I interviewed Mike Mills earlier this month in Los Angeles. We recorded the show at the Marketplace Studios, which was really fun. I wrote to Mike several years ago inviting him to be a guest on the podcast and he responded positively right away, but, given his commitments with his film work, it took nearly two years to schedule. Mike was funny, generous, self-effacing, witty, slightly sassy and completely wonderful. The following is a verbatim transcript of the podcast.
Curtis: This is "Design Matters with Debbie Millman," from designobserver.com. For 13 years now, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative types about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about. On this podcast, Debbie talks with artist and filmmaker Mike Mills about his career and about his formative influences.
Mike Mills: The biggest work influence on my life are my parents' dinner parties.
Announcer: Here's Debbie Millman.
Debbie Millman: Mike Mills has done so many different types of work it's hard to imagine how it all comes out of the same person. As a graphic artist, he's designed album covers for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. He's also designed scarves and skateboards. He's created music videos for Yoko Ono, Moby, and Pulp and commercials for Nike and yes, Old Spice. His artwork has appeared in museums in the US and Europe. His featured movies include "Thumbsucker," "Beginners," and his Oscar nominated film, "20th Century Women." I'm here today in Los Angeles to talk to Mike about his extraordinary career and what it is that all his various creative endeavors might have in common. Mike Mills, welcome to "Design Matters."
Mike: Thank you very much.
Debbie: Mike, you were born in Berkeley, California, and your father was an art historian and museum director, and your mom was a draftsperson who looked like Amelia Earhart and wanted to be a pilot in World War II. Would you say it was a very creative environment?
Mike: Creative and highly entrepreneurial. More than anything, these are Depression era kids. They're born in the '20s. When they turned 18, the draft for World War II started, and my mom, she didn't fit into any sort of typical female dreams or hopes, especially when it comes to work. She wanted to be an architect. She wanted to be a pilot, actually, in World War II. Back then, that was not allowed. You couldn't even go to architecture school as a woman. The war, did a Rosie the Riveter story but not working in factories, but she worked as a trashperson, at the Container Corporation of America in Seattle.
Debbie: Wow, pretty savvy.
Mike: The only woman in the drafting room in the early '40s and then, moved down to Long Beach and worked out on the docks there in drafting field and got to have a lot of opportunities I don't think she maybe would have had if the war hadn't happened. My dad was shipped off to the Aleutian Islands, where he was a gay man doing Morse codes in the Aleutian Islands for [laughs] 40 years in a Quonset hut with a bunch of men. That's a crazy nightmare, it sounds like.
Debbie: Sounds a little Alan Turing-esque.
Mike: If they were here, they would say that America was different then. America was more Bohemian. America was more Socialist. America was more diverse. My mother's always saying, "All the characters are dying. Go talk to Mary Steele over there at the dinner party. She's a true weirdo." They had that to them, even though my dad wore a suit everyday and my mom...They're very hardworking people, not typically arty. They were deeply Bohemian, I think, from just a older, weirder America.
Debbie: Your parents got married in 1955. They were married for 45 years. You've said that your mother knew your father was gay. Your father knew he was gay. Growing up, did you know your father was gay?
Mike: When I was 18, my older sister mentioned something about it. Anybody who has deep family secrets or open secrets, you're both shocked and totally not shocked. Being whatever, not the most woke, heterosexual man myself, as a 18 year old Santa Barbara boy in whenever that was, 1983 or something? I thought well, "OK, so he was gay and he's not anymore." It was a convenient story, when he was a kid he was gay or something like that. I didn't really know much. He didn't seem gay at all. He voted for Reagan. Like I said, he wore a suit and tie every day. Sex just seemed completely devoid from this person.
Debbie: Your parents conceived you when they were 40, 10 and 7 years after your sisters were born. You've stated that you were the product of their recreational sex. They must have loved each other.
Mike: They were complicated. They definitely loved each other, knew each other since junior high. I'm not sure how much joy permeated their relationship, that I saw. They were like architecture partners, I always described them. They loved building things. They had a lot of respect for each other. There was no heat in the house. There was definitely darkness and unresolved things. You have to contextualize it in their time. No one did want they wanted to do [laughs] from their generation, or very few people did.
Debbie: Yeah, and being happy in a job wasn't something that you really considered a lot.
Mike: Or love. Self sacrifice is sort of interwoven with everything. Also, it's complicated being a human being, and sexuality. My mom is equally complicated to my dad in different ways, that are actually more mysterious. Who is my Amelia Earhart mom? Who is Amelia Earhart and her sexuality and her dreams?
Debbie: You also said that she was a combination of Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart, so very butchy.
Mike: Humphrey Bogart, yeah. She really was very butch and hard drinking, hard smoking, contractor person who my memories of her with a sandbag over her shoulder and nailing up a two by four. That's my mom. All the gender stuff in my family is very fluid. [laughs] It doesn't fit into the normal binary situation. They were very interesting people. They had overcome so much stuff, not as much as other people but more than I ever had to. They had this incredible work ethic and had this incredible, it's kind of like the Eames to me, this kind of post war American enlightened mission where you're a part of a community. You need to pitch in. It's a very socialist American dream. You have the social responsibility to develop a community, participate in it, make things better, and the world will get better. The world is going to get better.
Debbie: It was an optimism.
Mike: Yeah, optimism. Part of my parents' hard work was these...My dad was a museum director of the Oakland Museum of Art and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, so you have a dinner party maybe every week. The dinner parties were like 20 to 100 people, so the house is like this constant community center, or party center.
Debbie: Salons, right?
Mike: Salons makes it sound a little more romantic. Santa Barbara in the '70s was sort of a drunken, weird intersection of a whole bunch and different kinds of people. The art world back then was more heterogenous than I feel like it is now. I was exposed to a whole lot of people in that sense that this engagement, this kind of social engagement, they were hosts to parties both in their house and metaphorically, just in life. As a director, that's sort of how I treat directing. I've invited you all to this get together. I am the host. It all revolves around me in a way, or your good time, or your performance, or your job. I take a lot of cues from their generousness ness that I saw and how contagious that is. In a weird way, the biggest work influence on my life were my parents' dinner parties. I don't know if that's really true but I feel like it is. [laughs]
Debbie: [laughs] I know your first job was at McDonald's. That's where you learned that the customer's always right.
Mike: Customer's always right.
Debbie: Has that influenced your directing as well?
Mike: Yeah, I always say that. I joke about that. You know, when you do a movie, you have lots of screenings and you show your movie to all sorts of people. During the edit process, you have a screening every week just to figure out your movie. Often when you get all this feedback and if you really invite negative feedback, as a director, you always feel overwhelmed and you always want to argue with the person, "Well, no, no. That's not what it means," but I never do that because McDonald's taught me that the customer's always right.
