I love it as an audience member when the filmmaker is working from really personal material. I find it unpredictable…it’s something wilder and more lived.
There are two sayings that come to mind in regard to the work of filmmaker Mike Mills: “The personal is political” and “Write what you know.” These may be commonplace phrases, but there is nothing commonplace about how they are applied in this writer-director’s films. His latest, December’s 20th Century Women, is the mostly (or somewhat or kind of) autobiographical story of 14-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), growing up with his fiftysomething single mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in 1979 Santa Barbara. Inspired by Mills’ own mother, the film focuses on a period when Dorothea asks her twentysomething lodger Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jamie’s teenage friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), to help assist in raising him.
It follows his breakthrough 2010 film, Beginners, which also told a fictionalized version of events that actually happened to Mills, when his father came out as gay at age 75, following his wife’s death, only to pass on himself a few short years later. The film won Christopher Plummer (as the father) an Academy Award, and co-starred Ewan McGregor, as a stand-in for Mills himself.
Both films mix personal memories with fictional elements, adding political undertones and artistic detours, befitting their creator’s background in contemporary art and graphic design. 20th Century Women, for instance, covers punk rock, feminism, the Depression, the Second World War, dancing, Humphrey Bogart, skateboarding, sex, love, family, and Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
Mills talked to the Writers Guild of America West website about this melding of the personal and the political, the real and the fictional, of history and the present.
During a panel discussion at the 2016 New York Film Festival, you told the crowd that the dancing scenes in 20th Century Women were not written in your script. That was surprising to hear. They’re so organic and integral to the film.
Some of them I did. Two key ones I didn’t. That’s when Greta [Abbie] teaches the boy how to dance in the bedroom alone. She’s introducing what’s special about it to her to him. It’s not just dancing, but how to be unselfconscious and free and wild and feral and experience the revolutionary abandon that is in punk. Greta is a dancing person so she went over and did pretty much what you see in the movie. It was so beautiful and so filled with story.
I’d have [the cast] dance in rehearsal, and we’d dance to different kinds of music. One day they started dancing to older music, and they were trading off partners. To me, it was such a beautiful physicalization of their relationships, how these people come together, and it’s not going to last forever, but that little moment of grace is really what it’s about.
Originally in my script they were all watching TV in that hotel room together and I changed it to them dancing. I didn’t know which way I was going to go until they all came into the room. I had the TV set up, and it’s an easy enough scene, you can do it either way. I just like physical stuff. My scripts are so dialogue-driven, anytime I can have a physical moment it feels like I should lean that way.
Again, music is so integral to 20th Century Women. And you have a history with music, such as directing music videos. So, do you listen to music to write? Does it inspire you when you work?
When I was a teenager, this kind of music—it sounds cliché to call it punk, but that’s what it is—it was like a real revolution in how you can feel. You can feel so much more stuff than I was allowed to feel in my house in Santa Barbara, in the suburbs, in the ‘70s. It taught me how to be angrier and that it was okay to be sad, it was okay to have elation. All these different things, that music really gave me a way to feel it.
When I’m writing, I’ll often wear noise-cancelling headphones, and I’ll put a single song on loop, and it’ll be on all day long. After the first four or five times of hearing it, you forget it’s on, and you’re just sort of entranced by whatever’s going on in that song. It might just be the way it feels or the chorus has some kind of pop and surprise. I definitely use it to help put me into the emotional state that I want to inform the scenes when I’m writing.
So with 20th Century Women, did music of that era connect you to the emotions and experiences that you wanted to write about?
Sometimes they’re songs from this period, sometimes they’re songs that contain great writing, like Lou Reed, Velvet Underground. His writing really influences the way I write dialogue and my love of detail. Or sometimes it’s just like a Rihanna song. Like “Stay.” It has nothing to do with the history or the content of my movie, but it makes me all weepy. It makes me brimming with emotion and vulnerable and yearning, so if I really need to be yearning I might put that on. It’s all different kinds of music.
20th Century Women is based on your relationship with your mother. Is that how it began? You wanted to write about her? Or you felt she’d be a good character in a film?
