If you stood in a room with 50 people and one of those people were Mike Mills, it’s likely that the first person to tell you that Mike Mills is not a wizard of technology would be Mike Mills.
"I’m not social media savvy," Mills, the writer and director of tenderly drawn films about love and family and the world such as Beginners and 20th Century Women, for which he was just nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, says by phone from Los Angeles this week. "I’m really a Luddite by choice. In fact, I just found out how to turn email and Safari off on my phone."
This was no mere Age of Unplugging #humblebrag: following our conversation, Mills was due to participate in reddit’s Ask Me Anything series, and he told me he wasn't sure what that was.
"Luckily, the smart, young people [at A24, 20th Century’s distributor] know what’s up."
It was when Mills spoke with the smart, young people at A24 that a compelling and, yes, tech-driven idea for promoting 20th Century Women was born: an all-1979-all-the-time online radio station. With Mills as DJ, the site blasts the music of the movie, the time, and place: Talking Heads, Patti Smith, The Clash, David Bowie, The Raincoats, Buzzcocks.
The project, as much of Mills’s work does, began with the first throbs of passion, before wandering into the real world as an organic promotional mechanism.
"I love that you could give magic—because, really, that’s what music is—to other people in a beautiful, open, non-payment exchange," Mills says, his voice rising like the chorus of a song. "That’s rad!"
To hear Mills tell it, creating the Internet station and getting it up and running was a smooth operation, brimming with "kismet." For years Mills has joked to his wife, the filmmaker, writer, and artist Miranda July, about his desire to run away to the small, northern California town of Nevada City, where he had once fallen under the spell of a fantastic local radio station, to become a DJ. When he spoke with A24 about helping build his own station, they were receptive. Then, when he suggested the design firm Osk Studio, which he'd worked with on previous projects, he learned that the film distributor’s had also collaborated with the designers. And, voila: 1979.fm crackled into existence.
The station arrives at a time when entertainment companies are creating new ways to break through so much audience-seeking noise, to get their signals heard. Just this week, for example, the CW introduced a tool that lets fans of its Archie comics re-imagining, Riverdale, become characters themselves.
But whereas this idea, and many other promotional campaigns, are user-focused, allowing the audience to get closer to the art, as it were, Mills’s station works the other way: with the creator’s passions flowing to fans and drawing them near.
Music is very much at the rock ‘n roll heart of 20th Century Women. Mixed tapes are exchanged. Spontaneous dance parties erupt. Mills’s own punk adolescents manifests in Greta Gerwig’s roving, creative force of a character, Abbie. The film tells the semi-autobiographical story of Mills’s fiercely independent, sui generis mother, and his coming of age at the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1979. Growing up in the sleepier, pre-Oprah Santa Barbara of the ‘70s, Mills, like many arty explorers of his generation, discovered the thrilling freedom of punk rock.
"It saved my emotional life," he says, "and taught me about the world."
Songs are still saving his life. At least his work life. Mills says he can get depressed when writing (this is, I understand, not an uncommon phenomenon), and having musical companionship helps him through rough patches.
"Writing is very hard and you do it alone," he says. "It requires constant failure. To write one good sentence, you need to write eight bad ones. That’s difficult life math. You have to have so much faith and belief and so much endurance while creating."
One constant companion for him is the free-form folk of Joanna Newsom.
"I get the sense when I’m listening to her that she believes in creativity and the self and soul and the importance of being creative," he says.
Beyond recognizing a kindred artistic spirit in Newsome—who, as it happens, hails from Nevada City—Mills says it is helpful for him to listen to music that works structurally in ways that are similar to his films. It’s why he is also inspired by Frank Ocean. Just as Mills’s scripts tend to abandon the classic three-act mandate outlined in books by Syd Field and Robert McKee, so the music of Newsom and Ocean wanders, doubles back, takes surprising turns. The map has been splattered with tears and flung in a ditch.
Ocean's music, Mills notes, "doesn’t follow a normal song structure; it’s more a bespoke structure."
That’s a meaningful artistic choice for Mills. Now, as he promotes his third well-received feature film, it’s clear that there is a Mills aesthetic. It can be seen in his commercial work for brands such as Nike, VW, and Gap. And in music videos for Air, Pulp, and Blonde Redhead. And in his films. Life, his collective work suggests, is a messy, beautiful struggle. A soul-exposing knife-fight best entered into stylishly.
While writing the above 928 words, I listened to Joanna Newsom’s 2015 album, Divers. The music crested with strings and piano. The singer’s bright, chirping expression grew into an August butterfly in the back of my brain. A fluttering companion along the uncertain, pixelated path toward—what? This. This effort to create and communicate. Now it’s out in the world—published—and assessments of how effectively this story does that are out of my control. That can be a scary feeling. But music helps. It helps us feel not so alone. It has always helped us find our place—in 1979 and 2017 and next year, too.