MIKE MILLS
BAD DAY MAGAZINE
ISSUE 11, JULY, 2011

Over the past two decades, Mike Mills’ quiet, consistent contribution to popular culture is difficult to quantify. Looking over his resumé of music videos and design work, it’s hard not to exclaim, “He did that, too?” The art for Air’s Moon Safari, as well as their music videos; the Washing Machine cover for Sonic Youth; that Supreme logo with the accent over the ‘e’; and all the X-Girl graphics. Constantly evolving, Mills has moved from design to videos to feature films, bringing to these projects a direct sensibility that is disarmingly human. His latest film, Beginners was released this June.

Asher Penn: I read in an interview that when you graduated from Cooper
Union in 1989, you didn’t really want to participate in the art world; that it would be more interesting to infiltrate culture at large. How did you come to that decision?

Mike Mills: Well, it would be unfair for me to just write off the art world. The first thing I do when I go to London is I go to the Tate; when I go to Paris I visit the Pompidou, and I am a museum director’s son. So it’s not like I have disregarded the art world completely, and the few times I do get to have gallery shows I embrace it, I enjoy it. But when I was graduating from Cooper, I was a very good little Hans Haacke student—

Asher: I’ll admit I actually don’t know anything about Hans Haacke.

Mike: [Laughs] That’s good to say. Well, the short of it is he’s a really interesting conceptual artist and really de-materialized the art object. He then became more political and did a lot of work about critiquing art institutions, like museums. He did an amazing piece about this Monet painting about asparagus: he found each person that had owned this painting, and it was a weird index of power through the twentieth century. When I was a student in the late ’80s and it was when Soho was becoming the big art industry gallery place, Haacke’s class was so much about institutional critique, and uncovering the real economic basis of the art world that the art world loves to deny it has.

Asher: Okay.

Mike: And being a museum director’s son I already had a taste of that, and it seemed so much more exciting to work in the public sphere. I was lucky enough to start doing record covers for Sonic Youth and Blues Explosion and I’d see those posters upon Broadway and I’d feel like, “Aw I made it!” I got out of the art world and onto Broadway and it was so exciting, and it still is. I just did a Beastie Boys cover and last night I was driving down Sunset and saw them on all of the bus benches. That’s still the most exciting thing for me.

Asher: I feel like the art world is almost allergic to some of the themes you engage with head-on: vulnerability, emotion, depression and sentimentality. Why do you think that is?

Mike: I never really thought of it like that. The art world definitely doesn’t avoid sadness. Many artists make work about sadness, I think what I do is different because I’m happy to make a poster, or a museum video, or a film. But in truth I try to rely on my real personal world, and believe that there’s enough there to make art about. I think I’ve taken some of the intentions of the big art world and put them into another context.

Asher: Was pursing graphic design a subversive decision for you?

Mike: Slightly. But I also really liked it. My first job was working for M&Co., you know, Tibor Kalman? I was helping him do his speeches with these really elaborate slide shows.

Asher: Wait, what were these lectures?

Mike: My main job was helping Tibor with these very complicated slide-shows he was doing at the time. I helped him write a little bit, but mostly just organized and kept the hundreds of slides going. He was tough back then, a complicated guy, but I learned a lot. He really wasn’t a designer, he was a thinker. He made us present ideas in tiny sketches no bigger than a quarter, partially so that we wouldn’t get caught up in what they looked like; everything lived or died on how good of an idea it was.

Asher: But you did actually study graphic design at Cooper a little.

Mike: I really only took one or two classes, there were a lot of amazing designers there, one of them being Marlene McCarty who was also in Gran Fury at the time. They were the graphic design wing of Act Up. I was sort of like, the little kid wannabe in that group. You know what I mean?I helped them just a couple of times but I greatly admired them and how Act Up was using aesthetics and creative solutions to a very socially engaged condition.

Asher: It was also really direct, right?

Mike: Super direct. The art world can be sort of a contained theatre of protest, but the ambition was real protest, really involved with some sort of civil destruction.

Asher: What was your student work like?

Mike: A bunch of different stuff. I was doing a lot of sculpture, very geometric stuff about family and relationship and power. Stuff like that.

Asher: When I think about the trajectory of you career, starting from graphic design to music videos to short films to features, it seems totally organic and seamless. Were some of these shifts more of a struggle than that?

Mike: Oh yeah. [Laughs] It wasn’t a clear plan like that. That sounds so easy like this programmed flow. It definitely was anything but easy to keep starting over, it’s always so hard. I got to a certain level as a graphic designer and when I wanted to do music videos, no one thought of me that way; I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t have a reel. So I had to struggle for a long time to get to do music videos, I’d have to do them for free. Eventually, that got me doing ads, and that’s great, you start making money, but then I wanted to do features, so I had to start all over again to get to do feature length stuff. So it would be a misrepresentation to say it was an organic flow. It is sort of like me getting braver and braver, from when I was in my mid-twenties to now. When I was twenty-five I never thought I could make a feature film. It would be like going to the moon, just something so complicated and difficult and big and Hollywood—I didn’t even understand it. But I slowly began to work in a very public atmosphere, an entertainment atmosphere and I just grew and my confidence grew.

Asher: It seems like much of what you do is so much of this negotiation between communication and self-expression. Do you feel like cinema or narrative filmmaking is the ultimate medium for that?

