To conclude my Social Anxiety in Movies series on Thumbsucker, I will take a look behind the scenes of the film at the actors, writers, and director.
Part 3 – Behind the Scenes:
The film Thumbsucker is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Kirn, written in 1999.
“It was far more autobiographical than anything else I’ve written. And because it was so personal, people seemed to relate to it on a personal level.” – Walter Kirn
Kirn admitted that he was also a thumbsucker well into his teenage years. The character of Justin is based on himself, and in many ways, writing the novel was therapeutic for Kirn.
I understand completely what Kirn means. I am working on a semi-autobiographical novel about my social anxiety. When you examine your thoughts and behavior in the kind of deep detail that a novel requires, you gain a new perspective on yourself. For me, writing the novel in a first-person perspective of someone with social anxiety, I began to notice how ridiculous and unfounded many of the anxious thoughts I was having were. You don’t need to write a novel to gain that perspective, however. You can simply keep a journal to reach the same insights.
At the center of the film is the character of Justin Cobb, and the film never could have worked without the right actor in the part. Director Mike Mills went through a long casting search before finding Lou Pucci.
“He didn’t feel like L.A, like someone whose identity was I’m an actor and I’m cool. He felt nervous and anxious and all that stuff which is just so Justin.” – Mike Mills
Mills describes the character of Justin as “nervous and anxious”, two common traits of social anxiety. Social anxiety is never directly addressed or specifically mentioned in the film, but Justin exhibits the common symptoms, especially early in the film before he started taking Ritalin. Justin also has trouble communicating with his mother, father, and girlfriend throughout the movie. Justin’s disorders that are dealt with in the film are his thumb-sucking and ADHD. The social anxiety he exhibits could be more of a byproduct of his embarrassment over his thumb-sucking. Which makes sense, as embarrassment, shame, and low-self esteem are major causes of social anxiety.
Thumbsucker was Lou Pucci’s first film, and also his first time away from his parents for an extended period.
“I don’t think you can really grow up until you have at least gotten away from your family, because they’re always going to shelter you from things.” – Lou Pucci
Looking back on my childhood, I realize that my family would often shelter me and enable my social anxiety. They knew talking to people would make me uncomfortable, so they would speak for me. They did it out of love. They didn’t realize that by doing that, they were also letting my social anxiety develop. When I finally moved out of my parents home and started living on my own, I no longer had them to speak and do things for me. I was forced to face many of my social anxiety fears, so I did.
“I am living the life of the person I’m playing right now, sort of. There are a lot of things that I can completely relate to. I really understand what it’s like to be leaving home, when it’s the only place that you know, and to be looking for answers in all these different places.” – Lou Pucci
“He held his own with all these different actors, and they’re intense people to be around, as the character and as Lou Pucci, and he never let it rattle him. Or if he did let it rattle him, he did it in the right way where he didn’t try to hide it, and it became a part of the piece.” – Mike Mills
Not only was Pucci leaving home for the first time, he was starring in his first film with Hollywood stars like Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton, and Vincent D’Onofrio. I can’t imagine him not feeling some anxiety in his real life at the time, which may have seeped into his performance of the character of Justin, whether intended or not.
“Lou brought to it all of the qualities that we liked so much about the screenplay, this sense of truth. He was willing to put it all out there—be insecure, be silly, be sad, be angry. He’s been a special find.” – Producer Cathy Schulman
As someone with social anxiety, I really related to the character of Justin, and I think Lou Pucci did a fantastic job of bringing the character to the screen. He gave an honest performance. He wasn’t afraid to make himself vulnerable on screen by portraying a character who less understanding viewers might describe as “pathetic”. That’s a lesson anyone with social anxiety can take and apply to real life. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and put yourself out there. Some people may not like you, but others will. You can never please everyone. So don’t try.
One of the biggest names in the film was Keanu Reeves, but he didn’t bring a big ego.
“I was amazed at how humble he was about himself. My biggest job as a director was just encouraging him that he made the right decision [in a given scene]… It just speaks to how much vulnerability acting requires. Perry is a total searcher, and I think that Keanu is a total searcher. The difference is that, unlike Keanu, Perry’s character comes from a whole lot of insecurity, and that’s what made him put on all these masks.” – Mike Mills
Perry is a minor character in terms of screen time, but a major character in terms of impact. In the director’s commentary, Mills revealed that Reeves improvised much of his final monologue to Justin. Reeves himself believed the things his character of Perry said in that speech, so he just wanted to say it in his own words, in a way to get it off his chest. I think Reeves truly believing the words in that speech is what helped make it so powerful and feel so resonant.
“That’s because we all want to be problem-less. To fix ourselves. We look for some magic solution to make us all better, but none of us really know what we’re doing. And why is that so bad? That’s all we humans can do. Guess. Try. Hope. But Justin, just pray you don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got the answer. Because that’s bullshit. The trick is living without an answer… I think… I think.” – Perry (Keanu Reeves)
Another star of the film was the location: the suburban towns of Beaverton and Sherwood, Oregon.
