Filmmaker Mike Mills and his hero David Byrne discuss being allergic to bullshit, blasting Remain in Light on loop, and David returning to the movie theater for the first time in a year-and-a-half to see C'mon C'mon.
Topics covered include: the world of childhood, collaborators as playmates, Mike’s innate desire to give everyone a hug, Wim Wenders Easter eggs in C’mon C’mon, black and white movies as their own species, bingeing Hitchcock movies during the pandemic, David being a little dictator on the set of Stop Making Sense, putting ‘fringe’ into a different context, the pretentiousness of thinking that being a graphic designer would be radical, and always finding new ways to be enchant yourself again and again.
Speaker: Hey, and welcome back to the A24 podcast. Filmmaker Mike Mills has made no secret of his love for the Talking Heads, and a conversation between Mike and David Byrne has been at the top of our podcast bucket list since 20th Century Women.
We finally got them together last month the morning after the New York Film Festival premiere of Mike's newest film, C'mon C'mon. We hope you enjoy the episode. You can see C'mon C'mon in theaters nationwide this weekend and we can't recommend it enough.
Mike Mills: Hi, this is Mike Mills and I'm super honored to be here with—
David Byrne: David Byrne, a friend of Mike's. And I'm thrilled to be here on a New York morning.
Mike: Yeah, and we're doing an A24 podcast.
David: I have lots of questions. Could I ask you a question?
Mike: Oh, that'd be awesome.
David: Has Hopper seen this film? That's a question.
Mike: Yeah, that's a question. Hopper has seen parts of the edit. So I edited all through the pandemic alone in my office or Evercasting remotely. And in the morning I would do Zoom school with Hopper until like 12:30, and then I'd go edit, so often Hopper would end up down in my office. But Hopper has a real advanced sense of art and the meta-ness of my films about people I know. Hopper's very in tune with it, gets it more than I do, I actually think. I said to them, "I think I want to make a film that's kind of about us a little bit, or it starts there, and what do you think about that?" And Hopper said, "You mean like, you know how people are really huge, and if you're lucky, when you make a film about them, you might get a sliver of that person but there's all this hugeness left over?" And I was like, "Wait, that's what I say about my movies." He's like, "Yeah, I know. I've heard you say that." And then I think Hopper said something like, "You're very repetitive."
David: How did the script evolve? I'm really curious because the writing feels like odd conversations just being captured. It doesn't feel like, "Oh, we're following a script. This is taking us somewhere." It doesn't feel like there's a plot line hidden. It just feels like these are almost documentary moments. It feels like that, but how do you write that?
Mike: Well, I think part of the effect that you're talking about is where it doesn't feel like a scene announces itself, and it goes through an arc and then ends, a lot of that's actually also in the editing. Obviously we shoot more than what you see, and finding those points is actually a part of the writing process obviously. It's the editing process. For me, the suspension of disbelief is very thin or doesn't happen. So I have to enchant myself into trying to do a script, and I'm not a born writer. I don't identify as a writer a lot of the time. And I think it's actually very empowering when I write. I don't have any pride about it. I'm sort of like, by any means necessary.
I have to talk myself into it a lot. I have to re-convince myself it's worth doing all that kind of stuff. And one of the key ways that I can believe in it is like, okay, if I know the person, if I've seen the stuff happen, if I had come in from a reporting place. And also yeah, usually there's someone I love in real life at the center of these last films. And also some deep, challenged questions, something I can't figure out, that churns in me and that's like, "Okay, I can start writing." So it started with stuff that happened in my life and stuff I saw Hopper do and also the world of Hopper, like all their friends, people at school, other moms I met, teachers, just that whole world of childhood. And my favorite way to write is to like—something happens and I pretty much just scoop it up.
And then the real writing process is, how do you align those things to then make some kind of story? But I'm not interested in stories that have a lot of causality. I like sitting in the space of it. It has to have some causality or people get bored, but it's trying to figure that out. So often I'll steal pieces I heard, or Aaron Dessner from The National, his kid, Ingrid, does that orphan thing. So we're at their house and they're talking about, "Oh my God, this kid does this orphan thing where all day long they make me role play that my children have died and they've come to replace them and they have all these rules." And I was like, "That's fascinating." And I sat on it and a week later I was like, "Aaron, could I take that? Could I?"
