Tuesday, December 20, 2016
Interview: Mike Mills on 20th Century Women
Acknowledging the influence of Fellini on his work and name-checking conceptual artists like 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. Read the rest in Slant Magazine