Thumbing a ride - Bringing THUMBSUCKER to the screen
Getting any independent film to the screen is a daunting task, but that proved doubly true for a film such as Mike Mills' THUMBSUCKER, based on Walter Kirn's novel of the same name, which was not only financed independently, but brings a truly independent point of view and creative sensibility to its subject matter. Offering a trenchant critique of some of contemporary America's most sacred cows--the nuclear family, the suburban paradise, the cure-all wonders of modern pharmaceuticals-- THUMBSUCKER takes courageous risks to speak the truth to the complacency of the way we live.
"It was a difficult project to get going," says producer Anthony Bregman. "It's a really original book, and Mike's treatment of it is also really original… The industry in general kind of frowns on projects that aren't like other projects, where they can't put a finger on it and say, 'Oh, it's worth X amount of money…' The easiest way for them to market a film is to say, 'This is the film that's just like that other film that you saw three months ago that was really successful,' and when you get something that's really original, like THUMBSUCKER, everyone says, 'Yeah, I think it'll be really interesting, but I can't feel safe putting money into it.'"
As THUMBSUCKER and the other daring independent visions that have gone before it prove, there's only one way to get such a project off the ground: tireless, indomitable passion. "I feel it's incredibly important to just work on the movies that you love," says Executive Producer Cathy Schulman. "It takes years of your life, a huge amount of time, an amazing amount of perseverance, and frankly, you never want to get bored. You never want to say to yourself, 'What the heck am I doing here?'
The important thing is that it's something I really love, that I respond to, and that I feel has a reason to be made. That's what gives you the energy and the perseverance to get all the way through." Schulman's passion for the material is shared by producer Bob Stephenson, who first brought Kirn's novel to the attention of Mike Mills. "I was on page 65," Stephenson recalls, "and I went and immediately optioned the book. On page 65! And then I handed [Mike Mills] the book. I said, 'Mike, you've got to read this book, you've got to read it!' And the joke for a long time, whenever wee were talking about the project, was that he'd go, 'Well, maybe it would help if you finished the book.'" Still laughing at the recollection, Stephenson confirms that he ultimately did finish the novel, to no avail.
"Even when I had finished it," he says, "Mike kept saying that." For his own part, Mills can only say, "I'm lucky that he thought I was the right person for it… we were going to get a writer and were going through that process, and then one day, I said, 'Bobby, let me try to write it.' And he supported that, and he convinced the other people to let me do that. He was like my main editor for the whole writing process, and had a ton of ideas, and made a ton of contributions to the script, and also was just the person that made me make sense to the rest of the world." Mills reflects, "I'll forever be indebted to him for that."
The project enjoyed its next stroke of good fortune with the involvement of financier Bob Yari, who agreed to put up the money to finance THUMBSUCKER through Bull's Eye Entertainment, the company he owns with Schulman and their third partner Tom Nunan. "Bob looks to Bull's Eye to identify pictures that would be smart investments for him from an economic standpoint, but also courageous and interesting independent films that can fill the holes that the commercial marketplace has been unable to address," says Schulman. To Schulman and Bregman, Mills was a perfect fit for the material. "I think that if you look at Mike Mills' work overall," says Bregman, "his commercials and music videos, you'll see that it deals with many of the same issues that he deals with in this film. That's why he chose to do THUMBSUCKER in the first place, because it really fulfills the themes that Mike Mills the director, the graphic artist, is concerned with."
THUMBSUCKER represents Mills' feature debut, taking an acclaimed career as a director of short films, music videos and commercials to the next creative level. And while many producers, actors and financiers might be apprehensive working with a first-time feature director, Mills demonstrated from the beginning that the faith that others put in him was well-placed. "Mike had the meetings," reports Stephenson of the conversations that led to THUMBSUCKER's top-notch cast. "It was always just Mike. I would ask him if he wanted me to be in those meetings, and he always said, 'No, no, I think it's a real creative thing… I think I should do it…' And he would! He would sit in those meetings by himself and every time someone came out of those meetings, it was nothing but, 'I think Mike's great!' I mean, we had people walk out of meetings with Mike and go, "Boom! I'm in. What do I do?"
Once the cast found its way to the Oregon-based sets and locations, Mills gave them a free hand to shape their characterizations, encouraging his actors to do extensive background work, and encouraging improvisation both in rehearsals and while shooting. The goal was simple: find the emotional truth of the story by hewing as closely as possible to reality.
"The idea," Mills says, "was to do something where everything in front of the camera was very real, where [the actors] aren't lit, where they're as 'undirected' as possible." That's a goal confirmed by the film's young lead, Lou Pucci (Justin). "The only thing I can think of to describe how Mike works… it's reality. I think that he tries to put reality into everything that he does. I mean, this film is completely real. He wanted it to look like it wasn't out of a movie, like there wasn't a 'movie moment,' you know?"
Another young member of the cast, Kelli Garner (Rebecca) summarized the importance that Mills places on improvisation. "Mike won't hire an actor who can't improv," she says. "He gets scared if an actor can't improv."
Those improvisations are largely responsible for the harmony of the cast's collective performance, allowing them all to find a common wavelength form from which to work. According to Tilda Swinton, the actors took the challenges of the improvisation period to heart. During the rehearsal period, she says, "We set the goal of knowing that there was going to be a day…when other people were going to turn up with cameras and start filming us. But well before that, we were going to start behaving like the Cobb family. We were going to find a way of behaving like the Cobbs and just keep that going, and then take it into the house, and then people would shoot us doing it." Says Pucci: "It's been the coolest thing to do improvs with everyone, with Tilda and Vincent mostly, because they're, like, my parents. And it really felt like they were my parents for this whole movie. It's very weird."
The loose, deceptively casual style of THUMBSUCKER's individual scenes and performances is counterbalanced by the technical restrictions imposed by Mills' calculated use of anamorphic lenses. "It's made [the shooting] more structured," Mills observes. "The actual camera moves and the camera itself have been more static and structured than I thought they would be… I think that will end up being a good thing… But that was the basic idea… it's supposed to look a little dogma-ish," he says, invoking the manifesto of naturalistic filmmaking championed by maverick European directors such as Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier. Mills clearly relished the chance to push his creative boundaries by incorporating elements of disparate filmmaking traditions, and the result is a unique hybrid that has the potential to force a re-evaluation of independent filmmaking technique. "THUMBSUCKER is actually not the type of filmmaking that you're used to seeing in low-budget independent movies," asserts Bregman. "It's not hand-held stuff… it looks really terrific.
It doesn't look like a low-budget film…I think that a lot of his techniques are techniques that people aren't used to seeing, but hopefully will allow people to stretch their creative muscles in terms of how they understand films."
On the technical side, Mills leaned heavily on the team with whom he's worked closely in his commercial and music video work. That was a decision that required the director to expend some of his personal capital, since many on that team, like Mills, had no previous feature experience.
"We fought for a lot of that stuff," says Bob Stephenson. "We fought for a lot of people who had never done a film before… Mike really had to pick his fights… A lot of people didn't have a lot of film experience, but it's really paid off. Because Mike knew that if he had his support team, people that he knew were good with people… it trickles down. It makes everybody happy." Says Mills, "The majority of the people I worked with on the film are people I've been working with for the last seven years… I don't consider them guns for hire. They're part of the team." Like any good team that's worked well together over an extended period, Mills and his crew have developed shorthand that's proved useful in meeting the challenges of mounting an independent film. Costume designer April Napier, for instance, has worked with Mills long enough that "she kind of gets my [idiosyncrasies], like my fetish for corduroys and stuff like that. She knows a lot of the things I'm going to say yes to."
Ultimately, the entire THUMBSUCKER team looks back on the experience as a uniquely exciting one, not least because of the sheer good fortune necessary to create such an honest and uncompromising vision.
Reflecting on the pivotal casting of Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton says, "with hindsight, it was inevitable that there was going to be a miracle like Lou turning up on this film, because the film really feels like it's sort of run on miracle after miracle." Bob Stephenson's reflections take on a more ebullient tone. "Every day, it blows me away," he says. "I just walk around thinking, Man, I'll probably never get to do this again!"
