After meeting you at Sundance for the premiere of Thumbsucker at the GreenCine
/RES Magazine “Art of Storytelling” party and again shortly thereafter at the
European premiere in Berlin, I see that you’ve been busy. With all of the
collateral material around the film – posters and so forth – obviously you have a
habit of working all the time.

That’s the way I am. It’s much easier… Actually, that’s only one small part of what
I’ve been doing. I have a first draft done of my next script, which I started just
after Berlin. I have a Japanese clothing line that I did a second version of. I guess
I’m a workaholic and I’m fairly prolific. In doing these Thumbsucker posters, the
reason there are so many is because I have a hard time just doing one thing. If I
let myself go, “Okay, there’s ten,” they come much easier. It’s not so important,
especially my kind of stuff. It’s not about creating a belabored, long drawing of
something. It’s more of a quick idea. I showed them all of the designs and they’re
like, “Well, we like them all.” So that’s how this multi-panel doing-many-things
world started. I guess I’m lucky that they embraced it rather than saying, “This is

All of it fits very nicely because Thumbsucker is unconventional. The way that
you’re marketing the film should be unconventional, too.

Spread the word…

Someone else read the book and passed it along to you. Is that right?

It was my friend Bob Stephenson, who’s one of the producers. He didn’t even read
the book, he just read about it in Spin Magazine, and then I read it and… You
wanted to know how I got interested in it?

First of all, he thought that you would be good for it.

Yeah. He just read teenagers, sucking thumbs, suburbs. All the kind of… Even
though he’s my friend, he does stereotype me. The reason it connected with me is
sort of a longer story. Six months before, my mother had passed away and I was
really at the time of my life where I was like, “Okay, it’s time to start. It’s time to
start being me, doing something that’s more…” I mean, I’ve been doing stuff that’s
“me” before, but trying to take that to the next level. I started writing a script that
was horribly maudlin and way too serious, too heavy and way too self-pitying and
all that. Bob showed me Walter [Kirn]’s book and I started to read it. I was just so
fucking jealous of how authentic, real, sincere and funny it was. It didn’t take itself
too heavily and it opened all of these doors with its humor. At first I was just
jealous. “How did he do that?” Just wishing I was a more talented person. Then I
said, “Yeah,” and I convinced everybody to let me adapt it. I started adapting it
and I realize, “Wait… This isn’t my family, this is me. I am so Justin and this is so
my relationship with my mom.” It became a very cathartic, very personal journey for
me. All the facts with my family and me are completely different than the one in the
movie, but the emotional architecture is actually quite similar. I think my
unconscious kind of brought this thing to me to work out some stuff. Now this
next script I’m working on is completely personal, even more about me and my
family and my world… and more revealing. Now I can see it as this path that I’ve
been on, looking back. The thing that really got me, you could just smell it was
real, the book. And you could smell that it wasn’t just someone fucking around
with you. It was someone showing you stuff about themselves that was maybe a
little hard to show, but doing it in a way that you can see the ridiculousness of
life. How odd and strange and funny life is. That to me… I love that combination
of funny and sad together. To me, that’s the way it always happens…

Were you always very insistent on doing the script yourself or was it something
that you had kind of passively introduced…

When people were first sort of showing me the book and what the idea was, they
were like, “Mike, why don’t you do this?” I was like, “Who’s going to write it?” At
first, I wasn’t at all considered a writer. No one even thought of me writing it. No
one even thought that was an option. I hadn’t proven myself at all. So when I
started, luckily, Bob Stephenson, my friend and producer, was totally behind it and
helped me very much in the writing of it. He was my main first editor. That’s why it
wasn’t financed at the beginning. That’s why it had to be done for free for a
couple of years. No one thought that was a good idea at all. I think it’s from doing
music videos, where you come up with your ideas. To me, coming up with your
own ideas is perhaps the most important part of directing. To not write something
that you know is going to be so important or to not adapt something that you
think is going to be so important… Why? How is that showing you as a director?

It would take away from your investment in the entire project?