Mike: There's no use arguing. If that's their interpretation of your movie, they are right. You're not right. As the author of this text, you don't have control over it. It's like Roland Barthes meets McDonald's is kind of my interpretation of notes paradigm.
Debbie: I find it's really hard to convince somebody that they're wrong when they really, really think they're right.
Mike: In film making and in the film experience, the film exchange, they are right. The audience is always right. It doesn't matter what you intended. If they interpret something else, that's what happened. It's like arguing with facts.
Debbie: You were in punk bands all through high school. Were you first intending to be a musician?
Mike: I was first intending to be a professional skateboarder and skating got me into all this stuff. Skating is how I started doing graphics, really. I started imitating all the logos of all the companies and then doing logos on boards. Weirdly, it was part of the skating aesthetic experience. Skateboarding was an aesthetic experience. You're exposed to kids' style and just all the art that's surrounding that world, and punk music. Skating slides into punk. Yes, it didn't work out being a professional skateboarder, [laughs] or having a company or any of that stuff.
Debbie: How come?
Mike: I just wasn't that good. I was like a sponsored, amateur skater. I was sort of like a proletariat, B level, Southern California competitive skateboarder, but I loved it. It taught me so much about freedom and trying to figure yourself out. The actual experience of skateboarding can be quite euphoric. You're in vertical pulls that's very engrossing and all that. Music actually changes your bloodstream, changes your chemistry.
Debbie: Oh, I think it changes your DNA, absolutely.
Mike: I think I was always searching for that in these other mediums. Film can kind of do that a bit.
Debbie: I read that when you first heard punk music, you stated, "What is this noise? What is this destructive noise?" [laughs] Why was that?
Mike: I don't remember the exact year. It must have been around '79, '80. I was at the Del Mar Skate Ranch. I could tell you that. There was a contest and they played music really loud at all the contests. It went from being something probably like rock music to, it was either the Buzzcocks or...
Debbie: I know that you were listening to, at that point, Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks.
Mike: The very first thing, it was a British band. I remember that part. I don't remember who exactly it was. I remember it just sounding completely atonal and not like music. Why would anybody purposely make this? Why would anybody purposely listen to this? Literally, the next morning, I was hooked. It's one of those things that happens to you. The scene that was around that LA skating scene was the LA hardcore scene, so Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Adolescence, TSOL, those were all the bands that everyone listened to. They frequented the skate parks and visa versa.
Debbie: You were in a band while you were in high school called RIP, which I read that someone funnier than you renamed the band Rock Stars in Puberty. [laughs]
Mike: Yeah, we were all too sincere in our ambitions.
Debbie: You appeared on local radio stations. You played a fair amount of shows. I mean, you must have been pretty good, no?
Mike: As the band?
Mike: The band after that, I think, the incarnation after that was pretty decent. We were on the local radio station a couple times. There was older members of that band who were quite good and interesting, and taught me a lot about music, and turned me on to Joy Division, Bauhaus, and kind of more sophisticated, arty things than just LA hardcore stuff.
Debbie: Once you got into Joy Division, you then also were interested in the Talking Heads. I read that at a punk house in Santa Barbara, somebody spray painted, "Mike Mills is an art fag," on a house, which is a scene that later appeared in slightly different configuration in "20th Century Women." Were you really an art fag?
Mike: Yeah, all that happened. This gets involved in the movie a bit. I have these sisters who are 10 and 7 years older. Meg's in New York City, going to Parsons and really in it, like going to CB's, going to Studio 54, knowing that scene. My other sister, Katie's at Berkley. [indecipherable 12:43] , the Talking Heads played those shows at the plaza there. Those are kind of famous shows now. They both simultaneously, I can't remember who told me first, "You should listen to Talking Heads." Meg some how got me that orange shirt from New York. I very proudly wore it. I was in Junior High, I remember. The coolest, most sophisticated girl in school came up to me and said, "I love your shirt." I remember just thinking, "This is power. This is big."
Mike: Anybody who was involved in that music scene will know what I'm about to talk about, which is there was all these rules. There was all these divisions. If you listen to the Talking Heads, the B 52s, Bauhaus, or Joy Division, you were kind of...It's slightly illegal. You could be called an art fag and that was something that was bandied about. It's part of this larger heteronormative, macho, misogynist part of that hardcore scene which was anything. To call another guy a fag or to accuse him of being that is like the words you hear right before the fight. It's the big accusations. It's the...
Debbie: Yep. Sissy.
Mike: Yeah, right. It's a derivation of sissy. There was this punk house right by the school where these kids called the cedar rats hung out, and stuff like that. They were interesting and I was totally pretentious. There's a side to their dislike of me which I am sympathetic about. [laughs]
Debbie: Why were you pretentious?
Mike: I still am. I just like the most pretentious art. I'm sorry, but it's true.
Debbie: What do you consider to be pretentious art?
Mike: As a filmmaker, I love Fellini and I love stuff like that.
Debbie: I just think that's good art. [laughs]
Mike: Me too. I went to Cooper, the Friday night film class. The first film I saw when I was 18 years old was "8 1/2." I've been exposed to all that. I grew up in a art house, but I am sort of attracted to things that have a slight fainting couch quality to them, a slight "Oh, me and my malaise" quality to them. That does get a little pretentious.
Debbie: You followed your sister, Megan to New York City in 1984 to go to college. You got in to both Cooper Union and the Rhode Island School of Design. I read that Herbert Bayer told you to go to Cooper Union. How did you know Herbert Bayer at that time?
Mike: Weirdly, my dad's the director of the Santa Barbara Art Museum. Guess who lives in Santa Barbara? Herbert Bayer. My dad was doing some things with him to get a chromatic gate, large, public art sculpture made. I went to his studio a few times. This is later in life Herbert Bayer. He came to my house numerous times for cocktail parties...
Debbie: Dinner parties.
Mike: ...as did lots of people, like Ed Ruscha or Diebenkorn, or blah, blah, blah. A bunch of different people did.
Mike: I hated it. [laughs]
Debbie: Why? Why?
Mike: Because it's, your parents were old and they were...
Debbie: You must have been influenced by these conceptual artists.
Mike: Retrospectively, yes. As a teenager, those were my parents' dodgy parties and I wanted to go meet my punk band. They were like the man. They were the establishment. Herbert Bayer, he worked in such a key pivotal moment. He did such key pivotal work. If you meet him in person when he's like 80, he's just a grumpy old man that told you to go to Cooper Union. There wasn't much substance behind the experience or the exchange.
