a conversation with director Mike Mills
At first, interacting with a kid, particularly your own one, is a very tricky affair because it tends to reveal a lot of truths about yourself - and some of them are not necessarily pleasant. It certainly messes with your sense of self-perception, since it’s easy to get caught in the dilemma of feeling this urge to be the best version of yourself at all times, and knowing that even on a good day the possibility of falling short and fucking things up is basically guaranteed. Being aware that trying to adjust the now loose screws won’t lead to the image you tediously tuned over the years can have a very liberating effect though. And finally realizing that your kid already figured these things out about you a long time before you actually did is propitiating. Now Mike Mills’ latest movie “C’mon C’mon“ tells a story about the ties and strong interrelationship between kids and adults - and he does so in the most generous and truthful way.
The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a radio journalist named Johnny who travels the US interviewing kids and adolescents about their thoughts on the future. A year earlier he fell out with his sister Viv - played by Gaby Hoffmann - over the death of their dementia-suffering mother. Now he isn’t only facing the task of reconnecting with her, but has to figure out what it takes to be a parent when asked to take care of his nine-year-old nephew Jesse - played by a stunning Woody Norman - for a short while. While “Beginners“ reflected on the life of his dad, and “20th Century Women“ put his mom and growing up in a matriarchal household in the spotlight, “C’mon C’mon“ is inspired by the relationship Mills has with his very own child, Hopper.
Anchored in-between aforementioned interviews that were recorded in Detroit, LA, NYC and New Orleans, “C’mon C’mon“ offers a lot of opportunities to easily emphasize on the many dramas - big and small - the script offers, but almost miraculously it never ever does. Instead it is more interested in portraying the bonding-attempts of the unequal couple through a kind of emotional generosity that soon sees them meeting on equal footing. Shot in glorious black and white by Robbie Ryan, the chosen aesthetic perfectly underlines the movie’s gentle and intimate tone as it often feels like a memory of writer/director Mills that he cautiously caught and almost accidently eternalized.
Lodown caught up with the LA-based graphic designer, artist and filmmaker in late 2021.
Mike, besides many other things, I can imagine that writing “Beginners“ and “20th Century Women“ felt kinda cathartic because they dealt with your past and upbringing… was it a similar case with “C’mon C’mon“ in terms of dealing with your very own ups and downs of parenthood?
I know what you mean, but I wouldn’t necessarily use the word cathartic… because therapy is cathartic. I do therapy and I believe that therapy is very important. When I direct something very personal, it can be cathartic because you’ll fuck it up. You have to know what you’re doing, you shouldn’t mix up filmmaking and therapy - that’s very important! It’s definitely communing, because you’re trying to hold on to an experience, trying to understand something in a deeper way. But that’s a different thing to me than catharsis.
With “C’mon C’mon“ it’s a little different, too, because in a weird way the two previous films were more about how my parents impacted me - and this time around it’s basically asking myself how I am impacting this little person. It’s about a different responsibility. This time, I felt even more that it’s me observing my kid. And with a kid it’s different, as you know, because the kid is going by, right? Every three months it’s like a different person, it’s almost as if the past person is gone. It’s a weird experience when you think of it. I really miss five-year-old Hopper. So in a way, writing this script felt a bit like holding on to things… which was great because it allowed me to spend a lot of time thinking about something and someone I love. (Laughs) I don’t know what that is… but it’s definitely not catharsis. It’s simply very personal, maybe.
It certainly is. I was wondering if you can recall the starting point of writing the script for “C’mon C’mon“? You know, something that didn’t necessarily feel significant between Hopper and you at first, but turned out to be of importance when looking back?
