shows like The Brady Bunch, Emergency and The Six Million Dollar Man had a huge impact on his life. "The storytelling of TV has affected my understanding of the world. I grew up in a house where there wasn't a ton of talking or explaining the world. TV was talking to me more than my parents were. So making movies about life seems like the most important thing to do, because I'm fighting back at those devils that taunted me through childhood." At 18, Mills moved to Manhattan to study at Cooper Union. One of his professors, a political conceptual artist named Hans Haacke, was a big influence. "He taught me that everything could be art. That's what my career has kind of been. I've done graphics, film stuff. The most important thing is your idea."
Mills's concepts have led to collaborations with Andy Spade (including Paperboys), director Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs and Beck. Corporations like Nike, Levi's, MasterCard and Volkswagen have tapped his subversive take on pop culture for print and TV commercials. In 1996 Mills and director Roman Coppola founded an agency, The Directors Bureau, which represents directors Sofia Coppola, Geoff McFetridge and Shynola, and from which Mills only recently amicably resigned. Mills plans to retire from making ads. "For the last six years, it's become the way I make money. From now on I'm just doing what I want to do. Doing ads was my film school. But that period is over. I like the idea of starting over. I like the idea of losing everything and what that does for you. It gives you a million opportunities. It's an important part of the creative process." Although he's a prolific artist, Mills has always opted to show his work outside the gallery world. In a Warholian manner, he uses T-shirts, bags, stickers and posters as his canvases. He has a store in Tokyo called Humans, for which he designs clothing and fabric. One of his creations for the collection is a ribbon on which the words "Children live out their parents' unconscious" are printed. A green T-shirt has the word "Child" across the front in bold, white lettering. It's completely Millsian. "The gallery world is too exclusive and rarefied. I like art on the Coke can or on your shirt or some part of your life."
Mills is currently penning an original script. Again the subject is family. "It's going to be weirder, funnier and rawer. With Thumbsucker, I feel like I just dipped my toe in, and now I want to jump in as much as I can. Family and love are themes that I am drawn to. I want to go back to that source. The action is around the kitchen table. That's where people get hurt and they win or they [end up jumping] off buildings and live." Like the directors he admires -- John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby and Bob Rafelson -- Mills will have no problems attracting talented actors to work with. "Mike loves real people and real moments," gushes Kelli Garner, who made her screen debut in Mills's short 1999 film The Architecture of Reassurance. "He's brilliant that way. I love Mike. I've had a little-girl crush on him. I would do any project with him." A workaholic, Mills laments that he has sacrificed a personal life for his career. Moving to L.A. six years ago has helped him enjoy friendships and the simplicity of life. "I was getting nostalgic for the place I grew up in, for the plants, the trees, the air, all that. In a really good way, I'm less ambitious." Making Thumbsucker transformed him. "It was intensive therapy for me. It gave me permission to be messy and complicated and more me. It changed my brain. It changed me."
At 39, Mills has mellowed slightly. But he still has a driving urge to tell stories, whether on the screen or on a T-shirt. Before he gets up from lunch to hop back into his car and drive home along the palm tree -lined streets of East L.A., he poses a question with the authority of a declaration carved in stone: "Why not go where your creative road wants to take you?" Sounds like a maxim that would read great on a T-shirt.
* Tilda wears a blouse by 3.1 Phillip Lim. Hair by Clyde Haygood/Fred Segal Beauty using L'Oreal Professionnel. Makeup by Troy Jensen.
* Benjamin wears a shirt by Wrangler47, sweater by Paul Smith. Grooming by Cemal/www.studio-13.us using Murad.
* Kelli wears a hoodie from Squaresville, jeans by Habitual. Hair by Clyde Haygood/Fred Segal Beauty using L'Oreal Professionnel. Makeup by Troy Jensen.
* Lou wears vintage Levi's from Wasteland. Grooming by Manuella/www.artistsbytimothypriano.com using Clinique.
* Grooming for Keanu by Natalia Bruschi. Makeup by Geri Oppenheim.