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How Mike Mills Made a Great Movie About Fatherhood by Focusing on an Uncle

‘C’mon C’mon’ follows a middle-aged bachelor as he’s forced to take care of his nephew. The Oscar-nominated filmmaker talks to MEL about why he’s okay with all of his movies ending up being about family — although sometimes even he hates how much of a double Pisces he is

Mike Mills doesn’t always make eye contact while talking over Zoom, looking away, sometimes toward the ground, as he answers my questions. His voice gentle, his comments thoughtful, the 55-year-old filmmaker isn’t being aloof — quite the contrary, there’s a shyness to him that’s rather inviting. He’ll often punctuate his responses with a kindly “Do you know what I mean?” or “Did I answer your question?” as if he’s not sure he’s being helpful. All he wants to do is put you at ease, not entirely comfortable being the center of attention.

It’s no surprise he’s the man responsible for Beginners and 20th Century Women, two of the loveliest, most low-key indie dramas of the last decade or so. The former, which won an Oscar for Christopher Plummer as a father who comes out late in life, was Mills’ intimate way of processing the death of his own dad, who similarly announced to his family during his golden years that he was gay. 20th Century Women, which earned him a screenwriting Oscar nomination, allowed Mills the chance to memorialize his mother, although he’s also said that the film is “a love letter to all the women who raised me.” In his movies, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and during our interview, all you see is that vulnerability and openness — it’s understandable why he occasionally looks away when he talks.

He’s back with another touching film, C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix in his first performance since Joker as Johnny, a single radio journalist who has to step up when his once-close sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) needs him to watch over her young son Jesse (Woody Norman) so that she can attend to her ex-husband Paul (Scoot McNairy), whose mental-health struggles have become debilitating. Johnny has no kids of his own, but he and Jesse have a bond, although it will get tested once he has to take the boy with him on his cross-country project interviewing children about their thoughts regarding the future. (Those interview segments feature Phoenix actually talking to kids in different cities, lending C’mon C’mon a documentary element.) 

C’mon C’mon is an emotional, funny film, shot in dreamy black-and-white, and it consists mostly of Johnny trying to figure out how the hell to deal with this boy, who’s as opinionated, mercurial, endearing and enraging as an actual nine-year-old. Phoenix, perhaps better known for his prickly, highwire turns in The Master and Joker, is toned down and delicate, playing Johnny as a man with baggage but also a lot of tenderness. As we’ll learn, he and Viv have gone through some difficulties, and this emergency babysitting assignment might end up helping to repair that damage. Yes, Mills has made another personal movie about family, for which he makes no apologies.

His newest film was first inspired by conversations he’d had with his child Hopper — who’s gender-nonconfirming and whose pronouns are they/them — while he was giving them a bath. Struck by Hopper’s observations about the world — “My kid’s a very philosophical person,” Mills tells me — he realized that, as opposed to Beginners and 20th Century Women, this time he wouldn’t be telling a story about a deceased family member but, rather, one right in front of him. But he didn’t want C’mon C’mon just to be about his family — hence the documentary segments, in which other children get to speak up, too. “I just want to honor kids — not just my kid, I want to honor kids,” he explains.

During our conversation, we discussed how making a movie about an uncle ultimately became a movie about fatherhood — and how Phoenix challenged him as a filmmaker. And if you think Mills’ movies are too sentimental, well, he’s here to tell you that he struggles with how emotional he is in real life.

While watching C’mon C’mon, I was thinking that there are so many movies about fatherhood, but very few about unclehood. Was part of the appeal that you got to break out of the predictable father-child template in telling this story?

Yeah, although it started with me observing my kid, me being with my kid — the way that having someone need you and love you and entrust you so deeply, how that transforms you. That spectrum of intimate things — from giving [them] a bath or going to bed with your kid to trying to explain capitalism or trying to explain the world to your kid [laughs] — I like all that a lot. 

