20th Century Women: Interview with Director Mike Mills

Mike Mills’ film output has defied easy definitions.  He’s always had multi-disciplinary career, as an artist, graphic designer and filmmaker.

He has made album covers for The Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth; worked on music videos for Air, Pulp and Yoko Ono; exhibited his art internationally, and at museums including  MOCA and in the permanent collection of SFMOMA.

Mills approaches his work as an integrated practice: It all shares a way of showing how intimate moments of love and identity fit like puzzle pieces into the larger maps of culture, society and time–as the feminist phrase has it, how “the personal is political.”

His earliest short films exposed his twin passions for the funny, real textures of everyday life and the fast-running currents of modern culture.

DEFORMER (2000) entered the world of L.A.-based pro skateboarder and artist Ed Templeton.

PAPERBOYS (2001) explored the dying art of the adolescent newspaper deliverer.

His first feature adapted Walter Kirn’s novel THUMBSUCKER (2005) into a fresh take on how angst and inadequacy are part of the fabric of human lives at any age.

This was followed by the 2007 documentary, DOES YOUR SOUL HAVE A COLD? about the coming of anti-depressants to Japan.

In 2010, the breakout success of BEGINNERS, his most commercial feature to date, established Mills as a more mainstream cinematic voice.

Man writing about Women

But with 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Mills faced his biggest challenge so far.  When a man writes a woman it doesn’t always go deep.  But Mills relied both on his own experiences as an adolescent surrounded and forged by fascinating women as well as interviews and research.

He has crafted resonant voices for the film’s three different generations of women in contrasting phases of life:  Depression-raised working mom Dorothea, Baby Boomer artist Abbie, and Gen X teen Julie.

“I was raised by a very strong woman, and this story comes from that very real person and out of a very real place,” Mills notes.  “My father was present and yet not present during my childhood.  Most of my childhood was spent with my mom and my two sisters.  Since then I’ve always gravitated toward women–and I guess I realized early on that trying to figure out these women around me was a form of survival.  I was always studying them, trying to learn from them, even when they were inscrutable.”

The impossibility of teenaged Jamie ever fully grasping his mother is set off against his clear love and respect for how she conducts her life as a single mom and mysterious force unto herself. This became not only a writing challenge but a central tension inside the film.

Mills explains:  “Writing in women’s voice feels very natural to me but writing Dorothea was not easy, especially because my mother was and will always partially be a deep mystery to me.  It was not just a matter of trying to comprehend being a 55 year-old mother who had a child at 40, but also what it was like to be born in the 20s and then confront the intense social changes of the 70s.  That involved both research and personal conjecture.”

Love for Movie and Bogart

Some details of Dorothea’s persona Mills borrowed directly from his mother.  “She did want to be a pilot, she did work at an all-male company, and she did love old movies, especially anything with Bogart,” the writer-director notes.  The latter became one of several routes in for Mills, always in love with movies.  If punk was the emanation of a generation for whom conventional heroes no longer existed, he saw that Bogart had been the last of the heroes who had fit into a new, post-Depression, post-World-Wars world–rueful, mischievously caustic and futilely noble in a world rife with uncertainty.

Says Mills:  “I watched a lot of films from that era and the witty dialogue between men and women also became an influence.  So many of that era’s movies are subversively funny and that helped me to understand Dorothea better.  I realized she didn’t so much want to fall in love with Bogart as she wished to be him.  A mantra for writing Dorothea became:  What would Bogart do in this situation?”

Abbie: Punk Artist

Creating Abbie, the 20-something punk artist who fled her creative dreams in New York when she received a cancer diagnosis, also drew on a mix of Mills’ personal experience with artist friends as well as research into life as a young cancer survivor.  The stark realities of mortality and fertility are as much a part of the mix of 20TH CENTURY WOMAN as punk exuberance.  “A loved one of mine had a similar story with cervical cancer, and I interviewed her at length while researching the script,” Mills notes.

The persona of the film’s youngest female character, Julie, draws on an amalgamation of girls Mills hung out with in high school, several of whom he interviewed.  “I worked journalistically to understand these characters,” Mills comments.

Film about Time and Memory

But that journalistic approach also merged with elements that hold a more mysterious attraction to our imaginations – memory and comedy.  Mills observes that many of his cinematic influences explore how time exerts itself on lives and loves.

They include:  Alain Resnais, the French New Wave filmmaker who simulated the non-linear essence of remembrance in such films as THE WAR IS OVER, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and MURIEL; Istvan Szabo’s LOVE FILM, in which a man reflects back on a haunting adolescent love in the years between World War II and the dropping of the Iron Curtain, and Fellini. Mills often watched on his iPad before shooting.  “Fellini is the master of giving personal experience a cinematic scale,” Mills explains.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN is concerned not just with the passage of time but also with its escalating speed in the last several decades.

Observes Annette Bening:  “Change is something we’ve always dealt with as humans, but it’s the rate of change since the 20th Century that is so new.  It’s so fast.  Part of what I love about this story and why it appealed to me so much is that I was a young girl in 1979 California, so I relate to the girls in the movie – yet, I also feel I have been all of these characters at one time or in one way or another. I think we’re just at the point now where we can look back on the latter part of the 20th Century with any perspective, and Mike in his incredible talent is tapping into that.”

From Casablanca’s ‘As Time Goes By’ to the Buzzcocks

Other cultural influences that infuse 20TH CENTURY WOMEN: vinyl albums, best-selling books, political anxiety, shared television moments and variety of paraphernalia, all lining the film wall to wall.  They span not just 1979, but the cultural fabric of Dorothea’s life, too.  “You can almost sum up the film as being the trajectory from ‘As Time Goes By’ to the Buzzcocks,’” Mills muses.

That sense of how overlapping layers of moments and obsessions make up personal lives is the film’s distinctive territory.  Another cultural signifier of the early 21st Century:  the circular and self-referential. There is a feeling watching the film that one is watching a writer-director looking back on how he become the artist driven to look back by making the very film we are watching.

Notes Billy Crudup:  “We all have childhoods that are the foundations of who we are, but what Mike does in this film is draw not only on his experiences but also on the evolution of how he’s come to see those experiences, years later.  He’s showing you how the kid became the filmmaker who developed the aesthetic with which he is telling you the story. I think that’s why it is such a universal experience.  Mike crafts a terrifically charming story onto which we can each project our own lives.”

The film’s self-reflexiveness comes into play when, mid-way into the narrative, Dorothea informs the audience of her impending future, bending time and our perspective of everything to come in the story (and reminding us that we ourselves are watching from the future), but in her direct way, sans overt mysticism.

The choice came to Mills suddenly, organically, and he followed it.  “It suited Dorothea as a character.  Dorothea is always somewhat elusive, a bit like a trickster.  And the future is so unpredictable to us, we’re always getting it wrong.  But she gives us this fleeting glimpse.”