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Interview: Mike Mills on “Beautiful Losers”

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07302008_beautifullosers1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

He’s designed scarves for Marc Jacobs and the iconic cover of Air’s “Moon Safari” album, directed music videos for Moby, Pulp and Blonde Redhead, helmed two features to date (the Sundance hit “Thumbsucker” and the SXSW doc “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?”), had graphic art exhibitions and commissioned ad campaigns all around the globe, and played with members of Cibo Matto and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the short-lived ’90s East Village supergroup Butter 08. If people still confuse prolific artist-filmmaker Mike Mills with the R.E.M. bassist of the same name, it’s because it’s easy to believe the same man could’ve done it all.

Mills features prominently in NYC gallery curator-turned-director Aaron Rose’s “Beautiful Losers,” an entertaining doc celebration of the D.I.Y. talent (Shepard Fairey, Harmony Korine, Ed Templeton, the late Margaret Kilgallen, et al.) who took part in Rose’s titular museum exhibition. Emerging from the fringe of subcultures like skateboarding, graffiti bombing, hip-hop and punk, these passionate outsiders became art stars entirely by accident, but who’s complaining? In support of the film, Mills spoke with me about art, L.A. wildlife, and pirate school. [UNEXPECTED WARNING: “The Dark Knight” spoiler ahead.]

How do you balance your throng of creative interests? What impulses drive you to work in one medium or another?

Actually, I don’t think of them as different things. They all happen at the same time, start from the same notebook, and influence each other. From my perspective, it’s certainly not different. It’s all my work, and it happens in different pieces. That’s just the way I’ve always lived, and it feels natural to me.

Let me turn that around. Do you ever begin a project in one medium and ultimately finish in another?

That happens all the time. That’s just part of the game. To me, like I said, it’s really not that important how it’s going to end up in the world. [A project] might be for this [exhibition in Milan] coming up, but then it ends up as “no, that’s the solution to the scene in my film that I’ve been working on that I didn’t have a solution to before.” I’m hoping for that surprise and flip all the time.

Do you feel the weight of the waning indie film economy, or have you witnessed anything in the art scene that mirrors that?

It’s absolutely having a collapse, I’m totally feeling it. I think it’s been coming for five years, at least. When I did “Thumbsucker” in 2005, it felt like it was collapsing then, and more so now. It feels like we’re living in the ’50s, like, the films that are huge, you know? I’m sorry, but I think [“The Dark Knight”] is one of the most regressive movies I’ve seen in a long time, and that it’s supposed to be “the smart man’s action movie” is an indicator of what a weird time we’re in. It’s all macho-man, very simple, very resolved, and the one girl who has any life in her has to be killed. It’s the oldest stuff in the book. But beyond that, it’s hard for me to get my next film going. And my involvement in the art world is more peripheral and specialized, so I’m not a good indicator of how the art world is, or what it is.

07302008_beautifullosers2.jpgThen as a voice from the periphery, do you think enough of the talented D.I.Y. artists around you are getting noticed in this age of information overload?

I don’t know. It’s funny now how much we look at — whatever you want to call it: art, design, culture stuff, film — online, and how in the online world, you’re instantly global. It’s hard to differentiate what’s big and what’s not, which [deserves] credit and what doesn’t. So it does create this huge democratization of a platform. I have no idea about the bigger picture — is it easier or better for people to get exposed, or is it just flattening everything out? In a way, that’s something I try not to think about too much as a creative maker because it confuses and distracts.

What are your interests outside of your work, from the banal to the bizarre?

I live in Los Angeles and I’m very interested in wildlife. There are coyotes in my yard and mountain lions in the hills behind us. I’ve done a lot of research about the mountain lions who live in the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. I’ve talked with rangers to find out where they are. I’m doing a photo book documenting all the wildlife corridors. That’s something that started off as a hobby, but has turned into a project.

What scared you away from New York?

I lived there for 15 years, but I’m from California. I moved [to New York] to go to Cooper Union, and [stayed] there until my mid-30s — then it was time to go home. Ultimately, I guess I am that Californian. One good and bad thing about New York is there’s so much exciting stuff and so many people doing something interesting. I actually find in New York that you become more careerist and more focused on what’s the newest, hippest thing. L.A. is so isolated and unhip in a way; it gives you room to figure out who you are and explore more personal stuff. At least, that’s what happened to me.