And then Aaron actually interviewed Ingrid, "What is the story again?" And he sent me some text things of it. That kind of process is my favorite thing. I feel alive. I feel like a journalist a little bit more than like a fictional writer. So that goes on for a year and a half, that kind of work. Very alone. I write by drinking a lot of coffee, often listening to something from Remain in Light on loop and enchanting myself, standing up, dancing around, and do that for a long time.
Then the wonderful thing happens where I meet the actor person and I love giving it over to them. I have to give it to him to change and do their own way. In this process, me and Joaquin talked about the script so much. It's how I convinced him into doing the film, him and me rereading it over and over again, changing things, having new ideas, Joaquin talking a lot about, not just his character, just the whole movie. And he is so smart and interesting and fun to play with. I think musicians have this much more than writers. You get this playmate and it brings out all the stuff in you, and your intelligence just rises and the camaraderie to get to finish it. I loved that.
David: So when you're collecting these moments, you're not necessarily starting at the beginning and kind of working your way through and thinking about three acts and all that stuff.
Mike: So I try to never do that. Well, I collect a lot, so I'll collect for six months and just write in a notebook. I used to just do it on a card. So there's no script around, no digital anything. I've actually thought about stories I've heard of you doing True Stories. You just did all the pictures, right?
David: Exactly, I started with this odd situation, yeah.
Mike: Yeah, what do you mean for that?
David: Like an odd situation, an odd person, a person who's a little eccentric. In this location, this is how they live, this is what they're fascinated with. And then I had no idea how he was going to thread that stuff in.
Mike: Yeah, I've seen a picture of—you did a lot of drawings.
Mike: And it was a visual, physical situation, right?
David: Exactly. It wasn't exactly storyboards, but it was on the way to being storyboards.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. What I love to do, maybe one of my most favorite things is when I'm just scouting by myself and I'm taking a bunch of pictures, like Chinatown, between Two Bridges, to figure out. I have thought about that process of yours a lot, because then I get these images and I start doing that, moving them around on a PDF. And I kind of figure out the texture of the film visually rather than in terms of words.
David: Black and white, did you wrestle with whether to shoot in black and white or not? Or what that might imply, what people might think of? Do you think ahead and go, "Well, what will people think of this?"
Mike: Yeah, for sure. I love black and white movies and they're their own species, and I'm old enough now I've got to do it. And then just in my heart, I would love to do one. And then this story came around and there's one part of the story that I always saw in black and white. That was the male, the adult figure, and the child figure just walking through space, that image. And walking through cities. And to me, it's in black and white because it has an archetypal fable quality to it. And as soon as you make something in black and white, really it’s such an abstraction, I feel like you've said to the audience, "Okay, this is a drawing" or "This isn't saying it's reality, it's something different." And it gives you more elbow room, I feel like, as a filmmaker, tonally, you can shift around easier. And it does crazy things to sound in music. Like in my sound mix to this movie, there is so much foley, there's so many backgrounds. It's just chock full of sound.
David: Do you think that black and white allows more of that to come in or it requires more?
Mike: But it just eats the sound. And you enjoy the ride. I think the sound replaces the lanes that were the color or something like that. And I would never do that kind of stuff in my other movies. If Joaquin's hand goes through his hair, it's foleyed too in addition to the production sound. It's a super layered sound. Real foley stages hardly exist anywhere now. They exist in the country of Georgia. There's one of those old film studios that's got the real foley stage with the different pits.
David: Little bits of gravel and all that kind of stuff.
Mike: And these guys are my amazing—Zach Seivers is my sound mixer, we were in this big, beautiful stage and I'd be like, "The roller skates don't sound right. Those are not polyurethane wheels. Those are other wheels." I'd see him texting and then 20 minutes later, I'd hear the right sound. I was like, "Well, who are you texting?" And he's like, "The country of Georgia. There's guys there." And so all the sound of my movie actually is from Eastern Europe.
David: I get what you're saying that black and white is a little bit of a distancing effect, where it kind of says, "This is not quite the real world, but it looks like the real world. It has a very close resemblance to the real world, but we're telling you a story here."
Mike: Yeah, we're telling a story. And I like that for a bunch of reasons. Me and the subject matter of this film could be so too sweet. It could be—
David: Oh yeah. I wrote you about that.
