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Mike Mills Grapples With His Mother's 'Tricky Ghost' In '20th Century Women'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. "20th Century Women," written and directed by our guest Mike Mills, is nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay. Besides being a subtle comedy, it is also an extremely emotional film. Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, it stars Annette Bening as a 55-year-old single mother raising her 15-year-old son, Jamie. He's getting into skateboarding and punk rock and is drifting away from her. And she's not sure what to do to better understand who he's becoming and how to connect.

The film is inspired by Mills' relationship with his mother when he was growing up. "20th Century Women" is a follow-up to Mills' film "Beginners," which was inspired by his relationship with his father, who came out at the age of 75, about six months after his wife, Mills' mother, died. Let's start with a voiceover from "20th Century Women." This is Annette Bening as the mother, reflecting on the world her son is growing up in.


ANNETTE BENING: (As Dorothea) My son was born in 1964. He grew up with a meaningless war, with protests, with Nixon, with nice cars and nice houses, computers, drugs, boredom. I know him less every day.



Mike Mills, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this movie. I'm glad you made it (laughter). So my...


GROSS: My way of thinking about this film is that it's you at age - how old are you now?

MILLS: Oh, I'm 50...


MILLS: ...Apparently, yeah.

GROSS: So my impression is that this movie is you at age 50 trying to imagine what it was like for your mother when she was 55 and trying to comprehend you when you were 15 and she was having an increasingly hard time communicating with you and understanding your world of, like, skateboarding and punk rock.

MILLS: Uh-huh.

GROSS: Is that a correct impression?

MILLS: Yeah. Yeah, that's very true. And also, I became a father in the middle of writing this script. So of course, that transforms your whole relationship with your parent. And you have all this access to their experience that you just didn't have and couldn't have. But to be honest, since I was a kid - since I was 5, I've been trying to figure out my mom. And she's a very mysterious person. And being born in the '20s - me being born in the late '60s - she's really from a different culture. She's from just a different world.

GROSS: And do you get the feeling that she was always trying to understand you, too, and was having a hard time doing it?

MILLS: She was - yeah. She would, like, come - I had a punk band. She would come to the shows and take it very seriously and get dressed up and go to this dingy bar called Beaudelaire's and take it very seriously. And my band used to practice downstairs. And we had horrible songs and were just a horrible, horrible version of a punk band. And you could hear it all through the house, of course. And I'd come up afterwards, and she would, you know, ask me about that change from the verse to the chorus. And she was a very creative woman and, I think, sort of a frustrated architect and enjoyed talking about making things. So she tried to access it that way.

Skateboarding - she took me to all the contests I went to as a kid. And if you don't know, skate parks in the '70s in Los Angeles are all kind of a horrible place to be. It's like a big frying pan down in Los Angeles. And she took me and watched and knew the names of tricks and took it all very seriously. And as part of her whole parenting thing, she never talked to me like a kid or talked to me like an inferior or small or little. She always took me very seriously and thought that that's what would be best for me.

GROSS: One of the most beautiful lines in the film - and this comes some time after the clip that we heard - so some time after the mother admits, I know my son less every day. So later on, she says, I will never know what he's like when he's out in the world because unlike your mother, the Annette Bening mother doesn't follow him to all the places he hangs out in.

MILLS: She says, you get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will. It was never something she explicitly said, but I think it was something that she felt and I knew that she felt. And so in that unconscious, unverbal way that parents and children speak, there was this understanding that we're in different places and we're in different cultures and that there's this gap between us.

GROSS: So what made you decide that you were going to do a film that was kind of a companion to "Beginners..."

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And make a film about your mother?

MILLS: The real person of my life, the real person who shaped me, is my mom, and she's equally as filmic of a soul, right?

This being this sort of - you know, she was 16 when World War II broke out. She became a draft woman at the Container Corporation of America's factory. She led this - it's not like a Rosie the Riveter life, but it opened up a whole world of opportunities for her that's really specific and unique. She really did want to be a pilot in World War II. She's taking lessons. She wanted to join the Air Force. The war ended before she could complete that dream, and then the way she raised me - she's so unique. She just really makes an amazing film character.

GROSS: So when you look back on your teenage years when you were skateboarding and into punk rock, and your mother who grew up during the Depression was trying hard to figure out how you were changing and who you were and what all this cultural stuff she didn't relate to was, what do you think were some of the things that you did that she might have found most distressing? Because the teenage character in the film certainly does a few things that are genuinely distressing and the mother gets genuinely distressed.