How practical was your art education at Cooper Union? Did it prepare you for the post-grad reality?

Cooper — at least when I went there — was an unhelpful, unfriendly school. Just signing up for your classes was incredibly difficult. They didn’t have dorms. In 1984, I had to figure out where to live on the Lower East Side, which wasn’t easy. There was no counseling, nothing like that — so all the Cooper students I ever met were real scrappy. No one was very nice, everybody told you “no,” and everyone just got used to that. In that way, there was a lot of practical training.

My main influence was a conceptual artist named Hans Haacke, who taught there. In a way, that defines who I am, because his work isn’t medium-based. It’s not discipline-, career- or category-based. It’s all about coming up with an idea, finding a way to articulate it, create it and communicate with people. He actually taught me how to be a director because that’s how I see my role, how I’ve treated everything. I’m not a craftsman of graphics or art or film. I’m more of an idea generator and manufacturer.

Would you recommend art school to younger generations?

If you want to be a filmmaker or an artist or a designer, any of those things, that’s like saying “I want to be a pirate.” It doesn’t really matter if you went to the right pirate school or not. How good are you at stealing stuff from other ships? Art school’s good for some people, and totally horrible for other people. Everybody has their own story and needs to figure out their own way to do it, and absolutely shouldn’t make any career choices based on something they read by some 42-year-old guy who was interviewed. [laughs]

07302008_beautifullosers3.jpgAre you close with any of the other artists in the film?

I’m really close with Aaron [Rose], who’s my neighbor and one of my best friends. I’m close with a fair amount of them, like Ed and Deanna [Templeton]; I made a film about Ed years ago [2000’s “Deformer”]. They’re the kind of people I don’t see all the time, but we’re good friends, you know? I’m sort of a loner, to be honest. I’m not good with keeping up with people. But pretty much all those people in the film, when I see them, it’s a good thing and I feel like we have a connection.

Is it advantageous to have this grouping, or does it pigeonhole your sensibilities?

It’s totally in danger of pigeonholing artists. We’re as much not a group as we are a group. I think Aaron tried to include that in the film. We all met and started making stuff for each other. We didn’t care about careers, had no idea that it would be a book and a film later on. We had no idea that people were watching, and that was the best part. It was a small community where people were doing stuff not to be important, famous or to achieve anything; we had to to stay happy. Hopefully, people can smell that in the film, then burn the film and stop thinking of everybody as a group.

Are you happy? Does that affect your output?

I make a lot of jokes, but I definitely struggle with being happy. It’s not a given for me. But I’m a pretty cheery dude, on the surface at least. A lot of my work was made to create a world that was more hospitable to my emotions and what I wanted in life. A world that mirrored me more, or that I felt was more humane, more loose, or admitting that things are fucked up. I think that’s the one thing that group of people share, that they had to get out of the fucked-up hole, and this is the best way they knew how to do it. That’s where the camaraderie and affinity came from. Everything beyond that is hype.

There’s talk in the film about artists who have to navigate commercial waters in order to live. For you, at what point are you unwilling to concede creatively?

The line of compromise comes in all contexts. It comes in doing ads, but also in having a show with an attitude of the people at the gallery, or the art world in general. It has its own economy and market, and things are for sale. There are places to be weary of, where you have to struggle with what you’re willing to do versus what our capitalistic, consumer-oriented society will allow you to do.

I will always try to avoid the elitism of the art world: talking to the converted, creating a castle on the hill for only those who are initiated and those who know. That tends to go along class, race and education lines. Similarly, in the more commercial context, I wouldn’t do anything that I didn’t feel like I was learning from, or get involved with people that I felt were really fucked.

When’s the Butter 08 reunion show?

[laughs] I don’t think so. I’m glad you liked Butter, though. It was really fun, but I think it needs to stay where it is. There are enough old bands coming back; it’s killing culture. I’d rather have too many new bands than too many Rolling Stones out there.

[Photos: Mike Mills; “Lets Be Human Beings,” from Mu Museum Exhibition, 2004; opening at Aaron Rose’s Alleged Gallery – “Beautiful Losers,” Sidetrack Films, 2008]

“Beautiful Losers” opens in New York on August 8th.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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