20th Century Women
by writer/director Mike Mills
This film has a very personal starting point; it is in many ways a portrait of my real mother, and sister, and some younger women I knew when I was a teenager in the late 1970s. It’s a portrait of the women who raised me, and a story about what it means to be a boy growing up in a world where there is no real father, and it is women who teach him what it means to be a man, and a woman, how to be free, to be yourself, to be decent to others. But I use this personal material not to make a memoir, but hopefully to make a better, more unique, more perceptive film for you all. As an audience member, I love it when filmmakers and authors look at their own lives and share things-people-events that really happened to them, that really stirred them, that continue to be unresolved even as they make a film about it. I think when you talk about people whom you love, and who also are a mystery to you, it charges the film with a certain felt reality, with higher stakes, with something from lived experience that doesn’t fit neatly into story, and plot, and film formulas.
And after working on this script for 2-3 years, my personal story transforms itself into something for public consumption that is, at heart, a mediation on being a mother, a son, on trying to understand each other, the differences between men and women, how we are shaped by the times we lived in, how we never guess the future right. I guess I believe that concrete, specific details that are often untidy in terms of plot conventions are actually very universal, these specific moments communicate very strongly about the things we all share.
The other great transformation that happens in the filmmaking process, and perhaps my favorite part as a writer-director, is when the story takes on a new life when it meets the hearts and souls of the crew of people who make the film with you, and the actors whose bodies and minds literally bring it to life. I love all the collaboration, I love the camaraderie and the huge collective energy that films require. In my life, I’ve never met anything more inspiring than a hard-working, united and excited film crew. And then, perhaps the most magical transformation is when the actors take the script, and the real people that inspired it, and turn it into something alive for the camera. Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann and I all had the best time in my creative life hunting for moments and dynamics between the actors that felt real and unplanned, spontaneous and alive, and unpredictable. They all had such respect and curiosity for their characters, which was inspiring to watch and just opened so many doors to their performances. They enjoyed each other so much, they love to listen and talk, which I think you can see in their performances. They made a little family on the set, which feeds the believability of the improvised family you see on the screen.
The last stage in this long journey is when the audience sees your film. Until then, all this collective energy that went into making the film, so many hours and so many years, by so many people, in this case 5 years, all lays sleeping in a film canister waiting to be projected and hopefully to come to life in the minds and hearts of the audience. When it works out, when it connects, there is nothing better.