Having made a film that was all about his relationship with his father, a film about his mother was perhaps the obvious next step for Mike Mills. He has followed his Oscar-winning 2010 feature Beginners with 20th Century Women, a tribute to the women who shaped his adolescence, with his mother being personified by a never-better Annette Bening. Drawn largely from specific childhood memories, 20th Century Women is a film that’s alive with feeling and attuned to the politics and cultural shift of its particular moment, with Mills also upending the conventions of storytelling and structure through his use of multiple omniscient voiceovers and found objects to propel the narrative. It’s a rich, singular and resonant film, and I met Mike Mills when he visited London in December to discuss it.
Does it feel strange to be back in this process six years after your last film?
Does it feel strange to be back in this process six years after your last film?
It's funny, it's the same hotel! It hasn't changed. The world has definitely changed but not this hotel.
You had five years between your first two films and now a six-year gap. Does it feel different each time you come back? The filmmaking world changes so quickly.
Yeah, and technology, it's so much more social media-based now. We did our premiere at the New York Film Festival, and the day before we had the press screening, and it's a big one at the New York Film Festival, it's like 200 people. We do a Q&A, walk down offstage, walk down a hallway, come out on the sidewalk and people are saying, "Oh, it went really well." Everyone's already posting their reactions. I'm such a luddite, I didn't think I had to deal with it for another three or four days. So yeah, everything has changed.
Changed in a good way or a bad way?
It's good and bad, and confusing. I just don't know it well enough. My films are so far apart I just kind of figure out the one era I'm in, and then the era changes.
This isn't the kind of film that lends itself to an instant reaction either. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and have enjoyed revisiting it in my memory and considering different aspects. There's so much going on in here I think you need to let it percolate for a while.
I did pack a lot into it. I worked on the script for two or three years, and inevitably with my films I get to this point where I think, "Fuck, I don't know if I can finish this, I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if the world's going to let me do this. This will never happen, so I might as well put everything in it because it's my last film!" It's a painful but I guess necessary place for me to get to. And I like dense, maximalist films. I do love Fellini, and Fellini movies in particular are like a big, thick ride. Amarcord and 8½ very much influenced this film in some way, and they are sort of roving meditations and aren't supposed to be reducible, you know. To me, films are more like a novel than a movie, in some ways. It sounds pretentious...
So at what point in the past five years did you decide this would be your next film?
Oh wow! So you really did take your time.
I didn't take my time, I worked hard the whole time! I'm a failure, or something. I had the idea when we were doing Beginners and doing the scenes with the mom. I was working on those and I thought, man, with my real mom I have a lot, there's a ton of stuff there. Beginners was an enjoyable thing in that the really personal, concrete, unexplained things in that movie were actually quite universal, it felt like, or people all over the place responded to that a lot. So that sort of emboldened me to keep going in that way. And as a film viewer I love personal movies. I started writing when I was doing my press tour – and I did have a son, in the middle there, so that definitely slows one down – but the main thing was writing, it took me two or three years to write. And then it takes like a year and a half to just prep, shoot, edit, finish, get it out in the world.
In that writing process, was there a moment when it clicked and you felt you knew where you were going with it?
There are a couple of those moments, and then it breaks down again, and then it clicks again, and breaks down again. My mom was a more secretive creature than my dad and doesn't want to be reduced, and in some ways wouldn't want a film made about her, so I had to finally say to my mom's ghost, I'm sorry, I'm doing this. And then, who is my mom? I'm not a woman, I'm not a middle-aged woman, I'm not a mom, so finding her voice was actually hard. Then I kind of realised – oh, that's the movie, I don't know my mom. I'm totally interwoven with her, I love her, she's the one who really tried with me, but her real life – her real struggles, her real inner life – she never showed me. That's the movie. Once I figured that part out, that was huge. There was one point where I figured out that she was going to talk from the dead and tell us that she was going to die in '99, and that broke it open. She is sort of a trickster figure, my real mom, so it fit this portrait of her to have her do that. And I just liked it, filmmaking-wise.
That is a very startling moment. It breaks the whole pattern of the film up to that point.
Yeah, and It's very un-defendable. If a film teacher was here I'd have a real hard time explaining that, and that's why I love it too. I find it very effective in the movie and it's the kind of thing I love to watch.