I had the idea while I was doing Beginners. I’m starting with my dad, who really was like a film character, coming out when you’re 75 years old, not really admitting that you’re dying five years later, it’s like a film. It taught me how to work with material that I know or things that I’ve observed. I love István Szabó’s 1970 film called Lovefilm, and he did a film before called Father. Fellini does it in Amarcord or 8 ½. I love it as an audience member when the filmmaker is working from really personal material. I find it unpredictable and something other than a traditional dramaturgical craft. It can employ all that, but at the heart of it, it’s something wilder and more lived. My mom is, maybe not as much as my dad—or maybe more, I’m not sure—she’s a real film character. She had a lot of obstacles as a woman of her era, wanting to be a pilot and an architect. She did kind of raise me and my sisters alone—even though my dad was there—and sort of had to constantly fight the system to be the kind of iconoclastic woman that she was.
She had me when she was 40, in the late ‘60s, which was very old, there were no other moms like that. So, inherent in our relationship was this weird and huge historical and cultural divide. She being a kid from the Depression and World War II and me being a punk rock-skateboarding-‘70s television kid. We were really coming from different, different, different worlds. The story about me and her is about history and culture and how that impacts our most secret, most interior lives, and I’m always really interested in that. That’s the beginning.
Abbie is based a lot on my sister. Julie is based on my first girlfriend and an amalgamation of girls that I knew. I fed that further by interviewing women who were that age at that time.
So, when you start with real people, or your own memories, but then you begin to fictionalize aspects of the characters or story as you go along, how does that process work?
It can go a bunch of different ways. Sometimes it’s straight up as well as I can remember exactly what happened. There are some lines in the movie my mom did used to say all the time. “In my next life, I’m going to marry Humphrey Bogart.” Sometimes it’s very straight up. Sometimes it’s transposing. There’s something that she did to someone else, but I’m having her do it to me. There’s something she did in one context that I’m having her do over here.
Maybe the most interesting part, I don’t know, it’s strange, where I’m totally trying to describe my mom, her character, her personality, her predicament, but I’m using fiction, it’s something she never did. I never saw my mom get pulled over by the cops and confront them the way she does in the film, I made that up, but I feel like it’s an incredibly accurate description of my real mom. My mom never asked two women to help raise me, but it’s so in keeping with her character. It’s so accurate to talk about her practicality and her strange, born-in-the-‘20s form of feminism.
There’s a lot of different techniques that go on. Let’s say it’s something that completely happened and I’m showing it as well as I can remember, by the time you condense it into writing and then distill it farther by putting it in a location which is not where it happened, and Annette Bening is not my mom, there are all these transformations that are happening all the way through.
Originally, you had a father character in your script. How far along were you when you removed him? Was he in the script a long time?
Many drafts. For years, he was in there. We needed to talk about him, he needed to somehow have a presence in the story. As a father, it was very sad to learn that no, he doesn't even need to be involved. People can just fill in the blanks and that’s fine. So that was a trip.
Did you see it? Or did someone else point it out to you?
My wife pointed it out to me. I was feeling it, and I was struggling with it. It was something that was never quite right. I felt like I had to have him. Miranda didn’t have the answer, but she was like, “Yes, it’s not working.” That made me feel like it was due for a radical rethink.
You’re married to a writer, Miranda July. Do you get involved in each other’s work? What impact does that have on your writing process?
We kind of keep our church and state separate. We talk about our struggles and stuff, but actual concrete details and creative processes, we’re pretty different from each other and keep our distance. When we meet each other at the end of the day, we don’t want to talk about work. We want to talk about other stuff.
Both Beginners and 20th Century Women were written after your parents had passed away, is that right?
Beginners was right after and it’s how I kind of dealt with my grief in some ways. This [20th Century Women] is looking much further back.
And during that time, you became a father yourself. Was there something about that development, or this period in your life, that had you compelled to look back at these relationships and experiences?
[My son] was born about a year into the two-, three-year writing process of 20th Century Women. Being his dad did change it in some very key ways. But there’s another key change that happens and that’s when your parents get to be very elderly or sick and dying, and you’re helping them go to the bathroom and feeding them and carrying them. You kind of become their parent. That’s a real radical shift in the relationship and your whole idea of yourself, which maybe I had to do to do these movies. It put me in a different position to them.
There’s a line Dorothea has about, “You get to see him out in the world as a person—I never will.” That comes from me being my son’s father. Or Dorothea says, “No matter how much you love the kid, you’re just screwed.” That comes from my experience. So in some ways I’m using my mom as a character to say things that I feel about parenting and the predicament of the parent.
Does being a parent yourself now give you insights into your parents that you may not have had at the time?
