Mike Mills is the acclaimed writer and director behind “Thumbsucker,” “Beginners” and “20th Century Women.” He’s also a superfan when it comes to The National, the indie rock band responsible for dozens of glorious, sad sack anthems. When Mills got in touch with the group to see if they might work together on a small project — perhaps a music video — he never guessed that he was on the cusp of one of the most intriguing artistic detours of his life. Rather than a short clip, Mills and The National collaborated together on a roughly 24-minute film, in which we follow one woman (Alicia Vikander) from her birth through her death. Versions of songs from the band’s new album serve as the score to this subtle, heartbreaking mini-epic. “From my first phone call with [The National singer] Matt Berninger, he was like ‘You could do whatever you want. Tear it all apart,’” Mills recalled. “That’s really beautiful, and he meant it. It was such a generous way to start, and I think I was being generous back.”
But Mills’s involvement went much deeper; he joined the band in the studio while they were recording their newest album, “I Am Easy to Find,” and acted as a sort of creative consultant and lyrical collaborator. “I had no idea this was going to happen, at the beginning,” he said. “No one knew what it was going to be — or if it was going to work — and that was very positive, a very empowering way to set something off.”
The film — which will be available online on May 13, in advance of the album’s May 17 release date — is tender, funny and emotionally intense. (It’s also NSFW, in the sense that you probably don’t want to be weeping profusely at your desk.) We spoke with Mills about The National’s appeal, Jean-Luc Godard and the difficulties of being a man writing about women.
Did this whole experience make it feel like you became a member of The National?
I’m not a part of the band but man, they really put me in the front seat in a really nice way. They listened to me and used me to disrupt their normal patterns and dynamics, the ways they argue and agree with each other. They used me to invite change. That’s such a cool move for a band that’s been together this long. It was so friendly, so easy, and we really are very simpatico with each other. I have five new friends. Which is unusual; I don’t usually have a lot of guy friends.
What is it about The National’s music that speaks to you? They’re a very sad band, and yet I find myself listening to them every day.
I listen to them on repeat when I’m writing. What keeps me coming back is a combination of Aaron and Bryce [Dessner’s] chords, the way they do deal with sadness, or pain, but in a way that I find very healing and beautiful. There’s something recuperative to your pain if you can transform it into something beautiful. And then I just really gravitate towards Matt’s lyrics, and his character as the narrator of their stories. The Matt that’s singing, he’s a man, and probably even a straight man, but he’s very emotional. He’s very vulnerable, willing to let it all hang out. As another straight guy, that’s really nice company: comradeship on that journey. Matt’s really good at writing lyrics from his own observed life. Sometimes they’re cryptically personal, but you can just smell that they’re real. I have no idea what “I Need My Girl” is really about — ”drove the car into the garden, you got out and said I’m sorry to the vines, and no one saw it” — but I can just feel it.
What’s interesting about the new album is how central women’s voices are. And your film is about a girl as she enters womanhood, and then ages. Was there a lot of pressure, being a group of men who were trying to tell a woman’s story?
For me it’s not strange at all. I just did “20th Century Women” so I spent five or six years doing the same kind of project. And I always saw I grew up in a matriarchy: a super strong mom, these very strong older sisters. They’re like the power center of my family and the thing that I always looked at and had to observe, to learn how to be with. Women have always been the people in my life who’ve loved me the best and gave me the most and who I’m most intrigued by. And as a writer, so much of what I want to say or so much of my life that I’m trying to put into words fits really easily into a female space and a female character. I love women actors — especially someone like Alicia Vikander, who’s just so game. This is a reduction — this is too simple, but it’s kind of true — but it’s often easier to get more emotions, more vulnerability, more of an interior world with actresses. Can I make every character female, somehow? I would be more comfortable.
Of course, there’s lots of politics that come with being a man creating a female character. We tried to include how our collective male perspective on this female character, or female life, has a built-in failure. All these blind spots — that even if we love [women] and care for them and want them and are trying to understand them, there’s limitations. We talked about it a lot with [Matt Berninger’s wife and collaborator] Carin Besser, who works with him as an editor, and is increasingly doing her own lyrics. On this record she did a bunch of songs, all the lyrics and melodies. Me and Matt and Carin would be having a conversation about: How does a man depict a woman? What are we doing here, how are we getting it wrong, what presumptions are we making? If you study all the lyrics you’ll find that questioning going on in the piece.
Regarding the ability to fully know a woman?
That you don’t, and you can’t — and there’s something slightly colonial to any attempt, because of male privilege. And trying to admit that, or make that part of the piece, a bit. That’s one strand. And another is that a lot of what I want to say, or a lot of things that happen to the female character, are from my life. Things I felt, or things that actually happened to me. And I found it very comfortable on Alicia’s shoulders.
More and more it seems like there’s this idea that artists can only speak for their particular experience, which would put you in the position of only being able to talk about being a straight white man.
Three or four days a week I could be convinced that’s true myself. It’s something I struggle with, a lot. It’s not like I just blithely did this. I have a big imprint from my sisters, who are 7 and 10 years older, and have rich, full, wild lives that I find super captivating. My entry to the world was largely through watching them. And my mom’s a highly androgynous person, a highly unusual woman. And my dad’s gay. So the whole thing’s a little unusual, leaning toward the feminine in general.
Alicia plays her character at every age, from her birth through her death. Why did you want one actress to remain the same while everyone around them changes?