There are some lovely moments in it that feel so real and specific. For example, I really liked Dorothea saying she loved her husband because he was left-handed, so he could put his arm around her while reading the paper.
Yeah, my mom would say that.
Was much of the writing process about going back and digging up these old memories?
There was a lot of digging up. For me it's like a collage, this movie, so there was a lot of digging up of found objects. These little memories, these moments, like that moment you just described, that's something my mom used to say all the time. My mom used to say, "In my next life, I'm going to marry Bogart." Not only is that line in the movie, but Bogart and what Bogart means in all his representation of masculinity, and also the humour of Bogart, and all that. Bogart helped me a lot in figuring out my mom's voice. My mom watched all his movies and grew up in the Depression and World War II, and you think of any Dorothea line and imagine Bogart saying it. "Wondering if you're happy is a great shortcut to just getting depressed," that so sounds like Bogart. That sort of Hawksian Bogart voice really helped me. To me, that's like another found object, and then Koyaanisqatsi is a found object, the books in the movie, all the music that's historically right-on, they're all found objects that I weaved together. Abbie is basically my sister, who did have cervical cancer because my mom took DES, and was a photographer in New York who had to come home, and she did have two birds named Maximilian and Carlotta. So I really do like taking real, little observed things, and when you stick them into a film, they have a funny grippiness to them, and they communicate in a strange way that I find very effective for making a commercial movie, actually, and just connecting with an audience. It adds this weird meaning to it that I can't even describe, but I love that and I love when other people do that. Have you ever seen Szabó's Lovefilm? István Szabó?
No, I haven't.
His first films, one is called Father and one is called Lovefilm. They're totally memory-based, you can tell it's his life. I know nothing about being from Budapest in the '40s and '50s, it's a totally different life than mine, the struggles of the different regimes, but I'm captivated. So I trusted in that process.
Those detailed observations help immerse us in the period too, and it feels like the evocation of 1979, and what was going on politically and culturally, was very important to you here.
For me, we all are subjects of history, so my film is essentially a bunch of portraits and meditations on what it means to be yourself, find yourself, and be in relationships. I like creating portraits with these objects, but any portrait for me has to be completely steeped in a historical context, and certain thoughts and feelings and ideas and narratives about yourself are possible and impossible at different times, or allowed and not allowed. I'm really interested in that, how the personal is political, and I love having a fictional character, which I've asked you to believe in, through the magic verisimilitude of film, and then that character goes into all these stills from that time, those are real stills of the punk scene. It's reinforcing the reality of the character and totally disrupting the whole agreement of film in a kind of French new wave way to me, you know?
It seems you're marking a kind of turning point by setting the film in 1979. You're looking forward to the 1980s with a sense of foreboding.
I do feel like '79 is like the end of the '60s, the counterculture, the hippies. It's the beginning of the end of the middle-class, of the working-class, of postwar American industrial-based liberalism, and it's the beginning of the aspirational economics of Reagan. '79 was also the Islamic revolution. It's weird how relevant it is to now. It's the beginning of now. Personal computing, Apple was about to go public, In Vitro fertilisation just happened in '77 when a British baby was born. There were so many things that are a big part of our structure now. I love that contradiction - it's very now and it's also impossibly gone.
I guess it shares with 2016 that sense that everything is in a state of flux and there's a real sense of uncertainty about how it's all going to play out.
There really was a very felt crisis of confidence, you know the Jimmy Carter speech, and Koyaanisqatsi means life out of balance, and it was filmed in 1979. If you think of Under Pressure, the Bowie/Queen song, it came out in 1980 and was written in '79, and it's about "watching some good friends screaming let me out." There's a sense that life has gone crazy and we are drowning in mass media and we've lost ourselves, and little do they know there's this thing called the internet coming, and there's something very bittersweet about that.
That sense of an end to innocence is also represented in the kids. They're on the cusp of becoming adults and learning about sex and the complications that come with it, but they're still children in many ways. Elle Fanning's character has all this received wisdom that she gets from her mother's therapy sessions and she spouts it with adult confidence, but she's not quite there.
