California Kewl

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Mike Mills is not your average California kid who grew up on a skateboard. "I'm from Santa Barbara," he says. "I'm like the suburban brat that all the guys in Dog Town and Z-Boys hated. But I still idolized them." That's hardly what makes him atypical, though; at the age of 36, the dude is a veritable Renaissance skate rat. As a graphic designer, this Cooper Union grad has worked for hot shops like Bureau and the late Tibor Kalman's M&Co. He's done album covers and promotional items for the likes of Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Beck. He's designed scarves and fabrics for Marc Jacobs, and just about everything for the X-Girl clothing company. He's had gallery shows of art and photography in New York and Paris. As a director, his distinctly offbeat short films and music videos have garnered plenty of acclaim, and he's developing his first feature, Thumbsucker, based on a Walter Kirn novel. He's a co-founder, with Roman Coppola, of The Directors Bureau, which opened in 1995. He even played bass on records with those Japanese downtown chicks who once made a splash with a group called Cibo Matto.

As if that weren't enough, he seems to be looking at an awesomely A-list commercials career, just sitting there for the taking - he's on just about everyone's hot directors list - but Mills doesn't really want it. "Commercials are one part of my life," he says. "I like doing them, I get a lot out of doing them, but I don't think of myself as a commercials director." His output certainly reflects this. His career reel includes a pair of great Gap production numbers, the gorgeously designed Nike "Boing" campaign and that memorable VW spot in which a car is stuck in a tree, among others, but his videos probably outnumber his spots. After a late-2001 wryly twisted Nascar campaign for Y&R/Chicago, all he shot in 2002 were some slightly amusing American Express U.S. Open spots with female tennis stars, and two gems for VW and Arnold Worldwide - the one-take wonder called "Chain Reaction" and the split-screen stunner called "Bubble." The latter is sure to be a big awards winner, and many directors would die for either of these jobs. "They just went over well," Mills shrugs. But he's not about to capitalize on this momentum with a blazing barrage of boards in 2003. Three or four jobs a year is his speed. Right now, he's finishing his first campaign of the year for, of all clients, Time Warner - Mills insists these boards are really funny and allow him to fabricate ususual sets. "I don't plot these things out. This is the way it's been going and I'm pretty happy with that." Any clients he'd like to work for? "I don't know." Any commercials he's seen lately that excite him? "To be honest, I don't have a TV. I'm kind of a TV addict, so if I have a TV I get screwed, I stay up till 5 in the morning. I see things in hotels sometimes but I don't really stay on top of what's hot. I just deal with the boards that come in and, luckily, I get some things that are interesting, so I'm satisfied."

As Arnold senior copywriter Joe Fallon, who's worked with Mills on several spots, notes, "Mike's the kind of director that's as much an artist as anything else. He's just got this incredible design sense that filters through everything he touches. If he devoted himself to commercials work, his future would be limitless. But I really think Mike's talents are destined for a bigger forum. If he gets to make the movies he wants, people out there who may be unfamiliar with his work will certainly know his name in the future."

The feature situation remains uncertain. "I get every kind of weird, funky, bad Hollywood skateboard script you can think of," Mills groans. " I tend to get associated with whatever teen- outsider, youth culture stuff is going on. Nothing's really got to me." Thumbsucker is an indie film, "but there really isn't 'indie film' anymore," he laments. "One of the key characteristics of a Hollywood film is it's financed based on the people who are in it. And that's now true for everything. So my little, tiny film, which I'm having so much trouble getting financed- it's an endless maze - will have Keanu Reeves in it. But it's still difficult to get going, it's no shoo-in. It's a really bad time now; the indie film is kind of like dot-com ads - they're just gone."

Mills is having much better luck on the music video front, though most of his clips are for relatively obscure bands, by U.S. standards, and they're seen mainly on MTV Europe. "I don't do the typical American video where the band's playing the whole time." Thank God for that. Among many highlights, Mills has done a skating Sasquatch factory worker in love, in "Bad Ambassador," for a band called Divine Comedy, which is deftly executed and oddly touching. Even more poignant is his "All I Need" clip for Air, which is a dialogue-rich documentary about a young, sweetly earnest skateboarding couple, the film simply playing over the music. His "Sometimes" clip, for Les Rhythmes Digitales, is a stuffed animal-animated, brilliant black comedy about the suicide of a teddy bear. Mills says he would love to do high-profile art clips for the likes of say, Bjork, "but I don't have a Bjork connection. I don't know, I'm not cool enough or whatever," he laughs. When it's suggested that a video like Floria Sigismondi's orally-fixated "Beautiful People," for Marilyn Manson, is the kind of clip he should be getting, he says, "I'd love to do something like that. Those jobs are hard to get. They look at my videos and they don't make the leap. I'm trying."

Nevertheless, Mills himself has already made quite a leap. "I didn't go to film school, and for a long time I thought it was like being an astronaut - it's just out of my reach. At Cooper Union, I didn't even study graphics, I studied with Hans Haacke, who's like a political-conceptual artist. I was first influenced by Charles and Ray Eames, because they didn't study a lot of the things they became very good at - they did architecture, furniture design, graphics, films and exhibitions. Then there was Errol Morris' Thin Blue Line. I had an interest in documentaries and things that were real, then this diagrammatic film came along, and me being from graphics, it just totally popped my brain."

Speaking of brain-popping, what does he make of the massive commercialization of skate culture? "God bless Tony Hawk. He always represented a more mainstream side of skating anyway. The most interesting part of skating is the part that can't be boxed in and labeled, and that part still exists." Is Mills in danger of being sucked bodily into the corporate maw? "I think I'm not totally in it and not totally out of it, which in some ways is kind of interesting. I'm glad I'm not just underground. I'm also glad I'm not just a commercials director with leather pants and a Porsche."

To the degree that he is a commercials director, how is he positioned? He seems to be able to work across several areas. "I hope so. Most of the boards I get could be called 'dry realism with a little comedy but kind of deadpan, reality based.' It's driving me nuts. It's become a cliche, it's like a trope. I like diversity and I like being surprising. And I do appreciate the fact that people like, say, the 'Bubble' spot, I find this very gratifying. At the same time, it's done, and good things will come of it. I don't feel like I need to make something happen in a Machiavellian way. Things will happen."

We wouldn't doubt it for a second.

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