It’s not uncommon to see space and time collapse into a single image within the work of Mike Mills. The writer-director of Beginners and 20th Century Women (the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination) has a knack for extrapolating a complete history of an object in a single closeup. His camera turns everything into an artifact.
Mills’ latest movie, C’mon C’mon, is an unclehood dramedy about the dynamic between children and the adults who try to understand them. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Johnny, a radio journalist whose current project gets sidetracked when his estranged sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffman), asks him to care for her 9-year-old son, Jesse (Woody Norman), as she tends to her mentally unstable husband (Scoot McNairy) in the throes of a breakdown. Johnny brings Jesse on a multi-city tour where he discovers that kids—unlike singing electric toothbrushes—don’t have an off switch.
It’s a quiet, unassuming film that packs an extraordinary punch when the miraculous banality of life catches up with its characters. The A.V. Club spoke with Mills by phone about his love for Gordon Willis, making interior spaces that are more than just cool-looking, and how to properly film a mosh pit.
AVC: “Deformer,” one of your earliest films, has a documentary quality. It features professional skateboarder and artist Ed Templeton. Did you know him growing up? Because you’re from Santa Barbara, right?
MM: I didn’t know him growing up. I knew him from Alleged Gallery, the New York City scene. The skater-art scene. I found his struggle with normalcy so interesting, and that he lived in Huntington Beach. I don’t know if you know what it’s like there, but it’s crazily normative and kind of insane.
Super creative person. And again, that he learned by going to Barnes & Noble and finding an Egon Schiele book and figured out his whole way and really did it on his own. I love all that so much.
I did another short film before that. But [“Deformer”] was kind of my first film. Like my film. And it’s nice that you bring that up because I actually really like that piece. It’s the way it is like a documentary, but it’s also kind of lyrical. Like, is this a film? I don’t know. It’s not a narrative film, but it’s not a straightforward documentary at all. And all of its concerns are kind of similar to mine now. It’s funny. I haven’t thought about that film in a long time.
AVC: With Beginners, 20th Century Women, and now C’mon C’mon, you have this triptych going about the autonomy of parents and kids and how we navigate that relationship. And C’mon C’mon is the first time it’s straight from the parent’s or the guardian’s perspective. Did having a child inform that shift?
MM: We had our kid in the middle of me writing 20th Century Women, so I started off that script from the perspective of just being a child of someone and dealing with all that. Then I became a dad, and that script took a long time, so I was a dad for a while before I finished it. And my favorite line in that movie is when [Annette Benning’s character Dorothea] says, “You get to see him as a person out in the world. I never will.” That came from me dropping off Hopper to pre-school, watching him walk off, and start talking to everyone in a way that was kind of different. That’s a different soul over there. And there’s like a gate, so I had to just leave and watch. I was like, “Whoa, I can feel it’s going to be more and more of this.”
In the movies and the stories, it’s also about the intertwinedness of parents and children, how they kind of create each other, and how our parts are all in each other. There are also parts that are very different, and that’s so complicated and beautiful and strange, right? Like how similar we are to our parents and children and how radically different we are. Just navigating that. And it’s really interesting to have my mom character speak something that was my experience as a new parent in 20th Century.
So this time, yeah, obviously, it’s a lot from Johnny’s perspective, but his focus is so on the kid. I kind of feel like it’s a shared perspective in a way. When Jesse pretends to be an orphan and describes his mom, I like handing over the perspective completely to him.
It’s funny. You’re probably right, like the author or the director is the last one to know what they made. But I do feel like that’s why it’s called C’mon C’mon. It’s a duality. It’s a relationship. It’s two people. It’s the space between them.
MM: That actually came from Aaron Dessner from The National, who worked on the score. His daughter does that. Like, exactly that. So I heard about her doing it, and I just took it. We were showing this script to different people, and I heard this a lot: “Oh, I did that” or “My kid that.” Different variations of orphanhood.
What I really like about it is that it is kind of heavy. It’s like Jungian to me. It’s like a child really playing with very dark, heavy things: being parentless, death. Like Lacan or Freud would have a fucking field day with that. I’m not smart enough to know what they would say, but I like that it’s not cute. It’s not sweet or funny or shallow, even if it has a funny quality in the movie. It’s quite deep to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason we’re laughing. It’s almost uncomfortably deep.
AVC: There’s even that moment where they acknowledge how fucked up it is.
MM: Yeah, Johnny does, and the kid says, “It’s not fucked up. What are you talking about? This is my thing.” And I really like that, too. It’s one of the many ways I treat kids as full beings with sovereignty and respect. I’m sure people think it’s cute and quirky, but to me, it’s quite a deep thing for a kid to play with.
AVC: Johnny has this clinical understanding of children at the beginning, and the more time he spends with Jesse, the more he comes to realize that this child is unpredictable and has this relationship with the world that is all his own. How did you track Johnny’s progression as a writer and with Joaquin Phoenix, moving from this clinical understanding to a more emotional one?
