Q&A: Mike Mills on Remaking Memories in ‘20th Century Women’

Annette Bening in ‘20th Century Women.'  (Photo: Gunther Gampine/A24)

As a filmmaker, Mike Mills has mastered the art of speaking in his late parents’ voices, lamenting the dead as a cross-generational ventriloquist. In the 2010 film Beginners, he fictionalized his closeted gay father’s coming out story as an elegy to his life. With 20th Century Women, opening in San Francisco Jan. 13, the director tells a story that’s largely from his mother’s more determined point of view.

Mills fictionalizes a brief moment in 1979 when his relationship with his mother shifted along with the cultural currents of that era. When teenager Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) tries to connect with his single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), he reads an excerpt from Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings From The Women's Liberation Movement.

20th Century Women examines those longed-for moments of connection between parents and children that often remain elusive. Mills captures that sense of emotional transience in his latest film, which we discussed in a San Francisco hotel a few weeks before it opened locally.

KQED Arts: Your opening shot of the Pacific Ocean is from above. Why start the narrative there?

Mike Mills: It was a very odd image, dislocating. As soon as I saw it, I intuitively thought, "Let's start the movie with that." It's like a field, but there's something about the West as a frontier to me. It's the border to the ocean, a liminal place where the edge of it is almost like Manifest Destiny, the edge of American progress. That always fit 1979 to me because I felt it's the beginning of the end of American strength. It was some combination of all those things wrapped into that shot.

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Why did you want to make a movie about a mother and son after Beginners?

“How can I write a story about being raised by women?” That was the beginning of it all for me. I'm so interwoven with my mom. It's very much what it felt like in my house because I had my mom and my two sisters, and they're the ones that raised me, they're the ones who did everything.

There was this idea from my mom when a character in the movie says, "Don't you need a man to raise a man?" The mom says with aplomb, "No, I don't think so." It's not like a huge feminist angry statement, it's just practical.

Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)
Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)

Can you explain the scene featuring a fight about punk versus “art fag” music?

Back then it was very black and white. Music was a completely identifying tribal thing from head to toe. I remember coming out of a B-52s show and some of the kids were just waiting outside to see who went, almost like a blacklist.

Pre-internet times you had to steal someone's car, drive to Los Angeles, sneak into shows as an underage person to see this band, to understand the energetic message it was trying to say to you. I was trying to express how much more physical it was, like your understanding of culture and your ability to get the culture. Now there are more options and they're all blurred across these boundaries.

Greta Gerwig in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)
Greta Gerwig in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)

You include several cultural artifacts from the 1970s. How did you go about incorporating them in an organic way?

The curation of it is something I enjoy a lot. I love art, and objects, and cultural texts, and films. I find it really enriching and really just hugely helpful to describe the fabric and the texture of the lives of my fictional characters. Judy Blume's Forever, and The Road Less Traveled, and Our Bodies, Ourselves came from women I interviewed who were that age then. When Julie (Elle Fanning) talks about her first period and her first sexual experience, those are two of my friends' experiences that I transcribed and put into the story.

Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)
Lucas Jade Zumann and Elle Fanning in ‘20th Century Women.’ (Photo: Gunther Gampine / A24)

In one scene Jamie reads an essay to his mom, “It Hurts To Be Alive and Obsolete: The Ageing Woman,” and she doesn’t react well.

It's written from the perspective of a middle-aged, feminist woman. He's reading it to her thinking it's going to make them connect and of course it doesn't, it makes her hurt, and angry, and upset, and unable to be with him. Then the connection happens by surprise. They go on this trip and they're in a junky Mexican restaurant and they actually have the most real conversation they've ever had about love.

That feels just very true life to me. It happens when you don't see it coming, in the least auspicious moments often, and with characters it shouldn't be happening with. Then it's gone before you realize you had it and are only able to say it happened in retrospect.

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'20th Century Women' opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, Jan. 13. For more information visit A24 Films.

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