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Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration

Mills discusses the memory of his mother, his art-school education, and working with actors.

Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women, Memory, and Collaboration
Photo: A24

Acknowledging the influence of Fellini on his work and name-checking conceptual artist Hans Haacke in his soft California drawl, Berkeley-born Mike Mills has clearly embraced the “art fag” label that his alter ego, young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), struggles to come to terms with in 20th Century Women. A multimedia artist who’s designed CD covers, clothing, and skateboards as well as directed music videos, commercials, and feature films, Mills filters life through an art-school lens, and if he’s better than most of us at being unapologetically himself, perhaps it’s because he had good role models.

Mills’s last film, 2010’s Oscar-winning Beginners, was based on the unexpected ways in which his relationship with his father, Paul Mills, deepened after Paul came out in his mid-70s, relaxing into himself and opening up to his son in ways he never had before. In 20th Century Women, a loving tribute to his mother and the other young women and girls who helped raise him, Annette Bening stars as Dorothea, a gallant soul with a healthy contempt for conventional wisdom and a creative talent for carving her own path through life. As the film’s title implies, it’s essentially a character study of several people, but the stories of the five main characters are layered together in a nonlinear pastiche that shifts in perspective as well as in time.

In a conversation earlier this month at the A24 offices in Manhattan, Mills talked about why it was easiest for him to understand his mother by thinking of her as a trans man, how art school opened up his conception of what a movie can be, and why the ‘70s was a feminine decade in America.

20th Century Women has no standard story arc. It’s more of a slice of life—or a loaf of life, with each of the main characters a separate slice. Did you have to fight to keep that unconventional structure as you were putting the film together, especially when getting the financing?

Not with Annapurna. They were down for that, and they really liked Beginners. That film kind of gave me a little bit of a blank check for this one, because it’s similarly hard to define its structure. This is even more of a meditation. But I do work hard to think about forward motion, in my script and in the film. I’m influenced equally by Fellini and Alain Resnais and by Howard Hawks and Casablanca and Micheal Curtiz. I love those [prewar Hollywood] movies anyway, but I watched a lot of them while working on this script to help me understand my mom better, who was a child of that era.

She really did say [like Dorothea], “I’m going to marry Bogart in the next life,” and Bogart became key to me in understanding my mom, who emotionally reads kind of trans. Bogart’s voice helped me the most in understanding my mom, his deal of always championing the underdog, always championing the disenfranchised, the poor guy, the misbegotten. And always being the underdog himself who’s never really gonna win the battle, never really gonna get the girl, but he’s gonna go down so charismatically that it’s fine. I really feel like my mom internalized that whole model.

My film is a desire to entertain, like those ‘30s films, and to be witty and to be sophisticatedly playful, and [at the same time] I’m really interested in stories that use displacement and digression to create surprise and a deepening of your understanding of the character through an unusual course.

Jamie is always trying to explain his mother to people by saying she was a child of the Depression and a WASP in World War II. I liked that because we all tell people things like that about our parents, and even though those things may be true they’re so reductive and inadequate, since of course no one thing can ever explain who a person is.

Yeah. My mom was 40 when she had me in 1966. She wanted to be a pilot in World War II. She was a draftsperson, and she looked like Amelia Earheart. So I was always describing her that way to people. She did not fit into ‘70s California living, you know? [laughs] She made all the money in the family, she wore pants, she was kind of butch-looking, and she did not fit in. I lived my youth trying to explain my mom to California.

This film is essentially a grown man’s loving tribute to his mother that ends by saying he can never do justice to her. Is that how you felt, in the end?

All portraits are failures, because people are just so much more paradoxical and crazy and impossible to contain. But it’s a worthy failure. You do commune a little bit with these people. Dorothea is my mom, Abbie is my sister, and Elle is playing kind of my first girlfriend and these girls who used to come over to my house after having sex with more interesting men and tell me everything. I was brought up in a matriarchy with a strong mom, two older sisters, and a gay dad who just kind of wasn’t super-present. He was there, but he wasn’t really psychically there.

Is Abbie a combination of your two sisters or is she just the one?

She’s kind of both. Handing over Our Bodies, Ourselves, that’s my older sister, and the menstruation thing, that’s also mostly my older sister, that we should all be able to talk about this. But Abbie is mostly my other sister, Meg, who did come to New York, went to Parsons, saw those bands, turned me onto the Talking Heads, had cervical cancer ‘cause my mom took DES, came home, didn’t think she could have kids, and started over. I got all that from her.

