Mike Mills Soundtracks Alicia Vikander's Life

Mike Mills Soundtracks Alicia Vikander's Life

The acclaimed director's new short film co-stars the Swedish star and The National's new album.

The acclaimed director's new short film co-stars the Swedish star and The National's new album.

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

Celebrated for semi-autobiographical character studies like 20th Century Women and Beginners, filmmaker Mike Mills played against type for his latest directorial work, the short-film-meets-visual-album I Am Easy to Find. In lieu of fine-tuned dialogue, the narrative is propelled forward by new music of The National—Ohio indie-rockers of existential-dread fame, voiced by Matt Berninger’s trademark mournful pathos. Launched in concert with The National’s namesake album, the passion project stars Alicia Vikander, a longtime fan of Mills who shared the director’s reverence for the long-running band.

Ahead of the release of The National’s I Am Easy to Find this Friday, May 17, we caught up with Mills, who took us behind the film’s two-year making—a process laced with sad music, abandoned mental institutions, and SAG-card-carrying babies.

VMAN Hey Mike, this is VMAN. I understand you were a fan of The National prior to this joint project, I Am Easy to Find. What drew you to their music in the first place?

Mike Mills What really got me was a combination [of things]: their chords, which I find so beautiful and kind of healing. People describe it as depressive, but I find it very soothing—maybe because I am depressive [myself]. That, combined with Matt’s lyrics; he writes from his life, and trusts that being hyper-personal will [come across] to strangers. I try to do that with my movies, so I really love how emotional and untethered Matt can get when he is singing. [To see] another straight guy [being] super emotional or un-masculine was super helpful with my own writing, even before I knew him.

VMAN You said you are drawn to music that others might describe as depressive but that complements your own predisposition to that mood. What other kinds of sad music do you like, that might illustrate that taste?

MM I mean, I work out to Leonard Cohen, so maybe that like tells you wear my brain is at. Similarly I feel like Leonard Cohen is telling a very beautiful, sometimes difficult truth but so piercingly that it’s like healing or helpful, or makes me feel not alone.

VMAN What was the timeline between you reaching out to Matt and you calling “action”? Did it come together fairly quickly?

MM No, actually. He called me right back, which was really sweet, because it was a total cold call. But that was in the fall of 2017. We couldn’t start shooting until March of 2018, because of some issues with Alicia’s visa, and then we edited for like eight months, going back and forth with Matt. [We] would exchange [music and footage], which would inspire Matt to write or add lyrics, so it was a luxurious amount of back and forth.

VMAN How did Alicia get involved?

MM She had seen Beginners and I was very honored that she reached out. When I met with her, I was just like enchanted by her: she is a weird combination of very strong, smart, and proactive, but also light, easy and unpretentious. She came over to my house for breakfast with friends and I just found her so comfortable and easy to talk to. I asked her, “What don’t you get to do normally?” And she said, you know, most people don’t know I am a trained ballet dancer, and I often figure out my roles through physicality, with my body. And that really helped me come up with this idea.

"Run Forever" from I Am Easy to Find (dir. Mike Mills), courtesy of 4AD

So then I reached out to Alicia’s agent and it turned out Alicia [also] loved The National; she had seen them play in 2006, on some important date in her life.

VMAN So the structure of the film is that it’s divided by title cards, signifying 164 moments in a life—how did you manifest those?

MM I wrote each scene, and each subtitle—that was the main indicator for what each scene would be. Alicia was really smart about how to take that one piece of information and find her way into it. From the beginning, it was not going to be a normal, dialogue-driven film. Even if there is dialogue, it’s mostly improvised.

The basic idea was, what if you take all the huge, impossible complexities of a full life, and reduce it to a list? When you do that radical reductionincluding not just the milestone moments but also the seemingly boring moments which aren’t actually boring—it creates all of these interesting problems and insights.

VMAN The setting has a mundane but otherworldly feel. Where did the shoot take place?

MM We shot everything in one location, in a kind of very sad place—an abandoned campus, in Pomona, California, that used to house severely mentally disabled kids. It was like its own world; it had its own power plant, housing for [staff], schools, hospitals. It even had a carousel.

VMAN Wow, sounds spooky. Whose baby was that? Someone on the crew’s?

MM That was an actor baby, a unionized baby—it was a SAG shoot! They do have those—in Los Angeles you can get absolutely [anyone] you could ever think of.

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