The LRM Interview: Talkin' 20th Century Women and Talking Heads with Director Mike Mills

– by Edward Douglas
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While Mike Mills may not have been the most prolific filmmaker since adapting Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker for his first feature in 2005, his ability to get great performances out of his casts is undeniable, especially after Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role in Mills’ Beginners in 2010.

Mills’ new film 20th Century Women comes from a similarly personal place as Beginners, as it follows the coming-of-age of 15-year-old Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann), living in a house in California with his overprotective single mother (Annette Bening), and two boarders, Abbey and William, played by Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup, in 1979. At the behest of his mother, Abbey and Jamie’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) are coerced into helping Jamie learn what it’s like to be a man that’s sympathetic towards women.

It’s a really interesting take on a coming-of-age movie based a lot on Mills’ own teenage years, and while Annette Bening is getting a lot of attention for her performance, it’s really a great ensemble that makes the movie what it is, delivering great performances based on Mills’ brilliant screenplay, accompanied by some of the best punk and new wave tracks from the era.

For our last interview of 2016, LRM sat down with Mills for the following chat with Mills...

LRM:  Your lead character was basically me when I was 15, literally running off to New York to see punk shows, but when you start your movie with Talking Heads’ “Don’t Worry About the Government” you already have me won over… and then you have Greta dancing to it.

Mike Mills: Yeah. I won myself over, too.

LRM: Oh nice, nice. A friend of mine told me that this is kind of like the opposite side of “Beginners” where this is about…

Mills: My mom, yeah, and my sister, yeah.

LRM: Which character was based on your sister?

Mills: Abbey. My sister came to New York and went to Parsons and found herself and her sexuality and her art, photography, and went to CBs, and was like a Bowie new wave punk, Talking Heads type person. Totally listened to Talking Heads. Got cervical cancer because my Mom took DS at like 22. Had to come home and completely start over and think that she couldn't have kids and go through all that, so I interviewed my sister a bunch for that. 

LRM: So this is literally very autobiographical, not just like one little bit?

Mills: Yeah, and then there's a lot of my Mom's memories, and you fictionalize or you cinematize all these people, but the source is these real women. Julie's kind of an amalgamation of my first girlfriend, whose mom was a therapist, and we would go to teen group therapy and beat wooden stumps with rolled up magazines, and a few other girls who I knew, who were much more adventurous than me, that would go have sex with more interesting guys, and get high as a kite and then come visit me at like four in the morning and tell me everything.

LRM: Right, you’re the comfortable guy they could sleep with who wouldn't try anything.

Mills: Yeah, it's a very sad fate.

LRM: I was also in that exact same place, but I guess you were in California, while I was on the East Coast, so East Coast version of it.

Mills: We should've had each other’s phone numbers.

LRM: Right. We could've been pen pals back in 1979. It was also interesting setting the movie in that year, obviously because you based it on your own life, but you get to the point in the film where the country changed Presidents from Carter to Reagan and how the country really changes. There really hasn't been much discussion about what a huge change the country went through in the '80s.

Mills: You knew how it felt. It was such a change. It was interesting trying to explain it to my younger film crew, kind of like you're saying. I feel like the biggest thing that was hard that I was trying to explain to my crew that really came up in the production design of the film, and just the interiors, and people's clothes--'79 you still have a little breath of the counter culture, hippie values. You still have the middle class and the working class ethics, having much more importance and sway over the rest of us. In '80, we really became aspirational; everything had to be new. In '79, we still had a taste for things and more tolerance for that which is worn out

LRM: I definitely see that. And in 1980, I was like 15 and I had just moved to Connecticut in 1979, so I was closer to New York and all the action, but then it was another seven years before I moved here.

Mills: I moved here in '84 to go to college.

LRM: Okay, I was here in '87. I feel like I see all these documentaries about New York in the ‘80s, and I feel like I got here in 1987, just as it was all going away, all the fun stuff like Plato’s Retreat…

Mills: (laughs) Or the Tompkins Square Park riots and all that. I went to Cooper Union, so I was a Lower East Side kid, and it was a great time to be in New York. It was really rough.

LRM: Oh yeah, in 1987 it was still like that, but then I watch all these docs about all this cool music and other stuff from the ‘80s and it completely changed as I got here. How do you find Jamie? I have to imagine that's a pretty big search.