Debbie: Was that the ultimate...
Mike: That was literally all he said. I came up and I probably said like four sentences to him. "Oh, Mr. Bayer," I was so respectful, blah, blah blah. I said all the stuff and he just said, "Go to Cooper Union." That was it. Done. We're talking about it much more.
Debbie: [laughs] Was that the decision that...
Mike: No, New York City seemed more interesting. Cooper's harder to get into, so everyone's like, "Oo, go to Cooper."
Debbie: It was free at the time too, right?
Mike: It was free. It wasn't so much the freeness, it was the prestige of getting in definitely had a buzz. Since Meg went to New York, the prestige of New York...I'm a punk rock kid, so the punk live experience when you're a kid, and this immersive thing that I was talking about...If you grew up in a house where you feel like you couldn't have your feelings and you didn't know what your feelings were...If you grew up with a culture which basically supports that. I mean, that don't be who you are, which to a white, heterosexual man sounds like whining about my privilege, but it's a very real feeling. It's something I live with to this day, like what am I actually, really feeling? Can I even articulate it when I've been trained for so long not to do that? Punk is a disruption to that. The noise and the liberation within the sort of capsule of noise that you can enter, I found that deeply healing and important. Being ten feet in front of it like those shows, whichever band it was, was huge for me. I've done so much talking about this since the last movie, about the influence of punk on me, and the kind of emotional importance. However you would phrase that, the historical, social, emotional possibilities that are open to a person. My parents have their own version of that which is really interesting, and deep, and limited. [laughs] My dad knew he was gay in the '30s. Imagine that. His father was in the cavalry in World War I, so imagine being that guy. My problems are less than that, but the alternative emotional options that punk offered was really, really important and profound.
Debbie: When you went to Cooper Union I understand you started to think that the art world actually wasn't enough, it was too rarefied and too monied and that you wanted to be an artist. You questioned whether the art world was too much of a closeted, closed circuit, and you wanted to be in the public sphere. Was that why at the time you chose design?
Mike: Yeah, totally. Whatever my talents are, whatever my interests are, I got it. I gravitated towards I don't know to graphics. [laughs] Never would have said that before. This is the '80s, I started at Cooper in 1984, so the whole Soho, Mary Boone world is what's going on. I'm doing John Scully wood prints and noticing that I'm actually doing all the work. Then some curator from the Brooklyn Art Museum is talking about the beauty of his lines and stuff like that. My friends are breaking Julian Schnabel plates and doing that kind of stuff. We all have first seat exposure to the art world, but we're all like punky, entitled 20 year olds, 19 year olds, and very critical of it all, and highly ethical. [laughs] Not knowing really anything about the world. That's a fucked up version of art. I'm sorry. That gallery world, and yes, I'm sure there is lots of liberation to be had therein. Looking at it from where we were looking at it, it really seemed quite monied, incredibly subjective, incredibly...Making toys for wealthy people seemed like what it was. Then I was highly influenced by Hans Haacke and Ellen Lupton, and people who are involved in a more socially engaged, socially conscious understanding of what your practice was and how it was interacting with the world. This was also when AIDS was ravaging New York City and ACT UP was highly active, and Gran Fury, and I knew people in Gran Fury. That all seemed just much more alive, and I guess related to my things that turned me on in the past, the punk scene, parts of the skateboarding scene. I had some friends who were smarter than me, more interesting than me, who started to get into design before I did and were like, "What are you doing?" Even Hans Haacke's work, it involves a lot of design.
When I started to do conceptual art sculptures I started to migrate to the design floor, because I needed to set some type, I needed to do some stuff like that, and I was like, "Huh, these people, they wear nice clothes."
Mike: They're not dressed like all of us on the fourth floor, which was the sculpture floor. We were just dirty sawdust ridden monsters. You know what I mean? I was like, "Who are these people that seemed very intelligent and..."
Debbie: Carrie Goldberg once said she became a designer because she wanted nicer sheets.
Mike: I was attracted to all that, and then just starting to play with type and starting with that, I liked it. There is something...I'd don't know if I've ever really talked about that much, but I liked Helvetica. I just like the cleanness, the graphic quality of graphics. It sounds so stupid, but something about it was very accessible to me and I had a feeling for what to do. I remember...What's his name? George Sadek, do you know who he is?
Mike: I went up to him. At Cooper Union you didn't major, you just had to beg and steal your way into any class you wanted to take. I went up to him as a junior and I said, "Hey, can I take Intro to Type?" He said, "You haven't taken typography? How old are you?" I answered, "I don't know, I'm 21." He's like, "You are uncivilized."
He said something like that. "You don't know anything about culture."
Debbie: Oh my goodness.
Mike: That's how he was treating design. Which I was like, "Right on. Wow, I've never heard of someone talk about design like that."
Debbie: Sounds a little like Massimo Vignelli...
Mike: Yeah, he's a little Vignelli-ish, and he was definitely a Vignellite in that, "Why would you ever have two fonts in one piece of paper?" That is Philistine, you don't talk about things like that. [laughter]
Mike: That's kind of attractive to have such rigour and intensity. He let me take the class. After scolding me he did let me take it.
Debbie: How did you start working for the Beastie Boys and for Sonic Youth? You started working, you were designing t-shirts and album covers. How did you first start getting work from them?
Mike: That's a long weird story. The short version is I lived on lower side. I lived around the street from this place called the The Alleged Gallery in Ludlow Street, and I was an old skater. I was freelance and not making a living. Really struggling, getting change to get bagels in the morning kind of times. This guy named Aaron Rose had this show about skateboarding art, and I was doing a catalog for an Ellen Lupton show about popular culture. A high low show, a vernacular show. I did a piece about skateboarding graphics and the history of skateboarding graphics. Weirdly, Aaron had a show right at the same time. One of the first shows like that too to treat skateboarding aesthetic culture as a thing with a history. I started hanging out there all the time, and I started getting back into that world. I had sort of lost touch with that world. All those bands frequented that gallery. I had a show there and Money Mont came and bought up on of my posters. Then he brought the Beastie Boys back, so they saw that work. It was kind of on their register. Then what really happened was Christina Martinez, you know who she is?
Mike: She was in Boss Hog, and she's an amazing performer. She was the head of production at many different Conde Nast magazines. She like my stuff, she's married to Jon Spencer, Jon Spencer of the Blues Explosion. Jon likes my stuff through Christina, I start working for him. One summer all these bands are touring together, the Blues Explosion, Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys. Just randomly they all come into the gallery, they all like this show. Then in that scene I'm one of the few people that will be at Max Fish till 2:00 in the morning, but I'll go to work at 9:00. I'm the person you can meet at the bar, but also does the job, and knows how to do stuff on a deadline, and all that, so that worked out.