Well, basically everything from Hopper’s birth on felt like a movie to me. It had this level of stakes and importance… from the very beginning everything suddenly felt intimate and personal and political and social and historical because it’s tied to the big world. Parenthood is just filled with these aspects, right? I never felt more a part of capitalism, more responsible for my part in history, more complicit, and more worried about the future and all that. The tricky part was to adapt all these thoughts for a script because I realized that I actually had never really done something on a living person. And obviously I didn’t want to get in his way, I don’t wanna mess with that. So the uncle-aspect of the story was really important to me… as was Wim Wenders’ “Alice in the Cities“, which really helped me to make a personal movie like “C’mon C’mon“. What I did was starting to draw little scenes with just two people involved, which almost worked like a fable. And it helped me to picture the whole thing in black and white from the beginning… because it’s not a documentary on our life, it’s a fable.
Since you imagined the whole story to be shot in b/w right from the start, I was wondering if you then used “I Am Easy To Find“ - the short film you did for The National, which was also shot in b/w - as a playground to figure out certain things about aesthetics?
Yes, I already started to write the script so I was totally practicing while I was working on the short film. I just love black and white, I would happily do everything in black and white, no problem. To me, it’s the higher art form… it’s more beautiful and it’s more interesting to work with, I think. So many of my favorite films are in black and white. I mean, I already shot different things in b/w in the past already, a few vids and ads…. which now feels as if I was preparing for this feature film.
Was working on “I Am Easy To Find“ also the moment where it became clear that the Dessner brothers would score your next movie?
Very much so, because the whole experience was so much fun! They were so collaborative, giving me all the stamps of their music, allowing me to do whatever I want with it… and so I ended up completely changing and re-arranging songs. They found my approach really interesting and invited me to produce their record. That experience was just fantastic, doing a whole album with them… especially since I’m just this wannabe-musician. I mean, I love music, but I’m just not very good at doing it. Which is a bit frustrating since I’d consider being a musician is ranking much higher than being a filmmaker… it’s a higher art form, once again.
C’mon, I clearly remember your Butter08 days… that wasn’t bad at all!
Yeah, but that project basically was me bossing around way more capable and amazing musicians. And I did the same while working with Aaron and Bryce Dessner. I weaponized them, in a way. And that’s really true! It was me saying “Hey Aaron, play something like this on the piano“… and then he did it and nailed it and I was almost shocked how good it sounded. Anyway, working with The National was just fantastic and we became really great friends… and obviously I wanted to continue that friendship. And it really played out because it’s really hard for me to figure out music. I sent them down to so many wrong alleys, and yet they were so patient with me. So, working with people that you like and respect, and they help you to stay on course and have faith in yourself - that’s the key for me.
How does it work with you and music anyway? Do you have a thick notebook where you keep notes of all the songs you love and/or loved that are then just waiting to be used in one of your movies? I’m asking because I really loved being reintroduced to Black Flag and The Raincoats through “20th Century Women“… and I had a similar experience getting reminded about what a great band Wire is through the soundtrack of “C’mon C’mon“.
Clearly I love music… and I’m listening to music all the time. I’m actually playing music on the set all the time, in-between takes I’m playing music all day long. When I write I play music looping over my headphone - it’s the only way I can write, actually. But I don’t have a notebook or something like that because I don’t know until very late in the process which music I’m gonna use. Very often the music I use, I like it obviously, but these aren’t necessarily bands or songs I’m listening to on a regular basis. To me films are weird spiritual entities that are independent of you, they come into your life from the cosmos and point you in ways - if you’re available for it - that you weren’t pointed to before. You discover great shit if you’re alive to it. You cannot always be alive to it, but when I am, that’s when you discover next-level interesting stuff.
That’s actually a pretty perfect description of how I felt whenever I watched one of your movies for the first time. They always ring close to home, and even though this might sound utterly naive, they make me reflect on my life and make me want to become a better and more generous person.
That’s sweet of you to say. (Laughs) When you write and direct a movie, personal ones, you definitely try everything to be the best version of yourself… then I’m the most wise, the most humorous, the most present version of myself. Because you have all these tries on it. You fucked things up but you get another take at it… but when I usually walk through life, I’m much less good. Plus on set there’s all this energy from very different people coming together, and there’s something very powerful and positive about that.
How does it work with the literary references you already introduce on your previous films in such a unique way… maybe now the thick notebook I was already referencing to comes into action?