How could you invest if you’re not integrally involved in the creation of the idea
that you’re going to be shooting? How can they be separated? A part of my brain
can’t understand how you could direct without writing it.

And yet, you were initially considering the project thinking someone else might
write it?

Well, no. I was being approached. It was just my friend Bob and me; we’re not like
a company or anything. Bob hadn’t produced anything before. The conversation
was between me and Bob.

This was what year exactly?

Around 1999.

After you finished Paperboys?

I did Paperboys after. Part of the reason that Paperboys was shot in Minnesota was
because the book was set in Minnesota. I just happened to do it in Walter’s
hometown, by accident, in Stillwater. So part of Paperboys was research for
Thumbsucker. Everything I did from 2000 on is actually research for Thumbsucker.
Every camera choice on every video and every commercial Joaquín Baca-Asay, my
DP, and I worked on, we were like, “Okay, what are we going to toy around with
now?” Lots of the things didn’t actually end up in Thumbsucker, but that’s what
made all of those projects interesting to do. We were sending ourselves through

How much of an influence has RES been in getting you out and finding an
audience? There’s a kind of look and feel behind – not just you and the rest of
the folks at Director’s Bureau – but everyone associated with both design and
filmmaking in a way. I don’t want to call it a “school” but, in a way, there is a

RES has been huge for me. It’s weird, being a graphic designer you kind of work in
isolation and you’re alone. Even when the work’s out in the world it’s very alone.
As graphic designers go, I’ve had a very celebrated graphic designer-ness. I have
shows and people know about my stuff. It’s a largely anonymous world. Then RES
showed Deformer, one of my very first films. It’s about [skateboarder] Ed
Templeton. I don’t know when it was, but a long time ago. 1998, 1997, something
like that. Then you go see it in a room full of people and you learn, “Oh, this is
what ‘film’ is.” Film is a conversation between you and people via a screen. I’m still
learning that. I really learned that at Sundance this year, which was crazily
emotional for me. Shockingly so. Part of me really doesn’t like Sundance at all. The
hype of it, the business and the industry and, as a director, preparing for
Sundance, it’s the most nasty, stupid bunch of arguments you’re ever going to
have in your whole life… “You need to be driven in a Hummer from the premier to
the party where Snoop Dogg’s playing…” “WHAT? I’m not going to be driven in
a Hummer. Why is Snoop Dogg playing the party for Thumbsucker?” All these
fights like that, and you’re like, “I hate this.”

[RES Editorial Director] Jonathan Wells and I discussed these issues while we
were preparing for the GreenCine/RES party. It all seemed to increase in levels of

Then you have your first screening and something magical happens. I would love to
not have liked Sundance, but something magical happens with the audience that
they’re able to provide for you. All these people go… People really do go to
Sundance. I didn’t think that they did, but I met them and they do go. It’s like this
incubator from when you were born to being out in the world. It was really intense
and RES was the kind of building block of that and it continues to be. My
relationship with Jonathan and all those people… I always think of it like what you
said, from the outside it must look so lame that I’m always in RES. RES has been
so nice to me. I would hate me and them if I wasn’t me. I could taste that.

I know that you’re coming back to San Francisco for RESFEST in late-September
to show Thumbsucker and Architecture of Reassurance. I think that it’s a good

I love it. It’s so much more organic than something like Sundance or whatever. So
much more homemade and so much more grassroots and so many more interesting,
weird people see your stuff. As a filmmaker, I tell all the other filmmakers out there,
get in RES. Because it gets shown so much more and so many different, weird
people see it. They worked really hard and have forever. I’m totally pro-RES.

Sundance is geographically based and it’s up to people, if they’re so driven, to go
out and see if they can participate. With RES, obviously, it’s a touring festival so
you’re not locked into one city. It actually changes slightly from city to city as
well. You can reach a larger audience and, for many folks, it’s the largest
audience that they’re ever going to receive for their work.

