Interview: Director Mike Mills on 'Does Your Soul Have a Cold?'

Mike Mills, filming Does Your Soul Have a Cold?It’s been two years since Thumbsucker, his feature film debut, but director Mike Mills has been working in film and video – along with a few other mediums – since the early nineties, directing short films as well as music videos for the likes of Air, Pulp, Moby, John Spencer, and Yoko Ono. Most recently he collaborated with Blonde Redhead for five videos. Mike also fronts HUMANS, a Japan-based clothing and graphic art label of his own designs. It was in Japan where he conceived and shot his upcoming documentary for IFC Television.

Does Your Soul Have a Cold? follows five people – Mika, Taketoshi, Ken,
Kayoko, and Daisuke – who are among the first wave of Japanese to adopt
Western concepts of depression and to use antidepressants to treat their
mental illness. Tokyo’s progressive sights and sounds provide a contrast to
the subjects’ daily struggles with something for which they’ve only recently
discovered a term. In providing an empathetic glimpse into the changing
concepts of treatment, Mills creates one of the most unique and memorable
works that I’ve seen this year.

I spoke with Mike about his documentary in a phone interview. You can see more of his previous works at his site. IFC airs Does Your Soul Have a Cold? on Monday, October 22nd.

How did the concept come together?

Over the last ten years I’ve gone to Japan a lot and have friends there, and one day a friend took an antidepressant in front of me. Japanese culture is such an older, more homogeneous culture – you can feel its history when you’re there. So to see this person taking an antidepressant, which is such a Western, American device, it really struck me as a new level of globalization – where global trade, ideas of pharmacology, global economies – literally going inside her body and affecting the most mysterious part of your brain: your sadness. This thing, that somebody who really is depressed is really not in control of, really doesn’t know how to handle, and is at the mercy of. So it seemed like such a fragile place for globalism to be happening.

I just started researching it, poking around, and that’s when I discovered the whole GlaxoSmithKline story of how they went there and how they needed to open new markets, and they started marketing to Japan a lot, and created sort of a buzzword: “utsu.” They didn’t really have a word for depression that everybody knew, and it all of a sudden became a buzzword like “metrosexual” did in the United States.

And Japan, due in part to their high suicide rate, was a high priority target for the pharmaceutical companies?

There’s a really good, old New York Times article on it called “Did Antidepressants Depress Japan?“, and it’s not just Japan. If you think about it, during the eighties and nineties the pharmaceutical companies had a growth market in the United States with antidepressants. And towards the middle of the nineties it levels off. And being a profit-based situation they need to create some markets. So they started going everywhere, and Japan was just one of the many places. And the real problem to them, with where Japan was at, while there’s a lot of depressed people – depression wasn’t something that was talked about or something that people had access to. And that’s why they came up with that metaphor “Does Your Soul Have a Cold?”, or they would call it “A Cold of the Soul.” And that phrase described it really well to Japanese people so they understood what it was. And just that education at the surface of the market, about this thing that I find very true, coming from the perspective that depression is manufactured. It can be, but I think all the people in my film are really dealing with some level of pain that anybody would want relief from.

In the ten years in which you’ve been visiting, at what point did you notice the shift in attitudes towards depression and the use of antidepressants?

Well I just have one friend who I knew was taking them, and that was probably four years before I made the documentary. It kind of just rang in my ears, watching her do that. And through her I knew how shameful depression was in Japan, or any kind of mental problem, is really seen as a failure and a breakdown, and as an American I could relate to that. I think that is really true here too. But it’s even more so there. You see it’s true for the people I was interviewing. For a lot of them, if they told their boss they were depressed, it’s kind of like if you told your boss here that you were schizophrenic. Their boss would be really worried. At the least they’d probably not challenge you, and at the most they might fire you.

What do you think compelled the people you interviewed to be so open with you – a complete stranger with a film crew?

I think part of it was that I was doing the interview, and I came to it being very sympathetic to people who are depressed. I’ve grown up with depression around me and don’t have any judgment about it, and I think that was relatively new to them. So here’s a guy in a position of power doing an interview, and the mood is not that they’ve done anything wrong, and that they’re good people, and that I’m very curious to know how their struggle is going. And I think that really opened the door. They weren’t used to being treated like that.

That was maybe one of the first opportunities they’ve had to verbalize what they’ve been going though.

Yeah, and I think these people that identify themselves as depressed, it’s maybe like a gay person who was out in America in the fifties. If you were out in the fifties, you were sort of an activist. You were willing to risk things and say “This is real. I am here. This is important.” So there’s a piece of that in all those people that decided to be in the film. This other thing is, I told them, “I’m not interviewing any doctors, any specialists, I’m only interviewing people who are on antidepressants.” And they really liked that. I think to them that was very empowering. And for whatever reason they just trusted that and went even farther.

And then there’s another level, that’s sort of complicated, and it was part of the context of the film. It’s that I’m American. I’m a white guy with blue eyes. And some of the Japanese people on my crew said, “You know, if you were Japanese, they would not be telling you all this.” Because it would be so much more shameful. And because a Japanese person would be much more likely to judge them. But they see America as being more progressive in terms of mental health. And in general, since World War II, they yearn for American things and think of it as the future. One of them told me, “Whatever is happening in America will happen in Japan 10 years later.” So, there was sort of a reverse racism thing going on where they were very inclined to think that I was benevolent and helpful because I was American, which I find ironic.

