“Beginners” director Mike Mills‘ latest feature “20th Century Women” recently debuted at the New York Film Festival to great critical reception (read our review here). The film, which is set in Santa Barbara in 1979 — with the location practically a character in the film itself — acts as an extremely intimate portrait of generational values and changing times. A veritable ensemble piece, it stars Annette Bening and relative newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann as a mother and son with a strained relationship, Billy Crudup as an in-house carpenter, Greta Gerwig as a punk-photographer boarder, and Elle Fanning as a platonic friend of the son and frequenter of the central, perpetually half-finished house.
It’s a very human piece of work, complicated, funny, sad and empathetic. And there’s an arty side to it, too, with Mills leaning on his music-video/graphic-design and art-school roots, making for a stylish and inventive movie with a great soundtrack to boot. Mills, as well as the rest of the core cast except for Greta Gerwig (who is shooting her new film), was present at the press conference which followed the initial screening at NYFF.
1979 being the 5th Beatle of the movie and the emotional landscape of the film
“For this film and my last one a little bit, I’m really interested in how our emotional lives are sort of historical and influenced by the prevailing winds of whatever time we’re in, so the 1979, all the contents therein is kind of the 5th Beatle of the movie in a way,” Mills said. “And for me, it’s not just the punk scene or whatever was incorporated. It’s sort of like the 1979 emotional accuracy. What are the interior concerns? What are the thoughts and feelings and predilections that go on?. That was really hard interesting to try and research and place — the interior part.”
On Annette Bening’s character based on his mom
In many ways, Mills’ last film, “Beginners,” was about his father and their strained relationship. While part coming-of-age tale for the young teen played by Zumann, “20th Century Women” is also about his mother. And in his own life, Mills didn’t fully understand his mom.
“Annette’s character Dorothea is based a lot on my mom, who was born in 1929,” he said of their wide generation gap. “Annette and I did an interesting thing: While this character is based on my mom, my mom is very much a mystery to her, and that time is a mystery to me — I’m born in ’66, there’s this huge generation gap which is sort of what this movie is about, in a way. So we watched a lot of movies together — 1937’s ‘Stage Door,’ Bogart films — and it really helped me figure out my Mom’s way of responding to things and all the subversive, strong women.”
Mills says every filmmaker should make a movie about their mom
Mills has already made one film about his dad in “Beginners,” and with “20th Century Women,” front and center is Annette Bening playing a surrogate of the director’s mother.
“To me Dorothea is very much Annette, and her timing, body and soul,” he said. “It was fun [to] show her my mom and always saying to her, ‘take what’s interesting and dump the rest.’ Having known my mom — you should all make movies about your mom, because it’s really a trip — and then have an amazing actress do it. Because she’s taking some ingredients of this real woman, but then exploring them in this way that’s not exactly what my [mom] did, and that’s great because it’s totally alive for Annette and fully alive for that moment. It was really fascinating to watch Annette take it and run in her own direction.”
On the stills and musical choices from the ’20s and ’30s
“…in regards to music and stills, some of the older music sort of defines the film in a way. You could define the film as ‘As Time Goes By (from ‘Casablanca‘) meets the Buzzcocks and all the problems that happen therein. I should have pitched that a long time ago…,” Mills said.
“The music is part of the culture of each character and the storytelling, which was fun to figure out,” he added. “The stills, on the other hand — I went to art school, not film school, so it comes totally normal for me, especially if you’re interested in history. I love to break away from live-action photography and find different ways to expand the filmic experience.”
On homework for the film given to the actors
Acknowledging how important of a role the ’70s played in the film, moderator and New York Film Festival director Kent Jones then asked the rest of the cast present at the press conference about the work they did to gain a better understanding of the time period.
Elle Fanning, who is very much not from the ’70s, began: “Mike gave me ‘The Road Less Traveled‘ — a psychiatrist, therapy-of-love book. But the things that were in there — a love and sex chapter, for example — that would be Julie’s favorite. Mike asked me to read that and pick out anything that I, or Julie, would find interesting. Then it would be more like homework in a way that I would take that in and explain what I read to Jamie [Dorothea’s son], and that would be the scene! Stuff would be crazy in there: Marriage isn’t real, and we should have open relationships — all stuff that Julie would abide by.”
Mills continued, elaborating on how every scene in the film in which Julie speaks on love and marriage to Jamie essentially went unscripted, all products of whatever Fanning had interpreted or found interesting in the readings.
Zumann, who is even less so from the ’70s, went next. “He actually sent me a box full of USB drives and books and some documentaries to watch — specifically ‘The ’70s,’ the CNN documentary. He also sent me a book called ‘The Cultural Dictionary Of Punk,’ which I found super helpful. As a teenager myself, I really do understand the struggles that come with being a teenager, but it’s very different emotionally, too, with the time. What I didn’t identify with was the self-destructive side of punk. Watching the documentary, understanding why people did these things and looking up every pop-culture reference in the dictionary definitely gave me a much better understanding of the emotional state of that time period.”
Crudup was asked to chime in: “Uh, I grew a mustache, and I was there, so that was it. It was mostly facial hair for me, but I’m glad you read books!” The crowd exploded in laughter before he continued, “That time is very familiar to me. I was 10, 11, 12, going into puberty and seeing adults around you relate to the world in a different way. It was very hard to not idealize and live in that experience of an adult recovering from the ’60s. I found it fascinating to play my parents, who were probably around the same age that I was… the end.”
As for Bening: “I was 19 in 1979, so when I first read the script, I was fascinated by the world. Not only that, but I grew up in San Diego, which was very close to Santa Barbara, and my world was a very different world from this world that I grew up in, but the time was the same. I loved the script because it contextualized that period for me in a way that I had never seen. That’s aside from acting in it, but to read everything that Mike had put together and the images and the cogent lines — every now and then, there’s something smart that hasn’t really been said before that just pops out and smacks me in the head.”
The group continued for a little longer, speaking with specificity on certain events that may spoil bits and pieces of the film, as plotless as it is. Fanning discussed her character and Mills confirmed her assumptions, mentioning that the character is based on the girls from his childhood. Before ending, Mills reiterates some homework to the audience: “Everybody has an assignment: make a movie about your mother with a great actress.”
Watch the full 25-minute talk below. “20th Century Women” opens on Christmas Day.