Mills: It was a long search, and it's one of those classic stories. We looked at close to 400 kids on tape, all over America, Australia, England, just everywhere, and I was like, "oh my God, are we not gonna be able to make this movie on the date we're supposed to?" Because we just couldn’t find the kid. He had come in before, and I was re-looking at everyone, and I looked at him again. He's from Chicago and hasn't really done very much, and he was sort of an outsider choice, so I flew him in to L.A. He did some stuff with Elle (Fanning). Elle was really helpful, generous with testing different boys, and he just had the right physicality and the right age. I’d buy him being a punk person. I'd buy him as being pre-sexual, but he wants to have sex, and he's heady and cerebral, and acts older than he is, which I guess was the character, which was me a bit. I could buy him trying to really listen to all these women. Just hanging out with Lucas now, it's kind of like "Oh, it was good casting", because Lucas is just unusual, and you can see him doing that. Not every guy can you see really trying to understand women like that.

LRM: Watching this movie knowing it’s based on your own life, so when you’re making a movie that is pulling from your own life, how much do you want to fictionalize it and do the characters start taking on their own life and you realize “Okay, maybe this character would actually do this” when in real life, that’s not how it happened. How conscious of that are you while writing?

Mills: Well, when I'm writing, it's like my North Pole is these real people, and it kind of gives me guidance and would they do that or not? And it helps me a lot in just understanding if what I wrote was right or true or accurate, or getting to a deeper, good level. But then I'm not precious about it; it’s really important not to be precious about it, not to get too self-pitying or too personal. You have to give it over to the actors, and I have to do everything I can as a director, to infect or inject it into the actor and make them sort of take it over. Or else it's not going to be good, you know?  So for me, it's like a real ... for whatever reason it's easy to start with really, really, really personal stuff. The thing that's said at the end of the movie … that's how my mom died. And my mom did write chicken scratch trying to explain the stocks to me and my sisters, and it's like one of the saddest things that's ever happened in my life. My mom's gone. Or the thing of I'll never being able to explain my mom to my son. That's just the really real truth, and I saw the end of the movie yesterday, and I was like, "Holy f*ck, I put that in the movie!" I can barely believe I said that out loud. So that exists, and at the same time, I do it all to make a good movie for strangers. I don't do it to make a memoir for me and my family, so I'm doing everything I can to exploit this stuff, and cinematize it, the way that Fellini did his life.

LRM: I really liked the film’s floating narrative quite a bit, the fact that the point of view changes, which is something we don’t expect, because you expect it to be from Jamie’s point of view constantly, and it changes. People are talking about other people and their futures, which there’s no way they could know that stuff, so how did you come up with that unusual narrative style?

Mills: Yeah, well a lot of films I love do things like that. Like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, Fellini does stuff like that. Amarcord, do you know Fellini's movie, Amarcord? It's about his growing up in Rimini. It's like a group of people, and different people, kind of narrated at different times.  And then the book, Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. So he uses essays at different times, narrative, but he repeats the narrative. He tells you the characters are going to die halfway through the book. It leaps back and forth in time. And I find that just like a more active, more impactful, more exciting toolbox. If you can just work that way, sort of heterogeneous, not following one to one naturalism, but having very naturalistic performances. As a film-viewer, that's like the most exciting kinds of films to me.

LRM: I'm sure it is, and it makes the movie very literary. It's like something you'd expect from a movie adapted from a book, that kind of narrative. It just seemed very different for me.

Mills: Different vibe, yeah.

LRM: Different from other movies I’ve seen, certainly.

Mills: Yeah, yeah. I guess I'm really interested in a more meditative space, and I feel like it's kind of my responsibility as a filmmaker to try to be innovative with form. If I was just following normal plot conventions, I just wouldn't be that excited.

LRM: Fair enough. You mentioned explaining to your younger crew what the times were like, so what kind of conversations did you have with your younger actors, Elle and Lucas?

Mills: Elle, it was interesting. I did a Q&A with Elle recently and someone asked her, "What was it like to play a teenager from the past?", and she's like, "it really just reminds me of all my friends right now, like really felt like very real to me, right now". And me and Elle didn't talk a lot about the past. We listened to a lot of music stuff, I assigned music to everyone. So, Elle was very Fleetwood Mac, Rhiannon, you know? And I gave them all documentaries about the '70s and stuff like that, but in a weird way, as long as it felt emotionally true, then it was period correct. I gave Lucas books. There's this great book called The Culture and History of Punk Rock, and it's really about the '70s, and Carter and boredom and the economy. Kind of like the whole culture that made punk possible, you know? And Nat and I talked, and Nat and I have experienced a lot of the time together, and we kind of shared memories. And Greta did an interesting thing of ... Greta really worked hard on all this being new. What does it mean to have Fear of Music be just out that year and be brand new? Or Raincoats to be new. Because we're all used to it.

