The Cast continues
Kelli Garner was initially attracted to the character of Rebecca "because she was weird, she was different, she's not the typical girl that a guy should fantasize about… she's dark." Garner, who had worked with Mills in his music videos and his short film, "The Architecture of Reassurance," had her eye on the role well before she even learned of Mills' involvement with the project.
"I had read [THUMBSUCKER] and I loved the book," she says, "and then I'm thinking, I wonder if anyone's optioned it? And I see Mike Mills' name attached to it. And I'm thinking, Wait, no, no, no, it can't be the same one. And it was." Mills has nothing but praise for his young actress. "She's another person who's a super genius at this game," he says. "She's really organic about what she's doing, and really very surprising as an actress." Mills and Garner worked extensively on Rebecca's back story, deciding that she was an environmentalist. "Mike made me join the Sierra Club," Garner relates. "Mike made me do homework and call [producer] Anthony Bregman… and I had to talk about deep-sea fishing and the dangers of over-fishing… and I had to convince him to help the environment and join the Sierra Club and donate money." During an "educational" nature walk he took with Garner, Mills noted her disenchantment with their overbearing guide.
Upon asking her how she felt, he recalls, "she goes, 'Stupid…' I said, 'Well, let's use that. Let's say that Rebecca always feels dumb and her parents make her feel dumb, and does all this stuff begrudgingly…' That's her identity, but she's not happy with it, and that's why she gets into pot… and then [Kelli] had something to grab on to. I love that process."
Working with Vince Vaughn, who plays debate coach Mr. Geary, Mills says, "I didn't direct Vince Vaughn. I rode the Vince Vaughn wave for a few days." According to Mills, Vaughn lent a great deal to the role that transcended his adaptation. "Vince definitely had ideas about Geary, about Ritalin, about being a teacher that weren't in the script before the days that he showed up that were all great additions," Mills says. "I am very into being surprised by an actor, and I think that Vince is always looking for surprising moments, or just responding to the moment."
Producer Bob Stephenson is well aware of the backhanded perils that can threaten a first-time director with a big-name cast. "If you get a cast that's so 'big'… the cast starts to [overshadow] the story," he explains. "I mean, these names take on a life of their own… and it doesn't really do justice to the film. It becomes more about the celebrity part of it, rather than these people that have come in and done this amazing work."
Fortunately, Stephenson suggests, THUMBSUCKER is in a prime position to avoid these pitfalls in that it's given its top-drawer cast a chance to stretch their talents and turn in a set of performances that defy expectations. "These actors are chameleons. They've taken themselves out of their normal sort of everyday roles to play these really cool parts, and they've come in and delivered inspiring performances."
Stephenson's admiration for and pride in his writer-director is palpable. "Mike really pulled something different from these guys," he says. "It's cool."
"A rich area of weirdness" -- THUMBSUCKER and suburbia
One of THUMBSUCKER's most vivid and important characters doesn't get a screen credit at all: the town of Beaverwood, Oregon, the suburban anti-paradise that surrounds the film's troubled characters - and that may ultimately be responsible for the emptiness in their lives.
"The suburbs are a land of appearances," says novelist Walter Kirn. "They're ruled by the need to put on a good show for the boss, the church, and the neighbors. And yet people suffer and have anxieties in the same way that they do everywhere. And it's that mismatch between the surface and the depths that really make them interesting and sort of heartbreaking places." In THUMBSUCKER, that heartbreak is never far from the surface, whether it's Mike's vanished dream of a football career, Audrey's painful inability to reach out to her son, or Justin's own growing sense of alienation as he comes to see the world around him as one where people pretend to be something they're not.
It's a landscape that writer-director Mike Mills can claim an intimate familiarity with, having served as the backdrop to Mills' most acclaimed short films, "The Architecture of Reassurance" and "Paperboys." Producer Bob Stephenson instantly knew that Mills would connect with the material.
"I read a blurb about the book in SPIN magazine, and I actually called Mike when I read the blurb," Stephenson relates. "I said, There's this book that sounds so incredible. It's so... you! Family. America. Suburbia. The book actually takes place in the early 1980s, but I thought it was so contemporary, so on-point about contemporary America... I just had to call up Mike and say, You gotta buy this book!"
