The graphic designer and music-video director Mike Mills made his feature debut adapting Walter Kirn’s novel Thumbsucker in 2005, but his real breakthrough came with an assured venture into the autobiographical territory of 2010’s Beginners. In that film, a commitment-phobic graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) is supportive but bewildered when his father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet at seventy-five, just in time to face a terminal illness.
Mills’ new film 20th Century Women, another charmer of casual precision and affecting introspection, could be called a companion piece to Beginners, as it too is a sort of parent-appreciation project, this time of the maternal variety. It’s set in late-seventies Santa Barbara, with Annette Bening in absolute top form as the bemused matriarch of a ragtag ensemble including Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann.
Mills gamely has been making rounds talking to the press about it, and our conversation kicked into gear before the official interview even had begun; he reminisced about how he and his wife, the artist and filmmaker Miranda July, have tackled the question of How to Be Filmmakers and Also a Couple. In this area, married directors Agnès Varda and (the late) Jacques Demy have been instructive.
“There was a great interview,” Mills said. “The question was, ‘Do you share all your work?’ He goes, ‘Oh no, it’s personal.’ ‘But you’re married, and you have children together.’ And he goes, ‘No, it’s personal.’ And me and Miranda were like: Oh, OK, it can be like that.”
Do you two get questions about that a lot?
A little bit. Not too much. But it’s still interesting to think: They don’t share it with each other. Their work is separate, and the work is so different. It just gave us space, thinking: Oh, look how different they are. There’s a way of doing this, a way to be.
Speaking of family matters, has 20th Century Women been developing for a while?
Before Beginners I didn’t see myself making Beginners. I didn’t know my dad was gay, and I didn’t know my dad was gonna die. So Beginners was really born out of the explosion of my life and grief and all that. And then in doing it, I enjoyed it. I liked working from personal material. A lot of my heroes have done that, but for some reason I didn’t see myself doing it. I didn’t think my life had enough in it that could translate into a film. But my dad’s story was such a movie.
Anyway there’s a little brush with a character that’s based on my mom, and that’s the first time I’d ever tried to encapsulate her. And it was sort of exiting. I knew there was so much more. And as soon as I was done with Beginners, which was like end of 2011, 2012, I started writing this. And it took me two and a half, three years to write this. And the rest is kinda normal: another year and a half, two years, of production, shooting, editing, and the time it takes to come out.
Did you have this particular cast in mind? They seem very well integrated with the material.
I worked really hard on the chemistry of everybody. Movies like mine, once you’ve cast it, your ship has sailed. I really took my time, and I thought about everybody, and did a lot of research. Also, Elle and Greta, you don’t get to audition them, so it’s this huge leap. You get to have dinner, or lunch. And I knew Great a little bit, but not a lot. I mean personally. But I don’t write with anybody in mind because it never works out. I mean, I am writing with real people in mind. Abbie’s my sister, kind of. Drothea’s definitely very much based on my mom. When I try to write for an actor, I just end up writing shitty versions of them based on the movie they did, and it doesn’t help.
And then there’s just the way filmmaking works from month to month. In six months the market just completely changes. So whoever was big, either they stayed big but they’re only doing Star Wars now, or they lost their stock, or whatever. And my kind of movies, you get financed based on your actors. So you just don’t know where the math is going to be when you, like, come to consciousness. Or like, literally, nowadays, Star Wars eats up all the actors. And all the movies like Star Wars. They’re into ‘smaller’ actors. Or whatever. They’re not all huge, top-of-the-rung stars. And they have better taste. So people like Oscar Isaac: They’re just gone. And so it’s a weird world.
That seems nervewracking.
Oh my god, it’s the most fucked-up situation.
How do you know you’re…?
How do you know you’re movie’s gonna happen? You don’t.
And do you have five other things on the back burner at the same time?
Nope. I mean I have little things. I do my art stuff, and I do design stuff. But not film. Because it took me three years to write the script. You just couldn’t. You’re just way upriver.
This is a both a period piece and an autobiographically personal movie. What’s your strategy for balancing research with remembrance?
Well, they’re one and the same. They’re connected. There’s a few things. I was on tour for Beginners, I did a lot of touring for that movie. So I was kind writing intermittently; it wasn’t ideal timing. I could just let the memory-hunting go for a long time. So that was like six months plus, not even daring to think about structure. It was more like: OK, I’m building up little constellations around this character or that character. Or: Oh, these memories are congealing into these three women. Or: I really feel like I was raised by women; how can I get a dad out of the house. That’s not easy. Like, he’s not dead—if he’s dead, this is too much like Beginners, and too heavy. So he’s gone. But is he involved? So it’s a lot of stuff like that.
And then you start to accumulate around these characters. I had these five-by-seven cards, and I would just pile on memories, and the more unlikely they seemed to a movie or to a story, the more I let them live. Because I was trying to break the rules. From Beginners I learned that real, feral, observed events or dialogue actually comes to life in a movie, and communicates really well to all kinds of different people. You know Szabó’s Lovefilm, or Father? Those films were a really big deal to me. And you can tell it’s his memories. It’s an incredibly specific lived experience that he’s reporting from and cinematizing.
This takes some courage, but also a lot of skill.