People like me are sort of in a place of privilege now. They show a lot of younger
people. As far as the design thing, I’ve purposefully disassociated my “design-self”
from my “film-self.” The part of me that wants to do film is the part of me that
wants to tell stories, deal with emotions, deal with people. My screenplay that I’m
working on now finally has a graphic element to it. I didn’t want to be one of these
graphics people doing motion graphics. I did everything I could to almost create a
schism between the two.

That definitely surprised me about Paperboys. I expected either the influence of
your music video work or your graphic design work and it was not that at all.
Obviously that’s conscious. It’s not accidental.

That’s not why I was doing it. I think you can get lumped into something. I saw so
many people get lumped in. Once you get caught into motion graphics, it’s hard to
be a content provider and not a content manipulator. From the beginning, I could
smell that. I had to be a content provider. Also, I’m not really that good at all that
stuff. Graphic design-wise I’m a total Luddite. I use Quark express. I’m a retard.
That’s my strength. I’m not good at it. The ideas have to be kind of interesting
or… my limitations are always in the part that I nestle myself up to make
something. Every time I get my RES Magazine, I look at the DVD. The Shynola
guys are my favorite things to watch, but I don’t really think of myself in the same
group in the same way. I’ve done some graphic-y things, graphic videos, but I’m
not like those people. This next film I’m excited to kind of reintegrate… it’ll be kind
of like a reunion of my “design-self” and “film-self.” If it works out, if I end up
keeping it in the film.

When do you hope to go into production on that?

I don’t know. I’ve got to finish the script. I’m gunning for next year sometime.

If you’re not part of the “RES group” proper…

Well, I think RES is more diverse than that…

I think that you’re right. Outside perception is different than the reality. Then are
you part of the skateboarder-turned-filmmaker group?

This is my problem in life. I don’t like being in a group. So I get… so I’m a multiple
hybrid to the point of being a little hard to define. In all of them, I feel great
affinity. The skater, the whole Aaron Rose/Alleged Gallery/Beautiful Losers thing…
I’m part of that, but at the same time I feel like I’m just on the edge of it. If you
even go to the Beautiful Losers show, I really feel like my work is just on the edge,
tied with a rope. I know those people, I’m great friends with them and I admire
them greatly. Same thing with Shynola and all those different kinds of people,
Paperrad… I love it, I totally. I go seek it out myself but I’m tied to an even longer
rope to that stuff. In general, I sort of have a hard time feeling on the team. It’s
weird; my interests are kind of varied, even within myself. In my own room, I have
all these different parts that play around with each other. Sometimes it’s confusing,
sometimes it’s what fuels everything. I can’t control it. I tried. I can’t. I tried to be
narrower. It doesn’t work.

I don’t believe that you have any great attraction to the whole “celebrity”
distraction. Yet, from the hubbub of Sundance, you immediately were off to the
Berlinale, with the red carpet, Keanu Reeves and all that nonsense. You’re trying
to work around the edges of these sorts of barriers as well?

Like the big Hollywood world?


That’s the weird thing about film. Film is on a much bigger public scale than
everything else I’ve done before, which is what makes it great. You can enter the
public sphere, in a way. From art school, the reason I didn’t make traditional art in
galleries and museums is because it was too off the “white castle” kind of rarified
world. Me and a bunch of my friends got into graphics or anything that was public
because we wanted to be in the public sphere. When I first saw one of my posters
on Broadway, I was like, “I made it, I did it! All these people I don’t know that
aren’t in the art world from all different walks of life are looking at my stuff and
most of them are passing it by, but some of them… it’s affecting them.” Especially
coming from art school, I was like, “I made it!” That need; that little bit of heroin
has just been growing. Now when I think of Thumbsucker being in Encino or
Fresno or even in downtown Los Angeles, I have the same buzz. “Wow.” What a
privilege to get to communicate with people you don’t know and people that you
wouldn’t actually get to meet in the confines of your normal life. The price for that
is that you have to play the game a little bit to get the money to be in that world.
That’s something I’m really struggling with and have no great answers for and am
not in any kind of position of knowing about, but at the beginning of making
Thumbsucker I wasn’t like “Yeah, I’m going to get Keanu Reeves, Vince Vaughn,
Benjamin Bratt and all these people.” It was only after years of not getting
financing and years of acquiring all these actors that really liked the script. It had
its own life in the afterworld. Actors would talk to each other and agents would
talk to each other. The calls I would be getting would just keep increasing and
name value would just be growing and, simultaneously, trying to get money would
just be failing and failing and “no” and “no” and “no.” Every financier and
distributor in North America and Europe said, “No.” So I was over.

