Mike Mills is a cornucopia of references to foreign films that helped inspire 20th Century Women, to the point he stopped himself and admitted he was full of “pretentious” references on the day when I met Mills at his Midtown Manhattan hotel. (I am not going to pretend I’ve seen every film he references.) Inspired from everything from Fellini to Animal House, Mills is a treasure trove of filmmaking honesty. Though, to tell the truth, Mills could have said that 20th Century Women was inspired by The Man with One Red Shoe and t wouldn’t change the fact that 20th Century Women is one of the best films of 2016.
Mill eschews conventional plot and exposition to instead give us a slice of life in 1979 (oh, yes, also inspired from his own experiences) where single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) is raising her young son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), while also renting out rooms to a photographer named Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and a handyman named William (Billy Crudup, sporting his Russell Hammond mustache from Almost Famous).
Actually, the whole film as an Almost Famous vibe to it, which Mills, ahead, is quick to dispel.
I compared 20th Century Women to Almost Famous, but then I heard it repeated and I kind of regretted it because they are very different. But there’s a vibe…
And Billy Crudup.
And he’s sporting the haircut and mustache. But I hope you don’t dislike that comparison.
I don’t. That’s a compliment. But that movie, I don’t resonate with that movie: I never think about that movie. I like the movie, too, so I could totally see why someone would say that, and I take it as a compliment. There are so many movies that did influence me, but they’re weirder.
Like Fellini’s Amarcord.
Well, that still makes sense. If you said, I don’t know, The Chronicles of Riddick, I’d admit I wouldn’t have seen that coming.
Like Hiroshima Mon Amour, the structure of it. Or Fellini in general. Or like My Life to Live or Shoot the Piano Player.
I get what you’re saying, but I still think you made this movie that’s going to speak to a lot of people.
Well, maybe here’s a similarity. That was his life, right? That happened to him. And this all happened to me and I really do believe I have the best chance to make a good movie for strangers if I write about people who I love but also confuse me.
You were Jamie in this movie.
Yeah. And my mom was like that. Abbie’s based on my sister. The Elle character is based on my first girlfriend and all these girls that sneaked through my window and told me about their much more wild lives than what I was having.
Okay, when I was a little kid, no girl sneaked through my window, so you were living a much more wild life than I was.
Yeah, I didn’t have sex with them. They just came freshly from having sex with someone.
Having literally anyone sneak through my window would have been amazing.
It was good. Yeah, I made a movie about it!
Is this your most personal film? I know Beginners is also personal.
Beginners is maybe a more tender spot. Because it’s my dad dying, very clearly, and some of my relationship problems, for real, in that movie. So that’s just kind of more embarrassing. But it’s that thing, the filmmakers I love, like Woody Allen in the ’70s, Fellini, they use their real life and as a viewer I love that. I feel like I’m getting more of a whole food. I’m getting something that’s alive. I’m getting something that has real stakes.
This movie doesn’t have a traditional plot. It’s just about these strong characters and that’s what’s great.
Totally. And a plot, to me, is one of the least interesting things I experience as a film watcher. People’s lives don’t have the kind of transformations which normal films always grant them and events don’t happen as quickly and as intensely as plot things do. So plot always takes me away from the authenticity of life. You know?
When a movie has great characters, I just want to spend time with them interacting.
Yeah. Or I’m really interested in people like history. How did this person come to have these thoughts and these feelings? Just on their own micro personal history and part of a larger macro history. I could do whatever you want to call those little essay bio background things on every character. I could just keep doing this.
Those character introductions are great. There’s very little exposition about the characters and we don’t really know their stories until you do these elaborate introductions.
That’s my favorite part of the movie process.
I am not comparing this movie to yours, but Weekend at Bernie’s has an interesting first act before the plot starts.
I was not expecting to bring up Weekend at Bernie’s during this. Or Chronicles of Riddick.
People were asking me about the epilogue at the end and where did that come from. I was like, Animal House. The end of the movie, you just see everyone’s lives and what happens to them in the future – and that’s such a Hollywood convention and I kind of adore that.
That can turn out poorly. But here, I teared up when we get to Abbie’s part.
Well, that’s all my sister’s real life. That’s the other reason I don’t use plot. I start from real people’s lives, which don’t follow the tidy conventions of plot. They’re much more messy and strange. But, if you can convey them, it’s much more enriching. You just can smell, like, that’s real. Something about that’s real. Have you ever seen [Itsván] Szabó’s films like Lovefilm or Father? They’re gorgeous films and they really influence me. I don’t know anything about being from Hungary during World War II and being in love, you know? But, because it’s real, it makes it kind of more universal. There’s something authentic about it that I gravitate towards.
But you made something authentic and people can relate. It does both.