To turn it into a story is a whole process. But I enjoy that. Some of my favorite parts of Lovefilm are like: How in the hell did he think to put that into a story? Mr. McKee would really not like that. And I also respect Mr. McKee—he knows a lot about what he’s talking about. So I’m playing a weird game in between these two worlds.
And then I had my son, in March 2012. So I was about a year into it, or a year and a half… and he was supposed to come later. And I was trying my hardest to get a first draft done before he was born because I knew the shit was gonna hit the fan. Didn’t quite get there. And then of course he changed everything. Like being a dad, and all the feelings there. A lot of Dorothea’s stuff, or lines, are me. As a dad, talking.
You seem to have a good grasp on intergenerational conflict, or how the cultures come up against each other. There are a lot of filmmakers who’ll say, well, this is the stuff from when I grew up, so here it is for texture, or background, and then over here’s the story. But in your work it seems like you’re still processing. Which is nice because it gives you something to hold on to.
That I include that processing is really just me liking other filmmakers. It’s a different kind of processing, but, take Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Manhattan, three of my favorite movies. And Woody Allen’s really trying to figure out his love life in those movies. He would go on to great demise, but back then his struggle and things that are unresolved and still confusing would be in the movie, and they’d galvanize it and give it a heart, some stakes. Or even Fellini. In Amacord, 8 1/2, all his problems. It’s not just personal; it’s the shit that’s beyond his reach, right in the movie.
So the movie’s in part fueled by your confusion, or yearning, which is a very personal thing. Those guys are good at it. I think cinema is so related to our dreams, the language of it. It’s so related to our inner life, how we experience our lives. To me it’s really easy to cinematize your personal life. And there’s a whole history of doing it. Even Hawks. I think To Have and Have Not, that’s a hell of a lot about him and his marriage. He called her slim, that’s what he called his wife. And a lot of the dialogue, that’s his wife’s dialogue. So I think it’s easier than people think, and more prevalent than people think.
I love a lot of the nonverbal stuff that happens in this film. There are the obvious things, like the dancing, which of course is very expressive. And then there are the less obvious things, like the way Dorothea listens to the other characters and answers questions. Bening brings this amazing range to it; she does something with her face that you don’t expect at all, and it just takes it into a whole new direction. How do you harness that?
You don’t harness it! You let it go. You feed it and give it free rein and let it run, as much as you can. With actors like that I don’t slate, I just turn the camera on, we start talking and doing it. we do it as many times until you feel like you’ve exhausted them without cutting…and you just kind of keep the pan hot, and you don’t …I shoot in order, I use as little equipment as I can…cause I also love the way that looks, i love natural light. Cause that way you’re not spending time setting up…breaking down. She doesn’t improvise a lot in the movie, but I invite her to. And often when you invite an actor to improvise they just do their lines better. But they have a certain freedom. But we’d improvise a line here and there. And then I’d say ok, every take you have to say it differently. And that just sort of electrifies everyone. The other actor doesn’t know what they’re gonna do. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do. And then there’s this great community thing that happened on our film. Billy loves that too. Greta loves that too. Elle loves that although I don’t think Elle comes from as much of a tradition of that. But she’s an intuitive monster. She’s deeply talented. She loves when somebody just tosses a ball in the air. She’s gonna catch it. And I love that as a director. I love when an actor hasn’t plotted everything out, and is experiencing things, really. And that’s what I try to do in all my prep is the experiential process of the actor, and not like a cerebral one. But annett’s just like a super genius at smoking and thinking and sitting in bed…
…Establishing rapport with the cat…
Yes! And the cat is a genius of an actor. More than a dog. Dogs are trained. Dogs are interactive and do what you think. You never know what the cat’s gonna do. Annette loved that. And she also loved the boy [played by Lucas Jade Zumann]. Cause he’s kinda feral too. He’s a fourteen year old kid. He’s really very talented. And he just nailed. Take two he’s fine. It wasn’t like I had to struggle to get something out of him. But he’s coming from a place of like it’s so close to him that it’s kind of like lived experience from him. And she’s sucking that up. She gets it. And she would always say she loved that she was acting with him.
At the same time, there’s obviously a very meticulous design aspect to the movie, which I think reflects your background. And to be able to to synthesize those things, that organic human stuff and the aura of the well-designed, well, what are your pro tips?
Directing is kinda like running a mid-sized American city. You’d better be used to a whole bunch of different shit going on that contradicts itself. And often when you’re doing things that are opposites or contradictory—like punk and Santa Barbara, or an intimate scene from a distance—film for whatever reason loves that. It loves these cross purposes. Like, I love Gordon Willis. And I love Manhattan and Stardust Memories. And those are very poised movies. I’m not as poised as them. But what’s happening in those movies—when you think about Manhattan, the cinematography, the framing what’s going on inside visually—it’s incredibly specific. But there’s a lifey-ness to the actors inside that well-constructed film language that can come no other way. So it’s an appreciation for looseness and surprise. I’m definitely thinking about that. Or like Olmi: I just saw I Fidanzati again. I love I Fidanzati so much. It’s so real, what’s going on, in terms of the actors and the blocking and the situations. But the camera work! The compositions are just bonkers! So that counterpoint is something that film really loves. A funny scene done dramatically, a dramatic scene done as funny, any of these kinda opposite things. I don’t know why. That’s the beauty.