20th Century Women Director Mike Mills on Disliking Seinfeld, Giving Hugs on Set, and Looking for Truthiness

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20th Century Women is one of this season’s gems, a sensitive, inquisitive portrait of single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), who raises her teenage son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) with the help of two young women, artistic but melancholy Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and defiant crush object Julie (Elle Fanning). Fittingly, while Jamie and Dorothea spend most of the movie attempting to understand one another, director Mike Mills used 20th Century Women itself as a way to grapple with the legacy of his own mother, just as Mills’s last film, Beginners, plumbed the late-in-life coming-out experience of his father. If you vibe with this film, it’ll be one of the best things you see all year, just as it was for Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, who saw the film and tweeted, “My goodness. I wept … I mean I fucking WEPT and I’m still figuring out how/why.” Jenkins was particularly struck by Mills’s soft-voiced temperament: “He’s a very gentle guy but those guys don’t usually yield gentle films.” That’s one of the first things I wanted to get at when I sat down with Mills a few weeks ago for a wide-ranging conversation about life, privilege, and kindness.

I think we’re in a phase right now with comedies, especially in TV, where the writers don’t actually like the characters and you can sense that. It’s more about “What will this horrible narcissist do next?” To me, 20th Century Women was the antidote to that because it loves its characters so fully and is so generous to them.
Yeah. Like, I don’t like Seinfeld. Everyone loves Seinfeld, and it’s obviously a great thing, but that sort of snarkiness … like, displaying your worst parts as comedy, I find incredibly privileged.

I think if you look at who is making these projects, there is usually an amount of privilege at play.
I don’t mean to summarily judge it all, but I don’t relate to it. If anything, I err in the other direction. My complaint about myself is, like, “Mike, can you fucking just be a little less sweet and vulnerable? Can you just be a mean person for once?” And the answer is no, I can’t. Films are so fucking hard to make and it is a cultural privilege to get to put this out there, so I’m going to put my poker chips in for an authentic, genuine, sincere connection between people. I’d rather watch people trying their hardest to understand each other instead of watching them be shitty to each other — “Ha ha, isn’t that funny?” For better or worse, that’s my lot in life when it comes to my talent and my creativity. And I can fully see how I’m repugnant at times. [Laughs.]

You prize kindness. Is it possible to always be kind when you’re a film director?
I love being nice on set and I don’t think people see it coming. I’m big on applauding, I’m big on hugging. I think directors must by and large not be great communicators, or maybe not even great people, because people are so shocked if I memorize everyone’s names or shake their hands at the beginning and the end of the day. Making people feel included and essential is important, especially if you’re making a tier-one movie where people are working below their rate: They’re doing it for love, they’re sacrificing something, and they’re not home with their kids.

And the director sets the tone.
If you’re a director in a pissy mood and you come on the set bummed, you might not think you’re showing it, but everyone picks it up and they’re bummed within two seconds. That doesn’t do anybody any good. I always wear a suit and tie on set to remind me that it’s a performance. I remember I shot Beginners when Obama had just gotten elected, and I was like, “I’m Obama.” That’s a totally pretentious thing to say, but no matter what’s going on in Obama’s life, he’s got to act like the president, you know? That’s like being a director, and for whatever reason, it’s easy for me to inhabit that while shooting.

And when you’re not shooting?
The harder decisions are when you’re writing and editing, because that’s when your statement on the world is made. That’s where I sense the repugnance of wearing my heart on my sleeve. Sometimes I’ll come across a movie that’s sending similar signals to my movies, and I’ll be like, “Blechh!” I wouldn’t want to be cornered by that person at a party. “Who the fuck are you to think you can make me cry and talk to me this way about your life? I want to watch Secret Life of Pets.” [Laughs.]

So what is your writing process like? Writing can be very solitary. There’s no one to hug, probably.
It’s super-hard. I’m a fish in water for about a year of the three years it takes me to write a script, and the other two years are kind of hellish. When you’re writing, you’re failing at least half the time, if not more. For what ends up on the page, there’s gotta be seven or ten other things that don’t. I’m not a super-confident person — surprise surprise — and suspension of disbelief doesn’t work for myself.