That thing I said before, too, just helping them die. That changes everything and offers you all sorts of insights. Watching them get older—really older—they kind of become kids again. When my dad came out of the closet at 75, that just explodes everything. He’s just telling you all this stuff about him and your mom who died earlier and this sort of excavation or relooking at my family started happening then.
Both films have a very real, authentic, lived-in feeling. And yet they also can feel a bit hazy, because they’re memory pieces. It’s an interesting balance of tones. Do you find that tone in the writing process or at some other point? Do you envision the film itself while you’re writing the script?
I envision it as I’m writing it.
Those sort of lyrical essay parts that are in both those movies, on the left side will be all the words and on the right side I’ll list all of the visuals or the cultural references. That’s a way to communicate the lyricism I hope that it has.
A lot changes once you start finding your locations and your actors. Also when you’re shooting. I love photography as much as I love writing. And they’re similar to me. They are a similar pleasure to me, to capture how things are and trying to communicate how you see things. I like acting that’s natural, not scripted. I like shooting the acting so it feels like that. A certain kind of looseness. I’m looking for things that feel like life and not just like a movie, and that’s in the writing, too.
In these last two movies, there’s this kind of historical perspective or historical consciousness, it’s in those essays, in those narrated things. That’s often very meta, or looking down from above. Very aware that it’s a movie, the opposite of verisimilitude and I love that contrast. I love having both in the same film. I feel like I got that from Milan Kundera’s books, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where he employs essays and fiction and fictional characters and mixes them with real historical people and goes back and forth in time. Sometimes he talks to himself as the author and sometimes you’re engaging with a naturalistic, fictional voice. Having that diversity in a single film, I love that. That’s really exciting.
There are different modes that are going on. Sometimes I’m talking about history, trying to communicate actual historical stuff, and sometimes I’m employing a voice that’s very authorial, not naturalistic, like when Dorothea talks about her death. That’s a real interruption of the naturalism. It excites me to put that with the naturalism that’s all around it. It’s all part of my idea of the ingredients of the film, and that starts in the writing process.
You have a background in graphic design. Does that influence your approach to writing? You mentioned including references to visuals, etc., in your script.
I went to art school. That’s a big difference. I didn't go to film school. I got exposed to a lot of conceptual art, and that’s the stuff that excited me the most. Conceptual art led me into this critique of the fine art world, not wanting to be involved in it. Graphic design was a way to get out of the rarified art world. Art school also introduced me to a certain kind of filmmaking. The films at Cooper Union Film Club on Friday night, they didn’t show Capra and Scorsese. They showed Alain Resnais and Fellini and Godard and Truffaut and stuff like that. That really left a big imprint on me. Those are movies that I still love and that I feel set a high bar.
You mentioned the moment in the film where Dorothea, in a somewhat meta way, mentions her own death. That sequence also talks about Ronald Reagan, nuclear arms, and for a brief, striking moment, climate change. There are obviously political ideas in the film, but it’s also very personal. Do you see changes in the world or society having an impact on your work? Do you see those themes or ideas emerging more significantly in future work?
My last two movies, they’re not like agitprop, but they’re political. They’re about people who are often disenfranchised from the normal narrative. There’s a political consciousness woven into the fabric of the movie. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing it more. I’m interested in how the way we figure out our world on a very individual, personal level is really interwoven with the culture and historical forces. Maybe that’s from being the child of a gay man who had to be closeted for fear of being put in prison or given electroshock therapy if people knew you were gay in the ‘30s.
Another honest answer to your question is with the whole Trump thing right now, any ideas I had for a film, since the election, have all felt totally inconsequential now. The art I was thinking of making, I’m not sure if I want to make it anymore.
Have you had new ideas, about new art?
No. Just confusion. And just like, Shit, what do you do now? I really feel that so many things that are important to me are under siege, including just the idea of shared facts. You can’t be complacent when there’s something as intense as a Trump strategy and Trump presidency happening. I don't know how to digest it or what to do.
The politics that are in my movie, or hopefully the progressiveness that is in my movies, I hope that it is subtle and woven in and not wearing its politics on its sleeve. Now I just wonder if I can or I will want to continue that way. Not because of me, but because of living in Trumpland.
I hope you figure that out, so that we can see more films from you. Maybe sooner than six years [the time between Beginners and 20th Century Women].
Me and my therapist would love it if it came quicker.
© 2016 Writers Guild of America West