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'Thin Blue Line' Piqued Mike Mills Movie Interest


The filmmaker Mike Mills is accustomed to sharing personal details with a large audience. Mills directed the movie "Beginners." It's based on Mills' real-life experience of having a father who came out of the closet at the age of 75. "Beginners" stars Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.


EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) My parents got married in 1955. They had a child and they stayed married for 44 years, until my mother died. Six months later, my father told me he was gay.

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) I'm gay.

MCGREGOR: (as Oliver Fields) I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this. But actually he wore a robe.

PLUMMER: (as Hal Fields) I'm gay.

MCGREGOR: He was gay the whole time they were married.

INSKEEP: Mike Mills joined us for the latest installment of our series Watch This. We get movie picks from people in the industry. First on Mills' list is "The Thin Blue Line," an Errol Morris documentary from 1988.

MIKE MILLS: This is the film that actually got me into filmmaking. It's an amazing documentary about a man who was put in prison for supposedly murdering another man. And the film actually got this man out of jail eventually. And Errol Morris, you know, he started off as a private detective. Did you know that?


MILLS: And his films are very much at the mind of a detective. What's amazing about this film is it's going to sound a little bit like cheesy re-enactments. But he goes through interviewing all the witnesses, interviewing everybody involved in the case. And then often you'll see their description of the car that the man was driving in, or what the police did when they arrived on the scene.

So, there's this amazing scene where supposedly one of the cops got out of the police car and a shot was fired. And the woman was drinking a milkshake and she threw the milkshake. And throughout the film, you see this milkshake being thrown in all different versions; everybody's different version of the story of how the milkshake was thrown, where it landed, what it meant that she had a milkshake.

So, while it's a documentary, while it's about real things, it's a really beautiful meditation or study of how subjective reality is; how sort of magical and slippery reality is.

INSKEEP: And you can seen how you could use, as a filmmaker, a technique like that to try to get somebody out of prison because the audience ends up asking: If people can't even agree on how a milkshake was thrown, how can they agree on the guilt or innocence of somebody.

MILLS: Oh, in his - that film had a real aha-moment. We actually got a confession out of the man who actually did murder the other man.

INSKEEP: Now, let's go from that crime to another one with a rather dramatic title. Here's "Shoot the Piano Player."

MILLS: Truffaut's gorgeous second film...

INSKEEP: Explain who Truffaut is.

MILLS: Francois Truffaut is one of the - you know - him in Godard are sort of the two most famous French New Wave guys. And they, you know, started working in the late '50s, early '60s.

This film, it's really in the guise of being sort of a noir film. But then he constantly derails it and there's always this irreverent humor in it; very just sort of wacky, funny moments, very tender moments.

INSKEEP: So it's kind of - its deconstructing film noir.

MILLS: Yeah. That back in, I think it's made in like '60. You know, that's way before we were ever using this word deconstructed. He's taking this format, noir, and making it suit his needs; what he needs with that sort of emotional story that he needed to tell. The humor that he needed to have to be more free, to sort of break open from all this kind of serious macho men in Bogartean hats and jackets.

INSKEEP: Bogartean hats...



INSKEEP: I hope you've copyrighted that.


MILLS: You know what I mean.

INSKEEP: I know exactly what you mean. I'd love to have a hat like that.

MILLS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: It's great. It's great.

MILLS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Let's go right on to a Bogart movie that's on your list here. This is a great one. Well, I mean it's a great one to watch. I think we could argue about whether it's a great movie. But it's "To Have and Have Not," a Howard Hawks film with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

MILLS: If I was inviting you all to dinner and a movie tonight, I would do maybe a double feature with - starting off with "To Have and Have Not" and then going to "Shoot the Piano Player," 'cause they do relate to each other. And I guess, you know, my mother adored Humphrey Bogart. I grew up with my mother saying: In my next life, and I'm going to marry Humphrey Bogart - just about every day. And I, you know, love him myself.

And that film really is like "Casablanca, Part Two." It's all the same characters. It's really riding off the coattails of "Casablanca."

INSKEEP: It's a rewrite of "Casablanca."

MILLS: Yeah. Yes.

INSKEEP: Yeah, this is the same situation but on a Caribbean island.


MILLS: Yes, exactly. Its Warner going: how could we just make more money with all the same elements, and just...


MILLS: ...flip them around just a little bit.


MILLS: But "Casablanca" has more of a dramatic tone. "To Have and Have Not" has amazing, really snappy dialogue between Bacall and Bogart. And, of course, this is the film where they met and in real life fell in love. And the dialogue, which is written a lot by Howard Hawks, is a lot of the banter between him and his real wife who was also nicknamed Slim, as Lauren Bacall is in the film.

So, to me, I think there's a lot of juji(ph) excitement that I think comes from these real things.


HUMPHREY BOGART: (as Harry Steve Morgan) I'm sorry, Slim. But I still say you're awful good and I wouldn't...

LAUREN BACALL: (as Marie Slim Browning) Oh, I forgot. You wouldn't take anything from anybody, would you?

BOGART: (as Harry Steve Morgan) That's right.

BACALL: (as Marie Slim Browning) You know, Steve, you're not very hard to figure, only at times. Sometimes I know exactly what you're going to say, most of the time. The other times, the other times you're just a stinker.

INSKEEP: So this is something you'd be happy to show it home. I mean it's just a - it's a...

MILLS: Oh, I adore watching a movie. I watch it all the time. There's some movies I watch, they're kind of like my anti-anxiety pill, my anti-depressant pill. I watch them at least once or twice a month probably. And I never stop learning from them as a filmmaker.

INSKEEP: Now, what about "A Woman Is a Woman" from 1961, another movie on your list here of recommended viewing?

MILLS: So clearly, my very pretentious French New Wave buff.


INSKEEP: Second time, your second choice from that.

MILLS: I love that French early '60s stuff. All those films are trying so hard to re-invent film, to not follow the rules. And I love that energy.

"A Woman Is a Woman" is sort of like a musical but not. The sound is constantly going on and off in the film. If you haven't seen it before and you watch it, you're going to think something is wrong with your DVD player. And to me that's wildly exciting. That's Godard making us more conscious of how music affects storytelling, music affects the film.


ANNA KARINA: (Singing in foreign language)

MILLS: I guess I watch movies to make myself happier a lot. And this film has such - it's not an easy film. It's not a happy-go-lucky film. But there's such a reaching out for happiness, for fun; for making the world as you wanted to be, not as the boring, bad, un-life affirming rules tell you it should be.

INSKEEP: Well, Mike Mills, thanks very much for joining us.

MILLS: Thanks so much for having me.

INSKEEP: Watch This from director Mike Mills, speaking to us from our studios at NPR West.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.