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Mike Mills, Alicia Vikander, and The National Made the Most Beautiful Visual Album of All Time

The story of how Mike Mills became a de facto member of his favorite band and — with Alicia Vikander's help — redefined the visual album.

“I Am Easy to Find”

The National were supposed to take a break. They sure as hell deserved one. After 20 years of tirelessly burnishing their reputation as the country’s most consistent rock band — after selling almost 1 million records, becoming President Obama’s de facto campaign soundtrack, and laying down the definitive rendition of “The Rains of Castamere” along the way — a little time off sounded like a good idea. The National had just released “Sleep Well Beast,” their emotionally fraught seventh album, and this traveling circus of middle-aged dads was just one quick massive world tour away from the breather they’d been chasing for so long. “Let’s just survive this” is how lead singer Matt Berninger sums up the group’s shared attitude at the time.

And then, on September 3, 2017, filmmaker Mike Mills sent Berninger the email that changed everything.

“I’d just finished the press stuff for ‘20th Century Women,’ and I was trying to figure out what to do next,” Mills said, talking from his Los Angeles home as a neighbor’s chicken screamed in the background. The indie auteur was a big fan of the band, sometimes obsessively listening to songs like “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” and “Graceless” on an endless loop as he wrote, and so he thought he’d reach out to say hi. He didn’t have another feature lined up, so maybe they could do something together? No big deal.

Mills began his career directing videos for acts like Air and Blonde Redhead, so he was used to sending out feelers like this; some panned out, some didn’t. It was worth a shot. “The National’s songs are incredibly layered and dense,” he said, “and I’ve just always wanted to dig into their music.”

Mills had no way of knowing he’d be doing a lot more than that. He had no way of knowing that he was Berninger’s “favorite American filmmaker.” And he definitely had no way of knowing that the innocuous emailwould forever alter both of their artistic lives, throwing them together with a two-sided project that — with a little help from Alicia Vikander — uses Mills’ filmmaking to revitalize the power of The National’s music, and the power of The National’s music to crystallize the poetry of Mills’ filmmaking.

At a time when streaming technology has inspired major stars to make “visual albums” that range from incendiary battle cries (“Lemonade”) to glorified streaming commercials (“Guava Island”), “I Am Easy to Find” — which is the name of The National’s new album, as well as the title of the 25-minute short that Mills made alongside it — points to an even greater potential. Developed in secret over 18 months of radically free-form collaboration, this beautiful experiment suggests that a video doesn’t have to be made after the fact of its music; that film can be as much a part of an album as an album is a part of a film.

It started with two strangers who dared to assume they might have something to offer each other. “I was a huge fan of Mike’s films,” Berninger said over the phone from his L.A. kitchen, “and I was just so flattered when I got that email. I wrote back right away like an excited little kid. All of our brains had been on taking a break, and then before I’d even talked to the band about it I was sending Mike all this new stuff that we’d been working on. I was a little crazy, to be honest.”

Berninger sings in an unmistakable baritone, but he and Mills sound kind of similar when they speak — the way they laugh about that first interaction is almost identical. “I was just really honored and moved that Matt knew my work,” Mills said. “So we got on the phone, and I was expecting to maybe do a video, and then Matt was just like, ‘Here are all the songs we’ve been working on, do what you want!’” (Berninger endearingly defended his enthusiasm: “If Mike Mills is interested in doing more than a regular video, you roll with it!”).

Mills continued: “That was the very first phone call, and it set the ship going in a very particular way of freedom and into the unknown. The band was so caught up in the ‘Sleep Well Beast’ tour that the usual rules and expectations weren’t at play, and that open-ended energy really fit where I was at. I’ve heard Matt liken all the stuff we were doing to a bonus round in ‘Galaga.’”

“I Am Easy to Find”

The other members of The National were intrigued by the idea. Berninger had a feeling they would be, if only because the band has always had a bit of an open-door creative policy. “We’re trying to understand ourselves,” the frontman said, “because trying to understand why we are the way we are as individuals is a good way to figure out how we can work as a community, and as a nation, and as a world, right?”

