Director Mike Mills has mastered a creative challenge: making films about his parents who, truth be told, he never knew that well.
Mills's 2010 film Beginners was based on his father coming out as gay at the age of 75, five years before dying of cancer. And now, his latest film, 20th Century Women, dissects the complexities of his mom who was, as Mills describes, impossible to define.
"My mom never fit in the feminine box—she just didn't fit in. She wanted to be a pilot. She was a drafter. She never wanted to look like a feminine woman," Mills says. "But the key parts to her interior life, especially the key parts to her history, her story of herself, she never told me—they remain a mystery to me."
20th Century Women is a dreamy snapshot of 1979 Santa Barbara as seen through the eyes of single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her 15-year-old son Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann). Feeling as though Jaime is in need of some guidance, Dorothea employs her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Jaime’s best friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to teach him what it means to be a man.
20th Century Women is by no means a verbatim retelling of Mills’s childhood, which is exactly how he prefers it. Where Mills finds his creative freedom is in taking a rough outline and coloring in the white space as he sees fit.
"Let's say if I had a documentary film about [my parents] and filmed them all through my life to now. If you put that together as a movie, once you edit it, once you make it all those editorial decisions, you don't have a documentary anymore. It'd be your version, this one particular construct, one particular view of them. So even if you have all the facts, you're cinematizing reality—and I like that," Mills says. "I like that mixture of trying to get to the heart of a person but turning it into cinema. It becomes something that's very hard to describe, like some mongrel hybrid thing which actually feels more true."
The cinematization of Mills’s mother began with, of all people, Humphrey Bogart.
"I knew that she loved all those Bogie movies, so I started watching movies from the '30s and '40s. There's a great one called Stage Door—the female characters totally reminded me of my mom. They're anti-authoritarian. They love the underdog. They hate pretension. They are all struggling against the powers of society and they're not going to win the struggle but they're going down with great style," Mills says. "But in a weird way what came out the most is Bogart—that was one little piece of magical access to my mom. Who knew Humphrey Bogart would help me with my mom's dialogue?"
Even with a general framework to begin piecing together his mom, Mills admits to being somewhat reticent about the film. He never assumed that just because he was his mom’s son that he automatically had the right to tell her story. Given the fact that she was so private while she was alive, Mills wondered if should retain her privacy even after her death.
"People keep talking about who in the hell is my mom? How can I know her enough to write her enough? I'm not a woman. I'm not a mother. I'm not as old as she was. I'm not from her time. That was really hard—I kept feeling like I don't have the right information," Mills says. " I had to have some sort of coming to Jesus moment in my head, like I need to do this. It's my turn. I get to do this. This is my life, too."
"When your parents die, they're very alive in your head and you can have very real conversations with them," Mills goes on to say. "My mom was a very secretive person and she wouldn't generally want to have movies made about her. But the film is a public document that's meant to be shown to strangers in dark rooms all across the countries. It's not a piece of therapy or a personal thing—it’s a movie. My mom's memories gave me this opportunity—to be a writer/director is a huge gift. And ultimately I think my mom would’ve let me do this."