Debbie: How did you first start to work with Tibor Kalman? How did you get that job?
Mike: I was at Cooper, and so I got into design late. I only took two design classes, but I met Ellen Lupton and the Lubalin Center and everything that she was doing there. That was the most exciting option to me as a senior. I was an intern, and all of us Hans Haacke students were pretentious theory heads and we read for [indecipherable 24:23] .
We read all the cultural theory stuff, and Tibor liked that and I helped him with his speeches a little bit, or his one speech I helped him with.
Debbie: The one that he did in Hungarian?
Mike: No, no. He had many speeches and he was quite good at that. He had these three slide projector slide shows he was doing. I was kind of in charge of keeping track of all the slides, and making sure those things went well. That was a scary job. It was live.
Debbie: That was a tough job back then, because you had to make sure they were all in order and then they would fall out.
Mike: It was live and you had to go with him.
Debbie: It must have been terrifying.
Mike: It was a little scary. Then he liked that I knew something about this, or pretended to know something about this cultural theory stuff. I think he was trying to incorporate some of that in some of his talks and I helped with that.
While I was doing that I learned about graphic design really on the job, and Marlene McCarty who is a Basel person and taught me about accidents. That's how I learned, because I only had two classes before that.
Debbie: You said that you were nervous around Tibor. I also read that you were nervous and self conscious around Kim Gordon and Mike D, but yet you did all this amazing work for them. How did you get over this nerdy self consciousness in both places?
Mike: The work is where you hide. The work has always been the shield. I'm not self conscious in the work, that's the thing, especially if I'm alone. [laughs] That's always been the thing from childhood, where I could be free and somewhat myself, ish. Live interactions are where it's still nerve racking. I can get nervous around anybody. Yeah, that's just me. [laughs] The work was always a place where I could be bigger than I am, or braver than I am. Tibor can scare you. Tibor could be just a very intimidating person, and was not an easy person be the employee of. He was real hard on all of us. Two things I really learned, which were kind of amazing but hard. He never let you draw a sketch bigger than a quarter.
Debbie: How come?
Mike: He just wanted a ton of ideas. He didn't want you to get involved in the aesthetics of your idea very much and work it out. He was an idea person, so he was like, that's a good idea or bad idea, then go pursue it. He wanted lots of quarter size things on a page. He wanted you to present as many ideas as you possibly could. The other thing he taught me, which he taught everyone who worked there, which is a great lesson to all the designers out there, is he would say, "Most designers think that their work is great or good or that the work will speak for itself, and they present the work as if it's going to do the work. What they don't know is that you have to sell the job before you show them anything. You have to sell them your design. You have to subliminally give them the words that they're going to say to their friends about why they're so smart that they picked your thing."
Debbie: Ooh, how do you do that?
Mike: He was good at that. If you were presenting a logo...I forgot what it was. Stable Films or some other different low companies. Wouldn't be a huge job, but the last card of the presentation, all these 11 by 14 cards. There would be 40 other cards where you think you want this, but this is why that's dumb. This is I bet what you want, but this is why that's not right. Here's a joke, here's another disarming joke, here's a design that I'm going to sell you on, but then tell you, "But that's really B level," and then finally here's the thing. They're cornered by the time they see the final setting.
Debbie: It's not a presentation, it's a performance.
Mike: It's a very good performance, yeah.
Debbie: Really interesting. You also dabbled in street art, and said that your graffiti comes from a May '68 situationist vibe. What does that mean?
Mike: [laughs] This world I'm involved in, this Alleged Gallery world, rhere's people who will know about that and a lot of that is sort of street art, which I always find a silly title, and a lot of that is graffiti. There's a lot of people doing fine art that was based on graffiti or they still only do graffiti and there is a whole culture of that. I was much more interested in the way situationists would use graffiti. The way that it was used in the May '68 Paris uprising, the way that Godard uses graffiti in his films. It's much more of a sort of playful, innovative, letterist, verbal disruption. Which relates a little bit more to graphic design in a way. When I started to do that kind of stuff it was much more of Godard related to me than ESPO or Shepard Fairey or any of that kind of stuff. To me, it was really still a continuation of this thing that from art school I've been doing which is, how to get out of the art world. How to do art out of the art world. It started with graphic design and then it moved to... Well film is actually even more in the entertainment scene. Doing music videos, doing ads, doing films, that's way off. You're really in the public sphere even more so. Graffiti in a funny way, like doing something in front of The Grove...I tagged The Grove here in LA and that felt like that's very public. It's always been this project of how can I be surprising and disruptive in that space where you didn't see me coming.
Debbie: When you sprayed graffiti on the side of the Paramount lot, you wrote the words, "boring" and "surrender," and wore a business suit. Why?
Mike: I started to wear a suit since I was like 30. I went from being in like a retired skateboarder look and then just realizing how played that was or how unsubversive that became. Right away, the most subversive thing for me to do as a punk rock skateboarding person is to wear a suit, right?
Debbie: Were you influenced by your dad?
Mike: A little bit. My dad wore a suit every day, and also just influenced by seeing pictures of...I'm getting into film at this point. I'm starting as a director. Truffaut, Fellini, all those guys wore suits on set. There's something so beautiful about that. The graffiti thing really helps you. If you're doing graffiti, daylight, middle of the day, and you're wearing a suit and you're a white dude, everyone just thinks you should be doing that.
Debbie: Wow, that's really interesting.
Mike: So if you're going to commit a crime, wear a suit. [laughs]
Mike: Suits on the set are a slightly different thing. It's respect to the crew. The sets are so hierarchical and you're inheriting this hierarchy. It's like the role of the president or something. It's not you, it's the role. It's like trying to pay respect to the role. I kind of like that heritage. As a guy, there's very few fashion options that I feel comfortable in. I wish I was queen ier and flamboyant. That would be awesome but that's just not my taste. I'm a little bit more like Charles Eames. You know what I mean? I'm a little Protestant, [laughs] so the suit is a nice thing for me to be as peacocky as I can be as a Protestant guy.
Debbie: I understand Charles and Ray Eames had a big influence on you in terms of deciding to become a filmmaker, in addition to perhaps your visual aesthetic.
Mike: Yeah, totally.
Debbie: How so?
Mike: I love their...
