Mike Mills Biography

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Genres: Alternative/Indie, Children's, Country, Electronica/Dance, Rock, Seasonal


Mills was born on March 20, 1966, in Berkeley, CA, the third of three children of Paul and Jan Mills; the former a director of the Oakland Museum of California and the latter a property renovation specialist The couple had married in spite of knowing Paul was homosexual. He later told his son they undertook their union in deference to the repressive climate of America's post-war period, even as Jan subordinated her Jewish roots. After building Oakland's museum into much-respected institution, Paul took the head position at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1970. Consequently, Mills grew up in an artistic, politically conscious household but felt out of place in sunny, wealthy Santa Barbara, CA, applying himself solely to skateboarding and playing in a punk band. He considered both as possible vocations but eventually followed his penchant for drawing, moving at age 18 to New York City to attend the exclusive art and engineering school Cooper Union. After studying under such heavyweights as conceptual artist Hans Haacke and art historian Douglas Crimp, Mills came to conceive his art as an intrinsically political, populist medium versus its traditional avant garde cloister. In New York, he also found the creative cauldron of East Village the perfect place to weave together his muses.

Inspired by a screening of Errol Morris's groundbreaking documentary "The Thin Blue Line" (1988), Mills supplemented his résumé with video projects after graduating in 1989. The 1990s saw his work finding a groove among New York's hipster couture, as marked, among a raft of CD art projects, by his meta-esque art for the New York alternative rock band Sonic Youth's album Washing Machine, a connection with that would carry over creating graphics for Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon's sidelight clothing company, X-girl. He also contributed designs to skateboard marketers such as Stereo and Supreme and clothing designer Marc Jacobs. In 1996, he and Roman Coppola, son of Francis Ford Coppola, founded The Directors Bureau, a production company matching other indie creative types for commercial projects, including advertising and music videos. That year, U.K. record label Mo Wax Records released a limited edition "album"-format collection of Mills' funny, quirky posters, A Visual Sampler: Posters by Mike Mills, supported by a touring exhibition of the original work.

After Mills' mother died in 1999, his father came out to his son and went on to become active in the Santa Barbara gay community. In 2000, Mills helmed his first long-form film outing, "Deformer," a documentary look at skateboarding cult figure and artist Ed Templeton, and he expanded his musical undertakings with longer-form outings with conceptual musician Moby's direct-to-video offering "Play" (2001) and a documentary sojourn with French electronica band Air, "Eating, Sleeping, Waiting and Playing" (2003). He won his first laurel as a filmmaker with a 40-minute slice-of-life documentary about a group of middle-class newspaper-delivering Minnesota kids, "Paperboys" (2001), which took an award at the Santa Fe Film Festival. Though he continued to make his living largely directing commercials, Mills periodically staged exhibits of his pop-art in hip galleries across the world's art capitals, and in 2003, published another book of his works, Book 11. That year, he withdrew from contract design work to launch his own merchandise imprint, Humans, for which he designed T-shirts, sweatshirts, purses, iPod cases and other merchandise; the brand would also title his next book, released in 2006.

In 2005, Mills premiered his first feature film, "Thumbsucker," working off his own script of a novel by Walter Kirn, an oddball coming-of-age tale about a teenager with an oral fixation. Mills landed such talent as Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vince Vaughn and Keanu Reeves to play oddball characters encountered by the protagonist, and the film won generally positive notices. It earned him nominations for an Independent Spirit Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and led to a happy crossing of paths with another indie auteur, Miranda July. Mills found himself smitten with July, who took Sundance's Special Jury Price her own feature directorial debut, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (2005), and went on to garner an armful of awards at Cannes. Not surprisingly, the two began a relationship. Amid the glow of "Thumbsucker," Mills began conceiving a film about his father, who had died the previous year. He parted ways with the Director's Bureau in 2005, leery of compromising his progressive ethic by buoying the corporate hegemony his personal work often barbed - but he would soon return to commercial work for selective clients, one of them a surrealistic campaign for Old Spice, to pay the bills.

Next up, Mills undertook another documentary project, an examination of the introduction of antidepressant drugs to Japanese culture, "Does Your Soul Have a Cold?" (2007). Mills and July married in 2009, nesting in Los Angeles' Silver Lake neighborhood. It was there that he shot much of his roman â clef film, securing funding on the star power of Ewan McGregor (as the slightly fictionalized version of himself) and Christopher Plummer (based on his father). Released initially in 2010, "Beginners" juxtaposed the relationship between father and son in the wake of the father's coming out and joyous final years and the son's struggle with his own romantic inclinations toward a young actress. A critical hit, "Beginners" won awards for Best Cast and Best Film at the Gotham Awards in 2011, putting it on notice for a potential raft of indie accolades, including an Independent Spirit Award nomination in late 2011.

By Matthew Grimm




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