Mike: Nice, but that was one of the decisions to try—I knew my tendencies. I just want to go give everyone a hug. And you can't just do that all the time. And Joaquin and I worked against that a lot in a really nice, productive way. But also I was like, "Black and white will help this. It'll help take some of the sauce off the child image and off of my tendencies, so that'll all be positive." Then making it, you frame something in black and white, you're like, "Oh, the way that window is against the back of your head, it's like a visualization of your energy." So many of the frames in that movie feel like German expressionist to me. Like the crazy Oak trees in New Orleans, like what you're talking about... your brain wants to glue the two things together more.
David: Speaking of that, I wrote to Mike. I'm talking to the listener now. Saying how I really noticed how a story like this could very easily slip into syrupy sentimentality and that kind of thing. But you never went there. You kind of waved at it but never completely went in there. The characters and the acting and the writing all kept it just a little bit odd and a little bit off kilter and surprising. The things people would say, the actors would say, were all kind of surprising. So they weren't working your heart and all that. You didn't feel manipulated. In the way that you do when something is obviously sentimental. Did you have to consciously think about that sometimes and go, "Okay. Oh no, no. I have to change that. That's a little too much of an obvious need to be hugged."?
Mike: Yeah, no, a lot. That was maybe one of the biggest concerns, also because I'm old enough now to know some of my strengths and my weaknesses. And it's a weakness of mine. I want a certain connective emotionality, or I enjoy it so much. I want the song to have the chorus all the time.
Anyways, that was one of the funnest things about me and Joaquin's connection is he's so hyper-aware of stuff, and just bullshit in general, power dynamics. When you're trying to manipulate an audience, he's really allergic to it in a very intelligent way. I think he was happy that I was really alive to any of his comments in that direction. I'd be like, "Please, more. What else? What else smells fishy to you? Let's have it all out." That was really lovely and I think he really helped make the film not sentimental. And being my partner and always checking that.
David: Yeah. In a way, keeping all that at arm's length became a strength rather than a weakness.
Mike: Oh, that's nice. Yeah, I watched it a little bit at Alice Tully Hall and I kind of felt something accruing, that I hadn't experienced quite that way. When you see your film projected it's so weird, with a bunch of people. It transforms, I'm sure you've had this experience, but I felt this weird way that slowly accrues things. I hope it does, that's a nice compliment. And it's only after so many layers of work and editing and stuff that maybe that happens.
But the other answer to this question is, Joaquin is really so intelligent and savvy. Gabby is so smart and hates bullshit and hates something that's trying to get you. Woody is like that too. Woody, and he's British, he's very lovely, he's so mature. He's the most mature, much more mature than Gabby and Joaquin, by far. That's not a cute joke. He's much more professional in lots of ways. He's not performing for the camera. So many kids are taught to shine for the camera. He's often looking away. It's as if it didn't exist. He's even not super performing for me. And I really sort of try to encourage that. Don't just try to please me. And he has a strong thing anyways. He has a real strong sense of self.
David: How did you find him?
Mike: Just casting. Just the luck came through in the first round.
David: Wow. That is... Wow. Okay. That's pretty amazing.
Mike: Yeah. Now me and Joaquin both were like, this film might happen, might not. See if you could get a kid. And then he was literally kid two.
David: Very lucky, in a way.
Mike: Yeah. No, it's insanely lucky.
David: I mentioned this earlier. This is the first film I've seen in a movie theater since a year and a half. Whatever. And the audience and I were all having this experience of, not only is this a great movie, but it's like, we're watching a movie again in this theater. And look how amazing it is. It's Alice Tully's film festival so it's beautiful projection. Sound is great, all that kind of stuff. But at the same time you're just thinking, "This is the experience we've been missing."
Mike: I find it really emotional. We first showed the film in Telluride. When I edited the movie, I never once saw it in a room with anyone else the whole time. Not once. I was just—
David: I was sitting next to your assistant and he said the same thing. He's seen it many times where it's just him checking the—
Mike: He's QC'd it a lot of times.
David: Yeah. Just checking the sound quality and the projection quality and all this kind of stuff. And he goes, "We've never really seen it with an audience."
Mike: Yeah. That was a few of my crew sitting next to you. And it was so lovely that they got to see it there. I think that's the best theater in the world.
David: It's pretty amazing. Yeah.
