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20th Century Women: Mike Mills on Bringing a Personal Story to Life

Annette Bening in 20th Century Women

After exploring a teenager’s odd obsession in Thumbsucker and helming the semi-autographical Beginners about his father coming out of the closet late in laugh, in his third narrative, Mike Mills returns to deeply personal material from his own life. 20th Century Women has been hailed as his best work yet and earned him an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay.

The film is a coming of age tale about a teenage boy raised by three women from different generations in 1979 Santa Barbara. It’s a portrait of the city in a quieter, simpler time, as well as an ode to his steadfast mother (an incredible performance by Annette Bening as Dorothea). Lucas Jade Zumann plays young Jamie, who fights to find identity amidst the city’s music and cultural scenes. Elle Fanning stars as teenage friend Julie and Greta Gerwig is Abbie, a character loosely based on Mills’ sister. Billy Crudup plays William, the lone male boarder in the house whom Dorothea tries unsuccessfully to recruit as a role model to young Jamie.

Filmmaker Magazine caught up with Mills to discuss how he locked down the challenging character of his mother, his writing process, and why the current president has disrupted plans for his next projects.

Filmmaker: How did the idea come about of representing women from different generations?

Mills: I started with my mom. She was born in the ‘20s, I was born in the ‘60s and she had me when she was 40. It was like Amelia Earhart raising this punk rock kid. It’s just a great story in there, and a way to talk about history and personal life. I was kind of brought up by my mom and sisters. I always gravitated toward women or had an easier time with women, and when I looked back and studied it I was like, “That makes sense. They were my allies.” My mom took me to all the skate contests. My mom came to see my band. My mom tried to teach me to play football. My sisters too, they shared their lives with me. My dad was around and he was a really sweet guy, but I think he was part of being born in the ‘20s and what was expected of fathers. His father was in the Calvary in WWI. So the modeling of what a father was and how present you need to be is so different. And he was a gay, closeted man, and I think a lot of his lights were turned off. So it felt like a fatherless house, and I wanted to write about that. It wasn’t like I said, “Oh, I want to do three different generations,” it just came. There was my mom and there is my sister and girls I knew my age. And I did like that they were different. Abby is so second-wave feminism, Dorothea is so proto-feminist [or] whatever she is, and Julia’s sort of — I don’t believe in post-feminism but she’s going to be into Madonna in two seconds, like in a different wave. 

Filmmaker: How did the punk scene influence you as a director?

Mills: I didn’t go to film school or anything, so the DIYness of punk culture helped me. One of the things that is exciting about punk music is that it’s not the art world. It’s sort of like the entertainment world —more public, not as refined. I went to art school and my dad was a museum director, so I come from a very art-heavy background. So to get out of art and be into more of a public sphere or popular culture is really exciting to me. In that way film and punk feel kind of related. Music was my first creative exploration. I was in all these bands and I loved it. I wasn’t very good, so that stopped, but it made me hungry and understand how you could explore things.

Filmmaker: There’s a line in the film that however you imagine your life it’s going to be totally different. Did you imagine your life totally different?

Mills: Many, many times different. I was going to be a professional skateboarder, and then in a punk band and so forth. Also, the ‘70s are such a huge transitional decade and 1979 in particular was such a transitional year, so everything they were thinking about as the tentpoles of our culture changed. We are horrible at predicting our personal lives. Our futures always surprise us. At the end of the movie there are people’s little epilogues and I got them from real things. 

Filmmaker: How does all that fit into today’s woman, do you think?

Mills: I don’t know. I don’t really believe there are separate worlds or clean breaks from the past. All those lives and struggles and freedoms are active now or influence what is possible or not possible now. I was trying to tell a story that I felt related to now. I don’t like ‘70s movies that are nostalgia. The year 1979 does relate to now in so many ways. I’ve been in Q&As with Elle Fanning, and she just turned 18 — she was 16 or 17 when we shot — and she would say, “Well when I read it, it just felt like all my friends, like people I know now. It didn’t feel like the past.” I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I really like that that is her answer. It makes me feel like I’m really on to something. But my mom is a creature who can’t exist now, and that was important to me to try to say. That was of a different time.

Filmmaker: Because she wasn’t self-reflective?