Debbie: Everything? [laughs]
Mike: I love their lack of employment of high art credentials. Their films are so simple, washing a parking lot, peeling potatoes. It's like William Carlos Williams. You know what I mean? There's this amazing disempowerment of themselves in their work. This is my interpretation. They would never say this, but maybe they would in their sort of democratization thing that they would talk about. Anyone could do it, that thing. There's parts of their design where anyone could do it in a way. It's very accessible. It's not virtuosic to me, even their house. I guess architects would call it virtuosic. To me, it's not. It's Sweets Catalog. That's what's amazing about it. It's prefabbed parts. It's a big cube. There's something very open ended about it and very non fussy, simple. You don't have to read a book to get it. It's a little bit like "Sesame Street" to me in my head, like those Sesame Street films about making bread. All the Eames films could easily appear on Sesame Street.
Debbie: "Powers of 10," yes.
Mike: Powers of 10 probably did. It's like this rudimentary quality, this breaking things down to their composite parts, simplicity, which is not simple. It's actually kind of profound. There's something about that I just really relate to. It's very emotionally soothing to me. I think I have a fair amount of anxiety. The downside of my very interesting household is anxiety. [laughs]
Debbie: Why is that?
Mike: These people aren't who they say they are. This is a house where things can't be expressed, this house where there's a depression that's undiagnosed and unspoken that is humming. All those things can leave you just wanting to know what's what, so all my design tends to be centered, one object. It's almost like Dick Bruna. It's like, "What is it?" "It is that." The Eames are satisfying on an emotional level to me, beyond how it looks and what it means culturally, and all that.
Debbie: Let's talk about some of your feature films. You said that you feel you have the best shot at making a good movie if you work from a world that you've closely observed, things that you truly love, and things that truly confuse you. Why the confusion part?
Mike: That's the most important part in a way, because you need to have an alive question and something that you have to desperately heal or understand a bit more. I'm not going to say, "understand, period." [laughs]
Debbie: As if that's possible.
Mike: The questions that are just gnawing at you and tearing you apart on some level, that's great film material. That's going to keep you charged all the way through. That's going to be alive in a certain way. It's going to have a certain electricity. It's not just for me. I love Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish." I love "Howl" because it has that quality to it. There's a desperate, "He has to write that to be sane." Other things like Maggie Nelson's "Argonauts," that book, I feel like it's someone trying to understand their world on a fairly intense level. For me, being a first world, heterosexual white guy who grew up in a fairly comfortable scene, my perspective...The things the world has shown me is not that interesting, or is not that valuable, even to me. I'm not attracted to people like me [laughs] when I'm seeking a book or a movie, or something like that. My parents have very weird, interesting historical stories.
Debbie: What are you attracted to then?
Mike: I just feel like historically, in terms of contributing to a narrative that helps make the world more open, helps make the world more heterogenous, all that...Me just coming up with fiction based on my world view is not just the most interesting thing. Me looking at other people, me looking at things that have happened that have sort of a more historical tooth to it, that have something about someone who's less represented in our narrative, someone who had more of a struggle. For both my parents, there's a personal and political, there's a very minute, granular, intimate interior quality to it that relates also to American history and bigger history. That's really exciting. I got to see it first hand. It's like I can report on it, hopefully with some specificity. That is what is interesting. If I'm just in a passive way going from my basic unconscious, that I don't find super interesting. Does that make sense?
Mike: Yeah. [laughs]
Debbie: Absolutely. Your first feature film, Thumbsucker came out in 2005. It starred Vincent D'Onofrio, Tilda Swinton, and Vince Vaugn. It's based on Walter Kirn's novel about an adolescent boy's mutiny against his family. You wrote a script. You raised $4 million to make it. I read that you aspired to the simplicity of Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese filmmaker who placed his camera at only two levels, sitting height and standing height. You started with gigantic ambitions.
Mike: [laughs] That's very simple actually. If you're starting as a filmmaker, that's a great model because it takes out a million questions. You know, I use the same lens.
Debbie: [laughs] Fair enough.
Mike: Lenses and what they do to faces and what they do to the emotions of a scene, that's such a complicated thing that as a 51 year old, I feel like I'm just really understanding how a 75 changes a scene compared to a 35. A 35 is basically what your eye sees. I kind of learned that unconsciously through Jim Jarmusch. Jim Jarmusch is a huge Ozu fan and has that sort of observational, plop down camera quality. Again, this is very much like soothing to me. There's no virtuostic envelopment to it. It's like a documentary photograph in a way.
Debbie: There's something sort of stable about it.
Mike: This thing which I found in the Eames, this thing which I find in some conceptual art, in Hans Peter Feldmann, this thing which I found in Ozu, it's this stark simplicity, and Satie. I love Satie because I have room to think around the notes and to be myself. There's an openness and you can kind of see the music or something.
Debbie: There's also a sort of sadness to his music, I think.
Mike: Sure, sure. Yeah.
Debbie: That's a part of it that I love actually.
Mike: Yeah, everything I'm attracted to has some depressive streak in it.
Debbie: I was actually going to ask you about that. How much does depression figure into your work? The movie you did after Thumbsucker was about Japanese depression.
Mike: Depression's something that's in my family that you can't talk about, that you feel that you inherit, that you take on as a child, but it's illegal to say. You spend the rest of your life trying to say it, or to have a space where you can feel it and it's OK, to not either be shamed for having the feeling or dragged down by the feeling, some place that can hold a feeling without drowning in it or drowning from the shame. So much of my art and Thumbsucker in particular is about a place to have your shame, have your vulnerability, and survive. I'm attracted to so much art which does that for me.
Debbie: Do you still feel like you experience a lot of shame.
Mike: Oh, sure. I mean, less and less. Years, and years, and years, and years, and years, and years of therapy have kind of expunged that, just being an adult and being married and having a kid, all that, but it's the background.
Debbie: Your wife, artist, writer, filmmaker, Miranda July said this, "Making things is what you do to comfort yourself if you feel an inborn loneliness that won't go away." I think that's one of the best definitions of making things, or the best motivation that I've ever read about making things. Do you agree?
Mike: Oh, yeah. We both share that dynamic. The mirroring that we wanted from the family to the big family just didn't work out. As kids, we found these other ways to slightly control it, apparently control it, seemed to think that you could control it, but not really, just to keep yourself busy and have some relationship with yourself that you can kind of see and feel, and hold onto.
Debbie: Do you feel that "Beginners" and also, I think 20th Century Women reflect that inborn loneliness? There's a sense of loneliness, I think, throughout both movies of trying to be understood, trying to be part of something bigger than oneself in some way.