Yeah, but I feel like that’s what I’m saying about Szabó. I can relate due to the concrete truth of the things that he included in the film.
Right, but there are a lot of people who actually know what it’s like to have a mother in the late ’70s.
Yeah. You don’t have to be late ’70s. Just any mom.
Right. For me, it would be the ’80s. But it all felt familiar.
I feel like even all the characters are trying to figure out who they are. That’s completely a very common issue. Or trying to be like a little bit more free, a little bit more themselves, and finding themselves in relationships with these other people. That’s so common. So maybe I am sort of gravitating towards very common experiences.
The other thing that really bugs me in a movie is bad exposition. You pretty much skip most of the normal exposition, but we still figure out what the relationships are.
Yeah. I mean, again, those are the kind of movies I like, so I’m just sort of like copying the things that I adore. I have such pretentious film references today, but like [Ermanno] Olmi.
Throw in one Vin Diesel movie to balance it out.
That’s hard. Animal House, let’s just go with that. But Olmi’s Fidanzati, you know? Like the way that narrative gets put together, it’s like a mystery, and slowly you learn the world. I just find that really exciting and kind of more of a gift to the viewer, like more fun for the viewer, and just more real.
You wrote and directed a movie about women. Do you talk to your wife? Do you talk to other women about that?
Well, I really was brought up in a matriarchy. Like I have my mom, who was a very strong person, who really was the one I was connected with. I have two older sisters, who are like 10 and 7 years older, who lived very wild ’70s lives and shared them with me – told me all their problems and told me a lot of stuff. So I had a lot of access to female-ness. And then my dad is an in-the-closet gay man, who’s really sweet and gentle, but is not very psychically present in the house. And there was no Oedipal business in my house. My dad was like, “Please, be Mom’s husband, because I can’t really be it.” So I’m the only straight guy in this house that’s very much led by women and they taught me everything, just like in the movie. They taught me how to be me. And they were my best friends and they were the people who tried in my life. So, for me, it’s easier to write women than it is to write men, actually, in a way. Because I just have more interface with them. And guys have been always more tricky for me. I’m a straight guy, but my emotions and the kind of stuff I’m interested in, it’s like I’m not straight. So I’m a sort of weird figure when I’m writing a masculine guy. It’s always like, “Is that a guy? Or what is that?” You know?
So you would have trouble writing a Vin Diesel character?
Totally. Big time. Yeah, I’d be called a pansy and kicked out of that movie quick, you know?
So you’re not doing Fast and Furious 9.
I don’t see that happening.
Did your mom have a “My mom found my Black Flag album” moment like that? Because that was great.
So I was in this bad punk band, and she’d let us practice in the house. And we were horrible and loud. And she would come to our shows and dress up for the show. And skating, too – she took me to all my contests in L.A., learned the names of tricks. And she was a pilot, so she loved skating for the flight involved in it. And she was very unusual. She didn’t do anything normally feminine. Just imagine sort of Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart as your mother. That’s kind of her. So she would definitely come to shows. She didn’t do that dancing. I made all that stuff up. But the seed of it was how my mom would take these apparently very strange and very new things – punk rock in the late ’70s and skateboarding – and take them very seriously. Like, this is what my son loves, so I’m going to try to understand it.
That’s a great story. Not many moms are like that.
Yeah, not at all. And she was super cool that way and that’s probably why I made a movie about her, because she gave me that gift.
Annette Bening’s narration of the future is an amazing scene. I was struck by the part about punk dying, then replaced by fears of nuclear war in the ’80s, then that being replaced by fears of drowning by the melting arctic. The ’80s part reminded me of The Day After being on television…
Yeah, remember that?
Oh yeah. I thought I was going to die in a nuclear war. Anyway, I thought that part of the movie was very unique.
That’s kind of my favorite part of the movie, too. And then she talks about her death and putting money into the Bank of Montecito in gold coins and all that stuff. That’s totally true. My mom did all that stuff.
But it’s not just here’s what happens in the future to the characters. It’s also here’s what’s going to happen to the world.
That just kind of leaped out of me one day in the middle of the whole thing when I was sort of struggling. And as soon as I did that, it was one of the times where I felt like, okay, maybe I’ll pull this off. But it does come from something. It’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, the book. It talks about the death of the character long before the end of the book. You’re trying to, in this case, ever deepen the portrait of the person and the person in history, but by any means necessary. And there’s sort of like a kinetic, fun energy to using different modes or breaking those rules. And it’s always a good sign when it’s like, I fucking cannot defend this to the film teacher in my head. There’s no way to justify this! Her saying all that! It’s so unjustifiable. I could just see the raised eyebrow of the film teacher – and therefore, a very good idea.
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