Mills: Yeah, she liked figuring everything out about you, but if you asked her a question it’s like illegal, off boundaries. And being born in the ‘20s, there was a lot of shame about your emotions and your troubles. Anything linked to failure or darker feelings was just not allowed. My mom had to figure shit out and pull it together on her own. There wasn’t a lot of support. There was so much self-denial from all those teenagers growing up during the Depression, so much she wanted to do but couldn’t do. Being half-Jewish she was kicked off the swim team. And then being a woman during WWII, wanting to be an architect, wanting to be a pilot, it was hard. Self-denial was just such a part of their lives. My mom knowingly married a gay man to have kids, in order to have a man. So self-denial is such a part of their game, and then the total lack of self-pity, to the point that I found it kind of impossible to relate to the person. So much is blocked off. 

Filmmaker: What was the most challenging thing about making the movie?

Mills: Writing it. It took me two or three years to write it. I had my son about a year into that, which is part of why it took so long. And my mom, whatever you expected her to do, she doesn’t want to do. She was a very private, sneaky person, very rascally trickster-y figure, which is weird to have as a mom, and really weird to have as a ghost you are trying to report on. She didn’t want this to happen in some ways. So that was hard. And then there are so many characters. I wanted so much in this movie. My instincts kept accumulating stuff. I wanted to have all these books and the speeches and still photos from history. The density of it was hard to make work. Editing it was hard for similar reasons, making all the balancing work and making it enjoyable. Because it’s not following normal structures, but it’s not a total art film. So we had to figure out other ways to keep forward motion going. Shooting was fun. I love shooting. I love film crews. I love actors. I love being captain of the ship. It’s the best time for me.

Filmmaker: What’s your writing process? Do you write everyday?

Mills: Yeah. I’ll do other things — I do ads and stuff to make a living and I do art projects and stuff like that — but for the majority of the time I’m working. Before my son was born, it was like 9-5 or 9-6. I went to art school so I believe in the whole thing of just show up. If you have stuff or you don’t, just try every day. Sit down at your desk and write even if you don’t have anything, or just research or do something. That kind of keeps me sane.

Filmmaker: What have you learned since your first film?

Mills: Oh my god, so much. It would be hard to answer that. Making movies is so hard and complex. It’s like being the mayor of a mid-size American city, and it bites you in the ass every time in different ways. Each one has its own angels and devils. What have I learned? Flexibility.

Here’s a weird thing: I’ve learned to enjoy myself a lot more. Like the shooting thing, I love the camaraderie, I love all the people now. I love that almost as much as the finished film. Or just working really hard sometimes against crazy odds, like we’re on the freeway at five o’clock rolling, which means we are stopping the freeway behind us. Eight sheriffs and that brown Mercedes wasn’t the right car it was supposed to be, the car we were supposed to be shooting couldn’t get on the freeway. We are losing the sun. You’re up on top of a picture vehicle on the freeway on walkies trying to talk to the kids in there. My AD is trying to control seven sheriffs, we see headlights forever…but I love that. You bond with everyone so intensely. I’m kind of a loner person so I like these really hot, intensive things.

Filmmaker: Is it hard to do the writing because it’s such a solitary exercise?

Mills: Solitary, and then the writing room and the just-being-depressed room are too close together. They are really interwoven. I gotta figure out some way to not go down that rabbit hole again.

Filmmaker: How do you keep yourself out of that?

Mills: Inevitably you get depressed, at least I do. You get very lost and very self-doubting, and then you are writing all this personal stuff, so you feel so vain and like, “no one needs to know all this crap.” I don’t know — my wife is good at talking me off a ledge, because she’s really a true writer and believes in the process a little bit more than I do.

Filmmaker: Are you working on your next project now?

Mills: I had some other things I was working on. Finishing this movie was a big deal personally. And then the election, it was like, “Oh shit, everything means something different now.” And I don’t know how to address that. I haven’t got my bearings. Everything has been made slightly inconsequential by the disaster that I personally feel like we are entering.

Filmmaker: Do you feel compelled to do something in response?

Mills: Yeah but I don’t know what. I’ve been promoting this movie and travelling a bunchs. I have some things I have to do for January, some little art project things, and they all feel completely invalid now. I don’t know what to do about that. I might just do a dog rescue or something.

Filmmaker: What was the biggest blow for you with the election?

Mills: So many things to choose. I’ve been talking about women the whole time, and this kind of normalization of misogyny seems like such a crazy step backward. It’s not just misogyny, it’s out-and-out sexual violence and radical, fucked-up disrespect. As an emo, gentle, heterosexual cisgender guy, it feels like it is enough to make me feel really unsafe and a couple feet from getting beat up — and I’m in the total privileged safe spot. And of course the racism. So many things to pick from. It’s so scary — he’s pointing out how much racism is just sitting there, percolating.

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