Mike Mills on Talking to Ghosts and Writing Women
A Conversation with the director of 20th Century Women
Mike Mills’ son had a cold the day I visited the 50-year-old director’s LA studio. “It’s okay, he’s fine,” Mills said, closing the door to his blue Volvo, parked neatly in a tiny driveway that, he’d later explain, had been designed during the days of tight-turning Model T’s.
It was a few weeks before the Christmas Day premiere of Mills’ third feature film, 20th Century Women, and, in addition to his son’s illness, the upcoming release, and the intensity of competition around an ensuing awards season, a lot was going on in the world. Obama had just announced via press conference that he’d confronted Putin: “Stop hacking or else.” The tragedy in Aleppo was mounting, humanitarian aid and evacuations halted, pro-government militiamen executions alarmingly accelerated. Climate change scientists worried about the future, and fake news was in the news. Amidst the world’s chaos and catastrophe, @realDonaldTrump was tweeting from Orlando.
“Do you have kids?” Mills asked. I don’t, but an astrologer had recently suggested to both my girlfriend and I that we consider the possibility, and I relayed this to Mills. “I believe a lot in magical thinking,” he said.
He poured two glasses of water and we sat down across from each other at his large studio table littered with objects: a handmade clay mug held colored markers and pencils, and, next to it, a few quarters sat next to a small spray bottle of water, an empty glass, a pen, several folded papers, another handmade clay mug. Amongst all this were many separate stacks of books and DVDs—in one stack: Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati, Pearls of the Czech New Wave, the Talking Heads Chronology, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. To the left, Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts sat with a book about Hans-Peter Feldmann atop a moleskin journal, next to an idle dictaphone and a pile of blank post-it notes.
These objects and titles and references—a kind of living collage that is very much a part of the fabric of his films—practically framed Mills, who looked handsome in a green wool sweater and black felt hat. On a shelf behind his head sat many more books, including McKee’s Story, which he reads and studies often—so much so that it came up in a recent conversation with NY Mag. “Transformations are a part of cinema,” he said, paraphrasing the book, and “I like to employ them with all my weird ingredients.”
I asked about a black and white photo above his head and Mills pointed up: “That’s Buster Keaton.” He pointed across the room, “That’s Louise Brooks. And, over there, that’s Charlie Chaplin.”
Mills’ studio is a Silver Lake duplex that was built in 1927, the same decade in which both his mother and father were born. During that time, the now-hip east LA neighborhood was home to the burgeoning silent film industry. Today, along with the posters inside his place, relics of those proto-Hollywood years remain in the area: A few blocks away, the Mack Sennett Stage is a self storage building on Glendale Blvd. “The Laurel and Hardy stairs are just over there,” Mills said, pointing out through a wall. “D.W. Griffith’s studio was just there, near Cafe Stella at Sunset Junction. It’s not that exciting to look at but it’s cool. LA’s history is so hard to really have a sense of, but as a filmmaker,” he paused. “Film’s language was invented here.”
Mills then described the protracted process by which one of his producers secured the rights to the song “As Time Goes By” to use in 20th Century Women. “It’s part of the Casablanca archives,” he explained, housed on the Warner lot in Burbank. “There’s this old librarian there, who doesn’t give a fuck about anything, awesomely non-service-oriented.” According to Mills, she only answers her phone on Tuesdays, at 3 o’clock, and if you miss her you have to wait until the next week. You’d think a director would find this sort of thing incredibly annoying, a tedious obstacle standing in the way of more important things on a monumental project—but Mills is different. “I love it,” he said, glad, too, that the song is in his film. “It lends a physicality to this world that is ever-erased.”
Mills and I went on to have the following conversation about his life, history, his films, and how—like with the neighborhood around his place, or McKee’s thesis, or death itself—there’s often transformation in loss.
Peter Nowogrodzki: This is a really general question. I’m curious how you came up with the title, 20th Century Women?
Mike Mills: All the women in the film were born in the 20th century. But also, for me—I’m born in the 1960s, right, so I’m 50 years old—if you say “20th century” anything, that sounds to me like the newest, the biggest, futuristic kind of thing. Like 20th Century Fox, 20th Century Women. Now, of course, “20th century” means “the past.” And that sort of slip-up, that kind of mistake is interesting to me. It’s part of what the film’s about: our future and our present slips out from under us so much more quickly than we can anticipate—and we always get the future wrong or are thrown into a future that we didn’t see coming. Plus: I thought the title made the movie feel bigger, grand. If you’re a filmmaker like me, one of the worst things that can happen to you is to be called “little,” or “indie”—it’s like a ghetto that you can’t get out of.
PN: That label’s harmful?
