a long talk

‘Should I Call You Daddy?’

How C’mon C’mon director Mike Mills convinced Joaquin Phoenix to father his movie son.

Or uncle his nephew, if you prefer. Photo: Bobby Doherty
Or uncle his nephew, if you prefer. Photo: Bobby Doherty
Or uncle his nephew, if you prefer. Photo: Bobby Doherty

Mike Mills is obsessed with memory: its function, its expression, the hubristic human attempts to capture it. His earnest, naturalistically funny films are usually drawn from his own memories, playing out as wistful, parallel-universe versions of his life. In his 2010 film Beginners, the writer-director reflects on the late-in-life coming-out and subsequent death of his own father, played by Oscar-winning Christopher Plummer; in 2016’s 20th Century Women, Annette Bening is a version of Mills’s mother, narrating pieces of her life from the beyond. In his new film, C’mon C’mon, Mills tries to encapsulate the present — namely, his relationship with his young child, Hopper. C’mon C’mon follows Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a lonely New York radio journalist who’s traveling the country and interviewing kids about their visions of the future. When a family emergency forces his estranged sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) to ask him to fly to L.A. and take care of her precocious 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), Johnny drops everything to help without a second thought, despite the fact that he, as Jesse wryly puts it in an early scene, has no idea what he’s doing. The two of them slowly learn to trust and communicate with each other.

Shot in black-and-white with a pared-down crew, no on-set hair or makeup, a lot of spontaneous on-set script shifts, and real interviews with thoughtful kids across American cities, C’mon C’mon is at turns kooky and affecting. Mills, a self-described “softie,” has managed to make a movie inspired by his own tumble into parenthood (alongside his partner, Miranda July) that sidesteps “wise kid teaches lost adult about life” clichés and predictable, pat resolutions. While Mills was in town for the New York Film Festival, I sat outside on his hotel balcony to ask him how he did it.

I heard this movie made everyone cry at the Telluride Film Festival.
I edited it alone, and I never watched it in a room with anyone. Then I went to Telluride and the lights came up in this room full of people and they’re all crying. I was like, “Oh, God.” I didn’t know — I thought it was emotional, but …

You didn’t expect that reaction?
That would be very presumptuous, right? No, it surprised me.

Was it an emotional writing and filming experience for you?
I mean, I’m a softie. I’m an emotional person. But the writing vibe is not that. Maybe while writing Beginners I cried, remembering my dad. But shooting, yeah, I’ll cry often. The actor does something quite amazing and when I’m on set watching, I’m in it. Every micro thing, I’m completely absorbed. So I’ll cry very often. It’s not like [fake blubbers] crying while I give direction, but … Joaquin and I, we have this joke. He loves being in a scene acting and then going, “Mike Mills!” And I’ll be like, “You can’t do that! I don’t exist when you’re acting! When you do that, I jump out of my skin.”

He addresses you mid-acting?
He’ll go, “Mike Mills! Mike Mills! What am I doing?” On camera. And he hasn’t changed his voice. He just delivered a line very beautifully, and then, “Mike Mills, that was crap.”

Why does he call you by your full name?
He’s a weirdo. Or he’ll call me “Mills.”

What was the seed of the idea for this movie?
Being with my kid. All of the things that being a parent represents — all of the kids that I’ve met at school, watching other parents, mostly moms. I’ve learned so much from Hopper’s mom. It’s so intense, political, and emotional. It’s Game of Thrones. 

Parenthood. It’s intense; everything is there. My other movies are about my parents, but they were also tied to history, tied to bigger things. It’s that thing that I really love where it’s hyper-intimate — giving a bath, learning to apologize — but it’s also very societal, and very big. But I had to find a way to distance this movie from me and Hopper’s reality. Because Hopper is a real person with mystery and is an innocent kid and can’t have their dad telling their story. So I had to find ways to not make it about us. I thought, Oh, right, an estranged uncle who has to learn how to parent every day, all the time. So I started with us, found ways to get it removed from us, and then met Joaquin and Woody. I was really happy to transfer it to them. And try to get it under their skin, and bring them into it, and their choices and soul and life. It was a great fit. They each had a lot to bring to it.

