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Elle Fanning in Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women”

How wild women inspired this anti-coming-of-age film

Mike Mills talks about ‘20th Century Women’, being called an ‘art fag’ in the SoCal punk scene and growing up with strong women in sleepy, suburban Santa Barbara

Mike Mills’s 2010 movie Beginners was inspired by his relationship with his dad who came out as gay at the age of 75. Naturally, it was deeply personal. Now he’s reached into his emotional vault again, with 20th Century Women, a movie inspired by his relationship with his mum, a woman he describes like having Humphrey Bogart as a parent.

Set in late 70s Santa Barbara, where Mills grew up as a punk-obsessed skater, the film sees Annette Bening starring as his mum. She takes a liberal approach to parenting her teenage son, Jamie, with the dad nowhere to be seen. She dances to Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” in an attempt to understand the youth. She believes in letting Jamie make mistakes, telling him, “Having your heart broken is a tremendous way to learn about the world.”

Mills, in this story, is 15-year-old Jamie, a shy skater navigating the choppy waters of suburban adolescence. Guiding him are three women: his mum, his crush (Elle Fanning’s Julie, who regularly sleeps over but ‘friendzones’ him), and one of his mum’s lodgers, Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who makes him punk mixtapes and introduces him to feminist literature. These are the titular 20th century women, and as Mills tells me when we sit down, it’s a portrait of them more than it is of Jamie’s coming-of-age. Here he tells me how he tapped into the female psyche, how he ‘cinematised’ his life, and how he was labelled an ‘art fag’ for liking Talking Heads.

You’ve said Annette Bening’s character, Dorothea, was based on your own mum; did you have a similar upbringing to Jamie?

Mike Mills: Yeah, I did all the things he did. I did the [asphyxiation] game but I didn’t end up in hospital. I did all the punk stuff and the skating, all that’s from me. And my mum had that slightly laissez-faire thing. Like if I ran away she would say, “did you have a good time?” It was like, go in the jungle, meet the tigers and lions, go make mistakes, then deal with them, I’m not gonna coddle you. She was sort of a tough character. It was like having Humphrey Bogart as your mother. And that was kinda cool but also kinda rough; it’s not the most maternal thing. My mum never got two women to help raise me, but I was kind of raised in this matriarchy with a very strong mum and two sisters who were 10 and 7 years older.

What was it like, personally, to see her bring that character to life?

Mike Mills: It’s very personal in some ways: she’s wearing my mum’s jewellery, she’s laying on my mum’s bedspread, she’s saying things my mum said, but it’s a performance, it’s distilled into a cinematised otherness. It’s not therapy, it’s not really mum. Same thing with Beginners – Christopher Plummer is not my dad. Like Fellini, I’ve been cinematising my real life, and it’s a bit of a trip that I can’t totally explain or understand. Like is it mum or not, or how much is it mum? Sometimes, when [Annette Bening] is smoking and she’s standing in front of the painting I grew up with, it’s very evocative. But that’s not the goal. I’m using all these concrete personal things to inject my film with a certain emotional charge and realness that I feel is not following the formulas of normal American films.

Your film has three incredibly strong female characters. Was it daunting for you, tapping into the female psyche? 

Mike Mills: There were three different females to tap into. And so first of all, as a heterosexual, cisgendered man, there was only so far I could go. It’s not my lived experience. In different ways I tried to make that limitation part of the story, like when Julie says “that’s not me, that’s just your version of me” towards the end, that was like her talking to the author. And my mum – I’m writing about my mum who I’m totally interwoven with; we were like a married couple, me and her, but I totally don’t understand her in many key ways, and she’s very intangible in very key ways. And that really fucked me up in the writing process: what is her voice? How do I write her? How do I be her? One thing that helped was making that part of the story.

How did you approach writing the menstruation scene as a man?

Mike Mills: Well my wife [filmmaker/artist/author Miranda July] is very much menstruation-proud. There’s a great story where she was teaching her older brother how important it was for a man to understand menstruation. I kind of stole from that little event, so it’s partly a nod to my wife. And then the stuff that Julie says – about her first period and her first sexual experience – I interviewed some friends of mine who had wild lives in ’79, who were Julie’s age then…I liked that semi-journalistic corruption of the fictional process.

How do you think it was different for teens coming of age in 1979, as opposed to now?

Mike Mills: It’s funny, I don’t think of my movie as a coming-of-age movie; it’s a really bad coming-of-age movie because the kid doesn’t really change. I feel like the kid is there as a way to see the women. It is about him, he’s growing up, but I’m not as interested in him growing up. I’m interested in what it means to be a mum born in the 20s, having a kid when you’re 40, having a relationship and being this depression-era, Amelia Earhart, Humphrey Bogart mother of a punk rock, skateboarding kid in the 70s – and all the problems that ensue. So it’s Rudy Vallée’s “As Time Goes By” from Casablanca meets The Buzzcocks, and all the conflicts that ensue. That’s my elevator pitch of my movie.

You show how important music taste was back then and what it said about you, like the Black Flag vs. Talking Heads thing, with fans of the latter deemed ‘art fags’.

Mike Mills: In the SoCal punk scene there were definitely divisions like that. My sister got me that orange ‘77’ Talking Heads shirt and I liked all that, and I liked Bauhaus and Joy Division and all that was kind of illegal to the hardcore scene; if you liked Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Tears of all Adolescence, that stuff was sort of gay, and I say gay like, there was homophobia in that scene or “artophobia”. There was a punk house near my high school where all the riff raff punk kids hung out that I frequented, and one day I went there and ‘MIKE MILLS IS AN ART FAG’ was painted on the side of the building. So that all came from my life.

“If you liked Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Tears of all Adolescence, that stuff was sort of gay, and I say gay like, there was homophobia in that scene or ‘artophobia’” – Mike Mills

The soundtrack features some Suicide and Devo, too. The selection seemed really important; how did you choose?

Mike Mills: A lot of it is songs that I adored and grew up with. There’s so many scenes about music in the movie, and that music has been such a key thing for me. Suburban Santa Barbara in the 70s was a very sleepy, boring, isolated, normative place that I found wildly depressing, truly depressing. I felt very alone and at risk [laughs]. When I was 18 I left and went to New York. I got out. And I owe so much to that music. And music is maybe the most powerful, effective thing on me. When Trump won I just listened to Bowie all day, really loud, and it really helped. It’s more than therapy, it’s company.

Abbie passes her records down to Jamie, so it also works as a way of bridging generational gaps…

Mike Mills: Yeah, she gives him a mixtape. To me it’s a portrait of pre-digital life, where you had to know people and you had to go and seek them out and they had to give you something IRL. I remember back in the day there was this great record store, and you had to take the bus for like two hours and hopefully the right guy was working there, because that right guy knew about Gang of Four, and if you liked Gang of Four he knew about Wire, and that was a magical thing, seeking out knowledge and physically having to go out and get it.

How did younger actors like Elle Fanning engage with an era they didn’t experience?

Mike Mills: What’s funny is that so much of my crew were born in 1979 or later, so it wasn’t just teaching the actors what it was like to live then but the crew. I didn’t see myself as that old or needing to be much of a historian. Elle said of Julie [her character], “She just reminds me of my friends, I could just glom onto her”. And that’s a neat answer to me because I want to make a historically accurate film but I’m trying to make it for now. I’m interested in how it relates to now.

20th Century Women is due out in UK cinemas 10 February. Watch the trailer below.