“The suburbs are a land of appearances. They’re ruled by the need to put on a good show for the boss, the church, the neighbors. And yet people suffer and have anxieties in the same way that they do everywhere.” – Walter Kirn
The Cobbs are a seemingly idealistic middle-class suburban family, yet they each have their own problems. Benjamin Bratt’s character is a rich famous actor, but he still has his problems with drug addiction. Money and places can’t be blamed for our human disorders, and they can’t cure them either. Anybody anywhere can develop social anxiety. We can’t use our lack of money or the place we live as an excuse for social anxiety. Anybody can overcome it anywhere, and you don’t need lots of money to do it either. As the film says, it simply starts with accepting yourself.
“In the movie and in the book, Justin has what shrinks call Attention Deficit Disorder, which means the inability to focus on any one thing. I think we’ve got that as a society at the moment. You haven’t finished one thing before you’re imagining the next; you haven’t met one person, but you’re looking at their defects and comparing them to another person. We do that with ourselves, too. We’re constantly ‘trying on’ ourselves, and I think that’s just what Justin is doing in this movie.” – Walter Kirn
In many ways, ADD sounds like SAD (social anxiety disorder). Although, with SAD, we are often looking at our own defects and comparing ourselves to others.
“I think that if the book has a theme, it’s self-acceptance. It’s about going from the shame that we all feel when we get into the slightly wider world, let’s say, of our teenage years, realizing that we’re not the same as everybody else.” – Walter Kirn
This applies to social anxiety, as well. We shouldn’t feel shame about our shyness compared to others. We need to accept ourselves and our social anxiety, then figure out how to work with it.
“Justin is constantly monitoring the reactions of people around him. He’s constantly looking to be told that he’s all right, looking to be shown a way, looking to be guided. And people are always presenting themselves as mentors or guides or coaches. I think he finally becomes his own coach, his own shrink… I think that’s kind of what we all have to do.” – Walter Kirn
That’s essentially what I did. For much of my life, I hoped someone else would cure my social anxiety for me. My parents. My friends. My doctor. It wasn’t until I took the initiative to overcome my social anxiety myself that I actually started to.
The ending of the movie differs slightly from the book, in which Justin went off to join a Mormon missionary. Mills was apprehensive about what Kirn would think of the new ending.
“I had no idea what he was going to think. He’s a big author, and a pretty intense critic, and I’m totally shitting myself. Then we meet, and he’s like, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Loved the adaptation… ‘I’d never thought about him going to New York… Great job.’ And I was like: Are you mocking me?” But no, of course, Walter’s some sort of Zen Buddhist where he’s totally able to release attachment to the book and to what his expectations were, and be nothing but excited and enthusiastic about what I was bringing to it.” – Mike Mills
We should all take Kirn’s “Zen Buddhist” approach to the movie and apply it to our lives. Much of social anxiety comes from expectations. About what we should have said or done. Or what someone else should have said or done. If we can learn to drop those expectations, and embrace life with excitement and enthusiasm, our social anxiety will dwindle away. Have no expectations, and be excited and enthusiastic. Those are definitely wise words to live by.
Though Walter Kirn wrote the source material, the film’s story was also deeply personal for writer/director Mike Mills, whose mother died of cancer in 1999.
“You come out of that fresh to life: this is my limited opportunity. I have to go as far as I can. Then soon after I started working on the film it was like: ‘Woah! I am Justin, and Audrey [Justin’s mother] is my mum. Me trying to be her perfect peer, persuading her not to leave. It became a part of my mourning process.” – Mike Mills
Then as the film was being edited, Mills’s father died.
“So there was this weird mirroring. On one level the film is about individuation from your parents, you know, and Justin is waving goodbye at the airport – and my dad had just gone. Agggggh! Crazy…” – Mike Mills
I could sense the personal connection through the attention to detail in the film, especially the way each character was fully developed. With their flaws and imperfections, they each felt like real people, rather than characters.
Mike Mills shared a quote that hints at some of his own feelings of social anxiety.
“I am intrigued by inanimate objects. They’re a piece of history, someone’s statement and ideas of life. If this was your room, the stuff on your table would be telling me as much about you as you. As someone who grew up in a house where there wasn’t a lot of talking, I’m used to just looking at the world. And in general I often feel like I just don’t understand what’s happening. That everybody else does, but I don’t quite get it. That camera technique I often call ‘the alien that landed – and doesn’t know what’s important’.” – Mike Mills
“The only thing I can think of to describe how Mike works… it’s reality. He tries to put reality into everything that he does. He wanted it to look like it wasn’t out of a movie, like there wasn’t a ‘movie moment’.” – Lou Pucci
The signs of social anxiety that Justin inhabited in the film may have been inserted by Mills based on his own experience, which helped make them feel real.
The best part of Mike Mills’s director’s commentary of the film was when he relayed a piece of advice he received from director Ang Lee. After a long conversation between the two, where Lee told Mills everything he knew about filmmaking, Lee concluded with the most important thing to remember: “Everything I said could be totally wrong.” Mills repeated the phrase in regards to everything he said in his commentary, and I’ll repeat the phrase myself. Everything I’ve written is what I know now, based on personal experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for me. But, who knows. Everything I said could be totally wrong.