Mike: And my film format is 1.66, so it's a taller format. I have a picture of it. It fits right into the architecture. The Proscenium is built for my movie. So I think that was the highlight. I think that was it.
David: Music in the movie, I recognized a couple—I think I recognized a really early Lou Reed, Velvet Underground song.
Mike: Yeah. The Primitives. It was like when he wrote for Pickwick or whatever it was.
David: Yeah. He was a staff writer or something.
David: And you always think, this is a guy they hired as a staff writer?
Mike: That song, too. It's called "The Ostrich" and the lyrics are just off the wall. It's really such a lovely, feral song. So I did an Irma Thomas song, coming to New Orleans. It just felt great. So I was kind of looking for a New York song and I had to avoid you because I've exploited your catalog too much. So we bounced around so many different things. But then that one came out and I love how hard to place that song is. And it felt it was in Johnny's record collection to me. And then the Dessner's did the score, which was a really important part.
David: Both of them.
Mike: Yeah. Highly collaborative engine over there.
David: With you or with each other?
Mike: Everyone. They're so polyamorous, musically, it's insane. And really beautifully so. I learned a lot hanging out with them about collaborating and openness. And one of their songs might have like eight different people playing on it besides their band.
David: Right. Okay. So what was the process then?
Mike: So it was all remote. But I started talking to them before shooting, because I'd done this long project with them and I had written a lot of the script at Aaron's studio upstate, just while I was working on stuff like that. But anyways, I feel they really found the heart of the movie. It's very emotional, but it's trying to be somewhat platonic, and they found that line more than anything.
David: Yeah. It's not telling you how to feel.
Mike: But it's really emotional. Without that music, the film does not work. And then they did more symphonic-y things because there's a classical quality to the movie to me. It's like part documentary, part very now, part very free in like a Mike Lee film. And then part like a fable to me. Or I thought about Casablanca, all the framings. Clean singles, person-centered. It's like an old Hollywood movie in some ways. So I thought like a classical score with strings and all that. So I learned a lot being around that.
David: Maybe it helps that you're not another musician?
Mike: Yeah. Totally.
David: So you're hearing things from a filmmaker or a visual point of view or a storytelling point of view or some other point of view, and it's not—
Mike: They were super into that. Because I would talk about each song as a story.
David: How do you consume music? How do you listen to music? I sometimes listen to vinyl, not all the time, but it's a thing. You kind of go, "This is very intentional. I'm going to listen to this record right now."
Mike: Yeah. You have to turn it and you have a connection or relationship to it. Right. And certain records sound amazing. It's like medicine. So that will help me. So when I'm writing, I have to listen to music very loud on headphones, very caffeinated, on loop.
Mike: It's like a song or a record or a few songs on loop, all day long.
Mike: It's like an enchantment thing.
David: Yes. Yes.
Mike: Because I had to get myself out of the picture.
David: Visual references.
David: Did you have visual references that you were conscious of? Besides the aspect ratio for older movies.
Mike: Yeah. So part of the aspect ratio is a nod to Alice in the Cities.
David: Oh yeah.
Mike: I was pretty depressed after doing my last movie, 2016. Really lost. White man in cultural space, what the hell do I do? You know what I mean? And also just dad. And I kept watching Alice in the Cities, or just parts of it, and such a beautiful movie. Such a beautiful space. So I was like, maybe I could use it as a blues riff and kind of fill in my own lyrics and change it around. But I owe a lot to that. And the kid in the film was wearing a shirt that has the coat of arms of Wuppertal, the city where they end up. So that's my acknowledgement.
Mike: But Robby Müller's photography in that film is so gorgeous and very classic and very sort of French New Wave, at the same time, feeling to me. And Gordon Willis is just a huge, the cinematographer who did so many Woody Allen films and so many other films. All The President's Men, Godfathers. I just admire him to death and all my films have been studying him forever.
David: So the visuals are mainly other films?
Mike: No, no, no.
David: Not graphic art or paintings or things like that?
Mike: No. So there's other things that are these, I keep using the word enchantment, which is stupid, but I need so much talking into my own projects. And Miranda's not like that at all. She's very convinced and I'm very unconvinced. I need these other things to be company. And I often think of it as these unrequited relationships I'm having with other artists, where I just jump in. So Manet, or a Bernard drawing or a David Hockney drawing. That's part of why it's black and white too. Those drawings have this weird immediacy and sketchiness, but it's this intimacy and quickness, and I'm right there with David Hockney drawing that person on the couch. And that was part of, I kept saying to myself, the movie is a drawing, not a painting.