I think in that way she is very much like a kid in adult's closing. Sexually, she is very much like an adult, and I liked treating her like an adult and having her deal with adult problems, like the pregnancy test, while she is still quite young. I feel like that was part of the portrait of that time, from the sexual revolution of the '60s and sexual mainstreaming, so many girls I knew then were very active and very confused. I love when she says, "half the times I regret it," and he asks why she does it and she says, "half the times I don't regret it." I had these girls who came to my bedroom at night after screwing around with boys older than me, and loaded on all sorts of things, and they'd tell me lots of stuff like that. I'd learn the...it would be wrong to call it a darker side, but a more complicated side of their partying, and it was fun to try and capture that.
And it's interesting the way your three female characters view Jamie and attempt to help correct his flaws and mould him. There's a sense that you're viewing your younger self through the eyes of these women.
That character needs to be there in order for me to write these portraits of women, but the plot of the mom recruiting these women in order to help raise him or teach him how to be a man, that's very much my life. My dad was around but my dad wasn't really around, I never talked to my dad about anything. He was a very sweet, nice man but we just never connected like that. So I had my very strong mom and my sisters who were ten and seven years older, and they would share a lot with me, their boyfriend problems and their very adult problems, and they just told me everything and tried to teach me how to not be a dick, like their boyfriends were. In one way that's the genesis of the movie, or I was writing from that place; what does it mean to be a boy/man raised by women who are teaching you how to be a boy/man while not being one themselves?
I'm not sure I would have been able to process all those feminist texts as a 13 year-old.
Yeah, yeah, that was very much my life. Feminism was my textbook on life, and it is kind of odd and funny. That was one of those things that made me think there's a movie in here.
How does it feel to share these personal and intimate details of your life? Are there intimidating aspects of it or is there something cathartic in it? Do you feel the need to fictionalise certain elements to get some distance from it?
Well, I go to therapy, I have lots of talks with my wife, I'm a very open book about stuff and I find it very empowering to talk about it all, so it's not a big deal for me on some levels. In some ways, making it as personal as you can...like the wood rabbit carving is my mom's wood rabbit, she carved that rabbit, and when my mom died she did try to tell me all about her stocks. Those are very real, very personal things, and I just feel they're very powerful little nuggets to have in something. The whole process is making it public and making it for other people, and using my close proximity and using my love and confusion with these people to give energy and specificity to my writing, all for the cause of telling a good story to you. It's personal and it's totally not personal. It's a weird mongrel that's hard to describe. Annette's wearing my mom's jewellery in the movie and it clangs every once in a while, and when I hear it clang on something it's like, whoosh, that's my mom. She's standing in front of my parents' painting, which I grew up with, she's laying down on my mom's bedspread. I use those things because they're really great – that's a beautiful bedspread, it's a beautiful painting – and it's free, but also because I believe in the magic of these objects. They help create a world. So it is a strange mongrel and even I don't completely get what I did, but I didn't want to make a memoir I wanted to make a movie.
Do you have actors in mind as you write?
No, because I have the people in my head, and I'm not powerful enough and I work too slowly to get the actor I'd have in my head.
I ask because the characters all seem very well moulded to each actor's specific persona.
That's just casting. It's really important to me that it's not just a good actor. There are only certain people who I really believe listening to the raincoats, or maybe only one, and it's Greta [Gerwig]. She's into that culture, she's a writer/director, she's a great dancer, she really fits that. And the way that Elle Fanning is very pretty and I think sometimes written off as a sex object or something, but she's got a lot of fucking depth and darkness in there that she knows how to access very easily, and that kind of matched the women I was writing about. And then there's so many ways that Annette fits Dorothea, not only as an actor but as a soul, you know? As a mom, as a natural-looking woman who's the right age, as a Gemini – you know, they're both Geminis and to me that's actually quite important. It was a very good sign.
It's a perfect role for her. I can't think of many actresses who could pull off the complexities and the different tones of this character so effortlessly.