Mike: There's that. For a different reason, all those characters are trying to be themselves, instead of literally illegal or become illegal in their heads. There's certain artists. I'm sure everyone knows this. It seems like you meet so and so.
They're the chipperest person, and then like, "Oh, I just wrote a new song. Want to hear it?" "Sure," and it's like Leonard Cohen.
Mike: All their songs are like Leonard Cohen but they're a happy person. Their creativity is a place where their depression depression can be a trapping, reductive word where their unknown mystery of that which is not happiness resides. Whenever you make anything, any drawing, any book, any movie, you go into that river a bit. It's not always a negative. It's not always a downward succumbing situation.
Debbie: It's also, I think, a solace in a lot of ways.
Mike: Sure, or naming it to get out of it, or whatever. It could be so many different things. I feel like I am one of those people. I'm doing a project right now for "The National.: It'll be in the National. I kind of feel like I don't know them really, but somehow, I feel like that's true for them. Their joint creativity is a space where that mystery is held. I sound so New Agey but I believe it.
Debbie: No, I think I understand it. Maybe there's this innate, inborn loneliness that is using creativity and effort to connect somehow.
Mike: For sure.
Debbie: Beginners is loosely based on your own relationship with your father. The movie starred Ewan McGregor as a graphic designer whose 75 year old father, played by Christopher Plummer has just come out. He wants to experience the gay life he denied himself when he was married. When you were scripting Beginners, you wrote the words, "This has already happened to everybody all the time," on an index card. How come?
Mike: That story's totally based on my life. It's sort of a creative non fiction or something. My dad dying, my second parent dying, that's quite intense and sad, and a huge milestone. My dad's coming out and having five gay years but not having as much as he wanted, and dying hungry, dying wanting to eat more of the peach. You can kind of get precious about all that. Even your parents dying, you can feel like it's an individual thing where you can feel, just precious. I wanted to invoke the blues in a way. These are things that happen to all of us, all the time, everywhere. Just remember that, to keep that front and center in my head. Everything in that movie came from a real world down to the dog. I wanted to put it into a fire and release it to the world. That's what making a film about it is kind of doing. I also had Fellini in my head a lot for both those movies because he's so good at understanding. His stories come from a very personal space but he's saying it to all these strangers in a dark room. He's really in touch with them. He treats it like a lyrical myth and he understands the connection between the two things.
Debbie: You've said that your father coming out was actually a gesture of him saying, "I want life. I want more life. I want something." This was a man who was so self denying for so long. When this very polite, quiet man came out, it was the beginning of him becoming more vivid and hot and present, which was often messy, but always wonderful. Mike, that must have been incredible to witness that.
Mike: Yeah, I haven't thought about that for a minute. He's also a vain, egotistical museum director guy, so it's not like he was so shy and all that, but he was shy. He didn't do what he wanted to do for so long on a deep, deep, deep level. Your sexuality's such a physical hunger type thing. To see him do it and become like an adolescent late in life, after my mom was gone, which was often really difficult, not boundaried and not cool, not right, not good to my sisters and me. For me personally, seeing him hungry and demanding...
Debbie: And loving, I would imagine.
Mike: Loving, yes, but also you love one person a whole lot. That was beautiful to see, him really in love, like in an obsessed way, even when you haven't seen that. That's sort of a key cognitive thing for the child to understand and to see. It goes into you in a way that is hard to describe. It's a software that goes right into your hard drive. How old was I? In my late 30s, right and my dad was older. It's the way that things are implanted on you when you're a child. I felt like seeing all that, but I don't want to underestimate or under describe how often truly F ed up it was. I'll still take it hands down, no questions, bam, I'll take it versus the other version.
Debbie: It feels as if Beginners was inspired by the notion that it can take an entire lifetime to figure out how to be fully alive. I loved that in real life. After coming out, your father physically transformed. You said that he went from 75 to 40 in days. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role. I can't help but think your dad should have gotten one too, given the bravery it took to completely change your life at 75 years old.
Mike: Life is much more challenging than movies. There's no comparison.
Debbie: I came out at 50, so I can only imagine what it was like to come out at 75.
Mike: Oh, yeah. That's what I'm saying. God bless Christopher. I love Christopher and it was really amazing working with him. What he did, it's fucking nothing compared to coming out for my dad. They don't compare. You know what I mean? They don't compare. It's like a flight simulator comparing to a plane in the war.
Mike: It's just not the same thing. One of the most interesting things we did preparing for Beginners is, I had Christopher, Ewan, and Goran who plays the boyfriend, host a lunch. My dad was involved in Prime Timers, gay men over 50. I'm not sure there's a certain line, a certain year but I think it's gay men over 50. It's a community thing and it's nationwide. It was one of his great helpers, great community things that he bumped into. It's so amazing. Being a heterosexual widower and then being an older gay man. It's like, whoa, your life is so much better. You have all these things to do now. You have a community that really takes care of you, that understand, that had to fight like hell for their community, and treasures you in this weird way. That was a super beautiful thing that Prime Timers was big part of it. I reached out to the Prime Timers. Some guys were in the movie, some gay men were in the movie, and people weren't in the movie but involved in Prime Timers. We had a lunch. I had Ewan host. Ewan had to call them all, get their lunch order, go get the lunch and serve it. Which is sort of like what I had to do a lot. My dad always turned me into a butler, my gay dad. I asked them, "If you are willing, could you share any of your stories about coming out." Christopher goes, "Michael, that is rude." [laughs]
Mike: Something like that. Christopher being from the '30s. That's a boundary list invasion. Luckily, all the guys re like, "No, no, no, I'll tell. I'll tell." They're all looking at Captain von Trapp. They are dying to perform to Captain von Trapp. They tell their stories and it's like every version you could imagine of still not having told anyone and being 55, to their family accepting them to all that. Oh my god, it humbled Christopher and Ewan and Goran in this very deep way. That was the best thing I ever did, and I had no idea it was going to be the best thing at all.
Debbie: It's a beautiful, beautiful movie. The drawings Ewan makes as a graphic designer in the movie, those are yours, correct?
Mike: Uh huh.
Debbie: How often do you still draw?
Mike: I draw professionally.
Debbie: You made those for the movie?
Mike: Yeah, yeah. You know what's really funny? I've drawn as a kid. I drew it all. That's how I got to art school, I could draw anything, so that's how I got into Cooper. Drawing has been my money in the bank. As an adult, there's a funny moment in Beginners where I taught Ewan how to draw a bit, and he was fascinated. Ewan likes building things and stuff, so he was really into it. He came to my studio and we would do lots of drawing stuff together. He loved that. The idea is that I'd start a drawing and he'll keep drawing, then I'll finish it. That's how we did it in the movie.