David: Yeah. Drawings feel they're closer to the head or heart or whatever. They just come right out.
Mike: Immediacy or something. Me and Robbie talked a lot, my DP Robbie Ryan, we talked a lot about that immediacy. And for some reason, those Manet portraits were the person just on black and then they're right in the middle, and there's something kind of like the paint is beginning to be used as a representation of itself. There's some kind of, scumbiliness. I don't know how say that better, but there's some kind of... He has a slightly amateurish quality that's kind of chunky or something like that. So just those adjectives, to me, I was sort of chasing those adjectives a little bit. Songs are big, there'll definitely be a feeling of like, it could be the shift to the chorus of a song, and I'm going for that. That feeling.
David: You said you kind of have to be talked into doing a project. Was that from friends? Do you talk to your friends and go, "I'm thinking about this," and you want to see what their reaction is?
Mike: Yeah, that's part of it.
David: I'm sure they're all like, "That sounds so great. You got to do that."
Mike: Well, luckily I have friends who don't say that.
David: Oh really?
Mike: They help. Yeah, but not that part or... I really rely on that and I love that. And more and more to me, art is a way to make friends or have connections with people. Like this. It's the beautiful part of it. So I seek it out, too. I have a few friends. It's the way I can get them to lunch.
David: During the pandemic, I watched all the old Hitchcock black and white British movies, kind of the early stuff before he started doing the really well-known movies. I loved them. They're, I think, so different than what you do, what I would do. They're so tightly plotted.
Mike: So manipulative, like awesomely manipulative.
David: So manipulative. Every moment is leading you.
Mike: It's like a jewel.
David: And you just marvel at that clockwork aspect of that. During the pandemic, I had a lot of trouble watching anything that was going to be too emotionally traumatic.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely.
David: Especially because I'd watch at the end of the day. I'd make myself dinner and watch something and I'd just go, "I do not want to go to bed with something incredibly emotionally disturbing in my head." So eventually I moved to documentaries, some of which of course are disturbing. I'm almost done with those.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I've gotten really into Weimar Germany and the Bauhaus.
David: Oh my God.
Mike: Because I love that period anyways, and it's like kind of what you're saying. It's like, "I'm going to be okay." I'm worrying about rectilinearity and the relationship of weaving to fine arts. This is great. I can go to sleep.
Mike: The other one I do that's kind of maybe similar to what you're talking about is, if I'm stressed out and panicky, which often happens at night, I'll just think through Downton Abbey plot lines, or I'll just try to find one character story and I will be asleep in like 10 minutes.
David: Not with Downton Abby, but I have occasionally done that where I go, "Help, what happened after that? What happened after that? How did they do that?"
Mike: Just to save yourself from your own brain, right. Just to keep yourself out of your crocodile mouth. Yeah. Yeah. Can I ask you?
David: Oh, of course. Of course.
Mike: I would love to know, you were so prolific and continually changing things and reinventing things and not relying on things you know. Obviously that's just your way or you've committed to that a long time ago, like change. But how the hell do you do it? How do you keep it going? I don't know. Is there a constant process to how you try to come up with ideas and lyrics and songs?
David: First of all, yes. It doesn't always work. There's a fair amount of, I have a really strong idea, and then you go, "Actually that didn't really work." Lyrics, I'll jot down phrases occasionally or sometimes sit down and they'll just kind of pour out. Occasionally I'll finish a record or something and I'll go, "Oh, okay. I made a record. I'm really happy with it." I'll listen to what's on the radio, what's on the top 10 or whatever and go, "Wow. I'm kind of out of touch." Not sonically, I don't think.
Mike: Yeah. I don't think so.
David: Or melodically, but lyrically, I feel like... There are other people doing a little bit what I do, but I feel like, "We're still writing about the same things."
Mike: Wait, what do you mean?
David: I mean like, not that they'll ever grow tired, but it's just dominated by love songs or pain songs or divorce songs or this or that, the other. All fine, all good, but I feel like there could be more too. It doesn't have to be all only that.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
David: But, okay.