There is one, indeed. I do just spew out stuff as I process, and in the end it feels a bit like a collection of found objects I pull in. I really do like this finding process, this collage kinda thing, I like placing objects with a clear specificity next to an object with a very different quality. I mean, I started off with collages… in art school, that was my main thing.
The kids in the documentary part of “C’mon C’mon“, they also offered a very specific quality… just the texture of it is so different than the texture of what you write and make. It’s very alive and, maybe that’s the right word, it’s very “other“ than me. It connects me to the world, it excites me, it offers so much of the things I love… and hopefully you can feel that in the movie. Aaron Dessner’s kid does this orphan thing… I just learned that at his house over dinner - and I just incorporated it into the script. These kinda things make me feel alive and curious and excited. When I’m just sitting here by myself, trying my best to come up with a scene where there’s an action that displays a character’s interior life… man, I fucking hate that!
Since you just mentioned the kids interviews: they basically work as the frame story or catalyst in “C’mon C’mon“… it feels a bit as if it easily could’ve turned out to be an interim project of yours, but due to a lack of time you decided to make it an essential part of the plot.
Well, it actually is an interim project that did happen! You can find it online… it’s something I did for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It’s a commissioned piece on the Silicon Valley, for which I interviewed kids whose parents work for these tech-companies like Apple, Google etc. and asked them about the future. I did that a while ago, and I loved it! There’s something very natural about asking kids about the future, and when you treat them with full respect and ask them serious questions, they respond. I think they love being asked that, they love being taken seriously… so what they came up with was really dark and really smart and hopeful. So I took that piece and kinda implanted it into the script for “C’mon C’mon“.
The story actually provides lots of opportunities to emphasize on drama… which you’re not interested in at all. Was it hard to avoid these traps?
No, not at all… (laughs) because I’m very untalented when it comes to these kind of things. I really am. I have friends who are really good at that, they know how to find story and drama. I’m more like Ozo… I can’t find drama in anything, it just doesn’t come natural to me, it would feel more like a performative thing. For me there’s plenty of drama in the things I find, and I then align these miniature dramas… especially with the kid character. I was very conscious that he shouldn’t get too cute because it’s dangerous turf to have a cute kid in a movie. And there are many reasons why I wanted to have Joaquin in this film - mostly because he’s one of the best actors on this planet - but I knew that he would also help with the “cute“ problem.
Speaking of Joaquin: I remember you once mentioned that you never write a character with a specific actor or actress in mind… did you stay true to this handbook or was it different this time around?
No, it was the same… because it never works out, really. Who would dare to think that Joaquin would be in your movie? (laughs) I mean, I was trying to get Joaquin in all my movies, let’s be honest here. But I didn’t know him, I never met him before. But when I started to look up from the writing process I immediately thought that he would be amazing for this role. He was so nice to meet me, just in order to tell me that he can’t find a way to be in the movie - and, wow, it was important to him to say that to me in person. But then we just kinda hit it off and started to get really comfortable with each other. So while he was explaining to me all the different reasons why he couldn’t do it, it was a way just to talk about the movie. And then the next day he started to text me all these questions, so I thought, hm, he actually might be interested, something’s still going on. And this basically went on for months. I believe your biggest decisions are intuitive ones… like as a director I can fake an explanation for basically anything, I can be convincing when I wanna be. But it all comes down to a feeling in your chest, and the older I get the more intuitive I am and the kinda dumber I am. The memory is less sharp, but I can feel it right away if something is right or wrong. And when I feel something is right, I’m gonna hunt for it.
When did you meet Joaquin… was it before “Joker“?
Yeah, they were in the editing process… it wasn’t out at that time.
Was the following Oscar-buzz a bit intimidating for you in a way?
I put that out of my mind… and I still haven’t seen “Joker“, to be honest. I don’t wanna know about that, that’s another beast, that’s not my business. I mean, he worked with Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s one of my heroes, and he worked with Spike who I respect so much. I remember finishing a scene sometimes and thinking “Ok, we got it, that was great“… and then I was walking away wondering “Would Paul Thomas Anderson have done that better?“, which obviously is a daunting thought, it’s not a good place to be. Phoenix worked with so many amazing people in the past, how can I compete with them?