Mike: For me it is. I also think that writing novels would be an amazing space to do that in. And I always envy bands and albums—what they do is so emotional, intimate and personal, it works on such a subliminal level and it’s public. You buy it cheaply, it’s all over the airwaves, it's very shared, and people dance to it in groups. I would love to work in that context, the music scene has everything I want in one bubble, but I’m not a musician. For me, there’s nothing else I can do that asks 
people to sit for 100 minutes and think about what I’m talking about. So just for sheer duration, it’s the most demanding conversation I can have with an audience. I can put in my graphics, drawings, my writing, I can put in my photography, it does become like the biggest box into which I can put everything.

Asher: There’s such a huge contrast between working with an image or an artwork—which is a very insular, personal experience—to working with an actor. Was working with people in this way a skill you had to learn?

Mike Definitely. When you go from working alone as a designer or artist to a crew of twenty to thirty people, it’s the hardest. Even with just time and money constraints, it’s really hard to learn, doing videos really taught me a lot about that. I am a very disciplined, budget-orientated kind of person, and with filmmaking it behooves you to be conscious of all the physical constraints. That took a few years, but once I picked it up I must say I really loved it. I love having this little extended family, and being the captain of the ship, I like being the director. And I love actors. I think as a formerly very, very shy person I am super impressed with actors and their ability to be so un-self-conscious. It’s so fun to be around them, they’re so emotionally juicy and expressive. It’s not unlike when I was in a band in high school, trying to be a good punk rock kid and trying to be free but not being that good at being free, still being quite self-conscious. And here I am meeting all these people that are fucking great at being free. I love being around that and I love collaborating with them on these characters. When I was writing Beginners, I was promoting Thumbsucker (2005), so I was hanging out with Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci all the time, we were on a press tour. And Lou and Tilda, they would always blow me away with being more wild and free than me. No matter what I do or how old I am, I’m sort of like the perpetual graphic designer boy who is a little shy. You know the party scene in Beginners when she’s got laryngitis?

Asher: Sure.

Mike: That really happened to Lou, he had laryngitis, he met a girl and couldn’t talk, so he was writing on these pads. And it made him have this deeper relationship with her than he would have had otherwise. I sort of think about these kinds of people when I write, and I like self-referential things. I love films that refer to filmmaking, my videos refer to filmmaking, my graphic design refers to graphic design—everytime you do that I just feel like you’re being more honest.

Asher: When I was watching the movie, there were all of these creative moments where characters did these things that almost function likesmaller art works; creative acts that in a different context could be your art, or something that you made. What happens when you put that creative output into a fictional character’s narrative?

Mike: Yeah, that’s the first time I did that and I have to say I really enjoyed it, it was really interesting. To have me make graphics for this character named Oliver, to make that in this fictional film, actually somehow was really fitting to me. It didn’t feel as foreign as one might think, to put my art into this narrative and have these different people do it in different places.

Asher: At the same time I’m curious—you know how much you can 
actually learn about somebody through a self-portrait; which parts are you adding in, and what are you taking out?

Mike: Well when you have a dream all the people that you put in your dream are really you, right? When you write something, every character is some kind of expression of you. Sometimes you know you’re showing a part of yourself, sometimes you don’t know how much you’re showing. That portrait about my dad and myself is really subjective, or just one version, or me playing around with both of our characters. So it’s not at all a memoir or anything like that, but I tried to put a lot of me in it. Beginners is a huge self-portrait, people ask me all the time, “How much is it all about you?” Clearly there’s a lot of my art in it, my dad really did come out, I really had trouble believing in love and all that. At the same time, if you just saw the film and met me, the longer you got to know me the more you would be disappointed. [Laughs] It’s just pieces of me.

Asher: I was wondering if I could list some of your old graphic design works and you could make some kind of comment about them.

Mike: Sure.

Asher: Let’s start with TG-170.

Mike: What do I say?

Asher: Anything.

Mike: I used to live right around the corner from there in the Lower East Side—Terry’s an old friend of mine. I did it for free or little money, and I love those kinds of projects. I feel like I’m still doing them, when I do my wife’s book cover or something, that’s the best kind of design work. You get so integrated with the clients and the audience they’re trying to reach, it ends up coming from a very natural place.

Asher: Okay, next: Supreme.

Mike: With Supreme, when I did the shirts and stuff, it was using one of my favourite strategies. You associate skateboarding with the street, especially with punk or hip-hop or underground culture, and everything I did with them was very over-ground looking, mainstream looking. That was what made it, hopefully, interesting. I sort of did the same thing with Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, which I did around the same time. It’s taking on a corporate, industrial, kind of Swiss looking design language and putting it onto this supposedly subversive, rough, culture. Doing 
the wrong visual solution, I love that strategy.

Asher: Marc Jacobs.

Mike: Which? I did a lot for him.

Asher: The early stuff, with the lips.

Mike: I remember Marc was obsessed with Fiorucci, and that was kind of great because that wasn’t my taste at all. One great thing about being a graphic designer and working with people who aren’t graphic designers, is their taste breaks all the
taste rules of the graphic design world. At the time Fiorucci wasn’t hip at all, but I also remember Marc talking about lips and I said, “Oh lips! But that’s so cliché,” and Marc said, “Cliché’s are great! Clichés are powerful. Clichés are what we all share.” That was the first time I had ever heard anybody say that.

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