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’20th Century Women’ Director Mike Mills On Honing Material From His Own Life: “I Don’t Want To Make A Memoir”

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After directing Christopher Plummer to an Oscar with his last film, Beginners, writer/director Mike Mills is back with an equally personal project, 20th Century Women, turning the lens on his mother and strong feminine influences from his adolescence. Contemplating his latest Golden Globe-nominated exploration of family dynamics from a post-election standpoint, Mills feels the film has taken on a new meaning, extending further in its portrait of the universal through the specific. “It’s just weird we made a movie about women at a particular moment where we have a president that’s completely hostile to women,” he says. “I don’t know what all that means exactly, but I feel like it gained stakes somehow, in some way.” Speaking with Deadline, Mills delves into his process of producing a lived-in piece of art, both on the page and on set.

Your films are often autobiographical. What did you want to express about this particular time and place in your life?

I guess I feel as a film viewer, I love it when writer/directors talk about personal material and material that really stirs their soul. I feel like I’m getting a richer film with more stakes and just more life in it. I feel like it’s my best shot at making a good movie for other people if I work from this world that I’ve closely observed, and things that I truly love, and things that truly confuse me.

What tone were you going for with the piece, in terms of the use of narration, and the way in which the film is framed?

I think I’m very purposely avoiding traditional plots and formulas because it’s really a meditation and a portrait of these different people. I feel like so often films ask characters to transform in an unnatural way, like to grow too much or have too much life happen. I find plot often kind of distracting, and a contrivance. Because I’m basing things on real observed things from my life and real people, I feel like I need to come up with a custom structure that doesn’t go back and forth, or has more of a by-any-means-necessary filmmaking approach, so like an ever-deepening look at this person, or also an ever-surprising look at the person. Like, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.” That’s my favorite kind of development.

The film feels modern and literary in its self-reference, and in its reference to other works of literature and art. What was the idea behind this kind of intertextuality?

The word you just used, intertextuality, that’s really interesting to me. The way that we construct our identity or a story of ourselves through the culture that we’re living in and the different texts, the books, the music, the films that sort of support the narrative of, “What is the world we’re living in?” Then, on a deeper, more personal level, “Who am I in that world?”

My last few films are really interested in that, and how do we build the story of ourselves, and in this film, it’s a lot about in relationship to these other people, sometimes unlikely allies. Also, just in terms of a larger wave of what’s made possible by where we are in history, and for me, music has been so key to me being more real, or more really who I am, and to my emotional life being richer than what suburban Santa Barbara was offering me in the ’70s.

It gave me sort of a community—even if it was just listening to the Talking Heads or listening to different music, it gave me a sense of company that I didn’t have at all before I listened to it. That’s very transformative, and kind of self-making.

What are the challenges, as a writer/director, in conjuring a story rooted in your own history? Where do you draw the lines between the personal and specific, and the social and universal?

If you’re going to talk about your life, you can’t just talk about the good parts. You need to show your confusion and vulnerabilities and all that, and that’s what makes the film have a grip to it, I feel like. That’s ultimately what makes it more valuable to other people, if you show your unresolved parts, and that comes from a lot of things I love, from Ginsberg’s poem Howl, to what Fellini does in Amarcord and 8 1/2. I love Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. I feel like there’s a lot of real personal truth in something like that.

It’s a lot of trial and error in my writing process of which memories and which observed things are going to communicate better with people, because in the end, I don’t want to make a memoir. I don’t want to make this something that’s personal. I’m using personal stuff to make a good movie for you.

It’s a lot of testing and trial and error and seeing which things connect, and then once I find things that connect, it’s a matter of how to sew them together in a way that does have enough forward motion because I really want my movie to play well at the ArcLight. That’s a goal of mine. [Laughs] I think of the ArcLight all the time as a cultural space.

The other thing, the big influence on me, is movies from the ’30s and ’40s, especially in this movie, because my mom was so in love with Bogart and those old films, and watching a lot of them to learn about my mom’s dialogue, because my mom talked like that, those witty things. I also rediscovered, I love that those movies aren’t afraid to just entertain, and be funny and be entertainment. I rediscovered that with this movie. I feel like sometimes this movie is a weird combination of Howard Hawks meets Alain Resnais.

Another apt descriptor you’d named was “‘As Time Goes By’ meets the Buzzcocks.”

