After using his father’s coming-out process as the subject the 2010 film Beginners, Mike Mills spent years putting together 20th Century Women, a film about trying to figure out, and ultimately not quite knowing, his late mother. Though he received an Oscar nomination for the film’s screenplay this morning, Mills is an unconventional writer who built much of his story out of memories of his childhood, objects of special significance, and even news clips of political speeches. Talking to Vulture for the second time in recent weeks, Mills explained how he went about researching his own life for the film, the broken writing rules that paid off, and why the film’s a sort of “trans Bogart mom movie.”
Hi, how are you? Congratulations.
Thank you. Thank you.
Since you’re nominated for a screenplay, I thought it’d be great to start off talking about the screenplay and about coming up with the story. I know that you thought about the film for a while, how long did it take before you were at the stage of writing out scenes?
A long time. Because I want the film to be really big and from life and my memory, so I really dig around and mine that for as long as I can before I start thinking about story or structure. It was about of year of interviewing other women for the other roles. Abbie, that character’s based on my sister, so interviewing her and other women. So was a lot of culling information at the beginning. The whole process took about two years.
Did you know you wanted to set it specifically at 1979 at that point?
I knew that I wanted to talk about my mom and this middle-aged part of her life and me as a teenager who’s into punk and their weird relationship. So that would put me somewhere in ’77, ’78, ’79. And then when I found out that the Carter crisis of confidence speech was in ’79, I was like, that’s perfect. I liked ’79 as being the end of the decade and the next year as the beginning of Reagan, so it felt like a really important, seminal transition year.
Were you also collecting objects or things you also knew you wanted to use in the film? It’s built around these material things.
I’m really interested in how in our personal lives we figure ourselves out in relationship to the larger culture and to history and to books and music, and all the things around us. To me, a song, the movie Casablanca, stills from the Depression era, the Jimmy Carter speech, these are all cultural touchstones by which we help figure ourselves out. That’s part of my process too, gathering cultural stuff.
That became my great thing in the writing was presenting anything, also the punk music, Jimmy Carter, any of these books, you presented them to these three women from different eras, different moments of history, and they’re going to react differently. So it was a great sort of device for me in the writing. And also, it’s very true, when I’m thinking about my mom or my sister, or some of the young women that Julie’s based on, they have really different understanding of what it means to be a woman, what it means to fight, what it means to try to be free, based on the times that they came from.
Then, for instance, in presenting the script to Annette, did you, as a man, have to lend over the character to her?
Yeah, that’s my process in general, anyway. Especially because I’m a cisgender, straight guy writing about these women, I was especially concerned, just wanting to make it a part of the process and make it a part of the script, that I can’t know everything about these people — to have some humility and confusion and limitations be built into the process and the script. All those women were great at helping complete the character. Of course, the only reason you get nominated for a script is because all your actors did a great job at making it seem real and alive.
I was bummed that Annette didn’t get a nomination.
Yeah, I’m wildly surprised. She’s my comrade. We’re in the same army troop together. So I feel like I can say I was slugged in the stomach. She did so much and I admire it so much. Everybody on set was so completely blown away by her freedom and her bravery and just talent.
I had a fiction professor in college who said that the danger of writing about your mother is, you’ll just write “mother” and assume everyone else will have the same idea. What was interesting about this film is you have to get the specificity of her character and also the general sense that Jamie won’t necessarily fully get her. Was there a sense of not being able to reveal too much?
Well, that’s just the truth of me and my mom. And my mom was a very mysterious creature in lots of ways. And we were from really radically different times. She was born in the ’20s and I was born in the ’60s. It makes for really different people. And that’s one of my favorite parts of the story actually, that these characters don’t get to know each other as much as they want to, which in the end, is a lot like a Casablanca ending, you know? Breaking up at the airport. They might be closer than they ever are, but they’re not actually going to end up together.
She’s also curious about him. She has that terribly moving moment where she says, “You get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will.”
That line in particular, it was interesting, I had a son about a year into the writing process, so all of a sudden, Dorothea became a way for me to express my own feelings about parenthood. So I was very worried, as a writer writing about your mom, to use that character to express your feelings. But it was maybe I could understand my mom a little bit more now, as a parent. That line came from dropping my son off to preschool for the first time and leaving him with strangers, peeking at him through the gate and seeing him be a different person
It struck me how funny the script was. I read somewhere where you talked about looking at screwball-comedy styles of writing. Was that a conscious decision to make sure it was entertaining?
