Twenty-two years and four features into his filmmaking career (not to mention an impressive music video oeuvre that ranges from Yoko Ono to The National), writer/director Mike Mills has built his name on a particular style of gentle, introspective storytelling. In conversation, he comes across more like a therapist than anything, proving tyrannical demeanor an unnecessary ingredient in the stew of creative genius. His newest film, C’mon C’mon, marks a tonal pivot for its co-lead Joaquin Phoenix—whose last performance in Joker earned him a little gold man—but it fits cleanly into Mills’ creative fold, even if it brought new challenges.
The tender, galvanizing film follows a traveling Ira Glass-esque radio show host named Johnny (Phoenix) and his young tag-along nephew Jesse (Woody Norman). Jesse’s mom Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) is busy helping her addled husband (Scoot McNairy) break addiction in rehab, and she has no choice but to call her childless brother in for parenting reinforcements despite his lack of experience.
Guiding viewers through the movie with his trademark openness and honesty, Mills takes a perspective that makes sad realities simply seem like new realities that take some getting used to. He leaves space for melancholy and ecstasy in equal measure, offering viewers a breath of fresh air in the relatability of it all. On the eve of its theatrical release, Paste hopped on a video call with the director to talk about the nature of his work, his collaborators, and the narrative and stylistic choices that set C’mon C’mon apart in his filmography.
Paste: All of your features are about parents and their children from one angle or another. C’mon C’mon is that, but it’s also a bit of a twist on that. Why are you drawn to that kind of story?
Mike Mills: I guess I love therapy [laughs]. That’s what you talk about in therapy all the time, right? Well, first of all, to me it’s really important not to just say “family.” Cause it sounds so biological and heteronormative and all that stuff, and families are just primary relationships, really—people who show up. I think all of my films have had a bit of an alternative family situation going on. And I feel like it’s that interpersonal terrain. You figure out yourself and who you are in relationship to other people. And you’re kind of different with different people and it’s how we figure out the rest of life. I feel like I’m just going to the core of how we figure out our lives. And all the stuff that happens…it’s a very complicated space. To me, it’s very Game of Thrones space. Everything intense actually happens in that space and in those kinds of relationships. And I don’t know, I would say it’s what I’m just super drawn to—to find the most expansive, nutritious, informative, dangerous, fun, funny, sad space. I like it a lot.
Why did you go the uncle/nephew route this time?
Mills: So this came from me and my kid. That was the seed, the beginning. And it’s the first time I’ve dealt with a story that starts with a real, living person and a younger person. So I feel very responsible about protecting my kid and our privacy, and I didn’t know how to make the film for a very long time because of that. I just couldn’t figure a way in. And it was just slow pieces. “Well, if I do this, if I do that, if I do this, if I don’t say this and I say this.” Then, I have an alleyway I feel comfortable with. One of them was separating it from me and my kid by making him an uncle, but then that did all these other things I didn’t intend. I was like, “Oh rad, if he’s an uncle that’s never had a kid before, he has to learn parenting in every single scene.” That’s Buster Keaton filmmaking. That’s great. And it has all the condensation of experience that a film really needs, as someone who just doesn’t know what they’re doing.
But then the other weird thing, that I can’t even really explain, is that when I was writing that out I was like, “This actually just feels like what I feel like as a biological father.” You constantly don’t know what you’re doing, constantly getting to the edge of your ability and going further. And your kid’s constantly changing. Every six weeks, or maybe two months, or three weeks, they change! And they change the rules and their operating systems, and you have to relearn your kid. So, actually, it felt really accurate to describing my dad experience.
Your films have a therapeutic, pastoral quality to them. There’s something about them that feels like we’re witnessing real life through the lens of the spirit or the interior. And there’s a preciousness about life to them—but one that allows us to eventually let go and live, one that makes us feel calmer and better about being. Is that hope something you’re actively trying to create, or is it just organic in your work?
Mills: Hm, well, I don’t think of it that way. That would be kind of presumptuous for me to think like, “I’m gonna comfort people!” [Laughs] I don’t know. But, but! I think the honest answer is: So, I deal in my life with not serious depression, but kind of chronic mid-low-level depression. Or, I can get down. I can get Eeyore quite easily. And if I’m going to spend five years making something, I need to buoy myself. I need to find ways to engage with life, to find something hopeful, to find something connective and kind of growing and positive. That’s part of the goal for the whole project: To keep me from sinking. Or feeling so alienated that I feel inert. Or so impossible to be myself just because of me. Not because of anything anyone else did, but that I can’t operate in the world, right? I think all my films are talking to that. That’s part of what they’re doing. They’re loosening up that part [motions to brain].
