Director Mike Mills Talks ‘C’mon C’mon’ & Joaquin Phoenix Trying To Politely Turn Down The Role [Interview]

At the risk of being a little gauche and starting a piece quoting your own review, to paraphrase myself regardless, with A24’s lovely black and white comedic drama “C’mon C’mon,” filmmaker Mike Mills “solidifies his position as one of our greatest cinematic humanists, filmmaking empaths, and chroniclers of emotive struggle.” It’s that good, that probing of the human condition, and deeply soulful, melancholy, funny, and affecting in the way all Mills films are.

READ MORE: The 25 Best Films Of 2021

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Woody Norman, and Gaby Hoffman, “C’mon C’mon” completes an unintentional trilogy about family from Mills. His 2010 film, “Beginners” was inspired by his late father, his 2016 movie, “20th Century Women,” was motivated by his late mother, and with “C’mon C’mon,” he takes inspiration from his young 8-year-old son, Hopper (who is gender-nonconforming and uses the pronouns they/them; Mills’ wife and Hopper’s mother is the inventive filmmaker Miranda July).

READ MORE: Joaquin Phoenix Talks Mike Mills’ Lovely ‘C’mon C’mon,’ ‘Joker’ & The Gentle Art Of Interviewing [Interview]

“C’mon C’mon” is about an uncle and radio journalist Johnny (Phoenix), thrust into the role of unexpected parenthood. When his sister, Viv (Hoffman), must attend to her estranged husband (Scoot McNairy), struggling with mental health issues, she unloads her son, Johnny’s young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman) on her brother. What’s meant to be a few days of babysitting, extends to weeks and the uncle and nephew begin to forge a tenuous but transformational relationship that changes them both forever.

About the connections between adults and children, the past and the future, Mills’ film is delicate, wonderfully observed, empathetic, and deeply moving. I personally don’t really do top 10 lists (they’re always too ever-evolving), but “C’mon C’mon” would easily be near the top.  Mills told me all about the making of this terrific film and the long and winding road of getting Joaquin Phoenix—who initially turned down the offer to star in the film—to say yes to the movie.

I really love this film. Given you’ve done a movie about a father, then a mother, this next one seems like a logical continuation into your stories of family, but I’d love to hear from you how it came together.
Well, that’s really nice to hear and means a lot. Yeah, well, I had a kid, and being with my kid and the world that my kid has shown me of other kids, and other amazing people that deal with kids is quite something. My kid has an amazing preschool teacher who treats kids with utter respect and empowerment and is very sensitive to how they’re developmentally different and not lesser-than an adult. And I found that idea really radical, a beautiful way to move through the world. So, for me— if I’m lucky to make a decent movie— my best chance is to start with something I know really well or have observed over and over again. And I believe in a slightly more documentary process.

If I can report on something I’ve seen, that has a much better chance of being like relevant than anything I could just imagine from scratch. So, it started there and Hopper [my child] is a living soul, a young soul, but it’s not like my last films where I had the weird grace of my parents being gone. So, I felt really nervous about that. You know, interfering with Hopper’s mysteries and even saying their name. I feel like I shouldn’t be saying their name, it’s their deal.

So, I’ve had to find all these ways to keep things observed, but also change them enough and create a different story. And having this strange uncle became like a really interesting way to accelerate things—if you’re in that position, you have to learn how to be a parent super fast. Like all the time you’re constantly learning a brand new thing, you’re always a novice, you’re always one step behind. So that situation is great for a film. I do feel like that is how it feels, especially as being a parent of one kid. I think if you have multiple kids, you have a little bit more of an idea of what’s coming, right? Did I answer your question? [laughs]

Absolutely. In fact, the teacher and school you’re describing, the one your child went to, that sounds a lot like the pre-school my children went to that was all about emotional and social development, empathy, and the ideas of being a good citizen of the world and also being super respectful of the kids themselves and their validating their feelings and existence. They’re people too. I definitely see how that could be inspiring.
Yeah, for sure. Obviously, it was really wonderful for my kid and a wonderful space for me to learn through osmosis and example, and not just how to relate to not just my kid, but like all the kids. And this may sound like silly therapy talk, but it really increased my sensitivity. I really do believe that we’re sort of all ages at once. We don’t like age out of being six, it stays with us as a compartment and gets activated at certain times and lays dormant at certain times. So that parts of all of us that are very young, that we carry around, gave me a lot more sympathy and space and an accurate understanding about what that’s like.

So, that was really helpful and really sort of just deepening and made life better. Somehow, that’s a big part of the film and that’s what’s happening to [Joaquin’s character] Johnny or what’s happening to the people around these kids. And it’s not just respect for the kid, like some gift to the kid. It’s being around children and taking them as full human beings as a way to sort of enhance, increase and intensify your sympathy towards yourself. That sounds horrendous, but it’s something like that [laughs]

Ha, no I totally get it. I’m curious because you’re talking about authorship and agency in way, the children’s agency, but they’re also hard to keep on the script and I’d imagine you want to stay alive to the many discoveries that children can create.  How much of this was improvised, how much of it is scripted?
Yeah, well, Woody [Norman’s] not like that at all. He is the oldest, most mature actor on that set, that’s including me. Woody is highly capable and very, very smart. So that was never a concern.  But with everyone, the adults and the kids, I don’t like my script to be like, “oh, it’s complete and perfect. I’m done with this process.” Hopefully, I’m learning things and it’s changing and it’s alive like you suggested.