What do you mean?
Sometimes I write it and I just don’t believe it.

Really? Even when it’s as drawn from life as 20th Century Women and Beginners?
The parts that aren’t, or the connective tissue, is my own construct. For that, I can be like, “Who cares?” It feels so presumptuous. The solitude of writing … it’s like you’re dorm-mates with depression, and you could easily go in the wrong door. It’s really dicey turf for me.

What do you begin with?
When I start writing, I don’t get into Final Draft or script format for as long as I possibly can. I’m trying to be really open to memories and events and aspects of a person that are deeply feral to story.

How do you mean?
They’re not good for story. They’re not convenient for story. They don’t seem important. They don’t seem like movies.

I’m intrigued that you want to start with a kernel that doesn’t feel like a movie. 20th Century Women is very vignette-driven, and it doesn’t have that traditional spine of an inciting incident and all of those conventional markers.
It kind of does have all those things, though! What’s funny is that I trust moments more than plot, for sure, and I’m not interested in characters having lots of transformation, but I want to make a movie that’s going to play at the Arclight. I love Godard, but I also glaze over 30 minutes into a Godard movie. I want something more than that. I have to find other ways to have forward motion develop, and to have kinds of inciting incidents. I don’t treat them in the same way that they’re usually treated, but I do read Robert McKee’s book and study it and try to find ways to make my thing to have an ever-deepening structure where the stakes increase. McKee always talks about, “If a scene starts off with a positive charge, it has to end with a negative charge.” All those little transformations are a part of cinema, and I do employ them with all my weird ingredients.

McKee would want the characters to change, though. And you’re not necessarily interested in that.
I don’t want them to change in a big way. In my movie, they might change, but then they might go back. I knew that by the end of the movie, I wanted the son and the mom to be away from home and to finally have a couple conversations where she tells him about her real inner life and its complexities. And then he says in narration, “I thought that was the beginning of a new relationship with her, but actually, that was the most it ever was.” That’s me pulling the plug out of my own movie — and I love that! That’s like life. Life is not full of epiphanies. Films are always making things condensed and singular, and that just makes me go to sleep.

The thing I found fascinating about Annette’s character, that I could sense was true with your mother, is that she’s an enormously curious person who loathes being analyzed by other people.
You nailed it. That’s very accurate to how I would describe her: She’s very perceptive, but she doesn’t want to be perceived. That’s a very interesting contradiction that Annette got. With a lot of people, it would require some explanation, but to me, it’s incredibly familiar.

I admire a screenplay that lets its characters have those contradictions. It feels like life.
I’m just imitating writers I love who are brave enough to do that. People more talented than me do that really well, whether it’s Lydia Davis or Milan Kundera or Woody Allen in the late ‘70s. I feel like I’m following in a long line of people whose No.1 piece of gold is to capture that which is not programmatic — they’re not in any way neat or pat in their depiction of people. Annette is a great team member for that game because she’s so excited by that. She might say, “This doesn’t work,” but then she’ll say, “And that’s interesting. How am I going to be this and that? How am I going to inhabit the split and not close it up?” That’s super-dreamy, in terms of collaborating.

It must help when you have a real woman to draw from, a template that gives you the confidence to capture those contradictions.
It’s definitely my North Pole. If you have a real person, it helps so much because you know you can touch upon all these contradicting parts of their constellation. Just because of the fact that they’re out there in the world, you know it does make sense somehow. My mother is still a mystery to me and I’m still daunted by the idea that I tried to inhabit her enough to write her, but because she did exist and lived her life for 74 years, I know that somehow this constellation works.

In both this film and Beginners, you like to play with time to show the long arc of a life. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say that pretty early on in 20th Century Women, through narration, we learn that Annette’s character will die of lung cancer long after the events of the movie are concluded.
Again, that’s a very Milan Kundera move to me: I love Unbearable Lightness of Being and he starts talking about the characters dying long before the end. It’s an emotional structure rather than a linear structure. Annette talking about her own death … it changed the stakes for everything after it. It put the film in the right register for me. Every time she picks up a cigarette, there’s a different weight to it.

