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Mike Mills on Therapy Through Filmmaking and the Hybrid History of ’20th Century Women’

Written by on December 27, 2016 

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To watch Mike Mills‘ two most recent features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, are such warm and open-hearted experiences that I was led, in my review of the latter, to wonder if he’s ever been unsympathetic to anybody. Actually sitting down with the writer-director does nothing to make me think otherwise, though he could’ve been a total bastard and I’d still want to pick his brain about his new film. It’s too rich and satisfying a work for me not to have many questions.

Also of little surprise is how quickly the discussion can turn towards a personal place, but one doesn’t follow-up a film about the last days of their gay father with a film reflecting on their relationship with their mother and not tip their hand a bit more than the average subject. Don’t think it’s too heavy, though: what follows is nevertheless more a reflection of 20th Century Women‘s creation than anything else

The Film Stage: I’ve been lucky enough to see this movie twice now. I think you’ll be pleased to hear it holds up.

Mike Mills: Oh, that’s nice. I do feel like it’s really dense, and so I’ve had a few people say they saw it twice, and it kind of makes me feel relieved — like, “Oh, maybe you’ll get everything I was trying to jam in there.”

I found the web of relationships and rhythms of scenes more fluid on a second outing. Your movies have such an intensely personal quality, with the parental figures here and in Beginners based on your parents and the protagonist being —

Kind of a quasi-character.

I wonder about talking to people such as myself who only see your movies, don’t know you, and ask you questions about these things in your life — if that’s weird, basically.

Not really. When you write it for a couple of years, you exercise it every which way you’ve distilled it, and you can see this coming. What’s really weird… journalists don’t do this so much, but, when I’m doing a Q & A, normal people just want to know all about my mom. I’ve opened that door, so I answer everything as honestly as I can. I’ve had a lot of therapy, and, in therapy, you talk through all this shit. I find therapy to be a really powerful, great experience, and it really informs my filmmaking. It’s a real similar project: where you’re trying to figure out how you got this story of yourself in your head. Like, the history of it: your mini, personal, micro-version; your family version; your society, town, cultural, history version. That’s sort of, like, my whole project in a nutshell. So I don’t mind talking about it.

Most of the time, people are pretty nice about it — like, not malicious — and sometimes people are weirdly crass about it. It was a little trickier with my dad, I’ve got to say, because it was about him dying, you know? But mostly it’s really sweet. People have been very nice, and people bring up their experiences. It’s part of my job, and I admire other people who do it. There’s a book of Allen Ginsberg’s interviews called The Spontaneous Mind, and his interviews are as good and as revealing as his poetry, and it’s part of his, like, social contract or social responsibility. This is sort of a privilege, right, to be interviewed or put into press; it’s the world saying you’re interesting enough. So I’m like: “Okay, if that’s a privilege and a responsibility, it’s my duty to try to contribute something decently — not just self-promoting [Laughs] — back into the commons.” If anybody asks me something about my personal life, I try to just be straight-up. That’s kind of like my responsibility.

I would see it as a compliment to your mother that people see this movie and want to know more.

Yes.

And you seem to have done well for yourself, so the parents deserve some compliment on the upbringing.

[Laughs] And part of it, too, is… I think one of the more interesting parts of both these films is that I don’t totally get my parents. I don’t totally understand them. They’re really inscrutable to me, in certain ways. The thing at the end of the movie, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe that was it. Maybe that’s as close as we ever were.” Like, that’s incredibly fucking true. I didn’t get to know my mom as much as I want to do, and maybe, at 15, it was over, in terms of the depth of our intimacy. In some ways, I feel ashamed of that — like I failed, or something. But it’s… I just like it when other people are that straight-up. Like, when I’m the audience and a filmmaker does that, I think, “I feel like I’m getting a more whole food.”

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I like that you say this, because I’m a big fan of Beginners, and the set-up made me think it would be intolerable.

[Laughs]

“Man finds out father is gay, which sets him on a journey of the self with montages and a talking dog.” Then I wasn’t ready for it, because the movie — as with 20th Century Women — has a way of processing time that’s very similar to my own. This is partly due to your montage of clips and photos. I wonder how you choose the exact photos. What is the process of, “It should be this one and not this one.”