I often think of Michael Haneke. That dude must be really fucking happy [laughs], or really strong, or have a fucking good sense of health. Cause if I made those movies, I would off myself. I would be afraid of what would happen to me. And, obviously, everyone has a way of helping themselves, if you think about it. Some people love snuggles and some people love BDSM, and each one is completely valid and completely strong and completely subversive and completely powerful. If Michael Haneke made my movies, he probably would kill himself [laughs].
He’s sitting over there saying the same thing.
Mills: “It’s just too sweet, I ca-“ [mimes shooting himself in the head]. He can’t even finish his sentence, it’s that bad.
Between NYC, L.A., New Orleans and Detroit, y’all shot in some very colorful cities. What led you to shoot in black-and-white?
Mills: There’s a whole load of answers to that. I love black-and-white movies. So many of my favorite movies are black-and-white. I prefer black-and-white. I think it’s just amazing. I wish we were all sort of black-and-white polyamorous between black-and-white and color. Why is it such a big deal? Let’s just make both kinds of movies. Let’s just all be bi and be cool with it.
And then, specific to this movie, it did really start with this image of the kid and the man. And the kid and the man, to me, is an archetypal fable kind of image, and I liked that. I thought it was kind of weird and subversive to embrace that. That’s part of why I played “Clair de Lune” a lot. And then, to me, black-and-white pulls you out of reality, it pulls you out of verisimilitude, or the contracts of verisimilitude, and puts you in a very art space. It’s an artier way to go. And I say “arty” with full pride and awesomeness, and that it’s power—not quirkiness or rarefaction. It’s just radness. Let’s just say “arty” is “rad.” And it makes it more of a story. I don’t know, it made it more creative for me, and it underlined that sort of fabley quality.
Then I always tell myself, “It’s a drawing, not a painting.” I really like thinking about it that way. It’s light. It’s not this overworked thing. It’s intimate, and it’s kind of small in scale. I think actually the film is kind of epic, because it goes to four cities. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve ever shot for sure. But it plays small, it pretends to be small, and I like that. I think a lot about and I love [Erik] Satie music. I think I emulate him a lot. And, to me, Satie has a kind of black-and-white quality in that the music has a lot of space in it for you to enter. Black-and-white, I’ve found, makes me kind of lean in and enter. It has a kind of softness. It’s like talking gently, right? And that really helped create the ambiance I wanted to create: The sort of soft-spokenness of black-and-white.
[Facetiously] And I’m pretentious. Pretentious, pretentious, pretentious!
Yeah, that’s all I’m going to write.
Mills: Good, good, cool, cool.
In a recent interview, you mentioned a conversation with Spike Jonze in which he told you filmmaking doesn’t get any easier and every project has its own beasts. What were the beasts of C’mon C’mon??
Mills: Well, okay, we thought it was going to be finding the kid. Then, Woody comes in the first round of casting. And we thought we had him, bang! Woody’s British. I don’t know if you know this. He’s a London kid, so he’s doing an accent the whole time. And Trump times, shooting in 2019, it was so hard to get his visa. We didn’t know if we were going to get it until the last minute. So it added a crazy amount of trauma because there wasn’t another kid. I mean, there were other kids. But, I mean, me and Joaquin, and…me, I was like, “If that visa thing doesn’t work out, there’s no film.” But the way it works, you don’t know the process. It’s very opaque with the government. So, we didn’t know until just right before if it was going to work out or not. So if you’re a writer/director who’s been working for years on something and are left hanging like that. And you’re actually hanging up A24 and everyone else, because they all think you’re just going to cast another kid, but you know you’re not. So, if that visa thing doesn’t work out, you’re just done. So, that was really hard.
The beast of this film was also all the travel, going to the different cities. Because you have to prep the city, and then go there and shoot, and then prep the next city and go there and shoot. But it was also a gift.
Did you have the same team the whole time?
Mills: The same core team. All the keys, the crew, we would travel. And that was really nice. It made us all really close and lovely. Then, to contradict that—especially in New Orleans, but everywhere—we met really amazing people that helped us so much and have become great friends. Some of my best friends now are people I met in New Orleans doing the movie.
Oh, the pandemic! [Laughs] We got done shooting before the pandemic, but then I edited for 11 months alone during the pandemic. I never once saw the film with another person in a room before we went to Telluride. And I was also a parent, so Zoom homeschooling until 12:30, then editing. And I didn’t know if there was going to be a theatrical release for this film, or for films like mine, and the Arclight’s closing. I just didn’t even know if I’d be here. And so, that’s…hard. You know the myth of the soldier that’s left in the jungle and they don’t know World War II’s done? They’re still fighting away. I made that joke—I’m that person—all the time, but that’s really what I felt like. Like, what the fuck? Who cares about this movie at this point?
What was your experience like working with Joaquin?