Stephenson's words could be those of any of the cast, crew or creative team: "It sounds really cheesy, but this is an absolute dream come true. I never thought in my life that I would say that and mean that, but it's an absolute dream come true."
"Working with talented people is its own reward" -
Breaking into feature films as a writer-director is difficult enough, but doing so with a cast that includes names like Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughn is all but unheard of.
But as writer-director Mike Mills acknowledges, the biggest piece of good fortune was the appearance of newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci, who inhabits the central role of Justin Cobb.
"Lou Pucci is Justin," says Mills definitively. "That was just the biggest piece of luck, or goodwill, or whatever it was that we had… I looked at least 100 [young actors]… so anyway, Lou came in and he had this blonde hair, and the first [airplane] flight he'd ever taken in his life was to come to the audition. He had done theater for a long time, but he didn't feel like a lot of the other kids... He didn't feel, like, L.A, like someone whose identity was I'm an actor and I'm cool, and all that stuff… he felt nervous and anxious and all that stuff which is just so Justin."
The similarities aren't lost on the young actor. "I think it was just luck how this one turned out," says Pucci, "but I am living the life of the person I'm playing right now, sort of. There's a lot of things going on that I can completely relate with… I really understand what it's like to be leaving home, where it's the only place that you know. And to be looking for answers in all these different places." The fit between actor and character was so uncanny that it even confounded producer Anthony Bregman. "I think it helps to a certain degree that Justin as a person is going through--" he says, before breaking off, laughing. "I'm sorry," he continues. "See? I'm confusing fact and fiction myself! It helps that Lou as a person is going through many of the same changes that Justin Cobb, the character, is."
Casting an unknown and largely untested actor in the central role represented perhaps the biggest gamble of the production. After all, observes Bregman, "you can't really cut around Justin in this film." But Mills new from the moment of Pucci's first reading. "I remember just going, bing! Okay, there's the kid," says the director. "His audition was phenomenal," confirms Bregman. "I think we were very lucky to get Lou, and I think that to a certain degree, Mike went out on a limb to get Lou, since he hadn't previously proven himself in anything more than a short part in a feature and then a lot of theater material."
Bregman credits Mills' intuition in casting Pucci, even as he acknowledges the creative risks involved. "It's always a risk," he says, "to have somebody as the central character of the film who really hasn't been tried before, and he was completely able to pull it off." That opinion is echoed by producer Cathy Schulman: "It was really quite clear to all of us that from the moment Lou walked in the door that he was, in fact, our Justin. And he brought to it all of the qualities that we liked so much about the screenplay. This sense of truth. He was willing to put it all out there--be insecure, be silly, be sad, be angry. He's been a special find and is, in fact, the anchor of the whole movie."
Pucci wasted no time in impressing his more experienced co-stars. "It's impossible to imagine anyone else doing it," says Tilda Swinton, "because what he has and what he brought with him was so far beyond what we could have hoped for… He was so prepared, like all the rest of us, which is why I think we were so well-matched; all of us share a genuine, sort of scientific interest in human machinations… so to get a 17 year-old who was able to be that vulnerable, and watch himself doing that at the same time… it's sort of amazing." But there's no greater Lou Taylor Pucci fan than his director. "I think on one level," Mills observes, "Lou is really smart and analytic, and on another level he just totally trusts his intuition."
Nowhere is that potent combination better illustrated than in his charged give-and-take with the high-intensity actors that fill out the rest of the cast. "He held his own with all these different actors…" Mills explains, "and they're intense people to be around, as the character and as Lou Pucci, and he never let it rattle him. Or if he did let it rattle him, he did it in the right way where he didn't try to hide it, and it became a part of the piece."
The casting of Pucci reflects a philosophy that Mills' acquired through reading the work of renowned director Elia Kazan. "Kazan [says] you have to cast the person. You have to see the character… in the person's history, their life, their psychology, not just seeing them as an actor." While Pucci's casting may most clearly indicate this philosophy at work, it applies to each of Mills' choices, including that of Keanu Reeves, who plays THUMBSUCKER's "holistic orthodontist" Perry Lyman.