Well, it’s a very important part of trying to construct accurate period stuff and finding real photographers from those time. So when Jamie runs away and goes down to L.A., you know this club called The Mask?

I don’t.

It’s this very important punk club. Pre-hardcore, L.A. punk scene — much more arty, weird punk scene. The Screamers, Germs, Alice Bags. Those are all the people that you see. Jenny Lens, who’s a great photographer of the time, was part of that scene. So it’s part of the authenticity of me trying to depict that moment. It’s all a very specific group of people. Abby’s talking about when she came to New York and found her sexuality and found out how to make men nervous and uncomfortable, and you’re seeing all these women from CB’s — they’re all New York women, because she was in New York and it’s right at that time. They’re not… Patty Smith and Debbie Harry are in there, but it’s a lot of unfamous punk women from that time. So it’s a really crucial point of the story, to me, to insert my fictional character in a real historical, cultural context. It gives it more verisimilitude.

What I find really exciting about it is it does the opposite, too: it points out my film’s a fiction, a construct, in a way I find kind of exciting. It has a bit of a French New Wave quality to it in how it undermines and supports the film. And Koyaanisqatsi: I was really happy I got that in, because it’s in the Jimmy Carter speech — crisis of confidence, lack of meaning, dissolution of these things that support us and bind us — and Koyaanisqatsi was shot in that time. It came out in ’82, but it was shot right in that time. “Life out of balance” is what the title means. It’s sort of a journalistic-documentary practice that I’m inserting into my narrative movie, and it’s very much, to me, like Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, with those essays inserted into the story: essay on kitsch, essay on misunderstood words, essay on the Russian invasion of Prague.

I love that sort of hybrid, polymorphous way of working. It’s all trying to deepen the same theme — who am I? how did I get to be me? how am I in relation to you? what does it mean to be a parent to a child? that’s all in the nucleus of the movie — but I love approaching it from different angles. All that historical stuff… I love crediting the books that are in the movie. I remember showing it to 20-year-olds in our very small test screenings we were having. They were like, “They just read so many books.” And I’m like, “Well, there was this thing called ‘before the Internet,’ where that’s how knowledge was transferred, and you had to know someone who had the book to give it to you to learn this thing.”

When Elle Fanning’s Julie says something about the way guys smell, it’s set to photos that allow me to imagine how, in fact, the guys smell.

Yeah! Yeah.

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It’s one of those things that felt particularly on-point, so it’s interesting to imagine you finding those.

Those are all Joseph Szabo photos. He’s, like, the most important photographer I got in there; I don’t know how we got him. He did this book, Almost Grown, about teenagers, and they’re ‘70s teenagers smoking and making-out. There’s this level of sexuality you just wouldn’t find now, so it is really… you’re picking out some of my favorite parts of the movie, so that’s exciting. But I agree with you: I really love whatever magic, weird trick that is of telling your story both through your fictional characters and these real, historical things that you didn’t even create.

Do you have conversations with the photographers about using the work? I’m curious what those entail past, “Can I use this?”

Well, when we were getting the stuff, it was mostly, “Can I use this?” I have this woman, a photo researcher and archivist, and it’s also her job to make the deal — which is, weirdly, the most complicated part of all that. Weirdly, her mother is in the movie: the woman that William’s character was in love with, Theresa. You see a few stills of her. That’s my archivist’s mom, who was perfectly right in the period, the right kind of soul, and very beautiful. I love little serendipity things like that. So it’s not a lot of conversations like that, and she does a lot of the pre-work. I find the things, usually — I have them in my head or I find them online, or whatever — and there’s a conversation with her, who makes initial contact. Usually I write a letter, or some kind of conversation happens, but, since then, I’ve been interviewing them all, because I want to make a book of all their photographs. It’s been really fun to get to know them.

Certain lines of dialogue are so perfect that I wonder if they come from memory and are simply inscribed into the film. For instance, when Bening says to Gerwig about her son, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.” Had you heard your mother say this or devise it yourself?