I think Annette's really good at respecting contradiction and complexity and paradox, she likes that, and she has the emotional intelligence to inhabit it and deal with it. A lot of other people were trying to make Dorothea make more sense, and Annette just knows how to ride that wave. She's funny like that too, kind of cutting, you don't mess with Annette in the same way you don't mess with Dorothea. So it was more well-suited than you can ever understand. I don't get to audition anybody so you have dinner instead, and you just have to sit there and close your eyes and seek inside your sternum – is this the right person? It's a totally intuitive radar process, and I felt really lucky. Billy [Crudup] too, Billy is fucking William incarnate. He's so hard-working and appreciative and hungry and loving what he does.
So did the experience of telling your dad's story with Beginners help guide your approach to this one?
Yeah. I'm kind of shy actually, or I used to be, and while I love movies that do this I never knew I had that in me. Then my dad came out, at 75, like holy fuck, and then all this stuff happened and then he died! He was the second parent to die. Grief can be really empowering. You feel so much and you're on fire, and you just think, who cares? So I wrote Beginners in that place. Beginners taught me that I like this and maybe I can do it, and maybe it works enough. I'm obviously not the most commercial writer-director person, but I felt lucky to have connected with as many people as I did and I felt like I could keep going on brand here. Beginners definitely made me feel that it was possible, and this process of taking observed things and cinematising them, is something that I liked a lot. It was energising.
I know you had a very long and difficult process trying to get Thumbsucker made, and then when it came out it didn't do much business. Was there a part of you that wondered if you wanted to go through the experience again after having such a rough time with your debut?
Yeah, it was a very brutal road, the whole way. I wanted to do it again, it's just really hard to make another movie when you've done Thumbsucker. Then my next movie is Beginners, which is just weird, the script didn't look right to people, and then this little thing called 2008 happened, with the financial crisis right when I was trying to get money for that. So it was really hard. This time my problem was just writing the script, and luckily Megan Ellison exists so the financing was really easy, it was just like a friendship. You know, I wish I'd made a movie every three years. I'd be really happy. I love shooting, I love directing, I love it so much and it's a real hardship that there are so many years in between. On another level, if I get to make 4-6 movies in my life, it's a huge privilege.
And they're movies that mean something.
Yeah, if I was making the kind of movies I make every three years, that would be perfect. But making them every five years, that's not so bad, and I don't quite see what the rush is. It is funny that it gets brought up so much, and sometimes it's...I don't think you're doing this, but often it's like I've failed or something. It's interesting.
I suppose a lot of us don't think about how difficult it is to actually get a film made, or maybe we judge all indie writer-directors by the standards of Woody Allen.
I mean, Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, each year. Holy shit. How did he do that?
Oh, that whole run from the late '70s through the '80s is incredible. The Purple Rose of Cairo too.
The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig before that. It's amazing. I would love that, but it just doesn't happen. This sounds kind of pretentious, but I think of my movies as more like novels, they hopefully have a depth or a meditative, novelistic quality. Well then they fucking should take five years! [Laughs] I went to art school and the art school tempo is way slower, but yeah, it's interesting that in the more typical American film industry context, it's kind of a mistake or a failure. It's not that I totally disagree, it's just why is that so bad?
You went to art school and then moved into graphic design. Was filmmaking always the goal?
I went to Cooper Union in New York City. I was on my way to being a fine artist, and then we all got disgusted with the art world as being so rarefied, closed, preaching to the converted and actually very monied. We were trying to find some way to get into the public sphere and be creative in a world other than the art world, and a bunch of us got into design as a way to work in that way, but it was sort of a provisional solution. I did start watching movies in college, and the movies that influenced this movie – 8½, Amarcord, Hiroshima Mon Amour – that's when I saw them, and that time when I was 18-20 years old was actually very big in making this movie. But it seemed very far away and impossible, and it wasn't until I was 27 and I saw the Charles and Ray Eames films, documentaries like Frederick Wiseman, and then I saw The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris. I had done a lot of cultural studies work in graduate school, semiotics and all that, and that film was like an overlap of all these different things I was interested in. Then seeing Jim Jarmusch films, where the acting isn't so immersive, like Stranger in Paradise. I thought, maybe I can do that.
Just before we finish, I wanted to ask if Miranda [July, Mills' wife] is working on a new film?
She's writing something right now.
It's been around five or six years for her too.
But she's really so busy. She's even more of a polymath than I am. She wrote a novel, she's doing a project here for Artangel that will come out soon. She's the busiest person I know.