I had the same thing with Annette Bening and with Christopher Plummer. Bening worked with Milos Forman… fucking shit! What an amazing director, how can I stand a chance beside him? These kinda thoughts messed with me for a long time. It’s not unlike jealousy, it’s not unlike being intimidated by a former lover.
I mean, the entire movie is just brilliantly cast. Other roles I can’t praise enough - even though they’re just minor - are the ones played by Molly Webster and Jaboukie Young-White. The dynamics between them and Johnny/Jesse are so extremely well captured. It’s like you’ve known them for years even though basically nothing is revealed about them.
It’s so nice to hear you say that… and Molly Webster isn’t even an actress!
Did she originally come on board because of her work as a WNYC correspondent? You know, to supervise the interviews?
Yeah, Hopper and me listen to specific shows all the time - and I listened to hers a lot! You know, my kid is non-binary and Molly was doing shows about this topic. Anyway, in my mind she was always a reference point when it comes to casting this specific role. I was telling my casting agent “Someone like Molly Webster, someone like Molly Webster“, and one day there she is! When she was auditioning I was “what the fuck, she’s quite natural, holy shit, she’s also really pretty, that is ridiculous!“. So I called her right away and we became great friends… (laughs) I can now say that Molly Webster is a friend of mine, and I love that! Stuff like that makes me feel rich… and very privileged. With Jaboukie it’s the same thing. I didn’t know him before but I knew he has this really interesting career as a comedian and many other things. So he came to the casting and I was like “Oh, I love this guy!“, but didn’t really knew who he was. I know he’ll be embarrassed, but when I met him, I was describing the movie to him. I don’t think he read the script yet, and he was telling me “You know what this reminds me of a little? That film with Christopher Plummer called “Beginners“. Well, I made that movie… and he was so embarrassed by that! (Laughs) Kids these days, don’t know anything about directors. But that was a great way to start. And when they go to New Orleans, they stayed in that house… which was my friend’s house. And Sunni Patterson in the movie plays the person who lives there. For the original owner, it was really important that the person in the film isn’t played by a white person, and she suggested Sunni to play her part. And again, what a natural! That’s the thing, you just let people be, you shouldn’t over-direct… and your actors know how to do that, how to help it. (Laughs) It’s not that hard, really…it’s about relaxing and letting things go and then it comes alive pretty easily.
Mike, as a last one: there is this scene around the middle in the film, another phone conversation between Viv and Johnny… I can’t accurately paraphrase it, but in essence Hoffmann’s character tells him that you cannot really do anything right in terms of parenting but you keep on trying your best nevertheless. Would you say that raising a kid, you’re automatically doomed to fail?
There’s this guy named Winnicott, a therapist and psychoanalyst, and he talks a lot about parenthood and motherhood. And about this concept of the “good enough mother“. It’s an idea of “good“ that embodies all your failures… because you never gonna get it all right. (Laughs) It’s like directing, almost. People think you know what you’re doing and you’re nailing it. But that’s not how it works. It’s more about how to overcome constant failure… how to overcome the fact that your plan, your first plan, is constantly not working? And how quick are you with plan B, C and D? And I think parenting is very similar… because you’re constantly outsmarted, outdone, you’re not getting it right, you’re fucking up, you’re doing things regrettable. And none of that is bad. It’s just natural. That’s just the way things go. In the end it comes down to acknowledging your shortcomings, your mistakes or the harm you’ve done - and to not run away from it, to not be overcome with your own fragility about it, but instead address it, admit it and apologize. So yeah, you’re getting things wrong and you fail and you’re not helping at times - and that is an inevitable part of how that plant lives and grows.
C’mon C’mon / USA 2021 / directed by Mike Mills / starring Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, Gaby Hoffmann, Molly Webster, Jaboukie Young-White, Scoot McNairy