And while “Sleep Well Beast” found The National exploring new territory — it’s a breakup album that gradually tortures itself toward heartfelt reconciliation — Berninger has always been afraid of getting stuck in his own head. “We don’t evolve as fast as I think we would if we could,” he said. But maybe they can. He sent Mills a bunch of demos the band had been kicking around, and the National embarked on their tour.

It’s one thing to collaborate with your favorite band; it’s another to feel like you have their future in your hands. ““I’ve gotta be honest,” Mills said. “I was really scared. The first group of tracks they gave me were all so different. Some of them had lyrics, some didn’t, and some had Matt’s kind of mumbled temporary lyrics. I had no idea what they were about. And I was like, ‘How am I gonna make a story out songs that kind of exist and kind of don’t?’”

It didn’t help that The National were so nice about everything. “They gave me so much faith,” Mills said. “They were like ‘You’re gonna do great!’ And I was all, ‘That’s sweet, but I don’t know what to do!’ I just told Matt that I’d be honest with him if I didn’t come up with a good idea.”

Berninger has a name for that arrangement: “We have an idiot clause,” he said. “I asked Mike not to make me look like an idiot, and in exchange I wouldn’t make him look like an idiot. That was our handshake agreement.”

Mills feared he wouldn’t be able to hold up his end of the deal, but then he found Oscar-winning actress Alicia Vikander standing in his kitchen. Some context: Mills and his wife (filmmaker Miranda July) were hosting a brunch, and Vikander — who loved “Beginners” as much as Mills loved “Ex Machina” — was on the guest list. The conversation turned to work. Mills anxiously mentioned he had gotten in touch with The National, and that he was now sweating out the consequences.

Vikander’s eyes shot wide open: “I literally said, ‘Wow, that’s so cool!,’” she remembered with a shade of embarrassment. “I saw The National in concert in Stockholm in 2007. I was like 18, it was one of my first dates with a guy who was gonna become my boyfriend later on, and I had practiced their albums at home because I wanted to impress him.” She saw them again on the next tour, and the tour after that.

Mills had long admired Vikander’s talent, but he suddenly found himself galvanized by her enthusiasm. “The presence of Alicia in my mind and the thought of what I could do with her kinda made this idea happen,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone else who would say ‘yes’ to trying it.”

“I Am Easy to Find”

In this case, “it” would be an intimate, pointillistic 25-minute film chronicling the emotional arc of a woman’s life from birth to death over the course of roughly 150 isolated moments — like a longer, richer, and more haunting riff on Chris Milk’s “Last Day Dream.”  Vikander would play the lead character at all ages, relying on body language instead of makeup or prosthetics. The piece would be shot in black-and-white, propelled by The National’s new songs, and steered by subtitles that conveyed broad context and unspoken thoughts: Her mother’s voice. The story of her father’s scar. Discovering cruelty. Going to college. Wondering if she is interesting. Calling home on Sundays. The smell of the night air in a new town.

The concept only occurred to Mills after he listened to Berninger’s demos with Vikander in mind, but it presented a clear thematic extension of his previous work. “I love biographies,” he said. “I love to treat large issues in a very short amount of time, because the things that occur when you compress a life like that are fascinating to me.”

As a proof-of-concept, Mills chopped up “an old French film” (he won’t say the one) and layered five minutes of The National’s new music over it. Berninger loved it: “It was artsy-fartsy. He had me at artsy-fartsy.” From that point on, Mills and the band essentially became the co-pilots of a plane that took off without a clear destination. “They just invited me into the front seat of their creative process,” Mills said, a hint of lingering disbelief in his voice.