Yes. In the edit, that really helped us discover Dorothea and Jamie are Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca. My mom would be Bogart, so there’s a little transgender flop there. I don’t know, it sounds like a clever thing to say, but in the edit room when we were kind of lost at a certain point, those two things concretized and simplified all of our problems for us as thinking of the film in that way.

In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Annette Bening’s Dorothea reflects on the fact that her son will always remain, in some sense, a mystery to her. You’ve suggested recently that this statement mirrors your own feelings about your mother.

I’m a dad now, and me and my mom, we were pals, we were partners. I was like her husband. We were deeply interwoven. At one point in time, we were the same body, like we can’t be any closer. At the same time, partly because she’s a woman born in the ’20s, and people from that era just don’t talk about their lives, don’t talk about their failures and problems and troubles, because it’s like illegal to them, and they don’t have language for it, right? So it’s partly that. She would just never want me to know. That was actually a problem with me with writing the script, is she was secretive. She didn’t want me to know this stuff, so it’s kind of illegal, this whole film, with my contract with my mother.

I do think it’s been really interesting having conversations with a lot of moms and kids, and one friend of mine who’s a mom said it gave her a sense of relief, because the mother, as close as she is, is kind of unknowable as a real individual, and the child is kind of forever slightly out of our grasp. I could tell that’s really true as a dad. Everything I write comes out of some real experience, and that particular one, I dropped my two year old off at preschool for the first time, and I was watching him through the fence as I was leaving, and I was like, “Oh, that’s another person than the person that’s in my head.”

You’ve said that the film’s aesthetic is the result of your experiences in art school. What lessons or influences did you take from those early experiences that continue to shape your work?

I think it just opened up what’s possible in a film for me. I’m just not so live-action film centric. To me, filming an object, including other films, is equally valid. I had a conceptual art teacher named Hans Haacke and looked at a lot of ’70s and ’80s conceptual art, so I feel like my interest in objects and texts, and including other texts into my film, that really comes from that. The way I use historical stills to tell part of the story, but also to disrupt my film. I think it both makes my film and my fictional characters seem more real, because it contextualizes them, but it simultaneously points out that my thing is a fiction and there’s a neat frisson there. That gesture of both bolstering my film and pointing a finger at its construction is a very art school kind of move.

It’s mostly that, and just also if you’re an art school student, I don’t know if it’s a law, but Godard is your favorite filmmaker. [Laughs] Godard is such a multi-disciplinary, non-linear, non-narrative centric filmmaker, so that was one of my main points of entry.

On the subject of linearity, you’re a filmmaker who likes to shoot in chronological order. What other methods did you use in working with your actors to achieve a specific effect?

For me, everything we’ve been talking about is sort of writing structure, and there, I’m very interested in breaking form and breaking norms and all that. When it comes to acting, I really adore Woody Allen’s late ’70s movies and the acting, just how naturalistic it is, and just how believable it is, so I’m doing everything I can to make it real feeling. You don’t need to do the script a whole lot. We do a little bit of certain scenes, but we’re mostly like, what’s the background of the character, how did the character come to be this way, and I want to make it experiential, not cerebral for that character.

When Billy [Crudup] first met Annette, I had him ask to move in and tell her about his whole life that me and Billy had worked out on the phone before, and it was all improvising. I had Greta [Gerwig] teach Lucas [Jade Zumann] how to dance, and not just how to dance, but how to loosen up and how to be free, and how to not care, and how to be feral, right? That’s a very powerful, beautiful lesson, and Greta took it really seriously, as did Lucas. It was so beautiful, I ended up putting it in the movie.

Elle, one of the first things I asked her to do, we were with Annette and Lucas, and I was like, “Okay, Elle, they’re going to interview you, and you have to lie half the time and tell the truth half the time, and you need to fool us.” Elle was great at that, because Julie lies all the time. She always has stories going on, so it’s things like that. I try to get the actors to experience the life experiences of the characters.

Shooting in order, I really believe in that. My shoot days are really performance-orientated, not just shooting in order, but shooting quickly. I use mostly natural light, very easy light setups so that you can just keep the frying pan hot all day, and keep the actors hot all day, and not cool down and wait and stop.

When I turn on the camera, I don’t turn it off for 10 or 15 minutes. I just keep shooting in order. I don’t say cut. I just try to make it as gentle, lifelike, playful and fluid and constant as I can.

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