Elle Mills chats with NYLON Manila about her LGBTQIA+ film debut REPLY, stepping away from YouTube, becoming a director, and much more.
The 2010s was an interesting time for the internet, especially for social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter were becoming a new mode of communication. But one phenomenon that most likely won’t be seen again was the explosion of YouTube content creators. During that era, hundreds of YouTubers exploded in popularity as they found an audience in the things they love; gaming, tech, make-up, lifestyle, and everything in between. This was the time when the idea of a social media influencer started to take shape. And it was also at this time that the world got to know Elle Mills.
Like many of her contemporaries, the Manila-born YouTuber was a vlogger. But unlike most other creators, Elle infused a sense of joy, honesty, and relatability in her work. She gained an audience in the millions because of how her fun and relatable videos spoke to the youth, particularly in videos like her viral coming-out video. But something happened, and it looked like Elle kind of disappeared on YouTube. TikTok wasn’t where Elle Mills went. Instead, the past couple of years saw Elle finally pursue a new way for her to speak to her generation, filmmaking.
When talking about Elle Mills and her content creating career, her iconic coming-out video has a place in the halls of YouTube history. In less than five minutes, Elle excellently told her story, one that was exciting, emotional, warm, and chaotic in the best way possible. It was almost like she was sharing her life in a short film. “I’m super proud of it and sentimental behind it as well. I reflect, and I’m proud of what I created. I’m proud of the impact that it had,” shares Elle. “I’m now able to see that video as a good representation of my heart and the kind of stuff I want to make.”
Looking back, Elle considers the video perfect, though the now 24-year-old would like to tweak the ending; at the time, she came out as bisexual, but today, she identifies as lesbian. The video spoke to so many not just for its quality, but for what it means to be out and proud. It still does to this day. But in hindsight, it could have also served as a foreshadowing of what Elle was going to embark on next in her career.
Elle continued to post videos following that moment in YouTube history, but her uploads began to taper off. That wasn’t because she was ready to leave behind YouTube though. Instead, she entered the next chapter of her career, being a director. It was a transition that Elle wasn’t surprised by. “My YouTube videos, they’ve always been heavily inspired by films. And I used to say that it’s like they’re little teen movies. And so it’s always kind of been where I was headed.”
Elle makes it clear that she loved everything she did on YouTube, but as she got older, the self-confessed film fan realized that being the center of attention was not what she wanted. “I think I don’t really like my life to be public anymore. I don’t want my life to be the product. I do enjoy filmmaking and storytelling, and I do enjoy telling my perspectives and stuff, but I’d rather do it in a way that isn’t at the expense of my privacy.”
While she would rather focus more on telling the story than being the story, Elle’s time on YouTube proved to be an invaluable boon for her bubbling directing career. “Structure-wise, like, I think that’s how I kind of was already making short films without realizing it. There are little tidbits here and there, like that I kind of took over. I’ve been just building off of what I did on YouTube, but now expanding with a team around me.”
All the pieces were falling into place. Now, all that Elle Mills needed was her debut film. And that came in the form of REPLY. Initially announced more than a year ago, REPLY is a 15-minute queer-centric short film that follows Sam as he discovers a box of his mom’s videotapes hidden away in the attic. The 15-year-old boy then decides to make a film by piecing together the footage of his mom, Casey. The viewer is then transported into the 2000s (aspect ratio change included) as the tapes capture Casey, the summer before college, documenting herself building a treehouse to say goodbye to her childhood home.
Her summer treehouse plans get a bit more exciting when her new neighbor, Hayden, volunteers to help out. In the process, the girls form a friendship that looks to get intimate. But things change when Casey’s boyfriend, Jackson, pays a surprise visit, putting their summer of playful romance at risk. “I grew up loving 2000s teen movies like that’s my childhood, just romance films in general. And so it was really important for me, if you are creative, to make things that you are your biggest fan of.”
Featuring a cast that includes Ava Capri (Do Revenge), Ciara Riley Wilson (Bizaardvark, LA’s Finest, Speechless), and Corey Fogelmanis (Ma, Deadly Scholars), the Y2K-inspired feature is equal parts tragic and heartwarming in a tale of young queer love. “It’s a love letter to my high school self,” Elle admits. “It’s the film I wish I had growing up. So I really wanted to create a 2000s teen romance, but that was queer. That was kind of the basis of it. Just fulfilling this childhood dream of mine.”