Yeah, it’s really all in the spirit of my mom. My mom had a great sense of humor. She was very funny, she had a lot of one-liners like that. So I wouldn’t call it screwball comedy, but like, stage door, or even the comedy in To Have or Have Not. There are some very funny, sophisticated lines in there. I feel like that’s the era my mom grew up in and that’s the sense of humor that she actually learned, I think, from films and stuff. So it was a way to get a more accurate portrait of her. I also really enjoyed it. I love how the films from the ’30s and ’40s aren’t afraid to be entertaining and funny and sophisticated and the women are really smart and subversive and unusual. It was really enjoyable to try and write sort of Howard Hawks-ian scenes.
You get that wry, deadpan sense of humor with her character. She is like Bogie.
She’s super Bogie to me. You can choose any of her lines and imagine Bogart saying them and you’d be fine.
Now I’m just dreaming of a Humphrey Bogart dad movie. Or a mom movie, either way.
A trans Bogart mom movie. I think that’s what I did, actually.
The film has these scenes where you cut ahead to what happens to each character, how Dorothea dies, for instance, which is often something that might be part of the backstory in a more traditional script, but then gets cut. What was important about keeping that in?
That’s part of what I’m amazed by and all the more grateful to get recognized like this by the Academy, as I tried to do very strange moves like that structurally. Where a character speaks from the dead, in a way. Again, it felt very accurate to my incredibly mischievous mother to be able to do that, and I liked what it did to the script. Having her talk about her death halfway through the film, to up the stakes and ante of the film, in a way that I wanted and needed, and gave everything a weight. Even the humor, every time she puffs on a cigarette, all of her subversive unwillingness to share her feelings, has a different weight once you heard her say that. I really liked how that works. I really like other filmmakers who do moves like that, work in nonlinear ways. It challenges traditional film structure and challenges naturalism.
She and the other characters also occasionally take over the narration. They’re still around even though Jamie doesn’t get to know all of them.
I get that on one level that probably seems the most avant garde and weird thing that I did in my script. To me, it actually feel like the most true. That’s what life is really like and that’s how our emotional brain really works, because all these people kind of live in their heads. You have access to what they feel and think in ways that you don’t totally understand. They’re all a part of how we figure out our own path in our life.
You’ve spent all this time on the film, then you bring it to festivals, and you go through this whole Oscar campaign. From the outside, that seems like it could be an arduous process. Do you just try to block that out, or do you pay attention to the buzz as it goes back and forth?
I pay a little attention to the buzz because you just kind of want to know where you are, or you end up hearing about it from your distributor and so forth. But mostly, honestly, I truly feel super lucky that I got to make this movie and my last movie, and I made it with a lot of really nice people and it was a really nice experience. That’s really unusual. It’s not arduous, because after I’m making a movie for five or six years, I’m pretty psyched to show it to people and to meet people who’ve seen it just to have some kind of connection with your audience. To me it’s kind of a completion of making the movie. It’s meeting the world for your film.
Yeah, on an almost media-theory level, it’s not anything until an audience has engaged with it.
That’s what I say almost every time I introduce my movie. The film doesn’t happen until people see it, so thank you for coming. I’ve made films that people didn’t see. [Laughs.] Under very existential stipulations, they don’t really exist. So it really only happens when people watch it so. It’s very dependent on that.
Where does that leave you now? Are you sort of looking around for other inspiration or trying to piece together kernels?
I’m just starting to, you put it well, to have a little box and put a couple of little things into the box and think about them. Then, the election really, I feel like … It’s a different situation being an artist right now and there are responsibilities, and so I have to change my game in some ways to address what I find to be a very hostile White House.
Is that encouragement to make art that is kinder, make art that’s more political? Does it make you more or less interested in specific things?
If you have an opportunity to make a film, that’s a huge cultural privilege. Even if you’re making a little indie arty film, that’s still a huge cultural privilege and kind of power. In this day and age, where I feel like reality is really at risk, we have a responsibility to be more socially engaged than I felt before, you know? Somehow as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man, I feel like I have a responsibility to stand up for and help out people who aren’t in the position of privilege that I’m in.
This interview has been edited and condensed.