Director Mike Mills never shies from talking about his feelings. His films teem with care, compassion, and affection. His characters exude love, or at least wish they were exuding love. His latest is C’mon C’mon, a light comedy-drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman as an uncle and nephew, respectively. Like most stories he writes, the film consists of people spending time together, talking about their emotions—or, more aptly, trying to talk about their emotions. Because sometimes these conversations are hard, especially when you’re having them with someone 30 years younger (or older) than you.

C’mon C’mon finds Mills in pursuit of some semblance of hope for the future. Following Johnny (Phoenix), an NPR-esque radio reporter, who travels across the country in search of children’s views of the years to come. Jesse (Norman) joins his uncle on the trip as his mother, Johnny’s sister, goes to be with his mentally ill, hospital-bound father. Intercutting the pair’s experiences are real interviews done in search of some larger truth, highlighting a diverse group of teens and pre-teens who voice the same fears and dreams as kids living thousands of miles away. Inevitably, Johnny and Jesse form a gentle bond as the movie progresses, built out of shared time and shared family, as the black-and-white landscapes of several American cities drift behind them. 

The Film Stage sat down with Mills during the 59th New York Film Festival to chat about how the writer-director views aging, the future, doorways, and his craving for connection. Mills was as honest and genuine as the films he makes. 

The Film Stage: How do you feel with the film premiering and starting to do press?

Mike Mills: I do like it. I do. A lot of people I’ve talked to, I feel like I would be friends with. I feel like I could totally see you at brunch at my house. And then as part of our filmmaking process, it’s kind of how I know the film happened. I really remember the press part a lot. If press didn’t happen, I would really be ungrounded. And I don’t know if I understand this, but it’s an emotional part of the completion of the process to me. Interesting enough. A lot of shit comes out that I didn’t know. 

How would you describe adulthood? 

Well, I have one answer that I think relates to this movie. I definitely believe that there’s not just a fine line, and then you hit adulthood; I believe that we kind of carry all of our ages with us. And they live in different parts of us. And sometimes we’re just completely dormant and they get woken up—like, there’s still eight-year-old me lost in there. Or four-year-old me is definitely around. And they all kind of cohabitate and some come to the front and some not.

I’ve thought about that a lot in relationship to this, because having my kid and how they look a little bit like me and seeing them in these different ages is really trippy, right? And it really makes you go, “Wow, when I was four, that happened to me! I was that size. And I was that little and that happened.” That’s insane. It makes you readdress or reassess your ages, having a kid. 

So much of this film is about what might happen in the future and what these kids think about the years to come. Do you have hope for the future?

The honest answer would be—and maybe this is the way the film was—but I love people. And I deeply worry about the world. Obviously the climate part of it and so many unsustainable, systemic things that are going at once. I was turning all different directions. I wrote it post-2016, which to me is a real line in the sand. And so I really worry about authoritarian tendencies within our culture. So I guess I’m quite worried. And that’s particularly sad in the space of kids. Right? And I think that kids and the future obviously go together—or at least for me they do. Maybe it was just the parent talking in me. So all that isn’t easy.

In your last few films, you have allowed characters to narrate others’ lives and personalities, like their friends and family. Is that more of how we’re seen by these other people or more of how we see ourselves? 

As a writer, and I love it when other filmmakers do it, I just love decentering. I’m an addict for taking a detour. And I love shifting perspective. I just find that really energizing and filled with story content whenever you do that. But then I also really believe the whole thing of my eye only coming in relation to you, right? And I think all my films are really about that, interrelational stuff. I only figure myself out in relationship to these key people in my life, and the back and forth that happens there. So I think we’re always kind of narrativizing our own life through other voices or other mirrors or other bouncing boards. Or literally they’re telling us who we are. I’m endlessly interested in that.

In all of your films, especially in I Am Easy To Find, there are constant doorways. Where did that idea come from, especially filming just outside of these rooms?

Yeah, really any kind of frames. I guess it’s just an intuitive response to the spaces, because obviously I could pick the other side of the doorway. It’s kind of very interesting to be inside the room as well, though. I love Ozu and he is always doing that and I love Gordon Willis and he’s often doing that. And I say, “Oh, he would love this or he would love to film her through this, right?” With the grid and then the person. Or like you see, like this, he would love this. He would love to film her through this right? And the grid, and then the person.

I like geometry. My real interest is in the human, but the geometry offsets the human and makes you look at the organic part of the picture to me. I’m a graphic designer. I feel like it heightens the observational quality. It’s kind of telling you you’re observing, and I feel like that’s what the film is right here. You’re in the audience observing and there’s something copacetic about that to me.

It’s nice, because you’re inside the space, but also not.

Maybe that’s also my attachment issues. I like to be intimate, but have a little distance or something.

Music seems so important to you and your films. Is there certain music you think someone should listen to before watching this movie? Almost as a primer. 

Like as a set-up? Well, Satie. Like I play [Erik] Satie a lot on set and the Emahoy [Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou] piano that’s near it. We played that all the time on set and it’s really enchanted. That’s very deeply magical music. It’s like an incantation, so either of those I’d be really happy with. I play music all the time on set and it just makes it not a workplace or something. And it’s just like on my phone or on the speaker and I feel like sometimes I’m just directing by DJing. Like Joaquin loved Frank Ocean’s “White Ferrari.” So, if I really wanted to get him, I would play that right before. In 20th, Billy [Crudup] loved “No Expectations” by the Rolling Stones and he got so addicted to it. And it was saying everything I could ever want to say, just creating this soup ambience that an actor feels. They aren’t told something, they’re feeling it. 

C’mon C’mon, like your other projects, is so tender. I know you’ve said in the past that you’re almost tender to a fault. How do you feel about that quality in yourself and your films as you grow older? 

It’s totally who I am. And I’ve fully come to terms with that. And there’s obviously a lot to it. That’s like my heart in the center, right? There’s this kind of relational connectivity that’s allowed, that has space. It’s like Satie, like I fucking love Satie. My films are like little emotional Satie blobs… hopefully. That’d be nice. But no: it’s also too much. Well, it’s totally sincere. It’s not like I put it on. I don’t know that I’m doing it. Then sometimes I get called out on it and I can see how it might be just a little too much syrup. I want connections so bad in my life. I’m creating it on film unconsciously, in a way that’s sometimes not earned enough. 

Do you feel connected to the people around you? 

Oh, yeah. But I’m still craving it. I think that’s the child, that’s the three-year-old in me that’s forever there.

C’mon C’mon opens in theaters on Friday, November 19.

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