David: But that might just be me.
Mike: Well I think, it makes me think of you and like Gang of Fours, some people in my life who offered that up, like there's another space besides all those love songs.
David: Yes. Occasionally I'd hear somebody else who does that and I'd just go, "That is amazing that you..." There's emerging artists, younger artists that I hear that do that. And I just go, "This is really amazing. I didn't know you could write about that."
Mike: Oh, that's amazing.
David: "I didn't know you could write that way." Yeah.
Mike: Do you feel like you change after hearing that?
David: Yeah, of course. It opens up, not that I'm going to emulate them, but it feels like that has allowed me, given me permission to do something I might not have done before. Right now, I'm back doing my Broadway show, which emerged out of a tour—
Mike: Which I saw, which is amazing.
David: Thank you.
Mike: Yeah, yeah.
David: This is a strange moment for me because I've committed to doing it for many months, six months or so, which I might do that with a tour, but I already did a tour. But in a way I feel like—
Mike: That's a physical show.
David: It's a physical show. Obviously commits me to staying in New York.
Mike: Yeah, right, right.
David: Have to do that.
Mike: You have that life. Yeah.
David: Because of what it is, it's live theater, live performance, you have to be there for it. You can't just send it out into the world. You physically have to deliver it. But at the same time, I feel like it's a convergence of lots of paths and things I've been doing for a long time and they came together and go, "This is the culmination of what I've been doing for quite a while and now it's come together and been realized." I kind of need to acknowledge that and let that rest and go and keep going with that before I toss it aside and see what comes next.
Mike: Yeah. I found it such a remarkable, striking show and I did feel like that as a fan of yours long time, or the whole kind of Twyla Tharp side of the experience and the theatrical side and all of your aesthetics. I don't know. I found it like a really amazing amalgamation of a lot of strands.
But then also, you had to tell the audience what you all were doing at the show I was at. This is live and these elements are creating all this sound. Even me, I was like, "Oh, thank God you said that," because I was tripping hard on how you all were making those songs happen. On top of that, the physicality of it, all the choreography. I don't know, I was so impressed that you keep inventing stuff and keep shifting it around. All the musicians I know, if you bring up that you saw that show, they all just fall over, all the guys, Leslie Feist, all these different people are like, "You saw that?" Yeah.
David: Oh, that's really good to hear. That's really nice for me to hear.
Mike: I have other questions, if you don't mind. I don't know how long we're doing this for. This is just a totally selfish, greedy question and I don't know if you want to talk about it or not, but I love True Stories. I love Spalding Gray, and him in that film, and you guys together, you, him, Laurie Anderson, very magical people to me. You guys share something to me. What was it like having him in the film or what was it... I don't know, any of the stories about it. Were you guys friends?
David: We knew one another a little bit, not that much. I knew his work and I just thought his demeanor and the way he delivers and talks about things, I thought, "Can I get that, but have him actually be acting and not talking about himself and his own situations and thoughts and things?" Not to say that that's not acting too, but have something that's a little more scripted. And he could, he was fine. Yes. It was all fine. He totally got it. Totally got it. I mean, he comes out of The Wooster Group where there's all this playing with the idea of how performance might be, making it be very transparent and layering things and putting things together that don't belong together, et cetera. So he could do that.
Then occasionally he would improvise stuff, which was great. Some of what I was doing was intentionally mixing people from different worlds. There was some non-actors. There was some actors from downtown theater, like Spalding and some others. Then there were trained actor actors, like John Goodman and some others. I thought, is this going to work?
Mike: Yeah. That was super interesting.
David: But I thought some of them might not enjoy working with the other ones.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That was really inspiring, especially when it came out and it had an electricity because of the heterogeneity of the vibes of the people and the relationship to a camera. You can feel it's a different feeling, like a different presentation. The kind of commerciality of John Goodman versus Spalding Gray, I thought that was super punk. Just subversive transgressive in a great way. Yeah.
David: I discovered, through that and through other things I've done, that you can take something that's kind of on the fringe or outside or whatever, and then you put it in a different context and a semi mainstream audience loves it. I just discovered that by working with the choreographer Annie-B Parsons on the show that I'm doing now, a lot of the audience would never go to see her own work. But when they're seeing my show, they are seeing her work. You realize, oh, you just shift the context or put some music to it or do this or that, and suddenly these things that will be completely regarded as kind of fringy out are suddenly like, "Oh yeah, yeah. That's fine."
