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INTERVIEW: Mike Mills on '20th Century Women'

Roe Moore interviews Mike Mills on the origin and inspiration for his latest film, '20th Century Women.'

Roe Moore's vast experience has taken her both in front of the camera and behind the scenes on familiar television shows like Lucha Underground and Wives with Knives as well as indie film favorites like Entertainment and The Escort. She’s worked as a script supervisor alongside many highly acclaimed directors. As founder and producer of PiePie Productions, she has produced multiple award-winning projects including short film Dark Specter and narrative web content for Funny-or-Die. Roe was recently awarded a women’s Filmmaker-in-Residence with Her Film Project. Twitter: @Roe_Moore

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Every few years, I connect with a movie that places the stories of women front and center. Those movies portray the deeper inner life challenges, the external conflicts with the world, and even the secret fun parts of being a woman in any era. On my list includes The Devil Wears Prada, Julie & Julia, and now, Mike Mills' 20th Century Women tops that list at number one. His caring way of showing three women at different stages of life is unlike any other film.

20th Century Women is an autobiographical tribute film to Mills' mother. The film takes place in the year is 1979 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Dorothea Fields is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie, at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women – Abbie, a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields' home and Julie, a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor – to help with Jamie's upbringing.

Mills' Background

Mike Mills has a diverse background in the arts: a graphic design; a conceptual artist; and an iconic filmmaker. He has designed album artwork for Beck, Beastie Boys, and more. In his life, all his artistic endeavors are interwoven and feed each other. Each aspect offers its own perspective and allows for him to see things in different lights. His film inspirations come from Fredrick Wiseman films. He fell in love with how these films portrayed life in a more 'public' way than what art school had to offer. The films focused on the "real world" rather than the imaginative world. "There's something about it that I find...very noble to look at the world and to understand it."


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Mills has dabbled in the documentary world – capturing real life in the uncanny way that inspired him to become a filmmaker. He believes this helped his narrative filmmaking in Beginners and 20th Century Women because it satisfies the itch to transpose fictional characters who are based on people he knew and put them in very real historical context; overall, giving his films a more grounded feel.

Mills found himself as a writer/director through the process of doing commercials and music videos. Generally, directors of commercials and music videos pitch their concept and are responsible for writing them. To him, it wasn't a matter of a decision to be both a writer and director, it came together as a package.

How 20th Century Women Came to Life

Because Mills lived the life his character Jamie did, he felt writing the three women's stories came very naturally. When Mills was born, his mother was 40. Being born to older parents, he always found himself explaining his mother and father to his friends. His experience allowed for a deeper understanding to the ways his parents operated. The struggles for his mother to relate to him and the ways she attempted to connect are highlighted throughout the film.

There is a strong argument that the film doesn’t follow any story structure. As the film unfolds, it feels as though you are witnessing slices of life rather than a journey of a group of character as they battle the elements and events life throws at them. Mills mentions he didn’t intend to provide a new story structure to the writing world. When it came to writing 20th Century Women, Mills said it took many years to complete the script. During that time, he would write certain scenes but later revise or delete them because he felt they may not translate to the audience.

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The film is peppered with various era pieces such as the music, the feminist books, and He stated the references he used throughout the film come from his own personal life experiences -- including the feminist books. Even with his knowledge and experience, Mills still finds his mother as a mystery that will never be revealed -- something that Bening fully captured in her performance.

Mike's Words of Wisdom

Mills shared his insightful encounter with Ang Lee. Lee mentioned many bits of advice and personal experience and right as Lee got up and left, he turned to Mills and said, "The most important thing to remember: trust yourself. Everything I've told you could be completely wrong for you." Mills explained the road to do what he does is a hard one filled with failure and sometimes feels like a bronco is bucking you from every angle, but that's all part of the process. He said to keep in mind that there are multiple ways to approach success. "School's fine, but don't wait for someone – a pro or a teacher – to tell you you're ready. Don't wait for permission." When it comes to writing, Mills suggests to "trust in your personal experience and trust it will make something great."

20th Century Women had a limited release in Los Angeles and New York on December 28th, 2016 with a nationwide release planned for January 20th, 2017. More information about the film can be found on the film's website.

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