I have a great therapist, I have a great wife, and I know my life. I don’t need to know more about my life by making a film. I take that material because I feel like these things I closely observe, that I love and am confused by, are going to give me the best chance to make a poignant, hopefully real film. I do it to make a good film for you, not to do therapy for me.

In what way does your background in graphic design and music videos inform you as a filmmaker?

It’s more art school. I studied with Hans Haacke, a prominent ‘70s conceptual artist. He taught me not to identify with any medium. It’s more about your ideas and your relationship to an audience. That’s his whole practice. And I think the main thing it did to my filmmaking was to decentralize live action. I can use objects, I can use stills, I have a little bit more of a Godard-ian palette, but via an art-school door. The way I use objects or texts or quote other movies or music or lectures, all that comes out of Christian Boltanski and Hans-Peter Feldmann: different conceptual artists who do moves that I love, that inspire me. I think it opened up the box of what a film can be.

I saw most of my films at art school, too, right? Friday-night film club: free and convenient. And what films do art school film societies show? They show you Resnais, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard—and those are my people. Now I’ve really rekindled my love for ‘30s and ‘40s American filmmakers, but my films are so indebted to those [French New Wave] films.

Thirties and ‘40s American films are some of my favorites, and I think that’s part of the reason this film resonated with me. That’s partly because you include a lot of tributes to those films, but it’s also the feel of your film. It’s funny and smart, and the female characters are strong and unconventional.

Yeah. Women had so much broader wavelength until—

After World War II.

Yeah. That post-war America, “we gotta bring the patriarchy back” thing. My mom wasn’t a Rosie the Riveter, but she kinda was. She got a job as a draftsperson, only woman there, like in the movie, because the war happened. Me and Annette watched Stage Door a lot, and the way they talk in that film, their sarcasm and the anti-authoritarian quality, is so my mom. That anti-authoritarian humor is their standard go-to place.

You’ve talked about how fictionalizing your life in Beginners made you realize how fictionalized our memories are to begin with. Did you have similar realizations while making this one?

I’m still convinced that memories are incredibly untrustworthy things. They shift. They change. Me and my sisters have completely different versions of the same event. If I was a documentary filmmaker, I’d be one of the people who says that there’s no such thing as objective reality, so documentaries aren’t objective. They’re just a different way of making a narrative film. It’s all the director’s subjective perspective. As are my version of my mom, my version of my dad. But I enjoy the corruptness of that. There’s nothing pure about memory. They’re not facts. And there’s something bittersweet and beautiful about that. I have no problem with the mongrel-ness of them. I find that exciting as a filmmaker, as a writer.

So you just take those shifting memories and fictionalize them a little further to make a story of them?

I really try to remember things as well as I can. I’m not always going from life, but when I’m going from life, the more concrete you can make it, the more grip-y it is, I find. My mom did read Watership Down and carved wood rabbits, and that [wooden rabbit in Dorothea’s house] is indeed the wood rabbit my mother carved. So I believe there’s some magic in having something that accurate. Or in those little details, as she wore Birkenstocks and smoked Salems. I believe in all that unexplained, unpackaged concreteness. There’s something really deep in that kind of stuff. I love Lydia Davis and [Allen] Ginsberg. I love the non-misogynist part of [Charles] Bukowski. Like Mockingbird Wish Me Luck. There’s some fucking amazing concrete description in those poems that’s a lot like screenwriting, to me. I love that kind of filmmaking. Do you know Szabó’s early films?

I know the name but, no, I don’t think I do.

István Szabó, he’s a Hungarian filmmaker. He did Lovefilm in 1970, and you can just tell it’s all his memories, but it’s very universal because it’s real and not formulaic. It doesn’t fit into plot structure and typical character development. It’s got this real authenticity to it that I love. I feel like I’m emulating a lot of people when I make these kinds of personal films. It’s a little like Fellini in Amarcord and 8 ½. He’s cinematizing his real deal.

Or Stardust Memories.

Yeah. Stardust Memories was Woody Allen’s riff on 8 ½.

A lot of people hate that movie, but I really like it.

Awesome! It’s a gem! It’s him and Gordon Willis at their peak, to me. And that Gordon Willis-Woody Allen intersection is really important to me.

Why did you start 20th Century Women with a car on fire?

