Mike Mills: “Grief can be really empowering”

Feature by Philip Concannon | 30 Jan 2017

Thumbsucker and Beginners director Mike Mills is back mining his own life for his art with 20th Century Women. He gives us some background on his very personal approach to filmmaking

It’s customary to do some research on a director prior to an interview, but with Mike Mills you don’t really need to; his life is all there in his films. Mills was working as a graphic designer when his mother passed away in 1999 and his elderly father suddenly announced that he was gay – we know this because it was dramatised in his 2010 film Beginners, which earned Christopher Plummer an Oscar for best supporting actor. Now Mills is delving even deeper into his past with 20th Century Women, digging up memories and artefacts to explore his own adolescence, and the women who helped shape it.

Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a thinly veiled portrait of Mills' own free-spirited mother, with Bening even wearing her jewellery and handling objects that she owned; Abbie (Greta Gerwig) is a photographer dealing with cervical cancer, just as Mills’ sister did in the ‘70s; while Julie (Elle Fanning) represents the more worldly teenage friends who helped opened his eyes to the joys and complications of sex. The whole film feels deeply personal and authentic, full of intimate details that have the ring of truth because they have been lifted directly from his own experiences. Is it easy to open up your life to the public in this way?

“I'm kind of shy actually, or I used to be, and while I love movies that do this I never knew I had that in me,” Mike Mills told The Skinny on a recent visit to London. “Then my dad came out at 75 – like, holy fuck – and then all this stuff happened, and then he died. Grief can be really empowering. You feel so much and you're on fire, and you just think, ‘Who cares?’ So I wrote Beginners in that place. Beginners taught me that I like this and maybe I can do it, and maybe it works enough. I'm obviously not the most commercial writer-director, but I felt lucky to have connected with as many people as I did and I felt like I could keep going on brand here.”

Greta Gerwig in 20th Century Women

Having overcome any initial shyness, Mills describes himself as “an open book” these days, but while accessing those memories and sharing them with an audience isn't a problem, shaping them into a workable screenplay proved a more difficult task. He says it took him around two or three years to write 20th Century Women, and much of that time was spent simply trying to find a way into the material and into his mother's life. “I'm not a woman, I'm not a middle-aged woman, I'm not a mom, so finding her voice was actually hard,” he says. “Then I kind of realised – oh, that's the movie. I don't know my mom. I'm totally interwoven with her, I love her, she's the one who really tried with me, but her real life – her real struggles, her real inner life – she never showed me. That's the movie. Once I figured that part out, that was huge.”

We view the three female characters in 20th Century Women through the eyes of Mills' teenage avatar Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), while they regard him as a project in need of further development. Without a stable, positive male role model in his life, Dorothea enlists Abbie and Julie to help him through these formative years and essentially teach him how to be a man; an amusing detail that, once again, is entirely true. “That's very much my life” Mills says. “My dad was around but my dad wasn't really around. I never talked to my dad about anything. He was a very sweet, nice man but we just never connected like that. So I had my very strong mom and my two sisters, who were ten and seven years older, and they would share a lot with me, their boyfriend problems and their very adult problems, and they just told me everything and tried to teach me how to not be a dick, like their boyfriends were.”

Part of this education comes from iconic '70s feminist texts like Our Bodies, Ourselves and Sisterhood is Powerful, two of the 'found objects' that Mills utilises in his collage-like approach to filmmaking. He includes books, music, photographs, films and even Jimmy Carter's “crisis of confidence” speech to illuminate details about his characters and to evoke the political and culture atmosphere of the age. “I like creating portraits with these objects, but any portrait for me has to be completely steeped in a historical context, and how certain thoughts and feelings and ideas and narratives about yourself are possible and impossible at different times,” he says. There's also a nostalgic sense of a more innocent and liberated age gradually slipping away here, and the decision to set 20th Century Women in 1979 feels very pointed as it looks ahead to the coming '80s with a sense of foreboding. “I do feel like '79 is like the end of the '60s, the counter-culture, the hippies,” he explains. “It's the beginning of the end of the middle-class, of the working-class, of post-war American industrial-based liberalism, and it's the beginning of the aspirational economics of Reagan. '79 was also the Islamic revolution. It's weird how relevant it is to now. There were so many things that are a big part of our structure now. I love that contradiction – it's very now and it's also impossibly gone.”

Mills is chatty, engaging company and our time together zips by, but how long will we have to wait for his next feature? The three films he has made to date, including his 2005 debut Thumbsucker, have each taken around five years to bring to the screen, and Mills admits that this slow pace is something he's been asked about more than once. “It is funny that it gets brought up so much, and sometimes it's... I don't think you're doing this, but often it's like I've failed or something,” he says. “It's interesting that in the more typical American film industry context, it's kind of a mistake or a failure. It's not that I totally disagree, it's just, 'Why is that so bad?'”

After a brief digression on Woody Allen's prolific career and his golden '70s/'80s run (“Holy shit. How did he do that?”), he settles on a happy medium. “You know, I wish I'd made a movie every three years. I'd be really happy. I love shooting, I love directing, I love it so much and it's a real hardship that there are so many years in between. If I was making the kind of movies I make every three years, that would be perfect.

“But making them every five years, that's not so bad, and I don't quite see what the rush is. This sounds kind of pretentious, but I think of my movies as more like novels. They hopefully have a depth or a meditative, novelistic quality.” He ponders this thought for a moment, and then laughs. “Well, then they fucking should take five years!”

20th Century Women is released 10 Feb by Entertainment One