Woody is such crazy good casting. He carries the film, and I didn’t realize he was British until I read the press notes! How did you guys find him? I know he was on Poldark, but what was his audition like?
Me and Joaquin both were like, “This film might not happen. If we don’t find the right kid, we can’t even start.” I was prepared for it to be one of the searches like the one for the kid in 20th Century Women, which took us forever, to many cities. But Woody was on the first casting tape. He didn’t perform for the camera. Which is a really great thing. He was just in his consciousness. He didn’t have that [smiles cheesily]ding!” for the camera. And so many kid actors have been trained to do that: “I’m performing, I’m gonna make you happy.” Woody wasn’t like that. He was super intriguing.

But he was in London. I flew him over, and Joaquin was enough in the process at that point to come and play with him. I edited what I shot of them just playing around, improvising, and we figured out the wrestling thing — that they wrestle together. I showed them to Joaquin and I was like, “I feel confident that’s him.” It’s such a big decision, and of course you can triple-think it, but when I edited it all together, he had that same quality of being unaware of the camera. He’s obviously very smart and really funny, and Joaquin loves to just say anything, loves the unexpected. That which is not planned is Joaquin’s favorite energy source. And Woody is just right there.

Can you give me an example of a time Woody said something unexpected?
Joaquin and Woody were playing with the question, “What should I call you? Should I call you Daddy, should I call you Johnny?” And Joaquin goes, “Call me Jesus Christ.” And Woody goes, “I’m not Christian.” Just without a beat.

Joaquin Phoenix (uncle-father) and Woody Norman (nephew-son). Photo: A24

What about Gaby and Joaquin? Are there unpredictable moments from them that stand out to you?
Gaby was goofing around on set and knows every single word of “Shoop,” and she was doing it while setting up a scene. I was like, “Can you do that in the scene tomorrow?” It was so what that mom would do for that kid, this inappropriate rap.

And Joaquin is just constant. One of the funniest lines is something we wrote but then Joaquin changed: “You know, as a mother, you’re not gonna understand this, but working all day and taking care of a kid is just a lot.” He’s the brother to three intense moms and knows all about it. That’s how a lot of the film happened. It’s not as much improvisation as it is warping and wefting.

Before he officially signed on, you talked to Joaquin for a really long time, right? And went through the script together? What kinds of conversations did you have, and is it unusual for you to do it that way?
Really unusual for me, yes, but I think he does that with everyone. That’s what I’ve heard through the grapevine. He came to our first lunch to sweetly tell me he couldn’t do it, that he couldn’t find a way in. But then he texted me the next day, and we were just chatting and he felt super familiar to me. Very funny. I just adore him. I talked to our producer after and said, “I don’t think he wants to do the movie, but God, I love him.” We just kept talking and talking about parenting and life and having a good time. I was just like, “I have no idea what’s gonna happen. Every moment I spend with him, I’m more in love with him, and I have absolutely no control over what he’s gonna do.” And that’s just the deal. But I was learning so much about my film, so I thought, maybe he’s just an angel sent to help me make the film better and someone else will do it.

How long did it take from that first conversation until he confirmed he was gonna do it?
He likes to read through the script and I have to do all the other fucking parts, I have to act. And he would sort of paw through it. He’s so freaking smart and funny and he loves and cares about film so much. It was a golden situation for me to be around that brain. But I didn’t know if he was gonna do it until the end. It took almost a year. It wasn’t until we were in prep that I was like, “Okay, he’s for sure doing it.”

Would you have let anyone else do the part, or have anyone else in mind?
No. Same with Woody. And he’s a U.K. citizen so I was worried maybe he wouldn’t be able to get a work visa, and wouldn’t be able to come. I was like, “What the fuck?!” The producers were like, “Maybe you have to keep looking for other kids.” And I was like, “Believe me. If you can’t get this kid in the country, there’s no film happening.” Everyone thought I was being this braggadocio director. But there wasn’t anyone else who could have pulled it off.