A weight that the character would not have ascribed to it at all.
Technically, it’s cheating, because I as the author have reframed it that way. It’s beyond naturalism, but that’s also exactly what excites me, the blurring of the rules.

You’re not afraid to bend the rules of narration, either. Both mother and son narrate throughout and at the end of the movie, several other characters begin narrating for the first and last time.
That’s like Fellini’s Amarcord. It’s also like the postscript at the end of Animal House — it was emotional even at the end of that! I love having heroes and models as an artist. I have an unrequited relationship with all these people and movies.

That’s almost what this movie is about: becoming a magpie for things and people that interest you, and how all of that forms a personality.
There’s sort of a nested-egg thing going on with how people process their lives and how the film processes their lives.

Do you read reviews?
I read a bit. As a director in this day and age, you end up hearing stuff because your team is talking about this or that.

Your team is probably talking about the good reviews, though.
No, not always. I try to read reviews very sparingly, but I don’t want to be disconnected from the discourse. As a writer-director, I’m really hungry to find out what happened: “How did it go over?” “I’ve been working on this for years, so what does it mean to you?” Even Bergman wanted to please. But one thing to keep in mind while reading reviews is that critics, also, are a performer for an audience. Just remember that.

The reason I ask is because you’re unexpectedly self-aware. You worry that your films might be seen as too precious.
I know.

So where does that come from? Did you read a bad review early on and it’s been clanging in your head ever since?
I guess I let my freak flag fly a long time ago. I went to art school, not film school, and they train you to know that you’re not going to be liked. That’s part of the game. That’s part of having your own voice.

One of my favorite scenes in 20th Century Women where Jamie reads the essay “It Hurts to Be Obsolete” to his mother. He’s trying to connect with her, to indicate that he has read this work about aging and gender and understood her in a deeper way, and she shuts him down immediately. She’s offended by how he perceives her.
Okay, so that’s a total Robert McKee move.

How?
Character A wants to connect with Character B, and he thinks he has the greatest way to do that, and of course it backfires and makes him farther away than he ever was. That’s traditional Hollywood filmmaking shenanigans.

I never see McKee’s lessons bent to serve …
… this sort of material. Maybe that’s my trick. But I totally consciously thought of McKee when I was putting it together.

Like Jamie, I thought she would be so impressed by the passage he read to her.
That’s a Hollywood movie trick! They’re all based on that: I’m going to do this to get what I want, but when I do it, what I want gets further away. Even the menstruation scene … to me, that’s a Howard Hawks scene. I watched a lot of those movies because those are the movies my mom watched. All of Dorothea’s dialogue, you could replace it with Humphrey Bogart’s dialogue, or Raymond Chandler dialogue.

You interviewed a lot of women when you were writing the screenplay, right?
I interviewed my sister a lot, who Abbie is based on. We’re very close and very open. We’ve all been in therapy. So it was to get more details, and also to get her permission and to more consciously explore. I knew that story of her life: going to New York, finding herself, getting cervical cancer, coming home. I asked her, “I think I want to have a character go through this, is that okay?” And then for Elle’s character, I interviewed a bunch of women that would have been that age then. Elle’s reading habits come from a friend of mine. Her first period comes from one friend, and when she loses her virginity, that’s another friend of mine losing her virginity. I like working in this semi-journalistic way, gathering concrete details and finding a way to weave them into this collage. And trusting that these details, to quote the great George Burns, have some truthiness to them.

When my friend Lindsey saw this film, she said, “I can’t believe a straight man made this.” It was so specific and empathetic.
Well, I grew up in a matriarchy. I grew up with a very strong mom, two strong sisters, and a gay dad. It’s all a little blendered-up in my upbringing.

Mike Mills on Directing 20th Century Women