Despite his intimate familiarity with the suburban landscape, Mills films the environment as though seeing it for the first time, allowing the bright, orderly aesthetics of this outwardly ideal community to play a powerful counterpoint to the emotional turmoil and devastation simmering just beneath the surface.
Actress Tilda Swinton (Audrey), a native of Scotland, approached the environment with a similarly anthropological outlook. "I wasn't brought up in suburbia," she says. "And we shot the film in the first proper 'wild jungle suburbia' that I'd ever encountered... That life, the life you have to live in that environment, is a really particular one, and it does involve shutting things out, and sort of following a text for your life."
A connoisseur of the suburban landscape, Mills found his perfect "wild jungle suburbia" in Oregon. "I was really, really interested in Oregon suburbs," Mills says, "because they're so really, really new. There's suburbs everywhere, but [in those other places] you can see the decades of development. But we were shooting on the very edge of that development, so you could see the houses, but you could also see the forest right next to it."
That pristine quality is evident in every frame of THUMBSUCKER, dovetailing perfectly with Mills' and Director of Photography Joaquin Baca-Asay's meticulous camera work in creating a precise, stable backdrop to the messiness of the human relationships at the film's core.
Walter Kirn puts his finger on the tension that animates the suburbs of THUMBSUCKER and America as a whole when he observes: "People want two things. They want to be safe, and yet they want to be alive, passionate. And in the suburbs, that's a real conflict because passion has its limits. Don't play the music too loud... don't grab the girl in public... don't be seen with the woman who's not your wife. But you can't put those kind of restrictions on human desire and not have the energy come out sideways."
One such "sideways" manifestation that is in many ways the focus of the film is the extensive use of pharmaceuticals - of both the corporate manufactured and home-grown varieties - to ease the cognitive dissonance at the heart of suburban life. Skateboarding legend Ed Templeton, a close friend of Mills' and a source of inspiration to him in crafting THUMBSUCKER, opines that "one of the main [practices] that's damaging the youth of America is the quickness to put drugs in the place of actual care... And it trickles right down to people raising their kids... these kids have some kind of fractured life because life today is so fractured... and so the kids freak out, act out, whatever it is, become damaged, and the only thing they can do is calm them down or keep them sedated or whatever it is." Or as young Lou Pucci succinctly puts it:
"It's a screwed-up world," continuing after a mournful sigh, "I just think Ritalin is one of those things I'm glad they're showing in a movie. Because I think that a lot of kids do get stuff out of movies... If [they] can talk about something like Ritalin... the less likely they are to say, 'Oh, maybe this is the answer so quickly.'
On the subject of the fractured quality of modern life, Kirn concurs. "In the movie and in the book, Justin has what shrinks call Attention Deficit Disorder, which means the inability to focus on any one thing. And I think we've got that as a society at the moment. You haven't finished one thing before you're imagining the next... you haven't met one person, but you're looking at their defects and comparing them to another person. And we do that with ourselves, too. We're constantly 'trying on' ourselves, and I think that's just what Justin is doing in this movie."
Tilda Swinton tells a story of an acquaintance, "a Russian friend who went to American suburbia for the first time, and I remember asking him what it was like, and he said, It's a paradise for the mentally handicapped." It's Templeton who offers a sunnier, slightly more generous take on the phenomenon of suburbia: "It's just a rich area of weirdness." Both characterizations are true of the suburbia of THUMBSUCKER.
Finding your "weird self" - The universal themes of THUMBSUCKER
"It's a book that was no bestseller, by any means," says Walter Kirn of his novel THUMBSUCKER. "It's a book that was far more autobiographical than anything else I've written. And because it was so personal, people seemed to relate to it on a personal level... those who read it sort of took it to their hearts. So I continue to get letters and e-mails and be tracked down by people, especially people who as kids had some of the problems that my characters have had."
Kirn's speaking specifically of Justin Cobb's particular demons, his ADD, his oral fixation. But in a larger sense, everyone has endured the problems that plague the Cobb family and the other assorted searchers of THUMBSUCKER - the sense of loss that comes with growing up; the search for an authentic identity; the recognition of the limitations of our parents, our communities and ourselves. It's this profound and often heartbreaking appeal to our shared experience of growing up and arriving at whatever wisdom comes with the conclusion of adolescence that gives THUMBSUCKER its uncommon power and humanity.
