Thumbsucker (2005): Interview with Director Mike Mills on his Sundance Debut, Starring Lou Pucci, Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio

Thumbsucker world-premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Acting for Lou Pucci.
Pucci also won the Silver Bear for Best Actor when the film played at the 2005 Berlin International Film Festival.

“Thumbsucker” is Mike Mills’ feature debut, after years of directing shorts, music videos, and commercials. Getting any independent film to the screen is a daunting task, but that proved doubly true for “Thumbsucker,” based on Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name.

The film was not only financed independently, but brings a truly independent point of view and creative sensibility to its subject matter. Offering a critique of some of contemporary America’s most sacred cowsthe nuclear family, the suburban paradise, the cure-all wonders of modern pharmaceuticals”Thumbsucker” takes risks in speaking directly about the way we live.

It was a difficult project,” says producer Anthony Bregman. “It’s a really original book, and Mike’s treatment is also original. The industry kind of frowns on projects that aren’t like other projects, and when you get something that’s really original like “Thumbsucker everyone says, Yeah, I think it’ll be really interesting, but I can’t feel safe putting money into it.”

On Writing

I’m lucky that Bob Stephenson thought I was the right person for the book. We were going to get a writer and were going through that process, and then one day, I said, Bobby, let me try to write it.’ Bob supported that, and he convinced the other people to let me do it. He was my main editor for the whole writing process, and made a ton of contributions to the script. He was really the person that made me make sense to the rest of the world.

Improvisation as Process

Once the cast arrived at the Oregon-based locations, I gave them free hand to shape their characterizations, and encouraged them to do extensive background work and improvisation both in rehearsals and shooting. I felt that the best way to find the emotional truth of the story would be to hew the performances from reality. The idea was to have everything in front of the camera real, where the actors aren’t lit, where theyre as undirected’ as possible.

Those improvisations are responsible for the harmony of the cast’s collective performance, allowing them to find a common wavelength form. The actors took the challenges of improvisation to heart. They knew that there was going to be a day when other people would turn up with cameras and start filming them. But well before that, I encouraged them to start behaving like the Cobb family, and to just keep that going throughout the shoot.

Camera Style

The loose, deceptively casual style of “Thumbsucker”‘s individual scenes and performances is counterbalanced by the technical restrictions imposed by the calculated use of anamorphic lenses. It’s made the shooting more structured. The actual camera moves and the camera itself are more static and structured than I thought they would be. The movie is supposed to look a little Dogma-ish, invoking the manifesto of naturalistic filmmaking championed by maverick directors, such as Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier.

Team Work

On the technical side, I leaned heavily on the team I have worked closely with in my commercial and music video work. That decision required that I expend some of my personal capital, since many on that team, like me, had no previous feature experience. The majority of the people I worked with on the film are people Ive been working with for the last seven years. I don’t consider them guns for hire. Like with any good team, I have developed shorthand that proved useful in meeting the challenges of mounting an independent film. Costume designer April Napier, for instance, has worked with me long enough that she kind of gets my idiosyncrasies, like my fetish for corduroys and stuff like that.

Casting Lou Pucci

The stellar cast, including Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, Vincent DOnofrio, Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughn that came together was a coup for a first-time director.

However, his biggest fortune was casting newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci, who plays the central role of Justin Cobb. That was the biggest piece of luck, or goodwill, or whatever it was that we had.

I looked at over 100 young actors before Lou came in. Then he showed up– the first airplane flight hed ever taken in his life was to come to the audition. He had done theater for a long time, but he didn’t feel like the other kids. He didn’t feel like L.A, like someone whose identity was Im an actor and Im cool.’ He felt nervous and anxious and all that stuff which is just so Justin.

Lou brought to the role all of the qualities that we liked about the screenplay, this sense of truth. He was willing to put it all out therebe insecure, be silly, be sad, be angry. He’s a special find. There’s no greater Lou Pucci fan than me. He held his own with all these different actors, and theyre intense people to be around, as the character and as Lou Pucci, and he never let it rattle him. Or if he did let it rattle him, he did it in the right way where he didn’t try to hide it, and it became a part of the piece. The casting of Pucci reflects a philosophy that I acquired through reading the work of director Elia Kazan. Kazan says you have to cast the person. You have to see the character in the person’s history, their life, their psychology, not just seeing them as an actor.

