Filmmaker Mike Mills lists his mountain retreat for US$3.3m

In the late 1990s, Mike Mills knew he wanted a country house. He just didn’t know where.

The writer and film director, best known for his movies 20th Century Women and C’mon C’mon, was based in Los Angeles and initially thought he’d find a place nearby, or at least in Southern California. He drove around in his Volvo station wagon looking at properties, slowly extending his radius until he’d made it all the way to the Sierras.

“It’s just much more beautiful up there, but a lot of the towns are very rural America,” Mills says. “I was talking to a friend of mine, and they were like, ‘Have you been to Nevada City? It’s really different, it’s an old mining town with a real San Francisco diaspora to it.’” Mills visited and was enchanted, not only by the town’s used bookstores and good restaurants but also by its proximity to nature.

So after looking around for another year for the right piece of land, he bought 40 acres, joined it with a contiguous 20 acres soon after, then began to look for an architect. By the time the cult Japanese firm Atelier Bow-Wow had designed and constructed his roughly 2,300-square-foot home, the entire process had taken Mills more than a decade.

But he’s gotten his time’s worth: Together with his wife, the author and director Miranda July, Mills has regularly used the house for the past 14 years.

Now “we’re thinking of moving to other places, and maybe not being so West Coast-grounded” anymore, Mills says. “Our family is transforming.” As a result, they’ve put the house on the market with Eric Lavey of Sotheby’s International Realty – Beverly Hills Brokerage for $3.3 million.

The Land

As a lifelong city dweller, Mills wasn’t an obvious candidate for country living. “This whole journey was to have a connection to nature, which I really didn’t have,” he says. “I had a yearning for it, but I was a newbie—the first time I walked around my property I was scared, I didn’t know what was around me.”

In fairness, it’s a lot of property to get a handle on. “The 60-acre plot borders the Tahoe forest on three sides,” Mills says, “but it’s only 15 minutes from downtown, which was quite a coup. Usually either you’re too far out or you’re too close to town.” 

Even before he had an architect, Mills knew where he wanted the house to be sited. “It’s right by a pond, it’s on a bluff, and it’s in a clearing,” he says. “So there’s a natural break from all the trees, a natural fire break, and a natural view.”

As for the house itself, he also had some idea of the form it would take. “I wanted a retreat, and I wanted to make my art there, and I wanted to have a growing family, even though I hadn’t met my wife yet,” he says. “I wanted a small house with a small resource footprint—I was very concerned about sustainable materials and passive solar.”

Designing the House

Mills, who travels to Japan often for work, is a fan of contemporary Japanese architecture. “It’s so progressive and interesting and design-forward,” he says. “You look at a lot of contemporary Japanese architecture, and it blows your mind.”

When he approached the Tokyo studio Atelier Bow-Wow, a firm best known for its strikingly inventive residential architecture, “they were quite internationally renowned, and I wasn’t sure if they would do it or were too busy,” he says. But the architects visited the site, “and they got very excited,” Mills says.

The design process alone took several years. “I’m a film director and collaborate with a lot of people,” Mills says, “and this was one of the most amazing collaborations I’ve ever had.” Every prompt he’d give—he wanted big north-south exposures, for instance, and he was curious whether the roof could be detached from the house as a passive solar break—was answered in the form of “5 to 10 little foam core models,” he says. “Each design was wildly different. They’re teachers and have a studio, so I’d get these explorations and exercises—all different, wild ways to go.” The models, he says, were like little works of art.

In terms of aesthetic, Mills and the architects were on the same page. “I wanted it exquisite, innovative and smart, but also a little bit Shaker, and not too flashy,” he says. Architects including Luis Barragán, Le Corbusier and Alvar Aalto were inspirations.

What’s Inside

The house was completed in 2008. The enclosed area, which contains three bedrooms and two bathrooms, is all on one level. Ceilings are made with wood from local pine trees; the kitchen uses cedar, also sourced from a local mill.

Walls are paneled in Homasote, a material Mills says is “100% recycled newspaper. They’re very sturdy and typically used as a sound barrier.” Each panel, he says, “is a little different, and it feels really lovely—it has an organic quality, because each has a different patina.”

There are large exterior gates that roll like barn doors and do double duty: They lock up the house when the family is away, but because they have netting between the slats, in the summer people can leave the doors open but close the gates, allowing a breeze to flow through the home.

Upstairs the roof is separated from the main structure, creating a large terrace, open to the elements but shielded from the sun. “The roof of my house is really innovative and effectively doubled my floor plan,” Mills says. “I’ve had three or four families spend a few weeks up there—everyone wanted to sleep up there. It was like a big boat.”

The house is also winterized. The concrete floor has radiant heat; it’s augmented by a wood-burning fireplace, which is placed in the center of the home, where the living/dining room is located.

“I wonder know if Atelier Bow-Wow even knows how magical the mountain house is?” wrote July, in an email. “Waking up to sparkling snow through the giant windows, swinging lazily in hammocks on the roof…and I always did my best writing up there. Something about how the house fits into the land just cracks you open, makes you emotionally liquid again.”

Playing Host

“Since it’s a second home, the idea is we’re here a week or a month, so we put the bedrooms very far apart,” Mills says. “Two other families can come anytime.”

And, in fact, many did. “​​I’ve never spent so much time in a wild place more steeped in the layered history of people and nature,” the musician Feist wrote in an email. “In my many days’ worth of explorations … I scrabbled deep gulches, visited mammoth pines and cedars, discovered a babbling stream with the feeling I was the first one to ever find it, all to the sound of an echoing forest canopy filled with birdsong.”

Initially, Mills says, he was slightly taken aback by how popular his house was with visitors. “I was thinking selfishly: ‘This is my dream, this is what I want, this is what I always wanted as a child,’” he says. “But I didn’t realize how lovely it would be to host. I almost became a hotelier. Your friends love coming to your mountain house.”

Now, Mills is saying goodbye to the house and land into which he’s poured so much time and effort.

“This house is one of the bigger creative things I’ve done in my life,” he says. “I know a lot of the trees individually, I know the rocks, I visit the creeks over the seasons. The idea of leaving that is really hard.” But, he continues, it’s time. “As a 57-year-old, I’m increasingly aware that life has different seasons and chapters. I have a new chapter to look forward to.” –BLOOMBERG