MM: Yeah, I mean my references are very pretentious and arty: Truffaut, Godard, Fellini—the cinema I was exposed to at art school. And that’s really imprinted on me. For Cassavetes, “independent” meant something specific—he often wasn’t using movie stars, often he was paying for it himself, in a non-unionized, very entrepreneurial workflow. You know? That’s really interesting and powerful, and I’ve done some things in that mode. But that’s very different than the branding of “Indie” films today. Sundance and the Critics Critics Choice Awards and the National Board of Review, they do the “Top Ten Films,” and then they do the “Best Indie Films.” And this year my film is in the “Best Indie Films” category. I was like, “What does that mean?” My film cost seven million dollars; I used movie stars; it’s got distribution—why Indie? They’re like, “It just means the next step down . . . ” So Indie just means you’re fucked.
PN: 20th Century Women really does contextualize your semi-biographical story—influenced by your mom and your family and your upbringing in Santa Barbara—in a larger historical moment.
MM: I’m always interested in how personal lives are interwoven with big, historical narratives—I explored this in my last two movies, Thumbsucker and Beginners. I like finding ways to talk about those larger narratives that doesn’t feel too didactic. My dad’s sexuality, as explored in Beginners, was totally shaped and disallowed by 1930s America, by past ideas that homosexuality was illicit—and literally illegal. And then, for my mom, who was born in the 20s—I wanted to explore all the struggles of being a woman who didn’t want to just do “woman’s work,” or what was relegated to women who were born at that time. So her inner life, her dreams, her ambitions—you can’t look at them without talking about 20th century history. And I like that. I’m excited if I can ever pull off that sort of portal between the personal and the political.
PN: The personal is political could be a kind of mantra for your films. Is it hard to give over such intimate relationships—like your mother and your father—to actors? Is there a loss, or, insofar as you’ve lost both parents, a redoubling of loss in that process?
MM: The idea was never to mimic my mom. In the end I’m not making a memoir, I’m making a movie, so it has to be like fully live and real and something the actor can grab onto themselves without me explaining it to them every minute. So I had to transfer the deed of rights to them in the rehearsal process. What is my mom in my movie? She’s my memories of her. Which are not facts at all—it’s only my perspective, one sliver of my perspective. I could tell you a completely different version of my mom. In the same way I made this movie, I could make a different movie. And there’s something golden in that—there’s some key to this whole deal in that discrepancy. It’s complicated. I get asked about it all the time; you’d think by now I’d have more of a dialed in answer.
PN: I don’t know how anyone could have an answer to that.
MM: But I’ve been really lucky: Christopher Plummer was born in ’33 and my dad was born in ’24. There are so many fucking similarities, just from that time period. They shared a culture, shared reflexes. And then, Annette and my mom—very different creatures but they shared enough . . . It’s great: they’re both Geminis, they’re both intense, strong women.
PN: Did you specifically look for another Gemini when casting her?
MM: No, no. But it was a good sign! And then, the character Abby (Greta Gerwig) is based on my sister. My actual sister does these very detailed astrology readings, with the whole chart; you give her the exact date and it takes her like two weeks to work it all up. So I had her do a reading of Annette’s chart and my mom’s chart. It was a private conversation between them, without me listening. I was excited to have them talk, because my sister has a totally different perspective on my mom.
PN: So many scenes in 20th Century Women depict women, at different stages of their lives, as they deal with various intimacies with their bodies, and the attending pains and anxieties of those experiences. I really respected how you did that. There’s the scene when Elle Fanning’s character is talking about wanting to have sex, wanting to explore desire—but, after she does have sex, she’s confronted with the possibility that she’s pregnant. Which would really derail her life. So she’s in bed thinking about it, just lying in bed waiting, and then falls asleep. And, later, when she takes a pregnancy test, she has to wait for two hours for the results! These agonizing waits, this latent, ever-present anxiety. There’s the scene with Annette Benning’s character, at the architectural firm where she works, just sitting there, smoking, bored—living in boredom, really.
MM: Yeah, she’s surrounded by men. There’s no other women in that room. And a guy, later, asks her if she’s a lesbian. And then—the other thing that no one’s really talked about—Julie’s sister has cerebral palsy. That’s a birth defect that comes with some sort of trauma during birth. And then Abby discovers that she maybe can’t have kids. Jamie is born when his mom is 40—the doctors had said she was too old to be a mother. You know what I mean? So there are also all the struggles of pregnancy itself, and birth—to me that’s a part of it.
PN: It takes a certain amount of confidence to, as a man, even attempt to—
MM: Talk about this stuff?
PN: I would feel a bit insecure, I think.
