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How Fatherhood and Asking Uncomfortable Questions Shaped the Storytelling Behind 'C'mon C'mon' with Writer-Director Mike Mills

'C'mon C'mon' writer-director Mike Mills talks about his approach to storytelling, what he taps into personally and emotionally to create worlds and the characters that inhabit them, about his filmmaking influences, and being comfortable with being honest on the page.

Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his young nephew (Woody Norman) forge a tenuous but transformational relationship when they are unexpectedly thrown together in this delicate and deeply moving story about the connections between adults and children, the past and the future, from writer-director Mike Mills.

Mike Mills completely leans in fully into his vulnerability as a father and the messiness that is life in his new film C'mon C'mon. As a viewer, you dance between the observational viewer and then on the turn of a dime, you are fully invested and immersed in the lives of these well-defined and crafted characters. It's a simmering pot of vulnerability and human emotion, and well worth the viewing experience.

I had the utmost pleasure of speaking with writer and director Mike Mills about his approach to storytelling, what he taps into personally and emotionally to create worlds and the characters that inhabit them, about his filmmaking influences, and being comfortable with being honest on the page. 

[L-R] Wood Norman and Joaquin Phoenix in C'mon C'mon. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

[L-R] Wood Norman and Joaquin Phoenix in C'mon C'mon. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What were you pulling from personally and emotionally for the story, and most importantly, for these characters?

Mike Mills: Well, obviously, the main thing is my kid, or just being a dad to my kid. And the world of my kid. There's a lot of moms in my life that Viv is coming from and her concerns and just the weight of being a mom, being a woman, person, and parent. And while that isn't apparently at the center of my film, I think it actually really is - it's like the planet that my male characters that the camera is with is orbiting. We're not seeing her all the time. It's really like the concern or what's making it all go to me. The things I observe as a parent with friends who are moms, is probably more central than anyone would think in terms of like my source, obviously, my kid. But then the other kids around me, around my kid, and around school. And there was a long process of figuring out what I could say and what I could not say. I do love to write about people I know and love and can kind of journalistically approach in observed moments, scenes, memories, right? Obviously, it's all very subjective, it's all my version of it. But I need that source, it’s what keeps me happy and gives me a whole reason to write and make a movie. Here is my vulnerable sweet kid who I don't want to like mess with or interfere with their mysteries or interfere with their life. But it took me a couple years of wanting to write it and not knowing how, and then there's all these little steps. It's like, ‘Well, OK, if I talk about this part, but not this part, and make him an uncle, and then do this and do that, it got just enough room,’ I hope that I'll feel OK with it in the long run.

Then there's also this really came out of the movie did after 20th Century. So like, 2016 is happening. And everything that's happening in America is very confusing and problematic, right? And just like as an artist, what do you do? And I don't have any answers that are great. I don't have an actionable take on it. But it did want me to thrust into this personal world, which I like to work from, into a more social world. Andinto something that's a little bit more relevant or a little bit like what's happening right now. That's kind of how the road film or like just being thrust out into cities, I just kept seeing the little kid figure and the adult figure walking through big cities and landscapes and like America, essentially. And then, in a similar vein, all the doc interviews we did, I wanted to not be in my voice. I wanted it to be in curating, collecting, rather than just saying, listening is a big part of it, and just the heterogeneity of all these different voices. And kind of like my personal story, walking through this landscape of a kid’s perspective on our present-day reality and the future. So that is also really a source. It's like, post-2016 trauma. [laughs]

[L-R] Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix. Photo by Patti Perret.

[L-R] Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix. Photo by Patti Perret.

As I wrote it, as I was writing it, things come, things reveal themselves. And it was like, oh, this is also like a fable. It wants to be kind of like a 2019 documentary. It's also a fable, just a kid and a man walking around, that's how I convinced people that black and white would be a good idea. [laughs] But there's a lot of parts to it like playing Clair de Lune. Just some of the framing to me is very classic, iconic, and black and white really is a beautiful different world to work in. Because it's not reality. It's about reality. You have more latitude or your verse multitude contract with the audience is different. It's like a story, so it gives you more space in a way that I really appreciated. And it kind of underlined the fable part, or the archetypal story part, which felt really illegal when I started thinking that like, that's cheesier. But then I was like, oh, that's really interesting and powerful and somehow thematically appropriate for thinking about childhood, even if what you're trying to say is childhood isn't a fable. It's very real.

