"I don’t actually believe in advertising," says Mike Mills, a guy who makes his living directing TV commercials. "I don’t really believe that when I make a Nike ad that people go buy more of that shoe, you know?" But by the time his spots air, the ambivalence has magically transformed into authenticity.
Mills is a graphic designer, a fine artist, and a maker of commercials for the likes of Old Spice, The Gap, and DuPont. And unlike many other artistic practitioners of the commercial craft, the ups and downs of corporate work do sometimes leave him feeling a twinge of remorse. What he really wants to do is direct one movie every few years and earn a modest living. But having just put out the uniformly praised arthouse release Beginners—six years after his last feature, Sundance gem Thumbsucker—Mills knows even that humble goal is a struggle. So he's unabashedly straddled the disparate realms of high and low art, embodying the anything-goes ethic of a post-sell-out era—in which legitimate artists make a living off of corporate endeavors. He’s even gotten pretty good at speaking about it in sound bites.
"All these rules about what’s fine art and what’s not, those are old traps anyway, and they’re lies," he says. "The art world has made a business out of covering up its ties to money."
It turns out that Mills’ bipolar career came about as much by design as by necessity. Studying at Cooper Union’s School of Art in New York City in the second half of the 1980s, his Marxist bent was shaped by teachers Hans Haacke, a conceptual artist, and Douglas Crimp, an art historian, who also helped breed a community of graduates driven to make art for the people rather than for art’s sake.
"We didn’t want to work in the art world," which was rarefied and elitist, says Mills. "We would do anything to be in the entertainment world, but hopefully with all the seriousness, the engagement, all the pretention—to be honest—of an artist."
So, he went into graphic design, which was a way to have a role in the public sphere while still concocting unique, creative work. A music buff, Mills designed record covers for Sonic Youth and Air, T-shirts for Beastie Boys and directed music videos for Everything But the Girl and Yoko Ono.
In 1996, he cofounded commercial and music video production company The Directors’ Bureau with Roman Coppola, son of filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. In 2005, after Mills’ father died of cancer, an event that inspired, in part, Beginners, Mills walked away from the partnership with Coppola. "I resigned very grandly," he declares over a plate of poached eggs, sourdough toast, and avocado at a Los Angeles bistro near his home in funky Silver Lake one afternoon last week. "I was like, ‘No more contradictions!’ If I can’t fully believe in something … life is short. I retired. I decided not to do any ads anymore."
A year or two later, he found out he could have it both ways. "If you do one or two ads a year, you can really be choosy," Mills says. "You can pick ones that you smell are going to have some freedom." An ad he did for Adidas took him to Rome, where he got to oversee crane shots of 50 bikers and 200 extras on the no-permits streets of a city where bribes from police are a normal part of filming. "It’s like the most off-the-hook pirate-ship experience." Commercials were his film school. It gave him skills that make shooting in a house in Silver Lake with no lights, as he did for Beginners, relatively simple.
With money he earned doing ads, Mills funded some aspects of Beginners: "I paid for my assistant, I paid for [costar] Christopher Plummer’s skinny jeans, I paid for a lot of shit just to, like, lubricate the system so things wouldn’t be a problem," says Mills. (This is also a guy who says he was grateful that when he does an art show, like the one in Berlin in 2009 [sample below], he doesn't have to worry about actually selling anything.)
Mills’ mixed-bag career of commercials, album covers (which he still does for friends, like Beastie Boys’ recent Hot Sauce Committee Part Two), and book covers for his wife, writer-artist-filmmaker Miranda July, is creatively rich. He was given a wide berth when creating Old Spice ads, for which he built wild sets and drew influence from the legendary French comic director, Jacques Tati. But there’s a major downside to the ad work: no control.
Often the hiring agency has him do something really creative and, in concept, they’re all in. But then the client sees it. Stricken with the fear of not meeting their sales results, they then strip it of anything risky.
"There have been so many that have gone south," Mills says, citing a DuPont gig that took him to the Great Wall of China, Morocco, and France, where he stayed in the nicest hotels. "It sounds great, but being in fancy hotels starts to make you feel like you’re losing your soul [over] all the money that’s spent." He found it downright depressing to be making a lot of money while doing something that was, at the time, working out creatively but wasn’t going well politically, and was ultimately stripped of its creative bent. "DuPont does do some good things," he says. "They do horrendous things, too. I perhaps wasn’t thinking clearly." Enter the regret. And the regret Mills imagines suffering on the set of major studio project. "It’s one thing to do an ad for three weeks and get boned by DuPont at the end," he says. "It’s another thing to work on a film for a year or two of your life."
At 45, Mills would like to be more a part of a creative community, but he’s never felt fully accepted by artists, filmmakers, or designers. "It’s like I‘m bisexual in every direction," he says metaphorically. "No one owns me. No one thinks of me that way."
He’s not actually bisexual, but Beginners is the rare movie with believable gay content made by a straight man. It’s based on his own story, as the son of a man whose father came out of the closet in his 70s before dying of cancer. So far, the film has taken in almost $1 million in two weeks of limited release, a respectable showing. It’s a soulful tale of grief and love, and it features such quirky, Mills-generated artistic touches as a talking dog and late-night flights of artistic fancy in which Ewan McGregor’s character spray paints esoteric graffiti on public property, much as Mills himself has done himself.
Even with all that creative expression getting out to masses of people, Mills laments that he’s not more like his idols, documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange and his former teacher, Douglas Crimp. "Conceptwise, I can get in there and do cool stuff, but Crimpwise, doing ads, I’ve really gone over to the dark side because I’m making capitalism look better," Mills says, perhaps unknowingly talking like C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), the corporate businessman created by Billy Wilder in the director’s wise, wry and still relevant 1960 cautionary tale about the soul-sucking nature of corporate America, The Apartment. "I’m making capitalism look seamless and nonviolent and really fun and clever and exciting," says Mills. "And that weighs on me. I don’t take it lightly."
Then again, he continues, dropping all stylistic pretense, "If I couldn’t do ads, I’d be kind of fucked."
[Images courtesy Focus Features]