“We tried.

Yeah. That’s a pretty fucked place to be. You’ve worked on the thing forever. It’s
not like you’re going to go get a new one right away. Luckily, these other people
started calling or started being interested that I liked… You meet Keanu and there’s
not a more humble, straight forward, easy to talk to, sincere person. I was like, I
feel totally comfortable with this person I’m meeting with. Vince Vaughn, a totally
different kind of person, but I got the sense, like, “Oh, he gets what I’m trying to
do.” You know what I mean? In that relationship, I was very happy and honored to
have him and he treated me so nicely that I felt great and the work I did with him
felt great. Entering this kooky world, I don’t feel great about or I have great qualms
about, or being part of the market and having to think about the market. I’m not
into it. I don’t see Thumbsucker as the diving board to, “Okay, the next one’s 15
million and the one after that’s 20 million.” If anything, I’m going down. I’m seeing
al-Qaeda as a great business model. How low can I go? How cheap can I make the
next one for?

So this new script will be very grassroots and organic in its creation?

Yeah, it might even be shot at my house. It might be really down.

Did you insist on using the same crew in your video and feature film work?

Yeah. It’s been like a seven year family up until now. We’ll see if that continues
now but it’s the spirit of that smallness that I really want. When we did Paperboys,
it was about four or five people. That’s so great when you make a film that way.
Especially as a director and people are multi-tasking, it’s so much better and easier
than having the boat that you’re the captain of. “Who is that person over there?”
It doesn’t feel right when you don’t know everybody intimately, when you’re
basically having sex all over the place. You should know everybody you have sex
with, as a general rule.

Let’s talk a little bit about the casting. Obviously the lynchpin is your lead.
Everything else has to fall around him and he’s, up to this point, relatively
inexperienced in features. How difficult was it, really? You talked to a hundred or
so actors trying to fill that role, did you know when he walked in the door that
this was…

I was like… It’s like you know a girl a party, “I hope that’s her…” That kind of
Elijah Wood was attached for a long time. He was nineteen at the very beginning. It
just took so long, we talked and he felt too old. He was twenty-one when we came
around to it. In a way, it was a blessing to get to work with someone that no one
knows about. Then you don’t have to deal with the baggage that established
actors have of their past or their associations of different things. All of the sudden,
we’re financed, I have no lead, I have eight weeks to shoot. I’ve been working on
this thing for years and I don’t have Justin. It’s a crazy place to be in. I saw tape
of more than 200 kids and, in-person, probably 100 young men. Lou [Pucci] walked
in the door and he was nervous as hell. I was like, “This is a very good sign. He’s
not professional in hiding his emotions. He’s not slick, he’s not perfectly bottled
up, he’s a real kid.” His first flight was to that audition. He smelled of the airplane,
in reality and metaphorically. He was dressed really goofy and I was like, “This is
really good.” I had a lot of hopes. He looked a little fragile. He looked beat-up-able,
which was key to me. All that was working and I just had a good feeling.
In general, with all the other actors, they’re too big; they don’t audition. I’m a
first-time director, they’re not going to audition. So I have a lunch with them and in
this lunch I have to determine if they’re the person to fulfill this roll in the most
important piece of art I’ve made in my whole life. So you just develop your psychic
skills to the highest possible degree. It basically worked. I feel really comfortable
about all those decisions. I realize more than ever that I just work off psychic
energy anyway. It sounds retarded but it’s really true. Picking Portland? Same thing.
I got off the plane, walked around for maybe ten minutes, not even where I was
shooting. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to shoot here.” I didn’t even see anything. I
just felt right. Lou walked in, it felt right. I was just praying, praying, praying. He
did his first take – it sucked. I was like, “Oh man. That surprised me. I thought you
were going to be great.” I was totally stumped and I just said to him, “Stop
acting,” which is a horrible thing to say as a director. It really makes the actor
nervous, like they did something wrong. I thought, “Oh, I just killed him.” It just
kind of came out of me because I was so crestfallen and heartbroken that he wasn’t
the woman of my dreams but, luckily, the next take he just nailed it. He just
stopped acting. I could have shot that, and it would have been Justin. That’s the
best thing that worked out about Lou is that he’s willing to feel what Justin was
feeling. He was willing to actually feel. He’s a good enough actor to really know
what to do with that feeling. It’s all pretty natural. One of my favorite things that,
to me, really shows why Lou is great, is that last scene with Tilda [Swinton] on the
bed, she says, “I’ve been watching you your whole life,” and he starts to cry. If
you watch it closely, Lou is crying but he doesn’t want to be crying. He’s trying
to suck it up because he’s embarrassed that he’s crying. There are all these people
in the room. He’s actually crying. You know when you actually cry the last thing
you want to do is cry in front of people. Most actors, when they cry, just let it go.
Lou… I realized when I was editing, “Oh my god, he’s embarrassed and he doesn’t
want to be crying and he’s trying as hard as he can to keep it in.” That’s why it’s
so great. I think that’s what makes him great throughout the movie. He’s actually
having the feelings and he’s being a kid more than an actor in some ways.