MM: Yes and no, right? Obviously as a heterosexual cisgender guy you’re totally trespassing, or running the risk of being an ass. I had to inhabit a woman’s perspective—a lot of the movie is from a kid’s perspective, so I’m kind of in a safer position there—but there’s a lot that I had to write where I had to try to be these women. And weirdly that’s maybe not as daunting as it should be, or seems. Because I was brought up in a matriarchy with this very strong mom and these very strong older sisters. And a gay dad. I feel like I sort of learned about life in a very feminine farm. All the interests and all the ways of talking and the bandwidth that was allowed to me was a very feminine space. I actually have a hard time writing guys. I have a hard time being a man. My men seem like they don’t sit easily within the normative idea of a guy.
PN: That’s an interesting sliding scale. I felt a lot like the main character, Jamie. And you really do, as a person, feel inextricably linked to your characters. Is that difficult, to see so much of yourself in your fictions?
MM: The main answer to that is: I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve been in therapy since I was 28.
PN: Same therapist?
MM: No. But I went back to her, and now I’m not with her. Very long relationship—she’s kind of like my third parent, in a way. I really like it and I really have gotten a lot out of it, and it relates to my film practice. The territory of therapy is kind of like, Who am I? How did I get to be here? What story am I telling myself about myself? And how true or false is that? How much is that helping me, or not helping me? And that’s very much what my films are like, to me, “How did I get this idea of who I am—and is there a more liberating idea I can start telling myself?”
PN: This relates back to my earlier question, about depicting personal loss in your films. . .
MM: I’m used to this process of letting stuff go. And I love it when other filmmakers do it, like Woody Allen in the late 70s. I feel like he was really sharing his problems and his struggles, and I know for a fact he was taking directly from his life. It gives the film a certain buzz. Same with Szabó’s Love Film—you can tell it’s from his own life. Again, it gives the film a certain quality. It’s more personal; there’s more meaning; there’s more at stake; it has some of the gravitas of a documentary. I’m a fan of all that. After you’ve written something for two or three years you’ve kind of burned it, you’ve turned it into a public document. Its seed may be completely personal and intense, but at the same time you’ve transformed it into this thing that all these people are reading and talking about—so it’s a little bit of a paradox. Sure, I’ll see Beginners and be like, “Whoa, I put that in a movie?!” The daisies at the end of that movie, those are really my mom’s daisies, and I did have all of those thoughts. Or at the end of 20th Century Women when he says “I thought that was the beginning of a new relationship with her but maybe not, maybe that’s the closest we ever were.” That’s a very painful, real feeling for me . . .
PN: Is it hard to separate your memories of your parents from the characters in your films?
MM: I never feel like Christopher Plummer or Annette Benning are my actual parents. It’s not like they took my actual parents or memories of my parents from me. I felt pretty comfortable with this whole process. My parents have been gone for a while—filmmaking has actually helped me remember them. I’m really grateful for that process, going through my memories. Because if I didn’t do that I would have forgotten. As a 50-year-old person I’m starting to forget a lot of things—and my mom died in ’99, so that’s a long time ago now. I enjoy communing with my memories, communing with the ghosts that are her. And, again, Annette’s not her, so it’s not like I feel like my real experience of my parents has been invaded.
PN: Besides making films, how do you commune with ghosts?
MM: That’s the main way. My mom died when I was 33, so I’ve been communing with her for a long time now. I wanted more of my parents than I got—even when they were living, I missed them when they were alive. Their generation just didn’t share a lot about themselves. And my dad had a very particular issue of not wanting to be gay—all the psychic effort he did to put himself in this little box, and everything he killed in that process. There’s a whole narrative I can throw at you about a closeted gay man, and you’d get a lot of it. But then my mom’s complexities are equally complicated and harder to pin down. They’re more subterranean. What is she? Not comfortable in a woman’s body? But that doesn’t mean she’s not straight. I don’t know totally what she is. Her sadness, her depression, whatever you want to call it. What is that? It’s totally undiagnosed and unspoken on her part. It’s only through osmosis that you’re picking up stuff. And then there’s just the plight of being a mom and a woman in that time period. I needed more of them when they were alive, and when they are dead I still need them, or at least there are still a lot of questions, there’s hunger.
PN: I feel very similarly about my parents.
MM: Here’s one crazy weird transformation that’s happened—it’s too complex to usually talk about in press stuff. So my dad sort of abandoned himself; he didn’t allow himself to be the gay person he was. And my mom, in marrying a gay man, there were parts of her life that she abandoned, too. That was just in the air of my house. And maybe as a sensitive sort of Piscean boy—maybe you can feel all that, this sort of de-centering, just not being you. That’s woven into the fabric and insecurity and depression that’s sort of part of my family.