Vikander also responded to the narrative conceit. “The script was just comprised of those 140 rows of text you see on screen,” she said, “but each of those sentences hit me so hard. Reading it, I was almost… not embarrassed, but it was that exposed feeling of when someone’s gone so deep and seen your innermost thoughts.” When a small window suddenly opened in the actress’ schedule in March 2018, she and Mills found themselves in a deserted California town, caught in a creative whirlwind unlike anything either had experienced. “When Mike first said we were gonna shoot 140 scenes in five days, I was just like… ‘Um, okay?’ But it turned out to be such an exercise in artistic fun.”

Vikander, who trained as a dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, relied on that experience to endow her nameless character with a consistent identity. “It was kind of the same thing when I met Alex Garland for ‘Ex Machina,’” she said, “and there wasn’t yet a great description of what Ava really was. So I had to just find that physical being.”

“I Am Easy to Find”

It’s astonishing how quickly Vikander’s performance roots the film in time. The flop of her legs is enough to convey that she’s an uncertain child, a few scenes later, the new stiffness in her posture is enough to suggest that she’s hiding a wonderful secret from her co-workers. The actress grounds “I Am Easy to Find” in a consistent physical reality that makes good on the film’s title, no matter how fast Mills flips through the years. “After a while,” Vikander, said, “I just realized that we’re always the same person.”

That idea has lurked beneath The National’s music from the start, and Vikander’s ability to express it was clear to the band from the film’s very first rough cut. “Her skill as an actor is just…” Berninger trailed off. “It only takes an instant to forget that you’re watching a superstar. Then you just kind of see this being, this soul, this sponge, and you’re just watching her soak up the world around her. I’ve never seen a portrait of a person rendered so thoroughly out of fragments like that.”

Suddenly, the potential of this amorphous project sent the entire band into an extended creative fit. As a filmmaker and a longtime fan, Mills had been nervous about sharing his work, but it turned out that The National were less interested in giving feedback than they were in gleaning inspiration.

“They were so deferential and sweet,” Mills said, “and I had to do a lot of convincing to make them give me notes.” He hadn’t expected that those notes would be of the musical variety. “I would send them a cut, they would watch it on tour, and then the next thing I knew Matt would reply with like a new version of “Oblivions” that he recorded in a bathroom of a Barcelona hotel or something. So I’d put that in the film and send it back out, they would watch it, and then Matt would reply with a second verse of “Quiet Life” because he and Carin had tweaked something.”

That’s when everyone realized that this strange movie and the half-written music that provided its spine were speaking to each other. The story that the girl’s father reads her in the film became the lyrics for a new song. Fragments of the story, some of which had come directly from Mills’ life, warped into melodies. The emotional coherence of Vikander’s performance began knotting the tracks together like a shared memory, and paving the way toward ones that had yet to be written. Mills has described the two versions of “I Am Easy to Find” as “playfully hostile siblings that love to steal from each other,” but they might be even closer than that, like twins who gestated in the same womb.

“When we saw the rough cuts,” Berninger said, “I started writing more, my wife started writing even more, and the rest of the band started making more music. We’re all parents and we’re all trying to figure out why we are who we are, and so what Mike had made resonated with everybody so strongly and inspired a whole new round of songwriting. It went on for months; we’d send him new stuff, and he’d reply with a new cut of the film. We didn’t always agree with his ideas, but we trusted them enough to try, and 75% of the time he turned out to be right because we needed him to push us out of our comfort zone.” Berninger sat on that for a moment, and then took things a step further: “Mike reminded us why The National is good.”

Multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner is just as blunt about the benefits of the collaboration: “There was half of an album, and then Mike made a film that was like a bridge to the second half of the album,” he said. “He inspired us to finish it, and half the songs were informed by his film. We wouldn’t have an album without him.”