In discussing the thematic roots of his film, writer-director Mike Mills returns to a handful of select inspirations: the paintings of Andrew Wyeth; the music of Elliott Smith and of Neil Young; the films of Hal Ashby. "There's a feeling I always get when I watch a Hal Ashby film..." says Mills. "I feel like Hal Ashby is sitting on my shoulder and he's saying, 'It's okay not to be perfect; it's okay to be your weird self; it's okay not to be these images that you thought you were supposed to be.'" In a sense, the entirety of THUMBSUCKER represents an attempt to translate these imagined phantom whispers of Hal Ashby for a new audience and a new cultural moment.
"I think that if the book has a theme," continues Walter Kirn, "it's self acceptance. It's about going from the shame that we all feel originally when we get into the slightly wider world, let's say, of our teenage years, realizing that we're not the same as everybody else." Despite the changes made by Mills in his adaptation, it's evident that this theme came through loud and clear to everyone who encountered the script.
"What I think is amazing about this particular screenplay and this movie," says executive producer Cathy Schulman, "is that it actually has a very universal theme. It's just worked out on a very small landscape... It's kind of interesting that films as huge as "X-Men" and as small and special and independent as THUMBSUCKER could actually deal with the same theme, which is that it's okay to be different, and accept yourself for who you are."
Justin Cobb takes a circuitous path to reach that wisdom, but it's evident that each of the vivid and memorable characters that dot that path - from his lost-in-the-suburbs parents, to unorthodox orthodontist Perry Lyman, to the driven debate coach Mr. Geary, to the sultry pothead Rebecca - is on his or her own journey of discovery, whether they realize it or not. Tilda Swinton speaks eloquently to this facet of the story when she observes, "You have Justin, who's 17; you know he's in crisis. There's no way not to be in a state of crisis at 17. And his parents are 40, and there's no way you can't be encountering some kind of crisis when you're 40.
Your child is becoming sexually active... you're thinking about your child leaving... maybe they're the same age you were when you had them... it's a huge crossroads." Keanu Reeves, who plays Perry Lyman, sees his character in similar terms. "Perry Lyman is a little lost, himself," says Reeves. "My character has three incarnations. In the first, he's a 'new age' figure... and then in the second one, he's in what we call kind of a form-based foundation. And then in the third, he's just let everything go... and I meet Justin in each of those three stages, so there's kind of a parallel trajectory."
In a practical sense, the commonality of the film's themes served as one more vehicle by which the cast could find their way to "the same page" through their collective characterizations. As Vincent D'Onofrio, who plays Mike Cobb, says, "The whole family thing... everybody deals with it.
I'm dealing with it in my own life. So when you start dealing with stuff like that [as an actor], if you've had kids and had family, it's always right there in the forefront of your emotions... It's always relevant." Tilda Swinton relied on her own experience of motherhood in bringing Audrey Cobb to life. "People ask you how you've changed when you become a mother," she observes, "and you sort of try and answer the question. Then you realize it's the wrong question, because it's not that you've changed; it's that a whole new person comes into being who's Tilda as Mother. But Tilda as Not Mother still exists. And you neglect her at your peril. Because she will come and tap your shoulder in 17 years and say, I'm still here."
It's those kind of insights that perfectly complement Mills' work with Lou Pucci, and the arc they create for Justin Cobb. "Everyone in the film is really about their parents," says Mills, "like every story is actually about what your parents did to you and how you're dealing with it. That's really the name of the movie." It's a notion that Pucci, wise beyond his years, has clearly taken to heart. "I don't think you can really grow up," he says, "until you have at least gotten away from your family, because they're always going to shelter you from things... you know, Don't do this, because I did it before. And you're not gonna realize what that means until you actually do it, or at least see it with your own eyes."
The film's ending, as Justin takes his stab at independence by flying to New York, is simultaneously uplifting and yet utterly open-ended. The conclusion is one of the inventions of Mills' screenplay, but it's one that's perfectly in keeping with Kirn's creative vision. "[Justin] is constantly monitoring the reactions of people around him," says Kirn. "He's constantly looking to be told that he's all right, looking to be shown a way, looking to be guided. And people are always presenting themselves as mentors or guides or coaches. I think he finally becomes his own coach, his own shrink... I think that's kind of what we all have to do."
