Director's Chair: Mike Mills — <i>20th Century Women</i>
Issue: January 1, 2017

Director's Chair: Mike Mills — 20th Century Women

The multifaceted Mike Mills isn’t just an acclaimed writer/director who’s best known for his independent films, Beginners (2011) and Thumbsucker (2005); he also works as a graphic designer and artist whose exhibitions at the Alleged Gallery were documented in the book, exhibition and film Beautiful Losers. He’s designed album covers for Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, Beastie Boys’ Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, Wild Flag and Air’s Moon Safar, the book cover for Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, for many years all graphic design for Kim Gordon and Daisy Von Furth’s clothing companies and X-Girl, and so much more, including music videos for such artists as Air, Moby, Blonde Redhead, Yoko Ono and Pulp. 

It’s his role as a filmmaker that’s gotten him the most attention. His last film, Beginners, won an Oscar for Christopher Plummer, Best Film and Best Ensemble Cast at the Gotham Awards and was nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor by the Independent Spirit Awards.

If his semi-autobiographical Beginners was a love letter to his father, then his latest film, 20th Century Women, is a love letter to his mother. A multilayered, funny and poignant celebration of the complexities of women and family set in Santa Barbara. The film follows Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie’s upbringing — via Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Mills talks about making the awards-buzzy film (it’s already scooped up two Golden Globe nominations) and his love of post.

This is another semi-autobiographical film. What was the genesis of the project?

“I always write from memories and about real people, and my scripts don’t follow all the usual script formulas. I like to deal in real emotions and real moments in people’s lives, their humor, sadness and their triumphs and regrets. I set it at the end of the ‘70s in Santa Barbara, where I grew up, because it was this time when so much change was just around the corner, but people didn’t really know. It was a sort of innocent time compared with what came right after in the ‘80s — AIDS, all the greed, the start of the Internet and so on. In a way it’s a story about the Greatest Generation meeting Generation X — as my mom was born in the '20s and I was born in the late '60s, and it’s also a sort of love story between a mother and son, a love story that is deep and meaningful but one that also examines just how fleeting those moments are when you feel a really true connection with someone you love. So there were all these different ideas at play, and it took me three long years to write, and to get it right.”

Did you view it as a companion piece to Beginners, which was based on your father and the revelation that, at the age of 75, he decided to finally embrace the fact that he was gay?

“In one sense, yes, but I was always far closer to my mother. She was a very strong woman — and this story was inspired by that very real person and a very real place. My father was present and yet not when I was growing up, and most of my childhood was actually spent with my mom and my two sisters. They were a very big influence on my life, and I’ve always gravitated toward women — even when I didn’t understand them.”

How much of your real mother is in Dorothea?

“Quite a bit, as she was a huge Humphrey Bogart fan and loved all his movies, and she really did work at a company where she was the only woman, and she really did want to be a pilot and fly planes.”

What did Annette Bening bring to the role?

“Everything. She’s so smart and has this amazing ability to hold these contradictions in her face, and she’s so free and brave on camera. I tried to write a very complex character, and Annette brought to life everything I was trying to do.”

How was the shoot?

“It was no problem, although we only had 35 days. We shot some stuff in Santa Barbara, but Dorothea’s big, rambling house, which functions almost like another character in the story, we found in LA I had a great DP, Sean Porter (whose credits include Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, The Green Room), production designer Chris Jones, who did Henry’s Crime, and costume designer Jennifer Johnson, who did Beginners with me. And I spent a couple of weeks with the cast before the actual shoot, where we’d all just hang out and do stuff together, so everyone feels very comfortable with each other. By the time you start shooting, it feels like a real family that way, I feel.”

Let’s talk about post. Do you like the process?

“I absolutely love it. It’s all the magic coming together and you’re seeing all your elements — and it’s much more than just the live action you shot. It’s all the sound and music, the stills, plus other footage we gathered and added, so it’s very exciting — until I start freaking out. By that, I mean that I always love the first assembly, but then I find you hit a point where you start to get lost and you go off into this dark forest. It’s terrifying. It’s always a little bit of a tightrope walk to get it right, and whenever you have a problem, usually you don’t see it coming. You think it’s all fine and then you’re surprised. This is my experience, but inevitably about two thirds of the way through, you know where the problems are, you’re trying to solve them and then you have all these epiphanies.”

Where did you post?

“I cut it at my offices and then we did all the initial sound mixing over at the home of the supervising sound editor, Frank Gaeta, and then the final mix with Rick Ash at Post Haste Digital.”

You edited the film with Leslie Jones, who was also one of the editors on Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. How did that work?

“She would come by the set when we were shooting, and she’s the mom of a teenager and a very seasoned editor, so all that helped. She gave me great notes on the script before we even started shooting, and then she’d start work and then send me cuts, and the DP and I would then adjust our coverage based on what she’d done. And once we sat down together, it was a very intimate process. 

"We used two Avids and cut for about 29 weeks, which was a nice relaxed schedule. Editing is like writing and you just keep going and it really rewards stamina. You find that you can take one shot out of a scene, for instance, and suddenly the scene before plays just as I wanted, so there’s a lot of very small, incremental fixes that you’re doing. And then much bigger things happen magically because of all those very small fixes and changes. It’s very exciting. 

"One of the big challenges was the fact that we had a big ensemble cast, so how do you weave in and out of the five main characters? How do you keep the focus on Dorothea, even when she’s not in the scene? How do you keep the momentum going around her and all her relationships? And it wasn’t just that. We also had to weave together all the different modes of filmmaking, as it’s sometimes naturalistic filmmaking, then it breaks into these little narrative essays, there’s drama, there’s comedy. So we had a lot of disparate elements to pull together, almost like a collage.”

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but in period films the VFX play a big role, and there are a lot of car-driving scenes with very trippy color-smearing effects.

“Yes, and that’s because cars were these truly transformative devices back then if you were a teenager. They represented freedom, the ability to get up and go wherever you wanted without your parents supervising you, and so I thought it’d be fun to try and give a sense of the euphoria, the almost hallucinogenic feeling of driving around like that. We did all the VFX at A52, this really cool boutique place in Santa Monica, which works with Rock, Paper Scissors and Elastic. Pat Murphy was the VFX supervisor and Flame artist, and he did some great work on it. I’ve worked with Pat for over 15 years now on all the commercials I do, and we also had some 3D and 2D VFX artists and a roto artist. We also used a lot of speeded-up footage, with a very specific algorithm, and of course there was quite a bit of clean-up work as well, taking out all the modern stuff. The great thing about shooting in Santa Barbara is that it’s hardly changed at all in many places, so it was great for shooting all the exteriors.” 

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? 

“It’s hugely important and Frank Gaeta collected all the backgrounds, which are crucial. When it works well, you don’t really notice it, and he went up to Santa Barbara and recorded different air tones, the train sounds, the familiar crow sounds in Montecito and he has a great ear for details like that.”

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

“It did. It’s pretty close. It’s weird, unusual, it doesn’t follow the rules, but I think it’s kind of elegant.”