Stuff To Read: Fascinating ‘Thumbsucker’ Interview With Director Mike Mills & Lou Taylor Pucci

This interview was originally posted at:
http://www.screentalk.biz/interviews/millspucci_interview.php

I’m reposting it here not for how complimentary Mike Mills is of VDO’s work (although I totally agree that after having read the book ‘Thumbsucker’ I would not have predicted that VDO could find a believable sensitive side to Michael Cobb and bring that to the screen and for that everyone should be impressed by that). Instead I wanted to play up these other sentiments that for me hit home:

“I think what the film is trying to show is that once you hit whatever age, it’s not like you’re done. ‘Wow, I’m fixed.’ I take great pleasure in showing that side of adulthood. We all need to give ourselves permission: ‘I’m not going to be done, I’m going to keep going.’ And if that gets out in the world, I feel like this film did some good.” -Mike Mills

“I wanted to leave home to get away from my family…Now I realize there’s nothing wrong with home, but you do have to leave.” -Lou Taylor Pucci

“It’s hard telling everybody the truth when they don’t tell you the truth back…That’s what L.A. is like.” -Lou Taylor Pucci

[Note: Many of the places I grew up in are like this, especially the suburbs of Washington DC where the truth is often sacrificed for what is politically expedient rather than for what will look glamorous]

Screen Talk with Mike Mills and Lou Pucci

by Joanna Topor

“I’ve never been in anything like this,” Lou Pucci says to me as he looks around the suite we’re sitting in at Chicago’s Peninsula Hotel. “We’re having fun because we’re together,” he adds referring to Mike Mills, not only his traveling companion, but also the writer/director of Thumbsucker, the film Pucci stars in opposite acting giants like Tilda Swinton, Vincent D’Onofrio and Keanu Reeves, that opens September 16 in New York and Los Angeles. “But we don’t get to go outside at all, we have to stay in the hotel.”

Despite having a lot in common, the two have very different experiences of suburbia, the true star of Mills’ film adapted from the novel by Walter Kirn. “I didn’t grow up in a suburban housing development,” says Mills, “But I would walk through them thinking that life is better here, life is cleaner, it’s like a movie set. If anything I’ve always fallen for the myth of the suburbs.” Pucci’s experience is more like the character he plays in Tumbsucker, Justin, the awkward high schooler who feels overwhelming pressure to take care of his family, while at the same time wrestling with the need to leave the nest and make his mark in the world. “I wanted to leave home to get away from my family,” says Pucci, “there was a lot of stuff going on right then that made the part really awesome. I was learning to tell you the truth, all about drugs and college girls. Now I realize there’s nothing wrong with home, but you do have to leave.”

Even though escaping suburbia is such a huge part of Thumbsucker, Mills wants to make it clear that he wasn’t making fun of it in his script. “It’s a very big dream of home – we’re all living false dreams, so why jab someone for doing it.” All of the characters seem to be coming to terms with their false dreams in one way or another and that is what makes the script a different type of coming of age tale, one for every generation. “I think what the film is trying to show is that once you hit whatever age, it’s not like you’re done. ‘Wow, I’m fixed.’ I take great pleasure in showing that side of adulthood. We all need to give ourselves permission: ‘I’m not going to be done, I’m going to keep going.’ And if that gets out in the world, I feel like this film did some good.”

For a project that seemed like it may never get made, Thumbsucker managed to attract an impressive cast when it couldn’t attract a financial backer. Mills is still blown away by how painless it was to round up his cast. “That was easy,” he says. “Trying to get the money” – he takes a deep breath – “totally hard, every step’s a fight. I’m not even trying with the actors. I think it’s because it [Thumbsucker] was real and the feelings were complicated and the characters [weren’t] one-dimensional or even just type. Even if there was the big tough dad, Vincent saw in him the capability to also be fragile. It was never my intention with my first film to have Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn, you just don’t think that way.”

In fact for Mills the only thought that troubled him during the process was how bad a writer he was. Thumbsucker is a very personal project for Mills, who was looking to write something in the aftermath of his mother’s death. While trying to write an original screenplay, someone gave Mills a copy of the novel Thumbsucker. “I was so jealous,” he says, remembering reading the book, “that this asshole can do something that really shows the nuances of life and – it’s not contrived.” At first he started playing with the novel’s material in an attempt to learn from Kirn and maybe even copy some of his ideas, but in the end Mills knew he had to adapt the work. “This is totally my relationship with my mom,” he says about the script, “it became this sort of cathartic and personal way for me to keep talking to my mom.”

Even though he was full of self doubt regarding his writing ability, Mills is quick to admit that writing is to him is what thumbsucking is to Justin in the film, an escape – however clichéd that may be. Pucci on the other hand, is proud of his thumbsucking, “Making up different personalities,” he says, “being somebody completely different whenever I want to or whenever I need to.” It’s a survival tactic that helped the young stage actor get through the time he spent in Los Angeles. “It’s hard telling everybody the truth when they don’t tell you the truth back,” he says, reflecting on his time spent in Hollywood, “That’s what L.A. is like.” Like a doting big brother, Mills comes to Pucci’s defense, “He was 19 when he went there, so it’s kind of like going to college, but your college is not just LA, but ‘young actor world.'”

For Pucci, who has a stage background, this was his first major role (he had a small part in Personal Velocity), as a virtual unknown, he beat out countless actors for the part of Justin, (“Name anybody,” Mills says of casting the part, “any kid who’s that age, they pretty much wanted to be it.”) and found himself heading a list of A-list actors. However, he wasn’t intimidated. When asked how it felt to be up against such respected performers, he was quick to set the record, “It’s not ‘up against them.’” Pucci, who won Best Actor for his performance in Thumbsucker at Sundance, reveals, “It’s how do I feel to be able to work with people who are going to help me that much? They wanted to tell me whatever they could.”

In relation to a writer’s world, all up and coming screenwriters can apply the same philosophy and approach to learning from professionals and established scribes. After all, the thumb-sucking world of screenwriting is a rewarding journey on the ongoing learning curve. It’s how you feel about learning from writers who can help you that much. If you’re fortunate to learn from a professional writer, we’re hoping they’ll want to tell you everything they can.

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