As Mills himself tells it, Kirn's own reaction to the adaptation embodies that wisdom. Speaking of their initial meeting, well after the novel had been adapted into Mills' screenplay, the director recalls: "I had no idea what the hell he's going to think... He's a big author, and a pretty intense critic, and I'm totally shitting myself. And so then we go and meet, and he's like, 'Hey, how's it going? Loved the adaptation...' it was like the first thing out of his mouth... 'I'd never thought about him going to New York... Great job.' And I was kind of like: Are you mocking me?" Mills can't help but laugh as he tells the story. "Is this a game? But no, of course, Walter's some sort of Zen Buddhist where he's totally able to release attachment to the book and to what his expectations were, and be nothing but excited and enthusiastic about what I was bringing to it."
Releasing attachment. Letting go of expectations. Finding your weird self. It's what all of us learn (and re-learn) to do as we go about our lives. Swinton coins her own Buddhist koan when she says that "disappointment is a wonderful thing. It's 'appointment' that's the very devil!" She laughs, continuing, "It's expectations, and it's a determination to be proscribed and proscriptive... to live the fiction and say the lines." It's precisely those expectations - the fiction of his prior existence - that Justin Cobb leaves behind at the film's end. "In New York, where does he go?" Pucci asks rhetorically. "I'm not sure. I was trying to think of that myself. The thing is, he's now got it. He understands that he doesn't have to know exactly what he's doing... So I don't think it matters where he goes. I think that he just starts living."
Mike Mills (Screenwriter/Director) works as a filmmaker and graphic artist.
As a filmmaker, Mike has completed a number of commercials, music videos, and short films. "Paperboys," a documentary short, follows the daily life of six boys in rural Minnesota. "The Architecture of Reassurance", a short film he wrote and directed, was in the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, Edinburgh International Film Festival and New Directors New Films. He also directed "Deformer", documenting the life of the world-famous skateboarder Ed Templeton. Other works include a short film documenting the thinking of jazz composer, Ornette Coleman, as well as several short promotional films for Marc Jacobs.
His commercial work includes national and international campaigns for clients such as Levis, Gap, Volkswagen, Mastercard and Nike. Mike has directed many music videos for bands such as Zoot Woman, Divine Comedy, Everything but the Girl, Les Rythmes Digitales, Moby, Yoko Ono, Mansun, Frank Black, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion & Cibo Matto. He also designed the album art as well as directing a tour documentary and the first four videos for the French band, Air.
As a graphic designer, he has designed record covers for bands such as Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Butter 08, as well as designing promotional items for Beck, Pizzicato 5, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and others. He also designed the logo for X-girl, Kim Gordon and Daisy Von Furth's clothing company, as well as all the shirt graphics and the New York City store. Mike has designed scarves and fabrics for Marc Jacobs, and other fashion related graphics for Esprit and The Gap. In 1996 Mo Wax records released a 12" album filled with posters and other graphic items created by Mike Mills entitled "A Visual Sampler: Posters by Mike Mills". This one-of-a-kind release was accompanied by a touring exhibition in the summer and fall of '96 in New York City at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, after exhibiting in Tokyo, London, and Sydney.
In January 2004, the MU Gallery in Eindhoven, The Netherlands presented existing and original Mills artwork in an exhibit called "Not How What or Why, But Yes." In January 2001, The Alleged Gallery in New York exhibited a collection of his art entitled "What Will You Do Now That You Know It's The End". In the fall of 1998, Mike's artwork was accompanied by his short film "Hair, Shoes, Love & Honesty" at the Alleged Gallery. In the summer of 1997 Mike had an exhibit of photographs at Gallery Collette in Paris. Growing up in the world of skateboarding, Mike created board graphics for Supreme, Stereo, Subliminal and snowboard graphics for Original Sin.
Walter Kirn (Author, the novel THUMBSUCKER) is the author of the short story collection MY HARD BARGAIN and the novels SHE NEEDED ME, THUMBSUCKER and UP IN THE AIR.
He is a regular contributor to Time Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and GQ.
He lives on a farm near Livingston, Montana