Mike: I feel like it's the signature part of your work, of like bringing in stranger things and putting them in a context that's whatever you want to call it, like more public sphere or like more, commercial's not the right word, but not ghettoized in the art space.
David: Uh-huh (affirmative). Yeah. Yeah.
David: So that's maybe what things you were doing early on working with musicians and-
Mike: Uh-huh (affirmative)-
David: ... the things you were doing early on working with musicians and things like that were, it brings a very different sensibility into the music world.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, no, that's interesting. I went to Cooper Union and studied under Hans Haacke as a conceptual artist. All of us broke Julian Schnabel plates or did different low-end work in SoHo in the 80s and worked at Mary Boone, whatever. A bunch of us got disgusted or got whatever, not disgusted, but a lot of the contradictions and hypocrisies were really, especially to 20-year-old us, we're revolutionaries.
Mike: So our way of being revolutionary was going to the public sphere. For me, it's work at M & Co., go into graphic design and I thought it was so radical. It's really just so pretentious, that you have to go to Cooper Union to think that being a graphic designer is radical.
Mike: But I think the space that you're talking about in combining those different elements is very alive to what we were trying to do then in a similar vein, I feel like.
David: Speaking of M & Co., Maira Kalman painted the drop in my show.
Mike: I saw the book that she did too.
David: Yes. She did a book, and their son, Alex, who is a really great designer, he designed a book of drawings that I did.
Mike: Oh yeah.
David: Yeah. That world is a little world there.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. It is. How many projects do you work on at a time and how many different mediums? Do you need to bounce between lots of things?
David: I bounce between things a bit. I think this will be familiar. Some things you know are going to take a long time for you to think through it. Try this, let it sit, come back to it and see if you like it and all that. So you know that. So I know, okay, I can maybe put on some music and draw for a little bit. I can't go and try and write music for eight hours a day.
Mike: Yeah. It's like two hours.
David: Yeah, two or three hours, really focused. I can do that. Then I have to do something else. The challenge is not letting that something else be just answering emails.
Mike: Yes, yes, or freaking on something.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. I can relate to that a lot, although I don't draw anymore.
Mike: I do graphic design very much like on demand, and I do it very quickly and. I love it, but for some reason I'm out of that space. I'll draw with my kid, but hearing you talk right now, is maybe I'm going to try. It sounded like, well, that sounds great. What am I doing?
Mike: I have another question for you. I would so love to ask you, what are the difference between being a musician and being a director, or for you, obviously I'm guessing you enjoyed being a musician more, or how do they bleed into each other, maybe?
David: My limited experience being a director, I loved it. I felt like you're really creating a whole world. It's really seductive in that way. It's very collaborative. I like that. As a musician, you kind of do that anyway. Then now it's like, "Oh, now I'm collaborating with the DP, with the sound mixer, with all these other people Who are really good at what they do.
Mike: Yeah. It took me a while to kind of learn that. Graphic design is so solo and then going... So from the get-go, were you like that, do you think? In terms of your directing life?
David: Eventually. I think there was a period, both in my directing and kind of this stage presentations, like the one that was filmed that Jonathan Demme filmed, Stop Making Sense. I was a little bit more of a little dictator. I said, "It has to be this way. It's my way or the highway. It has to be like this." It all worked out fine, but it could have been a much more pleasant experience.
David: I eventually learned that I can learn from these other people that I'm working with. Also, that if you, as you explained working with Joaquin, that if you talk about what you're trying to do and they understand it, they're going to help you do what you want to do.
Mike: It's the best, yeah.
David: You don't have to just order it.
Mike: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or you're going to get somewhere higher or weirdly, see a part of yourself you didn't see.
Mike: Yeah. So wait, is True Stories, are you the dictatorial making that or are you more...
David: That might've been me starting to come out of it because it had to be collaborative. It's a film, so you've got the DP, Ed Lachman and the actors and all these people that they're going to bring their own thing to it and there's only so much.
Mike: Yeah. I just saw Ed Lachman in Telluride. Such a lovely soul. Just goes and sees movies and comes up to me and we have like a deepest talk. I'm so honored that he takes the time to watch it, and then so committed to the whole thing.