What surprised you? For me, there’s a scene early on where we see their daily routines. You list off the different prescriptions that each of them were taking. Daisuke rifles through a large box of pills and then downs them with Dr. Pepper and alcohol…

With a homemade White Russian; that was one. And I interviewed some other people for the film who took even more pills. And for whatever reason I just couldn’t film enough of their lives, and they didn’t end up working out in the film, but they’re very interesting. I met people that were taking eight pills at a time. Part of that is just the Japanese medical world where if you have the flu, you would go to the doctor and he would give you three or four different medications. With anything, they are prone to taking medicine or believing in chemical solutions to a problem. That’s part of the deal. So when it came to the medication for their depression – when you see Mika take her pills it’s actually at night, so you see her take a sleep inducer, and then a sleeping pill, and then an anti-anxiety pill, and then her antidepressant. And they all tended to take an antidepressant as well as anti-anxiety pills, and they all took sleeping pills. So you only see Ken and Taketoshi take their antidepressants, but if I shot them at night you would also see them take sleeping pills.

Mika - Does Your Soul Have a Cold?Even though you’re dealing with a somber topic, you were able to maintain a measure of warmth and humor throughout. What conscious efforts did you make to balance the tone?

Part of that is just for me. I don’t want to be depressed. And those people, they don’t want to be depressed. It’s hard, talking about all that for them. And I don’t want to work on a film that’s just going to drag me down more than I already am. It’s just self-preservation. And the other part of it – all those people that I interviewed were pretty funny. Humor and laughing wasn’t very far away, even when they were very down. I don’t know what that was about, but I found them all pretty funny in their own way. There’s some levity to be found in all of their lives. I wanted to get away from the cliché of what a depressed person is – stuck in bed, and has slumped shoulders, and is looking down and all that – which is totally true. But there are a lot of people that are dealing with a pretty painful level of depression who are walking around working, eating, having relationships – and that to me is pretty exciting, to portray that. The everydayness of it.

I’ve read interviews in which you mentioned how difficult it was to find financing for Thumbsucker, besides that it was your first feature. It was hard to sell people on the themes having to do with not being able to meet our culture’s norms of masculinity or adulthood. You followed up with an issue that people are even less apt to talk about. What kind of resistance did you encounter this time around?

I didn’t want to have that experience again. This is a different beast because it’s a documentary, and even an expensive documentary isn’t going to cost as much as a narrative film. Thumbsucker started off at three and a half million, and it was very difficult to get that. So when I was at Sundance showing Thumbsucker is when I started trying to get this made and pitching it to people. And I said, “I’m going to make this for $350,000. I’m going to make this for so cheap that you can’t say no.” And I was very lucky with IFC, in that they got it. They were very supportive. I didn’t have to sell it too hard, and obviously they liked the price. They were sympathetic to the whole idea right off the bat.

You’ve said that you tend to pursue projects dealing with things you have personal experience with. Is that a hard and fast rule for you?

I do think it’s true as a director. Making a movie is so hard, you’d better make movies about something you really know about. And even more, it’s really good to make movies about things you need to figure out for yourself, so you’re driven the whole way through. It’s going to make things more crucial for you. So with Thumbsucker, it’s not that I suck my thumb, but that I can totally relate to Justin’s problems and his family dynamic and his relationship to his mother is something that I could identify with in my family. So for me it was a working out of things I was dealing with myself. And then with this film, like I said before, I grew up with people who were dealing with sadness or depression and looking for a way to be happier, and so many friends who were dealing with it. And myself, I don’t take antidepressants, but I definitely have dealt with my own sadness or sort of a chronic feeling of “things aren’t going to be OK.” A lot of my art is the hub of where it comes out of, that feeling that I have. In making this it became more and more clear to me that there was something in me that wanted to ask questions about depression, and the film gave me the permission to do that.

What’s next in the pipeline – a feature or another documentary?

I’m working on a script for my next narrative film and will hopefully start doing that soon. I hope to have a career where I get to go back and forth between doing documentaries and narrative stuff. They really enrich each other for me and maybe I’ll get better at integrating the two into one piece.

Are you going to continue to work on music videos?

I love doing videos. I’m a little spoiled. When I started doing them, for years I got to do videos where you didn’t see the band, and the videos were more stories in themselves. And I love that. I grew up watching videos, and music video directors are people that I consider my peers in a way. But with the collapse of the music industry, it’s really hard to get to do a video that’s in any way experimental or anything more than a publicity piece for the band. You definitely have to have the band doing something. And I never really had to do that, so it’s hard for me. I’m really happy with the five videos I did for Blonde Redhead that are all very experimental, and I hope to find more opportunities like that. I really don’t want to go backwards. Even though I love doing videos I don’t want to step backwards creatively just to be able to do them. I don’t think I’ll be able to do a lot because of the way that I want to do them.

HUMANS is another avenue for you.

For me it’s all really one thing. HUMANS is a way to do all my visual, graphic art stuff, a way to put it all in one basket and make it accessible to people. I do a lot of posters on there that are available for thirty bucks, and that’s kind of the perfect context for me. It’s public, it’s accessible, it’s easy to get. Hopefully it’s as thoughtful and personal and revealing as something you would find in a typical art context. A lot of my HUMANS stuff is dealing with depression, but on a different level. I think that the themes run throughout. It’s all stuff relating to things I know about, things happening in my life, and they just manifest in different ways.

Have people in Japan had the opportunity to see the documentary yet?

To me the project is not done until it’s shown in Japan. It’s just gotten to the point where the people are trying to find someone to sell it to there. I’m hoping that will work out. For the people in the film, of course they want anybody to see it, but they really want it to be shown in Japan. That’s why they made it, to create a difference in the world that they’re living in.

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Posted by Ted Zee on October 08th 2007 | Home Page | 13 Comments Subscribe to this site's feed

13 Responses

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  2. Items: 10/22 » bigscreenlittlescreen.net Says:

    […] changing views on depression, and follows 5 Tokyo residents using antidepressants. Supplemental to my interview with Mike Mills a couple weeks ago – 2 video clips: Morning routines, and Mika (pictured), one of the film’s […]

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