Interview with Mike Mills

Mike Mills Talks About Los Angeles and His Artistic Practice

Karen Marta interviewed Mike Mills on the occasion of the launch of Mills’ first retrospective monograph, Graphics Films, in 2009.

Karen Marta: Why did you leave NYC? What do you like about the LA scene?

Mike Mills: I lived in NY for 15 years, from the age of 18 to 33, and I just wanted to go home. I wanted a yard, I wanted the sun and the plants and the hills I grew up with. I was also tired of how relentlessly hip, sophisticated, trying to be new New York can feel. Or maybe that was my fault, but the New York my soul kept running into was trying very hard to be the next thing. It was nice to come to the boredom of LA. But now I miss all the people, the throngs of people you see and walk through everyday in NYC. And that its’ a village, a walking place with small places, I miss that a lot.

Marta: Did studying at Cooper Union give you the freedom to make graphic art into fine art? Or was it from making graphics for skateboards?

Mills: In a way, I studied with people who theoretically didn’t buy the value difference between the two, didn’t fall for the High-Low divide. If anything there was a lot of criticism of being a traditional artist, a painter for instance – when I was at Cooper. Being a painter was sort of the equivalent of being a banker, especially a straight-white-male-form-privileged-background-painter – that would be the most regressive choice you could make, the most boring.

Marta: When did you first go from flat to the three-dimensional media? Was it a music video?

Mills: I did a bunch of interviews and kind of a story for Frank Black when he first left the Pixies. Then quickly a short film for myself and then more videos. I begged all the people I was doing videos with if I could do a video for free. It took a couple of years of doing that. Videos were great in that there was lot of freedom but the short format helped the young film student I was. You only had to pull something off for three minutes. Plus, it strangely began sort of an auteur thing with some directors: You wrote the idea and with the directors I admired, the idea, not the look was the most important part. So ideas turned into stories, and that really led me to being a writer director instead of just a director.

Marta: Graphics are flat and still, while film is 3-D and moving. Was it hard to make the transition? What did you take with you to Thumbsucker?

Mills: I’ve sort of brought my flat and presentational sensibility into film. It’s not like they’re divorced practices for me. I think of film much like I do presenting any still visual image. I’ve become more adept with film over the years, more able to think in more traditional film terms, but I still enjoy coming from that graphic perspective. My next film will have even more of that.

Marta: Many artists like Andy Warhol, William Klein and Roy Lichtenstein transformed imagery from popular culture. What were you looking at? Decals, advertising, t-shirts, skateboards?

Mills: But they had to transform it. I don’t need to, I’d just present it as valid, filled with history and personal story, a totally complete cultural event on it’s own.

Marta: Several artists have crossed mediums with great ease. Has your work been influenced by this freedom?

Mills: People like Charles and Ray Eames, the Bauhaus, Hans Haacke, Fischli and Weiss – by the time I left college, these people were my guiding light.

Marta: What was your favorite commercial when you were going up? Why?

Mills: I don’t really remember any. Funny. I loved TV though: Mash, Six Million Dollar Man, Adam 12, etc. all that was big for me.

Marta: What are you working on next? What is your next film about?

Mills: I hope to shoot my next film this year. I’ve been writing it for years now. I’ll keep the contents a secret for now.

Mike Mills by Brian Sheer