Dessner wasn’t blowing smoke: The National insisted that Mills join them in the studio after the film was finished and serve as a producer. According to Berninger, that suggestion kinda freaked Mills out: “Mike was like, ‘I don’t know how to make a record!’ I don’t know shit about music!’ And we were like ‘That’s exactly what we want. We know how to turn the knobs, you just help us figure out what’s moving, and how we can make these songs convey the abstract ideas that went into writing them.’ Mike’s a filmmaker — he works in a time-based emotional delivery system — and that’s what we wanted our new music to be. We didn’t need another record. We needed something else, and that’s what Mike gave us. The film is a portrait of a life, and the album is a portrait of an afterlife.”

Mills, who described that part of the collaborative process as “like being at Disneyland,” was able to latch on to the cinematic qualities that he sees in the band’s music, and how they present it to the world. In fact, working with Berninger helped Mills to wrap his head around why musicians have been leaning into large-scale film projects: “Music and cinema are like peanut butter and chocolate in that they’re really happy together, but it’s more than that. With Beyoncé, she has such a strong narrative sense and a cinematic, three-dimensional quality to her music and her presence as a character in it. In a weird way, The National are very similar. Matt is a filmmaker, and he talks about story and character when he talks about songs. When he sings, it reminds me of an actor performing, because he sings from an emotional state. I’ve heard him describe himself as an actor who’s performing as a singer, and that feels right to me.”

For a filmmaker, there are obvious benefits to making a short film with a built-in fanbase and guaranteed exposure, but the creative liberty is what Mills appreciated most. “The expectations for a short are just different,” he said. “You’re more free. Would people be willing to go there with Alicia’s performance in a feature? The music is equal to the image in this movie — it’s like an opera in that way — so that loosens the joints of what you expect from a narrative.”

In that light, it’s ironic that “I Am Easy to Find” is easily the most story-oriented thing that Mills has ever made. “Going through a life that fast requires things to be weirdly plot-driven,” he said. “Stuff is constantly changing, so the 25 minutes go by in a flash. That velocity holds it all together. Actually, I think the obviousness of the structure is the secret trick of the whole thing. It’s a life. It’s completely linear. You know from the beginning what’s going to happen at the end. It’s a very well-known river that you’re floating down, which allows for plenty of strange detail and room for surprise.”

The biggest surprise of all might be how well it all worked out. Mills still can’t believe that he was able to forge such a rewarding bond with one of his favorite bands. “The nicest thing, and the thing I didn’t expect, is that I now have five new friends, for real,” he said. “And they’re five totally different men — I don’t have very many men friends. We’re so well-suited for each other, to the point that it feels weird we hadn’t known each other before in some way.”

The feeling is more than mutual. “We’ve all fallen in love with Mike as a creative person, as a buddy, and just as someone who encourages us,” Berninger said. “His excitement has been infectious. We’re not done with Mike, and he’s not done with us. He’s done some videos for The National since, and he’s even making t-shirts. The National isn’t just five guys — the real band is like 25 or 30 different collaborators. Mike’s one of them now. I feel like he’s a member.”

And then there’s the film itself, a concentrated dose of emotional quicksilver that’s capable of reducing people to rubble as they watch. Mills is still trying to figure out the alchemy behind it. “I can’t explain the reactions,” he said. “The movie is so expositional. Maybe it’s the subtitles that really kill people? I don’t know the answer, to be totally honest with you.”

Mills might be too close to this one to see it clearly — he may have transposed too many of the film’s moments from his own life to appreciate the extraordinary power it mines from the space between personal understanding and shared experience. Vikander, who described watching the movie as “artistically fulfilling in a way that’s different from anything I’ve ever done before,” has something of a clearer view. “It taps into a universal fear,” she said. “It draws a perfect circle. You’re here, and then you’re gone, and then it goes on and on.” She thought back to the night she first saw the film, when she watched it with a full house at a Los Angeles concert hall before The National performed the album in full. “When the screening was over, one of the first things I said to Mike was, ‘Why does the movie go so fast in the end?’ And he just goes: ‘That’s life.’”

“I Am Easy to Find” (the film) is now streaming. “I Am Easy to Find” (the album) will be released May 17.

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