No. That’s a very personal one. It partly comes out of… writing this film, writing a movie about my mom, I think I know my mom. Lo and behold, I really fucking don’t. It’s hard for me to write her — to write a middle-aged woman, and my mom in particular. She just didn’t want to be known; a very secretive kind of person. So my film was about how we don’t… we loved each other very much, were very interwoven. I was kind of like her little husband-partner, because my dad wasn’t really present. As close as we were, we’re still like mysteries to each other — intangible to each other, unknown to each other, kind of can’t be together in some key ways. That was a growing theme of the movie, of things I was trying to find ways to talk about.

And then, one day, I dropped off my two-year-old to pre-school. It was one of the first times I gave him to people and left him, and, if you’re a parent, that’s a wild moment. I’m walking out and I can peek through the fence and see him talking to these people, and he was kind of different. I was like, “All right. I can just smell it. This is the beginning of that. He’s going to have his own life that I can never really see in this particular way.” So I went home and wrote that line after this experience. It’s a combination of my feelings about my mom, the themes that your own script kind of teaches you — your script at the beginning, you don’t really know what it’s about, or you think you know what it’s about, and usually this crazy problem comes up that makes you feel like you can’t finish the script that becomes the best part of the script, hopefully — and my own experiences as a dad combining.

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This movie really overwhelmed me in the final montage, which again relates to my own way of processing things. I wonder about you coming to that point — if you, as a writer, actively work to those points, or if there’s a moment of revelation. Did you always know the film would end with that, or did you come to that point and realize it was best to employ this strategy?

I didn’t know at the beginning, but I knew early on, and I knew early on that my last line was going to be that thing of, like, “I thought this was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that was the most I ever got to know her.” I knew that. I knew that was my end, and it really helped. And I love biographies. The itinerary of our lives, when told honestly, are so surprising and not what we expected and kind of very bittersweet. I could just endlessly read obituaries, and I find that that’s the best poetry that there is. So it was partly just that.

I knew my character’s stories — because they’re based on real life, some of them — and I just knew what Julie’s would be. Julie is sort of my first girlfriend and these girls I knew, but her future is all invented, and I had a sense of what it would be. I feel like some of the more bittersweet, real-life stuff is in those epilogues — like how they don’t end up knowing each other. It’s such a weird convention in films. The happy-ending convention of films, but also, like, “The fabric that you invented in the film is going to continue,” says the film, and I like making a film that says, “The fabric I’ve just shown you is going to dissolve.” That felt very life-y to me.

It’s the kind of thing movies don’t really even dare go to.

Uh-huh. I agree with you. That was one of my favorite things, and it worked. Sometimes, you have ideas like that and think they’re incredibly masterful, and they just don’t work, for whatever reason. But, luckily, that one did. A weird factoid is: William’s future… I got really interested in Shields and Yarnell. Do you remember them?

No.

They were, like, these mimes on TV a lot who did these robot things. They were in the movie at one point, and Dorothea and the son, Jamie, were imitating them on TV. They were a very common ‘70s thing. William’s future is Shields’ future that I just read on Wikipedia: he moved to Arizona, met one woman, she died a year later; met another woman. That’s just so, like, life. So I really enjoy taking found objects of people’s real existence and inserting them into my narrative. It’s also the end of Animal House. You know what I mean? It tells everyone’s future. It’s just very entertaining. It’s like a little secret; you want to know more.

The other thing with the end of this movie: my mom really loved ‘30s and ‘40s movies. I feel like she was kind of steeped in them, and studying Bogart was key to figuring out how to talk my mom’s language. Watching Hawks and Casablanca and To Have and Have Not and Stage Door, I kind of, maybe more than ever, fell in love with this idea of, “Right: films are to entertain.” Going to art school and growing up on maybe a little too much Godard, it’s, like, illegal to entertain; it’s false consciousness to entertain. But those movies are so happy to entertain, and I really appreciated that. The ending, to me, is not a direct quote from any of those movies, but it feels kind of Howard Hawksian to me. It feels a little like Capra to me.

20th Century Women opens on Wednesday, December 28 and expands in January.


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