Sometimes in creative projects you’ll have one idea and it’ll ignite a little cascade of ideas. And there’s no great story of where the idea came from, it just popped into your head. Those are the best ones, the luckiest ones, and maybe the ones that are the least interesting to be interviewed about. It’s such a huge challenge to play all those parts, and Alicia just gamely leapt right into it. We had a conversation, and [I asked her]: “What don’t you get to do, what is missing?” She said, “I’m a dancer. I was trained in ballet, I love to improvise and use my body, and I so rarely get to do that.” And then: I had Alicia, and I didn’t have a lot of money. I wasn’t really interested in doing CG work on someone’s face, or prosthetic makeup. I was much more interested in this more experimental way of doing it. And luckily she said yes.
It’s fascinating. For the first few scenes, it takes a minute, maybe, before the viewer is on board. You’re watching Alicia throw a tantrum as if she’s a 2-year-old child.
When I sent her the script she [said], “zero through 10 [years old] scares the fuck out of me.” As an actor, that’s when you’re most likely to make a fool of yourself. How do you access that? I think it’s really remarkable, what she did. She made it look so easy; people aren’t tripping out on how weird it is that you’re watching her play this whole life.
The total film is only around 25 minutes long, yet you put the material for an entire feature-length movie into this compacted space.
That was super fun, one of those problems that generates interesting results: a limitation that creates something. Of course, it was hard. There’s no way to do it right, but therein lies the interesting part of the project — the impossibility of it. The weird thing is it’s the most plot-heavy thing I’ve ever done as a filmmaker, and it has a ton of forward motion, because it is a whole life. We made the video for the song “Light Years” from this material — so there’s a three-minute version of her life. And that’s just terrifying. It’s gutting to watch someone’s fate happen almost cruelly fast.
It can make any one individual life seem kind of insignificant.
Or largely out of your control, bigger than you are. It’s like a bus that comes by. To be honest, I thought this was going to be a little more cerebral of a project. And then a lot of [people had] an emotional response. I’ve had a bunch of people come up to me and go, “I wonder what scene I’m at? I guess I’m at this scene in my life.” I did not anticipate that it was going to be as emotional as it is for a lot of people. It’s also Alicia — she made it so real, and not conceptual. I thought it’d be slightly more anthropological. But it feels like it wants to pull on your emotions, and I’m sure that’s hyper annoying to part of the audience: “Don’t make me cry, you asshole!” It’s dicey turf. And The National’s music is operating on a very honest, emotional, revealing level, and asking you to do the same. If you put them and me together it’s like a Reese’s bar of emotionality.
The film toggles between huge, personal events, and then mundane ones. Alicia’s character finds out her mother has died, but then the next scene simply says, “New Television Shows.”
I feel like that’s how life is. There’s a total impropriety to how events come at us. There’s no decency. Whoever the storyteller in the sky is has no sense of order, and things come in this big wash — that which seems important and that which doesn’t.
How did the process of making the film start?
At the beginning of a project I’ll paste anything together — even just a picture, and music — to try to physicalize it a bit. It’s really not for public consumption. I had this idea of a black-and-white film having color interstitials: a documentary, slightly anthropological thing, and then this color world that’s completely abstract. There’s a part of Godard’s “My Life to Live” which is like a documentary of Anna Karenina’s character, who is a prostitute in the film. There’s a little documentary chapter that’s [about] what it is to be a prostitute; it actually came from a real piece of journalism from that time. “My Life to Live” has influenced all of my movies. I took that part of it and I cut in the color wash. How would these two wildly different, wildly unexplained filmmaking modes go together with The National’s music underneath?
After making the film, you also joined the band in the recording studio.
They’re trained musicians who talk in bars of music. I don’t speak in bars; I speak in story terms. But Aaron and Bryce in particular — who you could imagine could be kind of annoyed by that, or not having it — were really good at translating me into their language. To have classically trained musicians be dealing with my input is a very nice thing, on their part.
Having worked with musicians in the past, and also played in bands, were you surprised by that level of openness?
We inched into this relationship. We had time together, creatively. Film is totally different, but similar. The way it’s different is that I’m the boss, as the writer and director. And a band doesn’t really have a boss — or that band doesn’t. It has bosses of different regions, but they have to work together. The way it’s similar is that when you’ve been working on a [film] project for years, with all these talented people who have big histories — actors, editors, producers — you are eager to get their difference in your system. An actor will tell you something about a character that you wrote that you never saw, that makes that character so much more interesting. It might rub you in a weird way, but you’re like, “Oh, they’re totally right, that’s so much smarter and more emotionally accurate than what I concocted.” I could see the National doing that a little bit. It felt very familiar.
Could you see this relationship developing, perhaps bringing The National into a film project of yours?
I would love that. I’m close to being done with a script and starting the process of really making it. The music comes at the end. The National and I are friends now, in the nicest way. Me and my 7-year-old son went on tour with them. It was so nice and fun and sweet to have all these people in your world… my world isn’t always that peopled. But it’d be hard to recreate the specialness and luckiness and the timing of what we just did — the newness. You can never have that first time again. Even if we all just try to make a record next year it wouldn’t be the same. As it was all happening, I was like: “Well, this is a once-in-a-career, lucky situation. So I’m going to invest in it.”
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Top Image: The National with filmmaker Mike Mills (second from left). Photo by Graham MacIndoe.