You mention elsewhere about using the Kazan technique of trying to find the
person in the part. To go back even further, this embodies Eisenstein’s notion of
“typage,” where you’re literally casting the person that personifies the role,
physically and mentally. In the characters that Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, even
Tilda portrays, you’re looking beyond the persona that they have and say, “Okay,
they can nail this.” Was it pretty much always the person that you wanted, once
the money came together, that you said, “Vincent D’Onofrio is perfect for this
role. He’s going to be able to do this.”

To be honest, I’m not that kind of director where there’s only one right decision in
anything. I’m really into surprise and corruption of purity. I really don’t believe in
one thing. What I do believe in more is sincerity. Like Keanu is a very sincere
person. I smelled that even in all the crazy Keanu-ness. I was like, “I think that
guy’s sincere,” When someone would mention him, “Wow, it’s so much better than
all these big names that would be making fun of that character.” I felt like Keanu
wouldn’t do that. I met him, and I was like, “I was right. This is a very sincere
person who is very much a seeker in his own life and has tried on many different
outfits trying to figure it out.” He’ll be the first to tell you he hasn’t figured it out.
If anything, he’s more confused, but it’s a pretty good ride. That’d be just about
him. That’s Perry. In the meeting, I kind of got the sense of that. He felt enough
like Perry to me, I was like, “Fine, that’s right, that’ll totally work.” Tilda, in many
ways, is totally unlike Audrey, but Tilda has kids and she knows about all the
complications and all the machinations that happen between a parent and a child.
Tilda is also very beautiful in this otherworldly way and always lived a little bit like
an alien amongst us. Audrey’s a little bit like an alien amongst this family and an
alien in this suburban neighborhood. She doesn’t fit into either, like in the story.
“Okay, that fits. Right on.” Vincent D’Onofrio, just his body… this 6 foot 5, big
hulking body that can’t tiptoe into a room. I remember we did one scene where he
enters, I’m like, “Vincent, you’re just storming down the hallway. Can you enter
more quietly?”
He’s like, “Mike, I’m 259 pounds, I’m 6’5”, I don’t tiptoe. I can’t.” I was like, “Oh,
that’s Mike Cobb.” Vincent has a huge heart. Vincent is actually a very soft
spoken, sweet, sweet person who’s also a bull. That’s Mike! That’s what I’m
looking for when I meet them. Can they be that? Acting-wise, I can’t tell… I don’t

It’s the sign of an accomplished filmmaker to allow scenes where the dialogue is
only indirectly referencing the actions or the actions aren’t directly saying
anything outside of subtext. There’s one moment with Vincent where there’s an
argument between him and his son. His son retreats to his room and the father
walks down the hallway, opens the door and there’s a pause, a moment where he’s
going to commit to the truth, and then he simply shuts the door. “I’m not ready to
go there yet.” There isn’t a single character in the movie that’s not conflicted in
one way or another. Were these character conflicts difficult to maintain when
trying to schedule the scenes around the actors’ availability?

