Mike Mills is a filmmaker, artist, human being that I could talk to for hours. I feel close to the way he frames human experiences through objects, music, design, cultural asides to comment on what’s happening in the world and how that reflects personal characterizations. He keeps his characters close and then zooms out to acknowledge the rest of the world before honing back in on his particular people. This technique removes any navel-gazing critiques because it doesn’t feel like a gimmick but a genuine extension of his own experience in relation to the personal stories of his father’s coming out to him as an 80-year old man in Beginners and now, his mother’s ask of his female friends to help raise him to be a good man in 20th Century Women.
20th Century Women boasts an appealing cast of women and the men who listen to their guidance, dance with them and ponder their sudden moves of applicational distance. Annette Bening reps Mills’ real-life single mother, here going by the name of Dorothea. Greta Gerwig stars as Abbie, a punk rock photographer who rents a room in Dorothea’s house. Elle Fanning is Julie, a free love teen neighbor who sneaks into the house to talk about the trouble she’s involved in. Billy Crudup is William, the de facto man of the house because Dorothea’s ex-husband has fled (the flip of this coin is Beginners, where Christopher Plummer reps Mills’ real-life father, much later in life). And newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann stars as Jamie, a skateboarding teen who reps Mills’ young experience of his introduction to art, music and feminism from the women in his life.
The year is 1979. The place is Santa Barbara, California. Mills’ simple story is enhanced by immense detail to time and place and how specific essays, books, music and mixed tapes provide a new worldview. And how that worldview can run counter to the larger world outside of these gifts. Mills’ script features a mini-biography for each character and how they got to where they are in the story. The Great Depression, cervical cancer, lack of college education, commune living, psychologist parent, etc. They’re small asides, but the asides add personal circles to characters who already feel fully formed. The extra attention is Mills’ expanding heart for the people who shaped him.
Recently, I got the chance to speak with Mills about how this film responds to Beginners and how film has fallen behind all other artforms in terms of gender representation. But we spent most of our conversation talking about the importance of DIY artistic communities because the week we talked, the Ghost Ship tragedy had just occurred the weekend before and the body count from the warehouse fire was still rising. The DIY scene was formative to my own life experience, because I started a few spaces, played in a band in many of them and worked for a record label that lost members of its family to the Oakland fire and though it’s a different time period, that basement underground culture is heavily featured in 20th Century Women.
With how personal Mills is with his films, I decided to make this interview slightly more personal and talk about what his film made me reflect on at the time: DIY, punk, and the exploding teen underground. This also felt appropriate, because his approach to time and culture shaping characters and himself is something I feel expand my heart when watching his films.
COLLIDER: First of all, I am a big fan of Beginners and 20th Century Women, so I’m wondering if—in between those films—did you attempt any other scripts or did going from a personal story about your father to a personal story about your mother feel circular and necessary for you?
MIKE MILLS: It wasn’t like it was circular and necessary but one definitely led to the other. I didn’t see me doing these two films in a row. When I did Beginners, it really just came out of the craziness that happened in my life. My dad coming out, my dad dying in the way that he did made me do Beginners and then in doing that movie I got a little whiff of my mom in Mary Page [Keller]’s character. There’s a brief moment of a woman based on my mom in that film and after touring that movie—I did so many cities—I did press and Q+A’s in 10 U.S. cities and all over the world and it was really interesting to see that real concrete observed memories that I didn’t explain, that are just completely portraiture of my dad, those were the scenes that communicated the most with the most people and I loved that. That was really a beautiful thing to be a part of as a filmmaker. I had real proof, like this works.
When I was doing my press tour (for Beginners), I started doing this movie and I wasn’t sure what it was and I work in a really long weird way but I wanted to make something about the weirdness, I was kind of like my mom’s little husband. I was the only straight man in the house I was my mom’s partner when I was a little younger person and then I have two older sisters who are like 10 and 7 years older. So I was very much raised in this matriarchy or raised by women and a dad who is really sweet but just not present when I was a kid. So I had the idea that I wanted it to be about that but it took me years to kind of like sew in all the pieces.
Yeah, it makes complete sense.