ELLE MILLS, THE DIRECTOR
This dream fulfillment was also visible in how the shoot went. Even though this was Elle’s first film as a director, she says the moment felt incredible and eye-opening. “It was very smooth. It was good vibes on set. I made sure like, when I talked to the producers going into this, I was like, ‘I want it to be good vibes and like good energy.’ It was a family on set, it felt like a summer camp. Everyone was so talented and hardworking. And I felt so excited. It was a feeling I never experienced before. And it’s kind of what shifted everything. It made me realize what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
While the shoot ran into a couple of hiccups (the set for a pivotal scene in the film was in flux until the day before they shot it), the month and a half of prep, three-day shoot, and month and a half of post-production were smooth sailing. When it came to casting, there was no need for a long search because Elle wrote these characters with the actors in mind. “There’s something about every single one of them. When I met them, I just felt they were very intriguing, and charming, but in a very warm way. And that’s what I want the film to be, this very charming and warm film. And they also beyond that, their acting is incredible.”
Her praise for their acting extended into her favorite scene of the movie. Without going into any spoilers, Elle cited Ava Capri’s acting as the reason why she loved it so much. “I remember watching it on my monitor and holding my breath in my heart was like, ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’”
To be able to direct your very first movie is a feat worth celebrating. But not only did Elle achieve something that was her life’s dream, but it also brought out something inside her she didn’t expect. The shoot was as fun as it was a learning experience. “I think it gave me a newfound confidence because I’m very insecure about directing and writing in general. And I think it kind of secured that even though I don’t do all the technical. I think I was surprised that I was a better leader than I had anticipated.”
Elle Mills is no terror director. While she knows when to be serious, Elle’s goal during the production was to make sure that the set felt like a safe place to work and make magic. “I’m very focused on making sure everyone’s having a good time and comfortable. I always have music playing because I hate silence. I want it to feel like we’re a bunch of friends coming together to create stuff, something cool.”
FEEL THE LOVE
Following a trailer drop in 2021 and a series of screenings in festivals and other events, REPLY, Elle’s LGBTQIA+ love letter to Y2K, is finally set for a wide release when it becomes available to rent on Creator+ starting November 10. It’s a moment Elle has been anxiously waiting for. “It’s starting to hit me. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, people can watch this now,’ which is insane to me because it’s been a year. I’ve had some time away from it and just remembering how much I loved it and how it’s really shifted my life.”
As people press play on REPLY, Elle hopes viewers have an open mind on her labor of love and remember that love too. “I hope people get reminded of that childlike look of love. I think love is complicated, messy, and all of that. But there is something very pure about love that I think people sometimes forget. And I hope this reminds them of that hope that it makes them feel warm inside.”
MORE TO COME
This won’t be the last time you’ll see Elle Mills the director. In fact, she entered the world of music earlier this year when the young creative served as a co-director with Joshua Bassett of his music video, Doppelganger. “Like a dream come true of an experience, because it was my first time directing a music video,” shares Elle on her time working on the video. What made the whole experience even better was that her team from REPLY joined her for this shoot since Joshua saw the film. “It was a two-day shoot. It was super fun. I was so proud of how it turned out.”
As for her future features, Elle teased that she’s currently in the writing stage of her first full-length film. In general, she’s hoping to use her future movies to give a voice to and share LGBTQIA+ narratives. “I really want to focus on queer stories. Just because that’s where my heart’s at. I want to do something that hasn’t been done before. I want to make films that are very authentically me and are films that I would love, and I feel passionate about.”
And for those who are wondering, Elle shares that while she isn’t fully closing the door on her YouTube career, the director’s chair calls her name. “I definitely need time away [from YouTube]. And I’m all in with directing. I think that’s where my heart’s at. I’m still going to be around and making stuff I guess. So I think my YouTube channel might be used for a different capacity.”
A NEW ERA FOR ELLE MILLS
YouTube stars transitioning into film directors is not unheard of. Bo Burnham has two acclaimed movies under his belt following a successful career as a YouTuber. For Elle Mills though, the moment feels like it was years in the making. For once, Elle is no longer the center of the story, and she couldn’t be happier. From coming out in her video to telling queer stories, Elle is more than ready to take on what’s ahead of her.
Her years on YouTube and in the public spotlight helped mold Elle into the woman that she is now. It’s a shift that didn’t come quickly for her, which is something she wants young teens and kids out there to know. “Take your time living your life and not feeling that pressure. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for anything. It’s your life, your story. I really can’t emphasize enough to just take your time, and things will happen naturally.”
The Washington Post once called Elle the “John Hughes for the YouTube generation.” If REPLY is any indication, then she just might follow the famed director’s footsteps with movies that speak to the new generation. And our interview with Elle Mills wouldn’t be complete without getting her movie recommendations. Elle’s movie night picks? Underrated comedy Shiva Baby, indie gem Cha Cha Real Smooth, and 2018’s American Animals. We love a woman with taste.