I needed to say “Dad’s gone.” That was a way to get into that story: As they start talking, you learn that. I needed to establish this as a man-less world. And then, of course, ’79 is kind of the beginning of the end of American industrial strength. The beginning of the end of the unions and the end of Detroit. The beginning of the end of the big car. And that’s a big Ford Galaxy, which my mom had and loved. That’s another thing that nobody needs to know. To me, films are very long magic tricks where you’re recording the unconscious, so if you add details like that, it kind of accrues something, hopefully. Anyway, I thought it was a good and funny way to talk about the end of masculinity. Carter’s such a non-patriarchal president, and the ‘70s can be thought of as one of our more feminine decades. Cars are male to me.

Your wife, Miranda July, is also a multimedia artist who makes films. Do you two ever talk about challenges you’re facing, or ideas you’re kicking around, as you’re working on your movies?

As a last-ditch thing. She helped me with 20th Century Women a bit twice. But she only read the script once, and she only saw the film once. We try to keep that stuff out of our lives. We like to come home from work to each other. And then we work in really different ways, so our ways don’t totally make sense to each other. Agnès Varda made this really beautiful documentary about Jacques Demy—you know they were married?

Right, right.

An interviewer Demy was talking to asked: “Do you guys share [ideas about movies] all the time?” And Demy was like, “No!” And the interviewer was like, “What do you mean? You’re married and you’re filmmakers,” and Demy was like, “But what I do is so personal!” [laughs] And Miranda and I were like, “Yeah! That’s very accurate!” That gave us a lot of space. Because it was hard for us to figure out how to be together at the beginning.

The rotating voiceover in your film, where each of the main characters took turns telling the story from their point of view and telling us what happens to them next, sometimes even when they will die, is an interesting device. Had you seen that done before, or did you invent it for this film?

I loved Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It kind of rotates between different characters taking the lead and having their voice be the perspective. It also enters into essayistic parts, like the history of kitsch. It’s a very polymorphous thing. It has nonlinear stuff, repeats narrative sections, tells you the two main characters are going to die 50 pages before the end. I love that. I find that makes the story more emotional, more impactful. And then the multiple-narrative thing is a little bit like Amarcord, where more than one person talks to the camera, and you’re kind of, “Whose movie is it?” Our movie revolves around the sun of Dorothea and the boy, but I like decentralizing things. I find it more like life. I don’t really believe in plot and characters that change a lot and have a growth and evolve. I just watched Happy-Go-Lucky on the plane. You know the Mike Leigh—

Sure, the one about Poppy. I love that film.

And it’s so spacious. You’re not quite sure why what you’re seeing is happening, and it’s unforced and unclaustrophobic and very purposefully ambiguous. I love that space. I was watching Wings of Desire when I was writing. There’s lot of the film that I don’t really love, but the particular space of it, and the way they talk about history and Germany and Berlin, where it was then, where it was now, from a kind of meditative place, I found that very honest. That’s pretentious to say, but when I’m a viewer, I trust it when the author’s talking like that, much more than when I’m being driven somewhere. And I like to have room to have my own thoughts.

Working with actors is so different than what you did in the past, but you’ve said in other interviews that you love working with them. They must love working with you too, because you assembled a wonderful cast for this film. Did you do any work with them before you started shooting to create that sense of communal family that’s so tangible in Dorothea’s house?

I do love actors. I’m kind of a reformed shy person, and I love the boundary-less, emotionally mercurial actor. I want to be like that and I’m not, so I’m the best audience: I adore what they do. And my movies are about people, so I’m 100% dependent on them. I did this with both movies: I do two weeks of rehearsal right before we’re shooting, not the script so much but lots of improvising on everything that led up to the story. We improvise each character. I made Elle lie to everybody a lot, and not tell people when she was lying or telling the truth, so she would experience what it’s like to be a liar. I made Greta teach Lucas how to dance. Not just dance but be free and un-self-conscious, have abandon, just be yourself through movement. Which is a kind of beautiful mission. [laughs] I knew Greta’s a dancer, so she would get it. And they danced so amazingly it ended up in the film.

So that scene in the film was from the rehearsal?

Yeah. And it wasn’t in the script. I’m counting on the rehearsal to enhance the script, or feed it in some key ways. There’s something indigenous to my material, because I’m dealing with memories, real things I’ve seen, real things I’ve observed, things I’ve observed in women I interviewed. I want to keep all the untidiness and unformulaic-ness of those of real, observed things.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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