But this is the first time I’ve written [about] a living person and a younger person. It took me years to figure out how to get away from us — or what parts to keep and what parts to stay private and protect. That was a really weird process. And so I came up with this uncle thing, partly just to [create] distance. But then I had these things that really made it stick and made it powerful. One was, if you’re an uncle who isn’t a parent, you’re just going to have to learn every single day, every single scene, all that condensation of the [parenting] process. So the filmmaker and writer in me was like, “That’s just going to be endlessly interesting and good and funny and sad and dark and all this stuff.” But then as I really started writing, I was like, “This is exactly what I feel like as a biological dad.” Because you never know what’s coming next — you’re constantly not knowing what’s going on, you’re constantly unprepared for the challenges. And that’s not a problem, it’s not my deficiency [as a dad] — it’s just how it is. 

When I watch the movie, I’m watching a dad and a kid. [Laughs] But here’s [what’s] kind of hard to talk about: So, my movies are about families, but I kind of hate using that word because I hope it doesn’t mean just biological, heteronormative “family.” As a father, as a child of a gay man, that would really bum me out if I was being exclusive with the word “family.” I’m really interested in primary relationships, and 20th Century Women is really all about that: broken or un-typical primary-relationship situations. So, the uncle, yes, he’s biological, but he’s an estranged uncle — who shows up is what’s important, not what biology shows up.

Like you said, your films are often about family. When you started on this project, did you think, “Oh, I need to mix it up — I shouldn’t do another film about family”? Or do you not worry about that and just trust that this is the story you want to tell?

You write a film for years, so you have very many different answers to this question. Sometimes I’m thinking, “Wow, I’ve really broken it wide open! I’m fucking not doing my other movies again!” You honestly believe that. “This one is [in] black-and-white. It has a documentary feeling. I’m interviewing kids. I’m in a new, wild, crazy space!” And that’s not untrue — it feels like that. But there’s another part of me that’s like, “You know what? I’m in my 50s. I’m going to make five to six movies, maybe, hopefully — and I’ll be really lucky, that would be an amazing situation.” So it’s fine if I’m sort of on-brand or whatever it is — that’s my deal. [Laughs] Sometimes I’m very like, “Okay, I came to [filmmaking] late — I’m lucky I’ve gotten to do what I do.” I’m a small-scale industry here. [Laughs] And that’s fine if they have this relationship.

Mills on set with Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix was last in Joker, which is so different from this. Obviously, he’s been incredible in all types of films, but what made you think he could play this guy? How did you explain to him who Johnny is?

That was his first question: He came to meet me [after reading the script], and he’s like, “Who’s Johnny?” He said it like that. And I was like, “I don’t know. Do you know?” Because that’s how I work — I’m like, “Well, who do you think he is?” And he’s like, “I don’t fucking know.”

I didn’t have a very good answer, to be honest, because that’s not how I work. I work by invitation and little enticements. Especially because I write very personal stuff, my job after I’ve written it — after I’ve gotten the nutrition out of my real life — is to talk to you, to strangers, to people I don’t know, and just share. Even with actors — the actor comes at me and says, “This came from your life, so what is it?” And I’m like, “How do you think he would deal with it? How do you think he would get to this?” So I didn’t have a good answer [for Phoenix]. I left the meeting thinking, “Well, that was really fun. We had an amazing conversation. I don’t think he’s going to do this movie, but I love him.” 

I had never seen Joker — it hadn’t come out by that time. Still have never seen it — no offense to that movie, it was too big of a “previous lover” for me to deal with. But when I saw Joaquin in movies before, this is what I thought: “That’s a very smart person who’s deeply allergic to cliché and tropes who I sense is very funny. He just feels really intelligent and alive and real.” 

Also, I can be just way too sweet, straight-up. I want connection, I want love, I want to write about love, I want to be in love when I’m writing — I want all that, right? And it repulses me at times — I’m disgusted with myself and my good intentions and my wanting to connect. And with someone like Joaquin, I just got this sense that he’s not going to make that simple — he’s going to find ways to add colors to that, to complicate it in a good way. That was just my hunch. And after that first lunch, I got on the phone with Chelsea [Barnard], my producer, and I was like, “I adore him. And I think he feels like he can’t do it. But that person I met, I would love that person to do it.”

One thing I really loved is that Jesse isn’t just an adorable kid. He’s obviously very lovable, but you also show how kids can be impossible and a total pain in the ass. I sensed you wanted Jesse to be hard so that Johnny was going to have to deal with what it’s like to be a parent.

I wouldn’t describe the kid as hard or a pain in the ass. I would say, yes, deeply challenging. As the adult in this situation, you often just are unnerved. You don’t know what to do — you don’t know how to get them out of the bathroom, you lose them in the pharmacy. [Those things that happen in the movie], that all happened. But to me, that’s just part of life — that’s not a bad thing, that’s not a problem, that’s not a special situation. 

I think all kids who are not whipped into being submissive are doing things like that. So I wanted to include a big spectrum of what I observed to be — not just with my kid, just kids [in general] — what parenting life was like. I just want to honor kids, that’s it. I find kids really fascinating, and not “little” or “less-than” or anything like that. They’re full-grown situations that are maybe developmentally different, but not less-than. And if you want to honor that, you want to show the whole thing as much as you can. 

Phoenix with Gaby Hoffmann

There’s this whole discourse around Ted Lasso right now in terms of making TV shows and movies about kindness and whether that’s too precious. I think of your films as being about kindness. You said that you sometimes dislike that impulse in yourself — is there a part of you that gets embarrassed about that in your movies? Or do you just think, “This is who I am, and I have to acknowledge that’s who I am”?

Especially [these last] three films, you can see me coming from a mile away, right? I’m so double Pisces coming at you with all my emotions. And so while I want the film to ultimately have that landing at the end — that’s a beautiful reason to try to make a film or to try to connect with other people — kindness doesn’t have to be Pollyanna-ish. It can have teeth and grit. 

While I know [those emotions] are where I want to get [at the end of the movie], it doesn’t mean you can just go and point your finger at it and grab it. That’s what Joaquin taught me: “Yeah, that’s the goal, but you got to show all the troubles to getting to that goal.” It wasn’t like I’m unaware of that or I don’t want that, but he just was a great playmate: “Let’s make sure that that’s there, too. Let’s both keep eyes on it together.” All through the shoot, even the edit, he was just like, “Hey, are we including enough complexity?” 

The other thing that Joaquin brought that I really love as a writer [was] I’d be like, “What’s the underlying problem? What’s [Johnny’s] deal?” And Joaquin would be like, “Life’s not like that! It’s not, like, one problem!” We don’t know our problems, and we’re mysteries to ourselves. Our problems are so often unnameable, or multiple and varied and in flux — at 1 p.m., it’s this, and at 2 p.m., it’s that. It was so neat to have that guy say that all the time. He would resist [me saying], “Okay, I think he’s depressed because of this.” [He’d say], “Stop that, people are mysteries — that’s disrespectful [for you] to talk about them like that.”

Johnny doesn’t talk down to Jesse — he talks to him like an adult. Is that how you are with your kid?

I try not to talk down — I hope I don’t. But that’s not an easy thing, and I definitely don’t do that all the time. That’s something I learned from a lot of moms and a lot of different educators that I’ve met through my kid. Like my kid’s preschool teacher: [She’s an] amazing, deep person who understands child sovereignty and the complexity and depth of child emotions. Not just cute, not just sweet, the whole spectrum — she’s there for it. Through osmosis — just watching and admiring her — I wanted that consciousness in the film. And for sure, it’s something I try to do with my kid. 

The documentary segments felt like another way to present kids’ voices in the film, to let them express themselves unfiltered.

I wanted [the movie] to be about kids in a lot of different ways. I saw it as “I have this foregrounded story of this kid and this man, but they’re walking through all these other kids.” Those other young people’s perspective on our life, our society, our world history and the future is like the landscape that they’re walking through. And they’re really different — those kids are from different races, different classes, different cities, different everything. I really wanted that diversity big-time, too, because my story is a very privileged white story. I wanted to put them in the world that we live in.

Johnny asks a lot of them, “What do you think about the future?” Is that something that you and your kid have talked about? 

My kid’s a very philosophical person — they talk about stuff like that all the time. They like thinking very big. But I did this project [where] I interviewed a bunch of kids whose parents worked at tech companies in Silicon Valley. All those tech companies talk about the future so much — they’re futurists and all that — and I thought it was a funny power inversion to invite their children to talk about the future. And it worked — it was really interesting and kind of subversive. Their take was deep and heavy and dark, and it kind of haunted me, so I just wanted to do it more. So I had this idea [with C’mon C’mon]: All my stories, they’ve got the super-personal-from-my-life thing, and then I try to find a way to connect that particular relational moment in history to bigger stuff. So [the documentary segments] are how I got that connection.

Phoenix with Woody Norman

Some parents I talk to are optimistic about the future because of their children. Others are not because they worry about the world they’re leaving behind for their kids. So let me ask you: What do you think about the future?

I’m quite worried about all the things everyone’s worried about, like climate stuff and America turning into an authoritarian regime and Amazon capitalism, social media, metaverse. Metaverse is the most fucking terrifying shit on earth — what the fuck are we talking about here? 

One thing, I have to say, that I find very powerful that’s really different than my childhood and my youth are people like Greta Thunberg or all the activists around the Parkland [shooting]. There’s so many different examples of young people who have lived lives that have much higher stakes than mine did — much more demands of consciousness, intelligence and strength. Just watching them deal with that, I admire it a lot. And that part, I do find positive. Greta Thunberg, not just because of the way she talks about climate, but her own mental neurodiversity — what goes on with her and her family, that openness, that awareness of one’s self, and advocacy for one’s differences, all that. Or seeing trans kids — that’s hopeful to me. Trans kids who are being embraced, given space and support and love, who know themselves and are able to manifest it — that is so much better than the world I grew up in. 

You’ve mentioned that Hopper is gender-nonconforming. For parents out there who may have that conversation with their kids, that might be scary, wanting to be sure to say the right thing and not say the wrong thing. Do you have advice for how to be a good parent in that moment?

I want to make space for my kid and be out in front of them. So if someone says “he,” I always say, “Oh, nonbinary, they, them.” But, in a weird way, to talk more about it, I feel like I’m invading my kid’s space and mystery and all that.

But to answer your question, at least when it happened in my life — I know a lot of kids who are either nonbinary or trans, and it’s not scary, it’s amazing. It really isn’t scary at all. There’s so many support things now — and, definitely, a relationship between you and your kid, that’s a beautiful opportunity. That’s just your kid telling you what they feel like, and what they want and need. As a parent, you’re always dying to know that, because it’s actually not easy to know what they want and need sometimes. [Laughs] And so, I find that very lovely. 

Many years ago, you made a documentary, Does Your Soul Have a Cold?, about Japanese culture’s dim attitude toward depression. In C’mon C’mon, Viv’s husband Paul is battling some serious mental-health issues. It’s the first time in a while that you’ve focused on that in one of your films, and it’s a critical but I think under-discussed element of this movie, because a lot of what’s imperiling this family, and especially Jesse, is Paul’s struggles. 

I feel like we all live on some part of a spectrum — it’s not like some people are “mentally healthy” and some people are “mentally ill.” We’re all dealing with stuff — I deal with sort of chronic, mid-low-level depression stuff all the time. It’s just a part of my dance of my life I got to deal with. I’ve learned a lot from people who are really good at not excluding or othering those feelings in yourself — or other people in your family who are dealing with stuff like that. So I was trying to have it just be part of the fabric [of the film]. 

[Paul’s] not a bad guy at all. And even though they’re divorced, they love each other and they help each other — I love that, and Gaby and Scoot really liked that, too. When I [asked Gaby], “How do you feel about Paul?” she answered, “I love him, and I still do. Even this part, it’s love.” 

I’m very interested as a child who has inherited different mental positivities and negativities from my parent — and I’m wondering so much what I’m giving my kid. That whole flow is really deeply mysterious. I think that’s a big part of the movie to me [for Jesse]: “Am I going to be like my dad?” That’s just a big thing I’ve thought about a lot. 

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