The films of Mike Mills (including Beginnings and 20th Century Women) are marked by a tenderness and sensitivity that produce a rare effect: His characters are recognised as full human beings, each trying to make their way through life to the best of their abilities. The result is that Mills’ work often feels unwritten, as if he’s simply plopping moments of humanity recognised in his life into his scripts, rather than contriving them to suit a story-purpose. This is a very rare gift.

Mike Mills on Writing the Deeply Personal

Gold Derby’s Sam Eckmann interviewed the soft-spoken writer-director late last year following the limited release of his latest film, C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as radio journalist Johnny who grows closer to his nephew, nine-year old Jesse (Woody Norman), whilst babysitting on behalf of his somewhat estranged sister (Gaby Hoffman), out of town to help Jesse’s father through a mental health crisis.

Mills explains that he has a deeply personal connection to his work, claiming his creativity stems from his personal experiences. No surprise then that Mills set about writing this story of the stakes and challenges
of raising a child now that he has become a father himself. He continues by clarifying that no one particular moment was a source of inspiration, but that he drew on the larger sense of meaning that fatherhood had brought to his life. The mixture of intimacy, vulnerability, being needed so completely
and needing in return.

While writing the script over the course of about a year and a half, Mills’ concern over how to write C’mon C’mon so that it were true to his experience without invading his child’s privacy took “a long time”, as he fretted over finding an ‘in’ for his film. Lamenting how difficult he’s found explaining the concept, Mills highlights a comment from a parent that gives a sense of the range of scope he settled on; “The film… gets at the heartbreak of just walking with your child through the world”, bringing them into this enormous, complicated, beautiful, scary everything.

And so quite literally, the film operates in spaces as small and intimate as a bath, to questions about the future of the planet, answered by kids across America as a part of Johnny’s interview series. Those interviews were real, allowing American kids from Detroit to New Orleans to speak unguardedly and with the authenticity Mills aims to capture in his fictional scenes. Speaking about the quality this mixture of documentary and fiction brings to his film, the writer-director settles on skateboarding as an analogy.

It’s clear from this interview, and others which highlight the abundance of improvisation on set, that Mills’ scripts are driven by a clear sense of what he has seen in his own life which must be communicated to the viewer, allowing the rigid mechanics of the plot and dialogue to evolve without loosing (and in fact) enhancing the sense of honesty that brings his films to life.

The interview also touches on C’mon C’mon’s outstanding cast, and how Mills settles on writing a story of value by observing the people he loves.

Mike Mills on Writing the Deeply Personal C’mon C’mon
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