But then, if you go and make movies about people who have abandoned themselves, it’s sort of like a reverse action—you’re concretizing them, you’re putting them into the Arc Light theaters, you’re doing press about them, you’re saying they were worthy of a movie. I don’t know how exactly to describe it, but it’s in the opposite direction to self-abandonment. It’s like re-constituting. Something about that is very healthy feeling, and different, and opposite to the negative side of my family dynamic.
PN: Interesting. I recently saw Jackie—and one of the things going on in that movie is that we see how JFK’s death was this moment of transformation for Jackie, like she actually had an opportunity to take control of her husband’s narrative . . . In the tragedy of his death, Jackie was transformed from this archetypal 1960s housewife, pretty passive really, an agent of her husband’s will to power—into a person in charge of her own narrative and his narrative. There’s always that potential at stake in loss. It’s super fertile in that way.
MM: I haven’t seen Jackie, but yeah—I found it that way. Especially hot grief, new grief. You’re on emotional overload. You’re not sober. It sounds really silly to talk about when you’re sober again, but it makes you really feel like, “Fuck, I gotta live.” Your mortality is vividly in your cells, so your fight for yourself and life in general, and your hunger for life is super-nova-ed. I found it like that: very transformative. It can make you very brave, and it can help you get out of whatever you’re trapped in.
PN: New grief—that feels a bit like what we’re going through right now, as a country. Your film’s release, the timing, somehow fits so well into the zeitgeist.
MM: I have a personal reaction to the film coming out on Christmas Day. That was a day my mother loved to see movies; we’d all go to see a movie. So when they said Christmas Day, I felt like that’s just a ghost in the works, making that happen. In terms of the election, it’s been really weird: we were screening the movie before the election and after, and the mood just took a different turn. The movie has a different weight now, which I can’t take any credit for, but—both in the liberalism that’s in anything to do with Jimmy Carter, and specifically his “Crisis of Confidence” speech that’s in the film—the vulnerability, that sort of non-paternal voice that he had as the President–
PN: He’s so earnest and sincere. I watched the speech on YouTube before coming over here. It’s shocking how earnest it is, that he sat in front of a camera and the American people and told them “don’t be narcissists” and “don’t be selfish” and thought that would have an effect–
MM: Yeah, and that’s after Watergate, the assassination of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam—for the President to say that we have fucked up, that we have lost our way. But I also feel like there’s an interesting parallelism that’s completely different: Carter—it’s not like he was a “feminine” President, but he’s definitely not a patriarchal father figure. And then Reagan came and took that role and said, “Here’s a master narrative.” He’s completely Dad, you know? With a capital D. And I really prefer a non-patriarchal President, right? I found Carter really interesting and so expansive; his whole method of being I could really relate to. And so there are some parallels between Carter and Obama on a very superficial level, I think. I feel like the 70s and the end of the 70s witnessed a sort of waning of patriarchal masculine power, or at least a waning of the male narrative—the Bogart era was going away, even the hero hippie narrative was going away, therapy was on the rise, and many men felt sort of awash. That’s what I was sort of trying to depict with Billy Crudup’s character.
MM: That Carter non-patriarchal liberalism just feels so incredibly impossible now, especially after the election. And then, with all the normalization of the misogyny and total idiotic-ness of Trump’s attitude towards women and really everyone around him—it feels like crazily impossible to imagine that being normalized. And yet it is being normalized. So—hopefully I’m a decent male ally, but any movie that’s just foregrounding women, that’s calling itself 20th Century Women, that’s trying to understand women from a male perspective in some kind of decent non-manipulative way, feels so counter to what the President-elect’s gravitational pull is.
PN: And it’s haunted by this weird sort of ghost, which is that this particular film would have felt totally different if we had just elected Hillary Clinton President.
MM: Right. I mean, I finished the movie in the spring and the summer. And I was able to put different parts of the Carter speech in—I put the beginning and the end of the speech in. “The road that leads to self destruction” ending and the part in the beginning where he’s like, “We’ve lost respect for the joint discourse.” I put those in with respect to the growing Trump movement and the election.
I also watched All the President’s Men on an airplane recently. I think all movies mean more right now. I mean, even The Secret Life of Pets can mean more right now. Because the Trump thing is so dramatic and traumatic. With All the Presidents Men—it’s like, fuck, Trump’s not a Reagan, he’s a Nixon. We’ve got another Nixon on our hands—the amount of lying . . . I read something called “Trump as Post-Factual Presidency”—that really helped me. His ability to just scatter-bomb the discourse with his lies—there’s something very similar there. Anyway, when I was watching All the President’s Men on the plane there was something so heroic about it. I was crying. I guess any movie can make me cry on a plane. But this one was really speaking to me.