With Vincent, Tilda and Lou, who were the key, and Chase, the younger brother
who lives in Portland, they were there for the duration. We shot the film almost
completely chronologically.

That’s a good support system for Lou.

And for me, too. I was thinking about it for him. I need him to experience it and
usually you shoot out all the scenes you have in the kitchen, then you go outside
and you shoot all your outside scenes and then your hallway scenes you shoot
them all out of order if you’re production savvy. Being me, I was like, “No.” If
those four pages that we’re shooting started outside, go inside, go back outside,
go downstairs that’s the way we shot it just so it would build. It drove everybody
insane, production-wise.

It’s more natural for the actors and, as a result, you get better performances.

I realized that this was all about performances. It isn’t a really showy, visual film.
It’s really performance. That’s what I want. I want to have things happen that I
didn’t predict, that I didn’t know about, that I can’t tell you are going to happen
before. That’s what I’m gunning for. I need the film rolling while that little look

At what point in the production design did you decide to shoot at 2.35 and then to
push the camera in so it all seems very claustrophobic, where the camera has to
drift a bit to catch the characters in motion.

I just love 2.35. I got too in love with In the Mood for Love before I made this
movie. I was having a deep, deep affair with that movie. If anything, it influenced
me a little too much. There’s a lot of In the Mood for Love in Thumbsucker,
weirdly. So that format… I knew that my world outside the camera, the world I was
shooting, was going to be pretty dang real. I wasn’t going to mess with sets very
much. A lot of the world… I just go into a room, done. Location scouting, you
know, “School room, done. Fine.” I’d just pick a location and basically… Judy
[Becker] did a great job of enhancing things but basically that was it. Clothing and
all that stuff, I just wanted to be kind of as real as possible. That was the
documentary part. Then, the camera, I wanted to be a dream, because I really
believe that there isn’t anything real in the world. There really aren’t documentaries,
everything is subjective, and everything is a projection that you’re throwing out in
the world. Everybody’s making a movie twenty-four hours a day. That’s just a
contradiction in my life and my belief system, where I said, “Hmmm, let’s make that
the film.” I said that to Joaquín, the DP, “The film is a dream and it’s a
documentary.” He’s like, “That’s impossible!” Perfect. If it’s not contradictory, it’s
not true. Part of the reason we picked 2.35 was… we shot anamorphic, not just
2.35, so it’s the real deal, real anamorphic… the depth of field on film [when
shooting with an anamorphic lens] is usually a quarter of an inch or less, which
became the biggest pain in the ass you can ever, ever, ever imagine, but…

Hey, not your problem. That’s the DP’s problem.

No, my problem! It really became a problem… I had nightmares about it. Doing this
[lateral tracking movement] is huge. That’s like five pieces of tape on the thing that
the AC is trying to keep up with and there are scenes with Vincent in a dark room
visiting with Justin at night and it’s just a miracle that any of it is in focus. It’s
really a testament to how hard they worked. I wanted that really low depth of field
and I wanted to stack everybody on top of each other. We found this real house
outside of Portland that was small. Everybody said, “No, you can’t shoot in a
house that small.” I was like, “No, this is exactly what I want.”
In a family, all the boundaries are blurred between each other. That’s what it’s all
about. I wanted the focus to be blurred between people. I’m always shooting
people like that, stacked on top of each other, and I wanted everyone to be mixed
in together. That house that we happened to shoot in had mirrors everywhere.
Every room had a wall of mirrors. So you’d see in the movie it’s always mirrors and
people seeing each other through mirrors and mixing up, “Are they in the room or
is that them over there?” And that’s very In the Mood for Love, you often don’t
know where you are. We crossed the line all the time. We didn’t follow the line. So
I wanted all that boundary-crossing that happens emotionally in a family to happen
to the camera. I’m not sure how much that really communicates, but that was the
schpiel. The line.