MM: “Clinical” is an interesting word. To me, it’s just like, he doesn’t know how to do it. He’s not an intellectual. He’s kind of a smart guy. I needed to have something develop or deepen, and that seemed really natural, and that’s kind of what it feels like as a parent.
You’re doing that every day all the time. Like in an argument with your kid, you’re like, “Oh, I thought you were being silly, dumb, irrational, small, blah, blah.” And during the argument, you realize that they’re totally accurate and calling you out on something that you don’t want to be called out on. But I appreciate it, or that’s the small word for it—I fucking love that you’re deepening my world like that. So I feel like that’s happening all the time, and it was something that I was trying to capture in the writing.
I shot it in order, so they start in Los Angeles, go to New York, and then go to New Orleans, and it just starts to naturally happen. And Joaquin and Woody really had a relationship. I think it was two actors playing with each other that really liked playing with each other. Joaquin, being a former kid actor, had a lot of feelings for what Woody’s going through.
This natural relationship occurred between them, and that was the design of my shooting schedule. It just naturally happens in ways that are more complicated and unpredictable than you can ever plan. All of my films I try to shoot in order for that reason.
AVC: It’s such a city-hopping film. What do cities, in general, bring out of children?
MM: I started writing this script after 2016, and I was really kind of shook by America, and our responsibility to something larger than our own little stories. And having a kid really throws you into your place in history because you’re helping to explain the world to your kids. You’re not just thinking in your lifetime. You’re thinking longer. All that was in my heart. All those concerns as I wrote this.
To me, the heart of this movie is giving the kid a bath. That’s at the core. All the intimacy, all the interpersonal richness that can happen in this very intimate space. Very small. Something a film, usually, doesn’t think is important enough to film. That’s the core. Then I wanted to throw that intimacy into America, like a bigger space, and that contrast is really exciting.
I kept having this urge to thrust out into a much larger version of our world, so I did that by going to the cities and by having all the other kids. Those were real interviews with real kids. So these different kid perspectives on America, I wanted that to be like a landscape that my story is cruising through.
AVC: The interviews really helped bring out that documentary feel to the movie. It helped the performances, too.
MM: Isn’t that interesting? It like rubs off on the other scenes. It rubs off on the filmmaking, too.
And with that documentary stuff, we’d be in someone’s house, asking them about “What’s the worse thing that ever happened to you?” [Laughs.] Asking a kid that with the parent there watching. It’s really intimate. You’re making someone vulnerable as a guest in their house. You have a gentleness that’s kind of really different from normal filmmaking. But it would seep over into our set life in a way that I found super beneficial but also hard to measure.
AVC: It plays into this lived-in atmosphere for the other spaces in the movie. This is true of 20th Century Women as well—the house feels extremely lived in. It doesn’t seem like a set. How did you and your production designers go about dressing those spaces? Or were those houses of people you knew?
MM: Not just like an interior, but any place you’re filming, it’s a person. It has a history. It has a soul. So I always feel a real responsibility or interest in trying to capture a neighborhood or city in a way that does it justice, and in a way that supports our story. This emotional story between these two people could only happen in this park in New Orleans. And that park in New Orleans is part of it, creating this experience. I like that a lot.
For the interiors, the one in Los Angeles, Viv’s house, is largely my friend’s house. That’s their furniture. That’s their stuff. We added some just to increase the density and put Louise Brooks in the corner. Johnny’s apartment in New York City, that’s a New York apartment that we completely dressed.
Katie Byron, our production designer, is really sensitive to what you just said, like how do you make all that texture and not just be cool-looking. They are cool-looking but there’s another thing going on at the same time.
AVC: Since you brought up the apartment, could you talk about those hallway shots, especially at the beginning with the mirrors, when Viv and Johnny are arguing and one of them is in the mirror? Were you determined to get those or was it purely practical?
MM: I was in that house, that whole weird setup, me and [cinematographer Robbie Ryan]. And me and Robbie love Ozu and frames within frames, right? Also, like [cinematographer] Gordon Willis: Stardust Memories, maybe a little bit of Manhattan, and All The President’s Men. We did a lot of playing like that. My whole career I’ve just been chasing Gordon Willis stuff. I respond to his work so much.
But that was a lovely discovery. I love that about real places. If you’re just kind of alive to them, you’re like, “Oh, that door goes nowhere but whatever, there’s something specific about the place.” And you kind of feel your way in it. There’s something so awkward about this architecture, or there’s something so divided about this architecture. You can start to have expressionistic feelings about a place, and especially in black-and-white because black-and-white isn’t reality, right? It’s about reality. So everything’s like a drawing or a painting. Everything becomes symbolic, like in New Orleans with these big oak trees arching over them. Is that dad’s depression? Is that the uncontrollability of life? Everything seems to take on symbolic meaning.
