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Arts & Life

Director Mike Mills' New Film Is '20th Century Women'


Mike Mills wrote and directed a movie about a father and son a few years back. "Beginners" starred Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, who won an Oscar for playing the father in that film. It was inspired by Mike Mills' own dad, who didn't come out until he was 75 years old.


EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Oliver) My parents got married in 1955. They had a child, and they stayed married for 44 years, until my mother died. Six months later, my father told me he was gay.


MCGREGOR: (As Oliver) I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this. But actually, he wore a robe.

PLUMMER: (As Hal) I'm gay.

GREENE: This is not the only time Mike Mills has drawn storytelling inspiration from his parents. Our colleague Rachel Martin talked with Mills about his new movie.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The movie is called "20th Century Women." And this time, Mike Mills draws from his mom's extraordinary life and one of his sisters and some other women he's known. There's a lot of feminine inspiration going on in this movie. It's set in Santa Barbara in 1979, where Mills grew up. The mom character at the center of the film, named Dorothea, is played by Annette Bening. She is a force and anything but traditional, like when a bank manager tries to tell her that her son's too young to open his own account.


ANNETTE BENING: (As Dorothea) No, he's a person. He's not half a person, and he's not some cute little guy. He has volition and autonomy and privacy. He needs a bank account. Can you do that for us?

MARTIN: Mike Mills says it's always a challenge to figure out how closely to align a fictional character with the real-life person she's based on. In this case, he says, Dorothea's story is pretty close to his mom's.

MIKE MILLS: It's a lot of my mom's biography. My mom really was born in the '20s, was a kid in the Depression and wanted to be a pilot in War World II - never fit into the typical feminine box that was offered to her by the culture she was in and ended up raising me, a punk rock skateboarding kid in the '70s, and being, sort of, very much a fish out of her historical waters.

MARTIN: Despite being set in the 1970s, the movie turns on a question that is no less relevant today - how can a woman raise her son to be a good man? In this scene, the mom, Dorothea, has asked her son, played by Lucas Jade Zumann, to support a female friend who's expecting some medical test results.


LUCAS JADE ZUMANN: (As Jamie) Like, what if it's, like, bad news or something?

BENING: (As Dorothea) Well, you can handle it. Or if you can't, you have to start somewhere. Men always feel like they have to fix things for women or they're not doing anything. But some things just can't be fixed. Just be there. Somehow, that's hard for all of you.

ZUMANN: (As Jamie) Mom, I'm not all men. OK? I'm just me.

BENING: (As Dorothea) Well, yes and no.

MARTIN: Yes and no, right?

MILLS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Like, in so many ways, this is about this kid and this moment. But it's - she's also, all of a sudden - in the second, she's extrapolating to the universal all men (laughter).

MILLS: Yeah, yeah. And that's very my mom. My mom always kept talking about the big societal picture. And I'd always be like - Mom, I'm just a kid in Santa Barbara on Saturday. And she'd be...

MARTIN: Bring it back down (laughter).

MILLS: Yeah. She'd be like, no, you and your generation have no understanding of the economy. You have no understanding of response... You know, she would always be expanding it out, which I do associate with - when she was 16, War World II started and she left high school, and all of her friends were drafted, including my father. And the social impact, the social responsibilities of their lives is so different than my lived experience.

MARTIN: Did Annette Bening ever stop a scene? Or - perhaps it wasn't in the moment - but did she ever say, you know what, Mike, with all due respect, I'm a woman; you're not a woman...

MILLS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...This is, like, a thing that feels more authentic to me for Dorothea?

MILLS: Yeah. I mean, I was always inviting them to, right? As a heterosexual guy, I feel like I'm not on my real estate here. Right?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

MILLS: And I had to be very cautious of that. And that - when we were preparing, she had lots of questions as a mother and as a woman. One of the things I loved is that she did challenge me?

MARTIN: How so?

MILLS: Like, what exactly was Dorothea's deal with her relationships with men?


MILLS: And I don't know if my answers are ever really satisfying to her (laughter) because I don't really know what this middle-aged woman's sex life, romantic life would have really been. And all my attempts to answer it, I could tell Annette was kind of like - ugh, you don't get it.


MARTIN: Well, now I want to know what Annette's perception of that was because it's something I thought about, too. In the beginning of the film, we see Dorothea kind of pick up on this firefighter who she doesn't really know. And she invites him over to a party at her house. And in that, I thought - oh, this is going to be a story about this sad woman who's lonely and wants a man in her life. But it's so not that at all.

MILLS: Yeah. When she invites a fireman over for dinner, that's just her sense of social responsibility. The fireman helped her, so of course you come over for dinner. I think some people do interpret it as, like, a romantic thing. For her, that's just civility. And I think, you know, people from that era - self-sacrifice was so built into your idea of yourself.

And I come from parents who, knowingly - my mother knowingly married a man she knew was gay, and they were friends since junior high. And they lived in a world that was just tougher and buried lots of big parts of themselves for years and years and years and years and years, you know. So to me, having this woman who never really pursues a romantic side of her life in her 50s did make kind of sense for someone who was born in that time.

MARTIN: I understand that you are the parent of a young son.

MILLS: Yeah.

MARTIN: How old is he?

MILLS: He's 4.

MARTIN: Oh, he's 4?

MILLS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I have a 4-year-old.

MILLS: Oh, yeah?

MARTIN: I know what that world looks like.

MILLS: It's a magical, wonderful world filled with...

MARTIN: Crazy world.

MILLS: ...Dance parties every morning.

MARTIN: Yeah, we have dance parties.

MILLS: It's a very good time. Yeah.

MARTIN: I imagine you were thinking about him when you were making this film because it's a way to open a portal for him into the lives of his grandparents.

MILLS: Well, I mean, I talk about how impossible it would be to describe my mother to him - my mother, who was born in '25, to my son who was born in 2012. Right? But I - you know, it's a funny thing. I never really think of him seeing these movies. I would love him to. I would adore it. It would mean everything in the world to me. But at the same time, I can't impose it on him even in my wishes because me and my wife both work so much. We're - it's such a part of our lives. And Harper's this beautiful gift of an interruption into that. And we try to kind of keep church and state separate.

MARTIN: Separate?

MILLS: Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you think your mom would make of this movie?

MILLS: Well that's the million-dollar question, right? She passed away in 99, when I was 33. And I was - I don't know - 45 when I started writing this. And I kind of just had to say to the ghost version of her in my head - like, I'm sorry, Mom, but it's been a while now and I'm going to do this. And I'm doing it, obviously, with love...


MILLS: ...And this deep attempt to understand you. And then, the other thing, I just tried to write a woman that I thought my mom would like to see in the movie. And that was kind of a relief and made things easier.

MARTIN: The film is called "20Th Century Women." We've been speaking with writer-director Mike Mills.

Mike, thanks so much.

MILLS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 18, 2016 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous headline incorrectly said 20th Century Women will open on Christmas Day. The actual date is Dec. 28.