David: Yeah. Yeah.
Mike: Just beautiful person. Yeah. Did you feel overwhelmed and screwed as a director at times ever? I mean, that's so hard. That film was big too. I think of that film as big, and you're in it.
David: That part, I didn't really want to be in it. I really was pushing for other people. There was-
Mike: Really? Like who? Who would be you? That'd be impossible.
David: For a while, I wanted the late weatherman, Willard Scott-
Mike: Oh my God.
David: ... to be-
Mike: That's hysterical.
David: ... the narrator person.
Mike: Oh my God. Yeah. I could see it.
David: Then I had another idea. There's this radio guy. I forget what his name is, he's famous for this voice where he goes, "And now for the rest of the story." I forget what his name was, but he was just like all over the radio at that point. And I thought, that's the voice. Everybody knows that voice and that peculiar, weird phrasing that he does.
Mike: So you're kind of channeling that.
David: A little bit.
Mike: Yeah. I feel that.
David: I thought, okay, I can do odd phrasing, putting pauses in odd places.
Mike: But I always saw that performance as not exactly you, obviously. It has a you quality that, when I say you, the person I know from records and stuff, but it's almost like it's a character.
David: Yeah. A little bit.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah.
David: Yeah. I was lucky. I had a line producer, a woman named Karen Murphy, who was very protective, kind of protected me from a lot of the stuff that was going on. A big storm came by one time and destroyed one of the sets. So there was all this chaos and are we actually going to get this? Or is this kind of, that's it? I was somewhat sheltered from a little bit of that.
Mike: Anyways, I'm super impressed with all the different really heterogeneous elements that come together on a real signature way. And that was your first and only film?
David: Yeah. Yeah. Before that, I'd just done music videos, and sort of learned, not that I was going to edit this, but I learned a little bit of editing. I think we were editing on like three-quarter-inch videotapes.
Mike: Tape to tape or-
David: Yeah. Tape to tape and you learn to edit a little bit that way.
Mike: Like the Sea Grass. Do you remember all that? Was it called that?
David: I don't remember all this stuff. If you were lucky, you could go into a-
Mike: Online room.
David: ... an online room and actually do a one-inch video. That was like, "Oh."
Mike: Yeah. When I worked at M & Co., I got exposed to that a little bit. I don't think it was one of your guys' project together, but Tibor used do... Grass Valley. That's what it was called.
David: Oh, that's right.
Mike: The machine was called a Grass Valley, and it had these levers, like when you imagine an airplane taking off, and you would do dissolves and stuff like that.
David: It was very manual.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah. We just made ourselves ancient to many people. Can I ask one last question, just if you want?
David: Sure, sure.
Mike: Just as a human, I'm curious, do you know what you're doing next? Or how far down the road do you think? Do you have a new project you're hoping for?
David: I have a project next summer, kind of an immersive science theater thing, where it's a bunch of rooms and a small audience is led from room to room. As they go into one, another audience is led into the first one. So that's supposed to be the way we get the numbers high enough to justify it. They have kind perception-altering experiences. Then the challenge is to have the guide be a character who gets you involved in an emotional story that takes you through it, instead of it just being like a fun house.
David: That's a challenge. We think we've gotten pretty close to being that because you'll never know until you start trying it with an audience to see what their reactions are and if they get engaged in that. That's in Denver. That'll be in Denver. They found an old army warehouse that we can do that.
Mike: Yet another from-the-ground-up project. I don't think you've ever done anything like that. That sounds so wild and you.
David: But, as with those kind of projects, I did a workshop of it years ago. And it's been, I don't know, eight years or so-
Mike: Okay. So it sort of grows, right?
David: Yeah. It grows, and you go, "No, that doesn't work. This part works."
Mike: Oh, cool. Well, maybe we should....
David: Okay. Okay.
Mike: I could do this all day long. It's like a dream for me. Thank you so much for coming to the movie.
David: Thank you for inviting me. Great to see you.
Mike: Great to see you.
David: We didn't have a chance to talk after the movie or anything like that, after the screening, so this was really was kind of better.
Mike: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Very sweet. Yeah. Right. Thanks, David.
David: Thank you.
Speaker: Thanks for listening. The A24 podcast is produced by us, A24. Special thanks to our editor, Tom Wyatt, and Robot Repair, who composed our theme.