Writer, filmmaker, music video director, graphic designer, Mike Mills’ creative roots stretch like contour lines on a map. He’s flexed his transmedia muscles for over two decades, collaborating with everyone from Beck and Moby to Air and Sonic Youth and shooting ads for Nike and Levis and a host of other high-profile brands. He’s been to Sundance and back with his 2005 directorial debut Thumbsucker, grabbing a clutch of awards en route. Now the one-time skate punk is taking on Hollywood with new film Beginners. Yet success in its various guises has left the shape-shifter an émigré in his own art scene; shunned by the alt crowd, not yet embraced by the mainstream.
“I do art stuff, I do graphic stuff, I do film stuff – none of these worlds cares about the other one; they don’t take care of you,” he says. “It doesn’t help me in the film world that I did a Beastie Boys’ cover, and the Beasties don’t really care that I did a film. Because I do films, the whole art world kind of pooh-poohs me, like I’m too commercial. The film world considers me [to be] kind of an aberrant thing. The graphic world doesn’t really embrace me because I do too many things. But I’m okay with that.”
While he might not belong to a specific clique, Mills keeps what he calls his “creative family” close. Together with Shepard Fairey, Harmony Korine, Geoff McFetridge, Spike Jonze, Ed Templeton, Thomas Campbell and a handful of other like-minded artists, Mills helped form the Beautiful Losers, an avant-garde DIY collective who pooled their respective subculture roots to form an impromptu global trend. Mills’ good friend and fellow artist Aaron Rose brought the Beautiful Losers to the fore in his 2008 documentary of the same name, but the seeds of the movement were sown back in 1992, when Rose’s Alleged Gallery opened its doors in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, giving the world its first taste of their DIY aesthetic.
By the time Alleged had run its course in 2002, street culture was seducing the masses. Changing the world was never their MO, but the Beautiful Losers had done just that. With the blueprint set for the next generation, it was time to go home. For Mills, that meant going back to Los Angeles. Despite being born in Berkeley some 400 miles up the Golden State shoreline, Mills has long felt a deep spiritual connection with LA. It’s here, of course, that the foundations were laid of the industry Mills is currently dallying with. Although he hardly embodies the Hollywood dream, his creative outlook is informed by cinema’s formative years.
“I live in Silver Lake,” explains Mills. “It’s far away from the beach and Santa Monica and the whole film industry, but it’s also within two minutes of the big film lot where [director] DW Griffith made Intolerance. There’s a big Blockbuster video store there now. In the other direction, literally two minutes away, is Walt Disney’s studio where Mickey Mouse was first drawn and animated. That’s a supermarket now. It’s kind of amazing, everywhere I walk it’s like, ‘Well, Charlie Chaplin must have walked here; Buster Keaton, DW Griffith, all these people must have walked here.’ But it’s all invisible now. I’m always looking back. I love old Hollywood through the teens, twenties and thirties because it was being invented then; it was like this whole new entrepreneurial world that was just being discovered. It’s a little bit like coming from skateboarding, being a part of these cultures that were born from punk.”
By his own admission Mills is “obsessed with history”. So it’s fitting that his new film – while progressive in its scale – revisits a chapter of his personal narrative. Mirroring a traumatic and transformative period in Mills’ life, Beginners focuses on a father-son dynamic that’s altered by a revelatory autumn moment. After the death of his wife, Christopher Plummer’s character comes out as gay and dedicates his last days to discovering a new kind of love, much to the surprise of his only son (Ewan McGregor). It’s been eight years since the death of Mills’ father, who also came out in his twilight years, but the process of bringing this intimate vignette to life has not only given him closure, it’s inadvertently strengthened his bond with his wife of two years, fellow artist and filmmaker Miranda July.
“There’s a long streak of melancholia in my world,” reveals Mills. “Often when I’m sad, I make things to get out of it; it makes everything more emotionally vivid when you’re sad. Because this particular story was written in the hotness of grief, it very much comes out of that place. But as much as it’s about grief, it’s also about love. New love can really rattle you, it can really bring all your ghosts out into the open, it can bring all these shitty sides of you to the surface, all these parts of you that are really unsettling and unresolved. Real love, real intense love does that and being with Miranda reminded me of that. It reminded me of the power of real love.”