Debbie: An exquisite corpse kind of thing?
Mike: Yeah. One time we were filming, and there was this beautiful sunset. It's this amazing blood red sunset. We were in between shots. Ewan's like, "Let's shoot it." The whole crew was like, "Let's shoot out this window."
We were at this Neutra house, this Neutra's health house with this insane view. That's where Hal lived in that movie. He was like, "Yeah, I'll just be like you. I'll be like drawing." I was like, "Ewan, I only draw when I'm getting paid. I'm sorry. I draw for a job."
Debbie: Spoken like a real designer.
Mike: I don't draw for fun. He was so like, "Oh, OK."
Debbie: Your most recent film, 20th Century Women is set in Santa Barbara in the late '70s and stars Annette Bening as a 55 year old single woman raising her teenage some Jamie in a boarding house full of wonderful misfits. This film was also autobiographical. In an interview on NPR you stated ever since you were a kid, you yearned to understand your mother, and have described her as a "secretive soul who was different to all the other moms he knew." You also revered to your mom as a tricky ghost. I'm wondering if you can talk little bit about her secret soul, or her being a tricky ghost?
Mike: There's many layers to that. She's born in 1925. People from that era don't talk about their interior lives. They don't talk about their conflicts. They don't talk about their sadness, so, there's a whole bunch of stuff.
Debbie: They're always fine, right? "How are you doing, Mom?" "Fine."
Mike: "Good." She's a WWII vet. She's not actually a vet, but she's like a WWII vet. She's depression vet. Her mom divorced in 1929. [laughs] She had a single mom during...
Debbie: That's pretty radical.
Mike: Very radical. Her mom was, not a flapper, really, but kind of, like a post WWI woman. There's that, that layer. She's a Gemini. Let's talk about astrology. Geminis are...
Mike: Tricky people and the obvious is boring. Very boring. Annette Bening is a Gemini, who was a very magical part of the shoot. My sister, who studies astrology said, "There's nothing more boring than what's expected." My mother was sort of a trickster figure. Her sense of humor was like that. She grew up in the '30s. In the '30s in America, people went to see movies two or three times a week. She grew up on all those fast talking women and men from all those posthaste era of films. She loved Bogart and always talked about Bogart. I feel like Bogart was her best model. My mom was a fairly non gender conforming person. Just imagine Amelia Earhart kind of, even shorter hair and always wearing pants. I kind of feel like this is my interpretation of this, my sisters would have different interpretation.
Humphrey Bogart was her best shot at happiness. His sense of humor, his way, he never wins in a movie, but he survives.
Debbie: I never thought of it that way.
Mike: He's gallant.
Debbie: He's noble.
Mike: He's noble as the plane's going down. I kind of feel that's my mom's software. Bogart's not going to tell you any secrets. Try to understand Bogart's vulnerability or what's really going on with him. I think that's a real person in his persona. That's never going to happen. In her later life, I do feel like there's a lot of secrets in there, about my dad, about her childhood. There's things that, not only does she not what to talk about if you bring them up, but if you even unconsciously, unverbally send a ping out on the family radar, how you're feeling, you're going to get a defensive trickster answer back. Even as a ghost, even as I'm writing her after she's passed away, I'm invoking her, I have to be her, she doesn't want to chat. [laughs] The ghost hotline is not open. My father wanted to talk. My father wanted a film about him. You could just feel it. My mom is much hesitant and trickster y about it. Wants it sometimes, at other times doesn't. That's what it felt like.
Debbie: In making the film, you stated that as a heterosexual cisgender guy talking about women you were worried and wanted to find were your limitations where and make them part of the piece. Did you feel like you did that?
Mike: I'm sure I could have done it more. It's something that I for sure have thought about a lot and stopped me a lot. I wrote that thing for three years and maybe a year's worth of the stopping was, "How can I write this? How can I write these women's voices?" because it is weird. [laughs] Abbie's character is based a lot on my sister and luckily my sister was just very generous. I just interviewed her, interviewed her, interviewed her, and interviewed her. This thing also comes naturally to me. I grew up in a family with a very strong mom, two very strong sisters who are 10 and 7 years older so they're like adults, and gay dad who's a closeted gay dad who's not the patriarch of the family, doesn't know where [indecipherable 58:03] is, kind of like a ghost in the house. I live in a matriarchy and I'm used to trying to figure out women to survive and to be OK, to not be in trouble, to get what I want, to get the attention I want. That's how I grew up, so in some ways, it's very normal. Then as an adult, making a movie in a public space, in the public sphere, getting released at the ArcLight, like, "Holy crap. What am I doing and how am I going to do this?" I was actually talking to a woman friend and she started to say that dialogue that Julie says at the end where they're like, "That's just your version of me. That's not really me," and I was like, "Yes, yes, yes. That has to be in the movie." [laughter]
Mike: That's this consciousness that I was trying to get in, which I'm sure I could have got in more, but I was very happy when I did find a way to get it in.
Debbie: As somebody who not only loved the movie but has gone on to quote the movie in numerous instances, I felt like you really understood women.
Mike: That's nice.
Debbie: Really were able to capture the personalities of very distinctly different women in a very authentic way. You end the movie by saying that you'll never be able to explain your mom to your son and I believe your son is four now. Do you think that you've been able to do that in a different way now that you've made the film?
Mike: He's five now. He's seen the trailer so he knows that line. Isn't that funny? That line is in the trailer.
I definitely, in some ways, made the movie for him. Then, in some ways, totally not, because I made it for strangers at the ArcLight. I think about that...
Debbie: What part of you made it for him?
Mike: Spiritually from me. As a maker of something that takes that long, takes five, six years, there's so many times where it can fall apart, where you're really desperate and it's unlike anything you've ever experienced. It's so brutal. Those moments of collapse, "Why am I doing this?" it comes out. I'm doing it to be alive, that's answer number one. This is how I communicate with people in a real way. I'm doing it to be a part of the world. I'm doing it because I feel like I know these people, and I'm saying that about my mother and my sister. [laughs] If I have feet on this earth, it's because of them and because I've seen them, so maybe I can make a movie about that, and maybe I can exist on this earth, and maybe I could tell that to Hopper, my boy. When I'm having an attack and a collapse, I go through that.
Debbie: When you have those attacks, do you still think you want to give it all up and become a dog rescuer?
Mike: A dog rescue person? My wife is teasing me enough about that to make me realize that I'm being duplicitous when I have that dream.