"I think that Perry is a total searcher," says Mills, "and I think that Keanu is a total searcher…the difference is that, unlike Keanu, Perry's character comes from a whole lot of insecurity, and that's what made him put on all these masks…. Which is what Justin's doing, you know." For his own part,
Reeves relished the chance to step outside the films such as the Matrix trilogy and devote himself to the unconventional character-driven drama of THUMBSUCKER. "I had finished working on the last two Matrix films, Reloaded and Revolutions… and then about seven months down the line, this script came my way… I thought it was fantastic. It's just really a beautiful script. And I met with Mike and we had a good chat, and we spoke again and I said okay, I'd love to be a part of this. I'd love to play Perry. It's a great role. And it's a great film."
Any worries that Reeves' A-list stardom would unbalance the delicate onset equilibrium were quickly dissipated. "Keanu is a person," says Mills, "who you would kind of expect to be surrounded by an entourage, or really hard to get to, or emotionally inaccessible, or so seasoned he's gotten over it all, but he's another one of those people that treats you like it's the first film he ever did… I was amazed at how humble he was about himself. My biggest job as a director [with Reeves] was just encouraging him that he made the right decision [in a given scene]… It just speaks to how much vulnerability acting requires."
Tilda Swinton's Audrey is another striking figure within THUMBSUCKER's gallery of vulnerability. An admirer of Swinton's for many years, Mills initially harbored little hope that she would agree to take on the role of Audrey. "I remember I met Tilda," Mills recalls, "and I was like, Oh, it was so great to meet Tilda Swinton and she's never gonna do this movie but at least I got to meet her and have lunch with her… I had Tilda up on a very high pedestal, and she comes bouncing down and she's the nicest, most grounded person you could ever meet. It's impossible to feel odd around her; she just won't let that happen."
After she joined the project, Swinton proved her dedication far above and beyond the call of simply acting. "You can't imagine THUMBSUCKER without Tilda," says producer Bregman. "She was very crucial in terms of putting the film together with us… You're only [likely] to make a film like this today if you have a certain level of actors' names in it that allows a financier to feel comfortable putting a certain amount of money in the film. And what Tilda did was she stuck with the film for over a year and a half before we made it, and called her friends to see if they would be in it, and gave the film a certain credibility because of her attachment, and that made other actors feel comfortable coming on board." For her own part, Swinton embraced the crucial role she played in bringing THUMBSUCKER to fruition.
"If I had to choose," she says, "If somebody came to me and said, okay, from now on you're only ever going to make films where you turn up as an "actor"… say the lines, don't bump into furniture and go home, or else be involved in lengthy fundraisings, script enhancement, holding people's hands while they write scripts, trying to drum up money from whomever, and then on the first day of shooting, you don'' get to shoot the film at all... If I had to choose between those two experiences for the rest of my life, I would definitely choose the second. Because that's what I'm in it for."
The feeling is mutual on Mike Mills' part: "It'd be fun just to be constantly making a film with Tilda," he says.
Regarding Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Mike Cobb, Producer Bob Stephenson relates a confidence that Lou Pucci shared with him: "I remember [Lou] telling me, Bob, the only person I'm really nervous about is Vincent D'Onofrio… I just think that guy's gonna eat me alive."
Stephenson can't help laughing about it now. "Of course," he continues, "[Lou] went in there and totally went toe-to-toe with him." Mills found that despite D'Onofrio's reputation as an intimidating screen presence, his disposition on-set was gratifyingly generous. "Vincent is one of those people," he says, "that's so knowledgeable about filmmaking, acting, directing, that whenever he says something, I'm like, Okay, tell me more!… I feel very lucky that I had all these people… so willing to be generous with me with their experience." That feeling of good fortune is mutual. "I'm very lucky," D'Onofrio says, "to have been on this film…
These days, I only have the time to do one film a year, and I've just been lucky with this one… Any time you're working with talented people, that's always its own reward." Read more/ continued
"A rich area of weirdness" -- THUMBSUCKER and suburbia
Finding your "weird self" - The universal themes of THUMBSUCKER
Mike Mills (Screenwriter/Director)
Walter Kirn (Author, the novel THUMBSUCKER)