Mills: Joaquin…I…it’s hard to express how much fun I had. Just fucking laughing a lot. But also having a real deep collaborator who’s totally entrenched with you, in the ditch with you trying to make the film better. Total investment. And that’s so lovely, both as a straight-up filmmaker trying to exploit him to get the best film I can, but also as a human having a great friend and a great…just a comrade. We are in this together and we’re trying our hardest to make this good together. That’s gold! It’s great to have company. Joaquin was really great. Joaquin’s so suspicious of, well…he’s so anti-cliché. He smells them a mile away, doesn’t want to get involved with it. Clichés are a part of authoritarian cultural regimes, right? To be avoided. Lovely.
He’s also really good at pointing out when I’m being expository or pointing out when I’m virtue signaling, like, “Please like me!” Oh my god, I appreciate that so much. And a lot of people just won’t tell you that, especially the older you get as a director. It’s really hard to find someone who says “no” or “that’s bad.” And he does that with humor and loveliness and generosity. So that was really fun and great. And then often, when we were shooting, someone as established as Joaquin that’s had that much experience, often they’ll be kind of like, “I got it.” You know? But Joaquin, when he’d run into trouble or not know how to get out of something or do it well, he’d say, “Mills, Mills! Come here!” And it would just be this huddle with us. And I’ll always remember that. That was just the funnest huddle I’ve ever had. Being needed, and being included, and being trusted. How rad is that? That was all really fun. And then, obviously, he’s quite an amazing actor, right? The amount of layers that can go on at the same time, the amount of colors that can go on at the same time, the amount of anti-contrivance that’s being reached all the time. It’s just so high. So, obviously, that goes without saying.
What about Woody? What was it like working with someone that young? And how did that affect the shooting schedule?
Mills: I’m on this campaign to get everyone to not think of Woody as a child, not think of Woody as a child actor. When people hear that, it kind of diminishes his work. And Woody’s an actor. Woody loves to cry in a scene and can cry on whatever line you want him to cry on. Woody’s doing an accent the whole time. Woody is as funny as Joaquin and has a comeback anytime. Woody can improvise like Joaquin and stay in character and really follow something through. And so, Woody is a fellow coworker that’s really no different than Joaquin or Gaby, straight up. He has different hours, because there are child labor laws and all that. And they were ten. So, sometimes you’re dealing with a ten-year-old who maybe doesn’t want to come back from lunch right away, or, I don’t know, wants to play air guitar for another minute. It’s not like Gaby and Joaquin are any different really, and they’d be the first to say that. Gaby and Joaquin are much more childlike than Woody.
How do y’all shape the dialogue on set? Do the words typically stay true to what you wrote or is it a matter of always re-shaping conversations?
Mills: It’s very written. It took me a long time to write it, and it’s very structured. But then, when you get there, I want to stay alive and stay curious and stay open and stay fluid. My whole job is to engage all of the talents and all the parts of the actor that I can. Because my movies are…what do you call it? They’re about performances, they’re about humans, right? The more I can get the actor fully engaged, the better it is for the audience. And I love that. So, I’m definitely changing lines before and all that. There’s nothing precious. A film isn’t a written document. It’s lived, embodied, experienced.
Some scenes stay very written. Certain scenes do have more play. Or often, they’re following my cadence—Woody’s line, Joaquin’s line, Woody’s line—and they’re following the intention, but they might shift something a little bit. And I definitely invite that, because it keeps everyone listening, it keeps everyone engaged. It just keeps it alive. And then, there’s definitely scenes where the best parts are the improvised parts. So 80% is my lines, and then, woo! There’s this amazing zinger that someone popped off.
It’s cliched advice at this point for filmmakers to tell newcomers not to use voiceover. But you’ve always used voiceover tastefully, and in doing so, proven the advice shallow. Do you make a point to use it or does it just come out that way? And if you do, what keeps you coming back to it?
Mills: I think I love French New Wave stuff. I’m a Godard guy. He had a big impact on me. Or Fellini’s stuff. I love different kinds of text qualities in a film. Not just my voice. And I like having outside real objects in my films. Beginners has all the Harvey Milk stuff or The Velveteen Rabbit. And 20th [Century Women] had Jimmy Carter and all these different things. It’s very Godardy to me. He always had people reading books in his films, and I like that kind of multi-authorial-voiced way of writing. And, to me, I thought this one was a little different, and it wasn’t the character talking. It was the character reading a book they found, and the book was always someone’s book. So, it was a little bit more mise-en-scene.
Were you thinking about that going into the writing process? You wanted to use voiceover but felt you needed to find a new creative device for it?
Mills: Yeah, and I’m always trying to find some way to keep being me—I do have a limited set of interests—but to keep my Velvet Underground song changing just enough to keep everyone interested and keep myself interested. But I think I’m following The Velvet Underground model of, like, it’s not gonna change a ton, you know?
Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.