Sadie: I love that and in the vulnerability behind all of it. The relationship between Johnny and Jesse, it's so very real and relatable. And there's something about like you said, you don't want to tell your kids the truth, you want to hide certain things to protect them. But this twist that you do, Johnny's the interviewer, and now Jesse is poking and prodding him. Kids do pull the truth out of you – you realized you have to be honest and be a real person, too.

Mike: Yeah. They're great for filmmaking, I gotta say. [laughs] Because they can break all sorts of rules. My kid does it to me all the time. Like, well, two things, my kid has grown up already in a more emotionally intelligent landscape. And this has like a bigger not just vocabulary, but thinking criticality, ability, dexterity, that I didn't have and can out me on different buried unconscious biases. And I think as adults who become professional at hiding certain things and kids are professionals at uncovering all those things and saying them to you. Great, dramatic character, you know?

The thing that was key to me is, it's not a big invention, it's kind of dumb and simple, but like, OK, he's an uncle. And he's an uncle who doesn't have kids, who's a man who's never been a parent is now put in charge of taking care of this kid and being the sole parent as they travel through different cities. And when I started to think like that was like, oh, that's like a Buster Keaton story to me, a man who's horrible at his job is like the Camera Man, he needs to do it to survive, or it's like Charlie Chaplin to me. And again, I was like, ‘Oh, that's kind of illegal, that's retrograde, or that's old.’ But then another part of me is like, ‘That's genius.’ That's so neat that I'm in that space, how can I lean into that more? And so in lots of different ways, I felt like I was more in a world of story than I usually ever am as a writer.

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Sadie: So much to explore, too. You touched on, very subtly, experiencing mental health and what Viv is going through with her husband, and the question about will this be Jesse’s future as well? Reflecting through those generations, again where are you pulling from for that?

Mike: You know, life. [laughs] Being someone who deals a lot with trying to understand the paradigm that you inherited, or the mental health that you inherited, that whatever you are in the spectrum of your mental situation, right? That is, it's through osmosis. And extroverted ways and in unconscious ways is like you're just walking, you're bathed in through so many layers, and trying to disentangle yourself from it or understand what the lines are, or to be more loving of the vulnerabilities that you've inherited, or the toxicity that you've inherited. All that. I guess I think about that a lot. I worry about that. I wrestle with all that as a human and then as a writer, it comes out a lot. It's funny, my therapist from New York, who I don't see anymore, I met when I was 28, kind of like my third parent, a big part of my life, saw the movie and was talking to me about it. And I was like, ‘Oh, it's really interesting, because I owe you so much,’ that the space that we talked about in therapy is really so similar to the spaces and the kinds of ideas, these lineages, what unconscious maps are orientating me as I walk through the world that I've inherited, that I do and don't know about like many faced.

Sadie: And being aware of it, we're kind of like these sponges that take in everything, and you want to be conscious about how do I make sure I don't repeat those things and pass it on. And then also, how do I use this to my advantage as a storyteller?

Mike: Yeah, and I think like Gabby, and Joaquin, and even Woody, would kind of agree that it's not just like, how do I not do it? Like, how do I deal with the fact that I'm gonna do a lot of these things? Yeah, I might be bipolar. I don't really believe that there's a binary unhealthy and healthy.

Sadie: Yeah, we're all messy.

Mike: Yeah. And so, I think that is something. It's like the intelligence of Gabby and Joaquin, they bring to the way they play those characters and play my lines, which shapes your lines so much, I think those kinds of people just they really don't believe in a binary between healthy and unhealthy, it's just how do you have more flexibility and compassion for the mess that we're all in together?

Sadie: And they do it so well. I'm curious, the relationship and that bond and tenderness between Joaquin and Woody, again, so realistic, how are you able to make that safe space for them to explore that relationship together?