Mike: I'm more ambitious and less shy than I come across and often portray myself as this shy, unambitious person. Miranda's always like, "That is such bullshit."
Debbie: Why do you do it?
Mike: Why do I do it? Part of me is, and that's part of why I live because I'm George Michael's "fat kid" and I don't realize I'm a sex symbol. [laughter] It's easier as a guy. Being an unambitious guy is an ugly thing so it's more easy to be an unambitious guy. If you're an ambitious guy, you're admitting it. I'm British y enough to just not find that cool. I think it's my parents.
Debbie: Maybe wanting things is difficult?
Mike: Wanting things is difficult, yeah, sure. Wanting fame, or wanting my family to do well, or wanting recognition is definitely sketchy turf.
Debbie: Well, congratulations on your Oscar nomination, though. It must have been pretty nice, although I know Miranda said something like, "Hey, that's buying into the whole..."
Mike: The system?
Mike: Yeah, and it is. It's nice and it's...OK, guys, you want to know the truth?
Debbie: Yeah. [laughter]
Mike: No one likes hearing this. No one likes hearing this because you're supposed to...When people congratulate you on your Oscar nomination, you're supposed to just say, "Oh, thank you so much. It's such an honor. I feel so lucky and it's amazing that my film got seen by that many people." That's the answer.
Debbie: That's the answer. Is there a manual that comes out when you get these things?
Mike: I've heard so many other Oscar nominees say this. I realized that, "Oh, this is this narrative that I'm now involved with. Part of me feels that for sure.
Debbie: Good to know.
Mike: Part of me for sure feels that. Another part of me feels like the whole Oscar process, and all the film festivals you go to, and the whole campaign thing that you do to promote your movie, and Oscars are promoting your movie so more people see your movie, and, of course, I would love to get an Oscar so I could be concrete. [laughs] What are you going to do?
Debbie: Evidence of living.
Mike: Yeah, evidence that I did something right for sure. I'm not above that at all. Here's also what it feels like, people. It's like going to the prom over, and over, and over again, and you're not going to be nominated, and you're not even that popular at the prom, but you're at the prom with all the most popular people again, and again, and again.
Debbie: It sounds like hell. [laughs]
Mike: It sounds like this great thing of going up, but you're never going to realize how not famous you are till you do that.
Debbie: I'm sorry, Mike. That sounds horrible. [laughter]
Mike: That's whining, or what? [laughter] I'm just being honest.
Debbie: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Mike: Here's a thing that's a huge honor about making movies. Not so much all the Oscar stuff and that kind of stuff. It's people write me emails saying, "That's like my mom." Or a mom will write me an email like, "Wow, I'm a single mom and I really liked your movie. I feel like I'm not represented." That's an Oscar. That's the thing that's like, "Whoa, I connected with somebody. When you do tours, you do Q&A screenings every night. You come into the movie and the lights are coming on. You can feel this certain soup in the room, and some soups are better than others, [laughs] but it's a really intimate experience to ask people sit down in the dark for two hours and watch what you're thinking about. That is a huge privilege, that anyone watches your movie, and that strangers do, and that it's not in the art world. To me, that's extra valuable that it's at a Metroplex in Chicago. That's like, "Wow." [laughs] It's the way, maybe, a lot of people feel about having shown at MoMA, I feel about that. Like, " [gasps] I'm not in MoMA." [laughter] "I'm in popular culture. Oh, my God."
Debbie: Mike, I have one last question for you, but before I ask it I was wondering if you'd read something that you've written that is on the cover of your book, "Mike Mills: Graphics, Films," which seems to be suggestions about how to live or a mini manifesto, and was wondering if you would read it.
Mike: I have this poster company line thing coming out of Japan. It was me trying to be kind of like one who works at Bauhaus now. How do you make work that has all the ambition of art but is 30 bucks a pop and part of everyday life? I made all these posters and they were me, just me trying to figure out me. [laughter] I started doing a lot of manifesto things because I'm writing to out myself. They're kind of hyperbolic and embarrassing. It's like a Ginsbergy thing. Ginsberg says, "If you're not embarrassed, you haven't done right. You haven't really gone there." I'll redo this one. I did a lot of different, weird manifestos. They're kind of jokes and kind of not. This one says, "One, be more positive. Two, try to stop anthropomorphasizing the animals I know, or at least do it less. Three, play games that require abandon. Four, get better at maintaining relationships with friends. [laughs] "Five, look at how I'm not fully conscience of my real life, admit that I'm groping in the dark, overwhelmed by the consequences of my acts, and that every moment I'm faced with outcomes I did not intend." I stole the last one from somewhere, forgot where. I paraphrased. That's probably like [indecipherable 1:06:26] children or something like that.
Debbie: [laughs] My last question for you has to do with the style of your work. You've said this verbatim. "My shit is so sweet and earnest. I'm trying so hard to be nice. At times I just feel like, 'Let's do something nasty, Mike, with some evil people. Let's fuck some shit up.'" Do you have any plans to do something nasty and to fuck some shit up?
Mike: I wish I could. It's interesting. It's not really me, and I'm repulsed by myself sometimes.
Debbie: Oh, Mike.
Mike: The sweetness, and I do feel like it is too sweet sometimes, but to do those other things isn't really like my predicament. My predicament is this other place, this vulnerable Swede trying to be kind and generous. I was just reading my son a book about Jane Goodall. I was like, "Right!" Like, "I'm sorry. She's rad. Her whole deal is rad. That is the goal." Here's a Milan Kundera quote that haunts me that I love. He's talking about kitsch. He talks about kitsch a lot, which is basically like sentimentality. In art and just in life, it's this metaphysical teleprompter that asks us to look in the mirror and fall in love with what we see in the mirror and all those problems that we see in the mirror. It blinds us from knowing what we really have lived. That is a very interesting practice, or problem, or pursuit is an...I'm not trying to be self deprecating to get the compliment. There is a sweetness that does block some things, and honey some things that shouldn't be honeyed. In my attempt to see my life, I want to get out of that, but I am, basically... My creativity, my world, my vibe comes from this kind place [laughs] that's sometimes embarrassing, but that's what it is.
Debbie: I know you're not fishing for any kind of compliments, but I will say thank you for putting all the extraordinary things you put out into the world. It really makes a difference.
Mike: Oh, thanks. That's nice.
Debbie: Thank you for joining me on "Design Matters," Mike.
Debbie: To find out more about Mike Mills, head on over to mikemillsmikemills.com.
Mike: Because that's humble.
Debbie: This is the 13th year I've been doing "Design Matters." I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman. I look forward to talking with you again, soon.