What about Gaby, at what point did she come into the picture?
I met with her long before I had Joaquin, and was like, “I have an idea. I’m sorry the female character is supporting the guy, I apologize. She’s a mom, I tried to give her some real moments. Here’s my idea: I gotta get Joaquin to do this movie. And you feel so familial and I’ve always loved and wanted to work with you. What do you think of that?” It took a long time to finally be like, “Gaby, guess what? We got him.”

I’m equally as big a Gaby fan as I am a Joaquin fan. All of the Transparent and Girls stuff, whenever she’s on, it’s super electric. It feels so genuine. There’s no tropes. You don’t know what’s gonna happen. The reactions are always unique and real. If I’ve ever been a genius, it was picking Gaby. She and Joaquin are so brother and sister when they hang out. They’re having a very funny fight or a giggle fit. They are so well-matched.

I read that they stayed away from each other and didn’t meet in person until the characters met up in the film. Whose idea was that?
Each of them is like, “I don’t like rehearsal, I like improvising, experiencing stuff.” Both feel really strongly. So the film gods were telling me I wouldn’t be doing rehearsal this time in a normal way. I rehearsed with them each alone. Joaquin did a lot of recording, getting used to doing the journalism, with Molly [Webster, of RadioLab, who plays Joaquin’s co-worker]. Gaby and Woody hung out, had lunch, did stuff. We didn’t go through scenes as much as talk about life. But then Gaby and Joaquin didn’t see each other through the whole process until that scene happens where he answered the door. They’d both had the idea: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we didn’t meet until …” But really it was, “I really hate prep. Don’t make me do prep.”

Did you base Liv at all on Miranda?
It’s an overstatement to say it’s based on Miranda, but Miranda is a really deep, spiritual, awesome mom. And there are some things Miranda does that are similar to what Liv does. They’re equally engaged, philosophical, takes it really seriously. There’s affinities between those two people. I wasn’t trying to make a portrait of Miranda, and Miranda would be very surprised to hear that. But the way they talk to the kids, treat them with total respect, and allow for their experiences. When Liv says, “In his 9-year-old way, he’s trying to tell you, ‘I don’t feel safe, will you protect me if I get on this bus?’” That’s a very Miranda thing to say as a parent.

What does Hopper think of your other films?
They haven’t seen them. We talk about them, but being the child of two people who are known a little bit, if someone walks down the street and says hi when I’m with Hopper, it’s meaningful to me, but it’s an outsized impression on a kid. So we both try to downplay, make it not a big deal. The poor kid’s got two of us in that house. Hopper’s an amazing creative person, and knows an uncanny amount about filmmaking intuitively. But I try to give them that space.

The way the characters all speak to each other in this movie, the discussion of emotions and boundaries and expression, it’s clearly the work of someone who’s been to therapy.
Absolutely. The kind of conversations you have in therapy, all the inter-relational stuff, I learned about all of that with my first therapist at age 28. And clearly, beyond my own story, I really just like that stuff. “Like” isn’t the right word. I’m drawn to trying to understand those dynamics. I find it endlessly interesting. I had a great therapist who was super interesting and who would bring up psychoanalysis but also, like, Keats or magic. She was a great teacher to me.

All of your films deal with memory directly, as a topic, but they also feel and come across like memories do. Why do you think you’re so, I guess, obsessed by the concept of memory?
[Laughs.] I don’t know what that’s all about. Memory is just one of the more precious things to me. Grieving. What you forget. The human inevitability of that. And what you remember together, your co-story of what’s happening. That to me is blowing up the Death Star. That’s what’s important, the goal, the action part of my films. The car of my Vin Diesel movie is what we remember together.