Mike: Well, the writing does come from me and my kid. I really love being a dad or take the word dad out. I love spending time with that person. I love helping that person walk through the world. And the amount that they give me is insane. The amount that they teach me, show me, all that stuff is so much. And it's a pretty intimate relationship. So that's in the writing, right? That's the turf. That's the land that those two actors are playing around in, and they know that. Woody and Joaquin are smart enough to know we have to have this relationship. That's how Joaquin works - I'm not gonna fake that for two months. And luckily, they really liked each other. And they had their own little relationship that was outside of me, and I would get kind of jealous of it at times [laughs] because I like them both, you know? It was definitely they're a little club, and the smarter side of me knew that that was really powerful and good and they were doing their work. And that was not my sandbox. [laughs] I got to invite them to my playground and they went to their sandbox and that was as good as it gets. Joaquin was also a kid actor, and Joaquin is sensitive to other actors and that's a lot to ask of any 10 year old, and very vulnerable making in lots of ways. And he was really impressed and sympathetic to that job of a young person acting.

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Sadie: You have a wonderful knack of saying things that are uncomfortable through your characters, especially the relationships between adults and children. Like in 20th Century Women and now in this script, a prominent line from Johnny comes to mind when he asks, “If your parents were your children, what’s something you would want them to learn?” Where does that spirit come from for you be like, ‘Alright, I'm gonna do it and say this.’

Mike: Ah, that's a really interesting question, no one's ever asked me that. Well, OK, so I’m a formerly shy person. I'm not like someone who comes in and breaks down everyone's boundaries, that's just not my thing. But I guess I like to think about all that kind of stuff a lot. It's not like I say, ‘Let's think about that now.’ It's just where I'm kind of living. And like I said before, the therapy space of trying to look at your behavior, understand where it's coming from, and I guess ask questions about it, or just think about it is something I really like to do and have done since I was 28. And then what happens is like writing and filmmaking, kind of weaponized you, or it's a good costume to wear to then go and explore those things or say them out loud or have other braver actors say that out loud for you. You should try it sometime, it's amazing! [laughs] You can write anything, which is not that hard to do, because it's private, right? Then they go do the hard work of embodying it and saying it out loud. So, I think that's what's going on. But also, I think those kinds of questions are the crux of why I'm making a movie or what makes it worth it or what really gets me.

Sadie: I like that answer a lot. I'm going to take a huge step back, tell us about your filmmaking journey. What inspired you to become a writer and director?

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Mike: So, I went to art school and a bunch of friends and I wanted to work in the public sphere, so I got into graphic design, but in the most pretentious way, like trying to be like artists in public, you know? I had watched movies, but they were so far away. Then, over time, seeing like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, and I’ve seen Jim Jarmusch films. I lived in New York and lived in the same neighborhood, I would see Jim Jarmusch like in coffee lines, and somehow that made it like, ‘Well, OK, I can maybe do it,’ because I'm in the same room as him. It made it approachable. And his films, like his verse multitude, isn't so like Hollywood impenetrable, that I can enter his movie. And he taught me about Ozu. I didn't know I was learning about [Yasujirō] Ozu by watching Jim Jarmusch and Ozu's whole way of that kind of observational, it's not like I'm going to manipulate you, right, that's my job as a director is to manipulate your feelings, right? So, thank God for that, because that's the only way I could enter it or for it be interesting for me. Anyways, that's all very writer, director, kind of thing and even coming from the art world, you're the author. And then as I got started as a filmmaker, I was doing music videos, and music videos are really just idea contests. At least they were when I was doing them. It's like, three or four directors are pitching the same story, and I was really influenced by Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry. Those are very storytelling kinds of videos or at least Rube Goldberg kind of videos. They're not collages. There's some kind of story happening. And so, I just got used to being like, ‘Well, I shoot things that I came up with.’ I shoot ideas that I had, they're always interwoven to me. But I never felt like a writer - I still don't feel like a writer. I started with Walter Kirn's book, that's my first movie, called Thumbsucker, and it gave me training wheels and it's just a lot of trial and error. I haven't done that many films, but I've worked on them all, all of this time. Beginners took me three years to write, 20th Century Women took me three years to write. And you're editing them, you're always learning about writing as you're doing that. So, while I haven't outputted that many films, I've really been doing this for a long time now. 

C'mon C'mon is now available in select Theaters and available On Demand.