Mike Mills is not a prolific filmmaker. Over the past 16 years, he has directed (and written) only four scripted feature films: “Thumbsucker” (2005); “Beginners” (2010); 2016’s “20th Century Women” (which earned her an Oscar nomination for the original screenplay); and now “C’mon C’mon,” a movie about a radio reporter named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) who bonds with his precocious nephew Jesse (Woody Norman) while taking care of him.
But taken as a whole, this charming, crumpled director-writer with a three-day-long beard sitting on a couch in a New York hotel room is a Renaissance man, having made dozens of music videos and commercials and designed dozens of album covers, usually for independent artists. Of which he’s a part: Los Angeles-based The Mills, and his films recall the golden years of Gotham’s indie scene in a way that is both nostalgic and like a fresh bugle call.
Mills sat down for tea with The Envelope to talk “Go on”, weaving the autobiography into his work and having no interest in directing the next superhero blockbuster (which no one is asking).
What was the seed of “C’mon C’mon”, your first film in five years?
Just be with my child [Hopper, 9], and all the things having a child shows you about the world. I found it hallucinogenic, insanely intimate – the space to snuggle up to someone, to mumble things to each other. Because then in this intimate space are the greatest social problems, power, the future. I love when stories get like this. My father taught me that when he came out.
So, is Johnny and Jesse’s relationship like you and Hopper?
Absolutely not. I’m not Joaquin at all, and Woody isn’t Hopper. These two found their own way, and in the end, I don’t just watch Johnny and Jesse, I watch Woody and Joaquin’s relationship, which had real intimacy about it, because we shot in order. By the time we were in New Orleans, I didn’t need to tell Woody to put his head on Joaquin or hold his hand across a stage – they gravitated towards each other.
The film is about many things: listening and communicating; Jesse literally walks around with a microphone and records. Was it intentional?
I like this. A lot of it is what it is to be an adult with kids – it’s a world of being available for what is really happening to that person in an authentic way, without a bunch of preconceptions as to the fact. let the children be cute and innocent like in a fairy tale earth. I’d like to do a whole other movie on the tape. You cannot take a still picture of sound, so sound is like time, and then time is like everything.
This is only your fourth film in 16 years. How do you pay the bills?
A mixed blessing on my career is that I don’t. I never make movies for money, and my movies are pretty cheap. I would pay myself less if I could, because I want to put it in the movie. So movies are the way I lose money. I do a few commercials a year, which throws me into all kinds of weird situations – I had a helicopter hit on the Great Wall of China. I photographed 500 people in Rome running in the street. You find yourself in some really weird situations, so your dexterity is excellent.
So what would you do if someone – as “The Simpsons” might say – backed a truck full of cash to your house and said, “Make us the next blockbuster superhero movie”?
It’s not interesting to me. Making movies takes you out of your life, and I love my life too much – I love being a daddy too much. And let’s be honest, no one will ever do that, and I wouldn’t be very good at it.
“Beginners” was based on your father coming out, and “20th Century Women” was about the women in your life, like your mother. Since your parents are both deceased, what do you think they would do with the movies you create?
Funny how nobody asked for that. “Debutants” was scary in many ways – I was a privileged straight dude handling my father’s gay story of mystery, pain and happiness. Then my mom – she was born in 1925, was not gender, maybe a trans person, someone who didn’t fit in the box that was provided to her at the time. So I am at best a visitor. My rule is like, “If I see them in Heaven later, I have to face them.” I just have to be able to face them and say, “I did that. “