There’s also a line in the film about how recording, for Joaquin’s character, is a way of elevating and making permanent the mundane. It strikes me that your movies try to do that same thing.
I got that line from Starlee Kine. I asked her a lot of questions and she said something like that, and I wrote my version of it. And Joaquin, when he said it, it was slightly different. I can really relate to that. Making films about your dead parents is communing. And communing is holding on.

How did the recording sessions work with Joaquin and these kids? How did you find them?
I found the kids, Kaari Pitkin, who’s a radio producer who does Radio Rookies, she helped us. She ended up glomming onto these amazing schools, in Detroit and New Orleans and New York, and we shot in their school. There would always be a principal or a teacher in the school who really helped us. Kaari would interview them, I’d pick the kid from the interview, then Joaquin or Molly — I had a list of questions, but they were in a real conversation — would interview them. His prep was interviewing people, too: his nephews, a preschool teacher I adore.

Did they know who he was?
Joaquin is really good at using the Force, like, “I’m not the droid you’re looking for.” A few kids would be like, “You’re the Joker!” And he’d be like, “It’s cool, we can talk about that in a minute, but tell me about your shirt.” He’s really conscious of power. How it’s used and abused. The power relationship if you have a camera, a mic, if you’re older. Trying to acknowledge and be aware of it, or be unintentionally manipulative or freak out the kid. That’s just his natural instinct. His connection with these kids was really genuine, and his intention of nonviolent communication is really alive. It made the rest of the film better. We were doing these interviews every day, because Woody’s hours are short. It changes your whole chemistry.

Can you tell me about the choice to film it in black-and-white?
There’s a pile of reasons. One is I fucking love black-and-white movies, I wish there were more. It’s its own little craft. And the film does have a documentary aspect; it’s really right now. There’s no nostalgia. But really, it’s a fable. You have this man and this boy walking around, and I kept seeing that image: the little shape and the big shape, walking through space. It’s this archetypal Jungian thing. Black-and-white enhances and helps you enter it. I kept thinking of it as a David Hockney drawing. At the beginning you’re trying to convince yourself to do the film, so you’re giving yourself rules and arguments as to why it’s okay. A drawing to me means quick, intimate, al dente, effortless feeling even if it’s not.

There are obviously a lot of famous black-and-white movies shot in and about New York City with moments of wistful classical music playing in the background, but it still felt fresh to me. Were you thinking about that pantheon of films, and how to separate yourself, while making the movie?
I wanted to be out in the world in locations and not do anything to them. To have that feral jungle-ness of New York City. And I’m always looking for opposites. Filmmaking loves opposites. I do love Manhattan and Alice in the Cities and Shoot the Piano Player. There are a lot of black-and-white movies that influence all of my movies. I think I’m actually a sucker for recreating them.

To that point, your movies reference other works of art very directly. You go so far as to quote from other books and films and essays, and then spell out the name of the artist and the title onscreen. How do these works of art factor into your writing process?
I love collecting. Films are huge, they’re like big buckets. Everything I shoot is pretty simple but there’s a lot of different elements. It’s just the way I work: “Ooh, that Kristen Johnson Cameraperson quote is so fucking good.” That’s in my Evernote. “Oh, that Jacqueline Rose quote is so profound. And Viv would definitely read that.” I really enjoy decentralizing my own authorial voice. Did you ever read Unbearable Lightness of Being?

I read it in college and I feel like I’m just ripping it off forever. He kind of does that, takes essay parts and other writing and changes the form. So those are all things I bumped into along the way. I read Star Child to my kid and I cry and my kid makes fun of me. I like accumulating and collaging. Like, “Oh, Aaron Dessner’s daughter has this orphan story. Can I please take that?” It’s a documentary mentality.

You’re collecting and preserving.
And walking around in a heightened state of, “What’s going to help now?” It’s very Fellini. He was like, “It’s not what you thought or expected or planned, it’s what it is.” If you’re available to what is, it’s like, Whew! Everything is electric.

That’s very zen.
I’m not so good in real life. I kind of suck at that. But as a filmmaker, I can hold onto it. 

‘Should I Call You Daddy?’