So, I’m constantly rewriting and then constantly inviting them to—“how would you say it?” Or just to be alive in the moment. And then like Gabby, Joaquin, and Woody, all three of them are very different people, but they do share that thing [of wanting to] follow the lead of the energy of the scene, not the predetermined script. So they’re definitely invited to improvise or do other things. It’s a very written script and they’re always following the structure and they’re most of the time saying exactly my lines

I feel like everything I’m saying sounds so pretentious, but I “invite the unknown” [laughs] All this stuff that you just couldn’t predict, or the moments that are way more complicated than you ever could have preconceived, those are the things I always try and stay very alive to. And not just Woody, everyone. And it really worked for these three actors, they really flourished with that kind of like freedom and encouragement.

Joaquin is such a great choice here and you tap so much great empathy out of him. But he might not have been everyone’s first choice, since people tend to use him in more aggressive kinds of roles like “Joker” or whatever. What, what, what made you see like him as in this role?
I’ve always thought of him, honestly. I’ve always just admired him so much because I always feel like I don’t know what he’s going to do—which I think is one of the highest compliments you can give someone. I’ve always read him as a really intelligent actor. I don’t know if those are the right words, but I think that’s what I felt. And then when I first met him, it was like, “Oh, right, so perceptive, so alive in life,” with all the contradictions and games and all that kinds of stuff that we play. So, the Johnny person you see is very much Joaquin’s incarnation and soul with his instincts and heart on display, you know? And so, like our first meeting, we had, he nicely came to lunch to politely and sweetly tell me that it just didn’t make sense for him to take on this role. That he couldn’t find his way into it or whatever, but we just kept talking.

[Laughs]. Yeah, Joaquin seems to try and do that with every role—convince himself and the director that he’s not right for the role and then eventually takes it anyhow.
Yeah, yeah, [laughs]. And this went on for a very long time and the whole time I really didn’t know what he was going to do and if he was going to take the part. But honestly, it was just so fun, it was so enjoyable. He’s so smart and interesting and, and high voltage in a great way. And all the conversations we were having about the script, even his hesitations, or parts that felt blank for him, it was all fascinating. I just knew regardless, it was making it all better.

So I was like, “well, who knows if he’s going to be in the movie or not, but this weird process is great.” And then I would think, “Okay, well that was it. He really told me he’s not doing it,” and then I’d get a text the next day [laughs] and I’d be like, “Uhhh, ok!” and I’d respond to it and we’d keep talking. It was a lot of that: the unknown, the inability to control it. Somehow that came to make like a message that said, “Mike, just trust it, do it and just go for that.” I mean, even right up until the very end, we didn’t know if he was gonna do it or not.

You know he did the same thing on “Joker” with Todd Philips and a few other projects, turned them down immediately, but eventually did them and I think that’s just part of his process.
Right. Well, I think, in general, as a human and as an actor, he doesn’t want to know what’s happening. He doesn’t want to be following a plan, he wants to be alive to all the options and just what’s going on, even from scene to scene. We really liked that together because when I’m shooting, I want it to feel like that I’m very planned. I’ve thought everything out, I’ve worked out every location, and the music, and what the intentions are, but what’s most important is just to be available for what’s really happening and you never know exactly what’s really going to happen. We really clicked on that. Like I just did some press with him and he was like, “Ah, I remember you, “[laughs] it’s this particular energy that’s really resistant to knowing what you’re doing.

That’s interesting because a lot of actors really want to know everything and are often pressing directors for answers.
I don’t know, yes, no. It depends on the person.  I think a lot of actors, also don’t want to think too much or don’t want to overdetermine things. I know I’ve met many actors like that. Joaquin is more of a life and death situation [laughs]. He really needs to be in that space to be happy. And that may sound like indulgent or something, but he’s also one of the most caring giving and big-hearted people I’ve ever worked with. And he cared so much for Woody and Gabby and helping Molly, helping everyone and helping me.

He would help me the most roundabout ways. There would be a problem in the script and it’s clear to everyone, but me, right?  He can smell it from miles away. And he would help me through this long walk where he was pretending like he had no idea what was wrong with this particular script moment.

And then I eventually came all-around to just seeing like, “Oh, this is too expositional. “And Joaquin would be like, “oh wow, you think so?” And then it took me a while to realize that he just took me on the longest walk so I could figure out my own problem, and did it out of kindness and, you know, he’s not super demanding.  When I realized what he had done I was like, “God, you’re so generous.” Like, I don’t think anyone knows that or thinks that about Joaquin, but, he’s just a very big-hearted, generous person.

So, you’ve done a story inspired by your mother, your father, now your child. Where are you going to go next?
I’ve kind of run out of people, right? I really love trying to figure out or trying to better understand, or hold on to a relationship that means a lot to me that I have years and years of experience with. And it’s like, under my skin. I don’t know quite what to do with it, but I do feel like if I can like observe a person or a thing over time and get one little idea here. And then, a year later I’m given another little slice of an idea, you know what I mean? I find that like a really enjoyable way to live. And for my skill sets, that’s the only hope I have of maybe making a decent movie if I do it that way.

And you know, the films about my parents, it was really enjoyable. It was like a nice way to commune with my dead parents, you know? And they were really interesting, they tied into history and a bigger world and so both those films weren’t’ just a memoiristic project to me. They gave me access to talk about bigger things.

And I feel like I found a way to do that with childhood in this one. don’t know how to do that again, or what is next. And didn’t plan, didn’t intend on— you know, this does make for a neat trilogy about family, but I had no intention of doing that. didn’t know it was going to be that, my creative world is not that organized at all.

“C’mon C’mon” is in select theaters now and is also available for rental on most digital platforms.