I’m usually the first to be critical of crossing “the line” and yet, if it’s consistent
and used thematically, you can get away with anything.

It’s amazing how much you can cross the line and no one even notices. You have
to really do it wrong to have it show. Won Kar Wai does it all the time. You can
tell he doesn’t even know about the line. It’s not even a contest.

He doesn’t care. It’s in the way he shoots, since the footage will end up in whatever
fashion he cuts it together later.

There are scenes that are definitely a dialogue driven scene that he’ll do that are so
weirdly shot and I really like that.

Does that mean you want to work with Christopher Doyle at some point…

Not at all… I want Wong Kar Wai’s sensibility. I want his unformulaic-ness. That, I
really like.

That’s a very difficult thing to achieve. You often see other people try to mimic it
and fail…

I regret having such a beautiful lover as a first girlfriend. I would have been much
easier if I had picked a little bit more of a humble girl. I didn’t plan it. It didn’t
have anything to do, thematically, with Thumbsucker. I just got so hypnotized by
that film. I would deny that I loved it, but it would just creep out in all of these
things that I was doing.

It seems as if the timing for your film is perfect because there’s something in the
zeitgeist. Thumbsucker and Bee Season, also an adaptation of a novel of the same
name due for eventual release, even Miranda [July]’s debut feature, to a certain
extent – all of which deal with these people who, on the surface, are relatively
normal but just barely below the surface have a lot of stuff going on. It seems to
be a better reflection of the reality of life than we’ve seen in motion pictures for
the better part of a decade. Do you feel that you’re tapping into something that’s
already out there or is it just a coincidence that all of these things are starting to
match up? Let’s put it another way. Everyone talks about how theater attendance is
down and that no one cares about movies anymore. A lot of it, clearly, is that these
films that play in the multiplexes are not about people anymore. When folks look
back at the heyday of the 1970s, there were a number of awful movies made then
as well but the films that broke through, like Cassavettes’s Husbands and things
like that, are about real people doing real things. That resonates with an audience.
The audience that doesn’t consist entirely of sixteen year old boys.

I’m preparing myself… Cassavettes and al-Qaeda, in my head, are weirdly coming
together and becoming the answer. That’s my business plan for the future, much to
my accountant’s chagrin. My and Miranda’s film came from such a different place,
I’m very honored to be thought of, at all, in the same bubble. I do think that we’re
both making films about fragile people with compassion. We’re not making fun of
them at all, trying to say that we’re all like this and let’s celebrate that. Is that a
larger thing? I hope so. That’d be really great. I agree with you. I don’t go watch
movies in the theaters, I hardly go see a film. I do think that, especially with these
film festivals, there are so many good films that you normally don’t hear about. In
America, there’s this huge underground that in other countries is above ground. I
have more faith in that than I do in anything else these days. This is the most
public thing I’ve ever done, and in a way you would think it’s me going, “Ok, I’m
here.” This, my first day of press [his second interview in an eight day press tour
— ed.], and I know in my head that I’m gone already. This is probably the most I’ll
ever be seen, because the next thing’s going to be smaller, and the next smaller
still, and I just have to find a way to exist in a more Cassavettes realm…

Do you think that this film will allow you the freedom to make that kind of a film
and to put the money together? When you go to Sundance, the big difficulty is that
people have invested everything they can to get to that point, not to even mention
the thousands of folks that never even get there. The majority of filmmakers that
have their films at the festival, even in competition, that’s it. They don’t get
picked-up. They don’t get distribution. In a way, you’re theoretically at this point
where the money might get a little easier to raise.

I don’t know. It was so hard to get Thumbsucker [financed], I’m so browbeaten. I
don’t have any high hopes. I know how hard it is from people who have done
other films. It doesn’t really get a lot easier. You have to have a smash hit and
even then you still have to have Bill Murray in your movie. You have to have one
of these big people to even get even three million dollars. I’m not looking to the
system with any great feelings of holiness. That’s what I really mean by
Cassavettes, in that he paid for them. He made them at his house. He made lunch
for the crew. I’m thinking that’s the answer more than, “Great, I got to make a film
for three, next time nine, next time twelve, next time twenty.”