Keanu Reeves

I applied Kazan’s philosophy to each of my choices, including Keanu Reeves, who plays “holistic orthodontist” Perry Lyman. Perry is a total searcher, and I think Keanu is a total searcher. The difference is that, unlike Keanu, Perry’s character comes from a whole lot of insecurity, and that’s what made him put on all these masks. Reeves relished the chance to step outside the films such as “The Matrix” trilogy and devote himself to the unconventional character-driven drama of “Thumbsucker”

Any worries that Reeves’ A-list stardom would unbalance the delicate on-set equilibrium were quickly dissipated. You would expect Keanu to be surrounded by an entourage, or really hard to get to, or emotionally inaccessible, or so seasoned he’s gotten over it all, but he’s one of those people that treat you like it’s the first film he’s ever done. I was amazed at how humble he was about himself. My biggest job as a director was just encouraging him that he made the right decision in a given scene. It just speaks to how much vulnerability acting requires.

Tilda Swinton

As an admirer of Swinton’s for years, I initially harbored little hope that she would agree to take on the role. When I met Tilda, I thought, she’s never gonna do this movie but at least I got to meet her and have lunch with her. I had Tilda up on a very high pedestal, and she comes bouncing down, and she’s the nicest, most grounded person you could ever meet. It’s impossible to feel odd around her; she just won’t let that happen.

You can’t imagine “Thumbsucker” without Tilda. She was crucial in terms of putting the film together with us. Youre only likely to make a film like this today if you have a certain level of actors’ names in it that allows a financier to feel comfortable putting money into your film. Tilda stuck with this film for over a year and a half before we made it, and called her friends to see if they would be in it. She gave the film certain credibility because of her attachment, which made other actors feel comfortable coming on board.

Vincent DOnofrio

I found that despite DOnofrio’s reputation as an intimidating screen presence, his disposition on-set was gratifyingly generous. Vincent is one of those people that’s so knowledgeable about filmmaking, acting, directing, that whenever he says something, Im like, Okay, tell me more!’ I feel very lucky that I had all these people so willing to be generous with me with their experience.

Vince Vaughn

I didn’t direct Vince Vaughn, who plays debate coach Mr. Geary. I rode the Vaughn wave for a few days. Vince 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, and they were all great additions. 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.


One of “Thumbsucker”‘s most vivid characters doesn’t get screen credit at all: the town of Beaverwood, Oregon, the suburban anti-paradise that surrounds the 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. “Theyre ruled by the need to put on a good show for the boss, the church, the neighbors. And yet people suffer and have anxieties in the same way that they do everywhere. I’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 growing sense of alienation as he comes to see the world around him as one where people pretend to be something theyre not.

It’s a landscape that Mills can claim an intimate familiarity with, having served as the backdrop to his acclaimed short films, “The Architecture of Reassurance” and “Paperboys.” Despite my intimate familiarity with the suburban landscape, I filmed 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.

A connoisseur of the suburban landscape, I found my perfect wild jungle’ suburbia in Oregon. I was really interested in Oregon suburbs, because theyre very new. There are suburbs everywhere, but in other places, you can see the decades of development. 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 the film, and cinematographer Joaquin Baca-Asay combined it with meticulous camera work to create a precise, stable backdrop to the messiness of the human relationships at the film’s core.

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. 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. You can’t put those kind of restrictions on human desire and not have the energy come out sideways.”

One such “sideways” manifestation that’s the focus of the film is the extensive use of pharmaceuticals, of both the corporate manufactured and homegrown varieties, to ease the cognitive dissonance at the heart of suburban life. 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. I think weve got that as a society at the moment. You haven’t finished one thing before youre imagining the next; you haven’t met one person, but youre looking at their defects and comparing them to another person. We do that with ourselves, too. Were constantly trying on’ ourselves, and I think that’s just what Justin is doing.”

Universal Themes

“The book was no bestseller, by any means,” says Kirn of his novel. “But, it was far more autobiographical than anything else Ive 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 is 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.

Movie’s Roots

The thematic roots of my film are based on a handful of select inspirations: the paintings of Andrew Wyeth; the music of Elliott Smith and Neil Young; the films of Hal Ashby. There’s a feeling I always get when I watch an Ashby film. I feel like 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, “Thumbsucker” represents an attempt to translate these imagined whispers of Ashby for a new audience and a new cultural moment.

Parents and Children

The film is really about the parents, like every story, it is actually about what your parents did to you, and how youre dealing with it. I don’t think you can really grow up until you have at least gotten away from your family, because theyre always going to shelter you from things.

Film’s ending

The film’s ending, when Justin takes his stab at independence by flying to New York, is both uplifting and open-ended. The conclusion is one of the inventions of the screenplay, but it is perfectly in keeping with Kirn’s creative vision. Justin is constantly monitoring the reactions of people around him. 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.”

Kirn’s Reaction to the adaptation

I had no idea what he was going to think. He’s a big author and a pretty intense critic, and Im totally shitting myself. Then we meet, and he’s like, Hey, how’s it going Loved the adaptation. Id never thought about him going to New York. Great job.’ And I was like: Are you mocking me But no. 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 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

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