LRM: Yeah, of course, and because I am older, I feel like I remember the first time I ever heard Talking Heads.

Mills: Yeah, and the strangeness of it.

LRM: Yeah, I'm sure ... and I’m sure somebody who is 15 right now, if they heard Talking Heads for the first time, they might think the same thing.

Mills: Yeah, I guess.

LRM: Then again, Talking Heads influenced so many current bands like LCD Soundsystem, maybe it won’t seem that cutting edge.

Mills: That's part of why I foregrounded with the Talking Heads. We have three Talking Heads songs in very key places. They're very important to me. Both my sisters told me to listen to Talking Heads. I had the shirt, I got beat up for listening to Talking Heads. Someone called me an “Art Fag” for listening to Talking Heads. So all that's very true, but I feel like Talking Heads are so relevant to right now, and a lot of the moves I do in my filmmaking, I feel like there's kind of an analog to what the Talking Heads are doing with pop music. They're very interested in changing the form and disrupting the structure of a normal pop song.

LRM: Yeah, they’ve been so influential and I’m not sure they get nearly as much credit as the Ramones or The Clash, and maybe a band like LCD Soundsystem just aren’t as outspoken about their influence.

Mills: Or they're not as obvious. Their music in itself is like subtler, and weirder. 

LRM: So having known the songs you want to put in your movie, how hard was it getting them?

Mills: Luckily, Megan Allison was my financier this time, and she just knew. From the very beginning. I had a song list, and I had a website of all the fun references from the time, and stuff that influenced me in the movie, and the music, and Megan was like, "We just have to get the music right". David Bowie was still alive, and Howard Paar, my music supervisor, had an inside hook to him, and I wrote a letter, and he let us use "D.J." for a very affordable price, and that helped us get everything to be at that affordable price.

LRM: Did you do one of those things where you said, "Oh, we got David Bowie's "D.J." for this amount,” and then you can talk everyone else down?

Mills: It's called “favored nations.” He’s such a high, commercial valued thing, it totally leveraged everything else for us. The hardest music to get was "As Time Goes By", the Casablanca song that plays at the end. It’s part of the Warner Brothers' Casablanca archive. 

LRM: The first time I saw the movie was at the New York Film Festival, and I don’t think there was any trailer, so how has it been marketing the movie? I feel this might be harder to market than “Beginners,” but I’m sure it’s not something you think about when making a movie basically about your life.

Mills: Yeah. I'm happy with our trailer and everything in there, and the website we're making is really neat. I'm going to make a 1979 radio station for the website, and we're doing a lot of fun things like that. So that's been fun so far. But, my movies do, sort of, they don't fall into easy pitches, like the elevator pitch, whatever. They don't fit into that. But, I feel like in some ways this movie's easier than Beginners, just in that it has more verve, and a little bit more of a punk energy, and it's a little funnier. So it has some more kind of commercial qualities to it, but it's ... my movies don't fit neatly into the system.

LRM: Even “Thumbsucker,” which was based on a book, it was still hard as a movie writer to describe it or why you should see the movie.  With these last two movies, do you feel like you've gotten the autobiographical stuff out of your system now? Or you still have more about you and your family to explore? Do you feel like you might want to adapt another book? 

Mills: I really like having real, real life, real people. They don't necessarily have to be my family, but having that as a source, and working from sort of a semi-journalistic way, and not just inventing things. I like sort of observing things, and I really like relating characters to our culture, you know? So, all the cultural stuff that's in both those movies, that excites me a lot, and I would imagine that's sort of just part of my filmmaking at this point. So hopefully I'll continue to find real people, real events, to cinematize, and I think I'll never stop being interested in how our personal lives are a part of our bigger, social, political, historical, place in history.

LRM: Has your sister seen the movie yet? What did she think about it? 

Mills: Yeah, she was very sweet. I have two older sisters, so there's one that was kind of in it, and then there's Katie, and I'm their little brother, right, so they're really supportive.

LRM: There's three of you, right?

Mills: Yeah, so they're really supportive and generous. I'm their little brother by like 10 years, so they're really my older sisters. They protect me, they take care of me, and they're very generous with me. And they're both artists. And Katie also teaches English, so they get that it's like my art project. It's my version of my mom and my dad, and it's not like the truth, you know?

Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women opens in select cities on Wednesday, December 28.

Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives, Featured Mike Millss, 20th Century Women, Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig