Director Mike Mills talks storytelling, ‘C’mon C’mon’ inspiration

photo from an interview with Mike Mills
Focus Features/Courtesy

Related Posts

When Mike Mills answers a question, he lets his mouth fall open a bit, looks right at you and starts a breathy, insightful spiel. It suits the filmmaker, who recalls inspiration and feeling with reverence, and if he were a bit more twee, he — and his autofictional movies — might wax simpering.

The acclaimed director fully understands that. And it’s no surprise, given the emotional attunement and self-awareness of his films (“20th Century Women” and “Beginners” among them). Mills’ fourth feature “C’mon C’mon” is no different, and perhaps has an added maturity, but his telltale disregard for an idea of how to live right is undimmed.

“C’mon C’mon” follows a radio journalist (Johnny, played by Joaquin Phoenix), in the mold of Ira Glass, who goes on a cross-country trip interviewing kids about their worries and prides. It’s a patient film that gives Johnny time to build a relationship with his precocious — yet never grating — nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman).

“I think causality stories, like linear causality, never made sense to me. I’m horrible at it,” Mills said in an interview with The Daily Californian.

Anyone who’s seen one of his movies knows they’re more “Dorian Gray” than “Bicycle Thieves.” The director’s nonlinear stories — Mills is at the top of his flashback game with “C’mon C’mon” — lend themselves to unconventional family dramas.

“It doesn’t have to be biological, it doesn’t have to be heteronormative families, it’s all different families,” Mills said. “And I feel like this is like ‘Game of Thrones,’ it’s where all the s— happens, it’s where all the biggest things in your life happen.”

That’s certainly the case for Jesse. Norman is sprightly, with an uncharacteristic depth. His character is complex, and in some ways, it plays the most like the way Mills talks. The director dithers sometimes, but his habit of speech has a way of defying jumble, a sort of unity in chaos — that way his family drama resists the pull and pressure of the nuclear family, and that way Norman flexes a pastiche of character, as could only fit a temperamental child.

“There’s a lot of kids that are like Jesse to me, like there’s a lot of super smart kids that aren’t staying in their lane, that are really lovely, and very alive,” Mills said. “(That) Woody is really so smart and so unpredictable and isn’t performing for the camera, isn’t docile to me, as the director, is essential.”

Norman’s performance is a near foil to Phoenix’s. They’re both subject to outbursts; see the fantastic screaming match in “C’mon C’mon,” more crescendo than climax. Think of Phoenix’s performance the way Mills put it: The Joker is interviewing a bunch of kids completely vulnerable to the production (as these interviews are improvised and from the heart). The part requires sensitivity, an adult pertinence.

Mills and Phoenix explored radio programs and podcasts while developing the role, naturally finding their way to “This American Life” and its creator, Ira Glass (a hero of Mills’). Glass actually suggested that the pair look into another podcast host, Mills recalled, who is “both really personal and really dry at the same time, and I think Joaquin really loved that.”

That tone is emulated not only in content but in form. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan shot in black and white, which gives the film a small-scale intimacy.

“I’m thinking of the movie as a drawing, not a painting,” Mills said. “Drawings to me are quicker, more immediate, sometimes more intimate because it has this speed and because it’s reduced to this black and white, there’s something about it that I find more intimate.”

“C’mon C’mon” does feel distinctly like a drawing — its characters are framed from distances, and silhouettes appear constantly.

“I kept seeing the man, the adult man, and the kid, like just those shapes, those silhouettes. I kept seeing them walking through landscapes, walking through the world,” Mills said. “It’s that larger person helping the smaller person.”

“This movie could so easily be too saucy, too much gooey love stuff with this cute kid at the center,” Mills said. “There’s very little close-ups of Woody … to keep it a little distant because I knew that my subject matter was very honey.”

So it’s not a gooped-up movie, though some people have taken issue with the way he has his characters read from other artists’ works. Mills doesn’t seem to mind much.

“I just find that really exciting: the heterogeneity of it, the decentering of the poise and the swerving over into someone else’s viewpoint. You can have other stuff and all the things I choose I really love, so I’m like robbing,” Mills said. “(I love) when those parts come on because I am exhausted of myself, so it’s like, wow, alright, Kirsten Johnson’s quote, like I love what she has to say — or Jaqueline Rose’s thing, like I’m so honored it’s in my movie … It makes me happy.”

“C’mon C’mon” will be playing in theaters starting Nov. 19.

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].