You just don’t want to play that game.

Well, maybe I will. Maybe I’m contradicting… maybe I’m wrong…

You’re not going to seek it out, in other words?

I don’t think I am. You know, the thing I think I accomplished most with
Thumbsucker is that I did a film with Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn that got
into Sundance and got a certain amount of play. It really is a personal film. I really
didn’t cater to the market that much besides packing the cast to get the money.
They worked in the film and I think that’s what I achieved in terms of public
marketing-ness. I basically made a medium to big-ish personal film. Which, in this
day in age, is actually really hard.

It’s the sort of film that supposedly can’t get made anymore.

Yeah, it kind of is. I think that’s the only real achievement in a way. I’ll tell you, it’s
the hardest thing I’ve accomplished times four. People think that advertising is
tough and competitive and backstabbing and commercial. Making this film was more
commercially-minded than anything you could imagine. You know, like, the bottom
line and all that crap. It was intense and every inch, including casting Lou, was a
big fight. So I guess I don’t have a lot of hopes for the system. I’m friends with
Miranda and once in a while Miranda will say something like, “I have hope about
this system changing.” I’m like, “Wow, I wish I did.” I have hope in finding a little
boat that’ll get me all the way across the Atlantic. I’m just looking for a tough,
rugged little boat.

Still, in the midst of all of this, you’ll still direct videos and you’ll still do

I’ve actually retired from the Bureau. I’d like to keep doing videos. I’m not going to
do ads anymore. I don’t know how I’m going to make money. I just did it two or
three months ago, so I don’t know what I’m going to do. My mom passed away
right before I was started Thumbsucker, my dad passed away as I was finishing.
I’m 39, it’s time to stop doing anything that I feel… Doing all of that, it was like
my film school and it totally helped me. I didn’t do an ad that I wouldn’t show
people, but I can’t sustain anymore of the contradictions between the world that I
think is good and the world that I’m helping by doing ads. I’ve learned enough. I
feel like I’m not some genius, but I’ve learned enough. I’m doing this thing which I
very much like to do. Once in a while, just completely burn down the house and
wait for something else to happen. I don’t know what it is right now, but that’s
where I’m at.

Well, you have some time before you have to worry about it.

Not much! It’s amazing how much money life requires. It’s funny, part of me is just
very disappointed that I’m 39 and not married and with a family, and the other part
is like, “It’s very easy for me to go way down money-wise and not need anything.”
My dog eats very little and I do too… and see what I can do this way. I don’t
know what’s going to happen. I really don’t. I feel like I just had to turn off that
radio station to wait for the new radio to come. If I kept my involvement with that
going, it fills up my cup, so I had to throw that cup away. I really don’t know
exactly what’s going to happen, but I know what I want to do. I don’t know how,
production-wise, how it’s going to work out. I just trust it. Something will happen.

As we discussed earlier, you were nervous about taking the characters and altering
the story to send Justin Cobb from Oregon to New York. You’ve created a similar
situation for yourself, in that, “I have no idea what’s going to happen when I get
there, but I’m willing to try it. It might be uncharacteristic for where I was, but
that’s exactly where I need to be right now.”

The relationship between the film and my life is really odd, in that Justin wanted to
get his mother, to save his mother, and this was everything I was dealing with. It
was a lot about my mourning. In the end of the film, he says goodbye to his
parents and I said goodbye to my parents this year. Yeah, I feel very nineteen. I
feel like, “I’m just starting.” I really feel like that. With this film and all, I’m in some
ways an already established music video, commercial director veteran. What? I
really feel like, “I know that… It all really feels lame, I should feel more
established.” I really feel like, “Don’t even watch Thumbsucker. I’m just getting
started. That was just practice and then we’ll get going.” There’s a part of me that
really feels that way. It’s like high school. Then we’ll start again.