AVC: The shots of the cities, especially that opening shot of New York, almost feel like you can see more details without the color.
MM: Black-and-white loves a forest or a really busy city. We kind of learned that as we went. It likes a lot of density, detail. I’m not smart enough to know why exactly, but to me, it looks really good. Maybe to other people, it doesn’t.
We did a lot of long lens stuff in New York City. Just the density. It was really lovely to do drone shots in black-and-white because there’s something wrong about that. The wrong technology for the time period.
AVC: Your other movies are so colorful, so vibrant. How did you make that initial decision to shoot in black and white? It feels almost like a reset for you after 20th Century Women.
MM: I wasn’t really thinking about that. I love black-and-white movies. So many of my favorite movies are in black-and-white. I’d probably be happy making any of my movies in black-and-white. In this case, I really had a good reason, which was, there’s a part of the story that’s like a fable and that’s the part of the child and the man. That, to me, is like an ancient archetypal image. That’s what I saw at the beginning: them holding hands, walking down the street in New York City. That, to me, is like a very old fable thing. And because black-and-white isn’t reality, it’s about reality, it supported the fable-like quality of the film by being less real.
At the same time, I do have very, very real things, like those shots in New York City. We don’t control the crowds, so the crowds are like [Makes explosion sound.], right? We’re shooting long lens, and no one knows we’re shooting, and Joaquin’s really walking with a buttload of people. That’s a really interesting, electric contrast to this fable thing.
AVC: The toothbrush song is very real. Was that an original composition?
MM: My kid had that toothbrush and that toothbrush haunted us for years. I know that song inside and out. That’s partly how I really love to work: from observed life and really small things like that. I love that it’s this dumb, kind of cute thing in this scene that’s kind of terrifying. You lose your kid.
AVC: It’s so interesting that that happens twice in the movie. That he loses the kid because that will just happen—
MM: [Laughs.] Yes, it keeps happening. My kid used to do that. And enjoys hiding in public places. Sometimes that’s very scary. So often when I show this film, or when we were editing it, that was the biggest note we got. “Why do it twice? You can’t do that in a story.” And I was like, “Well, I’m sorry if I didn’t succeed in making it interesting for you or this became boring or redundant.” And I think a lot of people do find it kind of redundant.
But, shit, it should’ve happened like four times. It should’ve happened a lot because that is really how it is. And it does escalate, so that’s kind of following film structure.
AVC: The mosh pit scene in 20th Century Women accomplishes something very difficult. Why are punk shows and mosh pits so hard to nail on camera?
MM: My kid [actor Lucas Jade Zumann] is in there. That’s a bunch of real hardcore kids, so they are moshing. They hurt each other. Luckily Lucas was fucking game for it. He was like, get me in there. We did it for a short enough period of time where no one got hurt, but those people were knocking each other over and hitting each other, so that’s what brought it on. And we’re playing the Germs incredibly loud, and it was fun.
AVC: A lot of people try to capture what it looks like instead of what it feels like to be in one of those.
MM: Verisimilitude and energy is like charisma. It’s so hard to create it and film it in the right way that you feel like you are communicating it. And I feel like maybe you know that world a little bit because you can feel it. That’s a really high compliment. I know what shot you’re talking about. I love that shot, too. That’s maybe my favorite zone of directing, when you’re like a sniper. When you’re like, “I have this small thing but it’s hard to get.” People don’t quite get how real this needs to be, so we have to fucking go for it.
How loud we were playing the music is a big part of it because there was a whole P.A. system right there. It is blisteringly loud. That is a transformative experience.
All the punk stuff in that movie was hard. Also, the skating stuff was really hard. We had to get all the skaters to ride 1979 skateboard and do 1979 tricks. We had to give them a whole visual vocabulary. And those boards are so different: There’s no nose, you can’t really ollie in the same way, and the transition of that halfpipe is even really different. So that was really hard.
The DGA, no directing thing is going to give me any credit for that but [adopts faux-serious tone] that’s some of my best work.
AVC: There’s so much empathy for children in C’mon C’mon. Have you ever considered making a kids’ movie?
MM: I kind of would love to. You know what’s really interesting, A24 or the film festivals often have like—Telluride had this—an outreach thing for high school kids from underserved communities. They have a filmmaking workshop thing, and a lot of the directors go and talk to the high school kids.
The first time I showed the movie to high school kids they treated it like it was a movie for them, and I was so honored. How cool. I ran to A24 and said, “Guys, the high school kids think it’s, like, a high school movie.”
I could shoot kids forever, especially in a documentary format. Kids are like gold on film. I think because they haven’t perfected the art of masking and hiding all their vulnerabilities. And I feel like I don’t think I totally nailed it on this one. There’s more to explore. Just the politics of childhood. The power, the societal import, the cultural importance of toys or play or school or eating as a child. That’s like Game Of Thrones, in terms of our political, cultural power issues. They are all super alive right there.