MILLS: Yeah. Well, to be really honest - OK, so my mom lived a kind of wild life. And my mom's idea of parenting is go in the jungle, get in trouble, figure it out, and that's the best thing I could do for you. She's a lot about kind of letting go. So the things one might think would scare a parent, like getting caught drinking, getting caught partying, getting caught staying out all night, stealing someone else's parent's car to go to Los Angeles to see a Black Flag show - all that kind of stuff doesn't faze her. I think the thing that would have scared my mom most is when I became more secretive, when I started talking to her less. I think that would be the thing that would have scared her the most.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a scene that relates to just what you're talking about. And there's a point in the movie where Jamie, the teenage boy, plays this game where you breathe really quickly and then somebody squeezes your diaphragm and you pass out briefly. And I don't know where the pleasure is in that exactly.


MILLS: There's a...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

MILLS: I could tell you (laughter).

GROSS: Because you've done it?

MILLS: So it's called - yeah - it's called, like, the fainting game. And so many - I know so many people have done this. And there's, like, a euphoric rush. It's like doing a whippet or something, I think.


MILLS: Not that I've ever done that.

GROSS: OK. So in the movie, instead of passing out for a few seconds, the boy passes out for, like, a half hour. He's taken to the hospital. And, you know, his mother shows up, you know, just in a panic and is, like, weeping by his bedside. And then, you know, he comes to, everything's fine. They go home, and she wants to know, like, why did you do such a stupid thing? I want to play that scene.


BENING: (As Dorothea) You know you almost died, right?

LUCAS JADE ZUMANN: (As Jamie) You don't need to worry about me.

BENING: (As Dorothea) Why didn't you think? Jamie, hey. Jamie, what is going on? Why - what? You're not going to talk to me now?

LUCAS: (As Jamie) I'm not the one who doesn't talk.

BENING: (As Dorothea) What? Come on. You scared the hell out of me. Why did you hurt yourself like that?

LUCAS: (As Jamie) Why do you smoke yourself to death?

BENING: (As Dorothea) Hey.

LUCAS: (As Jamie) Why are you fine being sad and alone?

BENING: (As Dorothea) I - you can't talk to me like that. We don't - you don't say that to me.

GROSS: That was Annette Bening and Lucas Jade Zumann. And my guest, Mike Mills, wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." Let's try to figure out a little bit - maybe you have some insights into this - why you think your mother was so averse to the idea of sharing her inner life, sharing her emotions.

My parents were born just a few years before your mother. And so, like your mother, they grew up during the Depression. And they didn't talk personally. They didn't share their inner thoughts and feelings. Like, you could tell when they were angry. You could tell when they were happy. But it wasn't...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: They didn't grow up in the kind of sharing culture.

MILLS: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: They didn't grow up in a culture of, like, therapy...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Where it's always suggested that it's better to, like, know yourself and, you know, like, come to some kind of understanding of your motivations...

MILLS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And all of that. So, yeah, tell us - yeah.

MILLS: So - and that's kind of - you're getting to, like, the main conflict of the story - in the way my mom born in that era, in that time, the sort of Depression-World War II culture with a son who's in late '70s California. It's, like, the home of, like, the commercialization of therapy. And my first girlfriend in real life - her mom was a therapist. And in real life, we went to teen group therapy together with her mom as the therapist (laughter).

GROSS: That is so strange (laughter).

MILLS: Only in Santa Barbara, you know? And it wasn't a particularly engaging therapeutic experience. But I was exposed to it and the idea that you said that, like, talking about things is good. And being my mom's son, being my mom's, maybe, main partner for part of my childhood, being her pal, being - like, we were comrades. And we were kind of alone a lot. I could sense that there was a lot going on. I could sense the loneliness. I could sense the sadness. But you would just get so much resistance if you tried to analyze her, you know?

And there's another - this is going to sound silly, but I find it actually very enriching to the conversation. My mom's a Gemini. Geminis do not want to be pinned down. Geminis are sort of allergic to boredom, allergic to the obvious. If you tell them to go sit in that chair, they're going to sit in another chair. So there's something about my mom's psyche which does like just not doing what's going to be predicted. And I think that's also her position as a woman who doesn't want to fall into the limitations of womanhood that were offered to her generation. She's always trying to get out of what is expected of her - and, I think, even a little bit as a mother, even a little bit as, like, what I wanted emotionally from her.

BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guest is Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the movie "20th Century Women," which is up for an Academy Award for best original screenplay. We'll hear more of his conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


MILLS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the film "20th Century Women." It's up for a best original screenplay Oscar. The Academy Awards will be presented Sunday.


GROSS: The mother, the Annette Bening character, is such an interesting mix of independent woman and a woman who doesn't relate at all to feminism.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, she wanted to be an aviator. She's raising her son alone. She's unconventional and nonconforming. She's fine without having a man in her life. But when she's presented with feminist literature - and this is 1979, when she's 55 - she rejects that literature.

When her son reads her an essay he thinks she'll identify with, by a middle-aged woman who's angry that middle-aged women are seen as invisible and obsolete, the mother ends up being angry and says, oh, so that's how you see me? And she just doesn't - she doesn't relate to it at all, even though it's probably exactly what she's really feeling (laughter).

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm just interested in how you created that mix of somebody who's, like, a proto-feminist but rejects the writings of the feminist movement and doesn't feel connected to it.

MILLS: Yeah. Well, that's part of my portrait of my mom. And that's how she felt a lot, or that's how she felt to me. And I wouldn't say she's so angry when the kid reads it. It's called "It Hurts To Be Alive And Obsolete." It's an amazing essay by Zoe Moss. And, like you said, he reads it to her to kind of reach out to her. And she has a chilly response or - but I feel like her main emotion is hurt and shame. She does not want to be seen that way by her son, who's really like her partner - not her husband. But it's the two of them. So I think it, like, wounds her pride on a very deep level because of its accuracy. And my mom was tremendously perceptive about other people, very open about other people and all their foibles. She could be judgmental for sure. But she - for a person of her era, she was very kind of bohemian in feeling and very liberal. But as soon as you started asking her about her life, her inner world and her physical body, you've trespassed. And so there's that contradiction, which was real exciting.

And Annette, when we first started talking - I think that's sort of what hooked her was that it was really hard for her to figure out. How could she be both so engaging and so accepting and so warm and so, like, embracing and inviting and, at the same time, shut you down, shut her son down when he tries to reach out? And that was kind of the beginning of the most exciting part of the conversation between me and Annette. And Annette is just so smart and, like, so emotionally intelligent. She knows to, like, put oxygen into that gap and kind of live in the gap between those two opposite positions instead of trying to, like, neaten it up or put it together.

GROSS: When you're making a film, you have to figure out how to open it.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: And you have a great opening. I mean, it starts kind of with - it's set in Santa Barbara in 1979. And it starts, like, we're seeing the ocean and, like, an aerial view of Santa Barbara. And suddenly we see a car on fire in a supermarket parking lot. And it's not what I was expecting, certainly. Can you talk about why that's the opening of the film and how that connects to you personally, if it does?

MILLS: Well, it's - so I really wanted to make a story about sort of, like, a fatherless home, which, even though I had a dad and he was home, it was sort of a fatherless home in terms of real emotional connection. He just wasn't there.

And so in - I'm trying to create this land where there's a fatherless home - a manless home, a boy who's being raised by women. How do I get that idea going? How do I introduce that idea to the audience? And just doing my research about that time, it's really - the late '70s is kind of, like, the beginning of the end of Detroit, the beginning of the end of the big car.

And cars and Detroit and industrial America, it's all kind of masculine - masculinity. And so I just sort of unconsciously, intuitively was like, OK, the car is men. The car is dad. And my mom did have a beautiful Ford Galaxy. And that's the car that we burned, a '60s Ford Galaxy. And I was like, OK, that's Dad (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLS: And it's sort of starting the film with Dad's funeral, in a way, by this car accidentally catching on fire in the parking lot. And she goes into sort of a little lyrical essay, a little narrated section, that jumps out of the car being burned into just very quickly telling you, that was my husband's car. And the last time we saw him, Jamie was, you know - I forgot - like, years ago. And there's no connection. And all it took was like three or four sentences of saying, that's it for the dad. And you never hear about the dad again in the whole story, which, as a father, was really sad to learn that that was all I needed to say...


MILLS: ...About this father. And then no one in the audience - people just expect dads to be deadbeat dads or not involved. They're not really central. And that was a sad realization. But it was my way to sort of set up the whole story, was beginning with that burning car.

GROSS: So your mother was kind of emotionally mysterious to you when she was alive. She died in 1999 of lung cancer. When she was dying, toward the end did you ever try to ask her some of the questions that had always baffled you about her, you know, thinking that maybe now...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...She'd be comfortable talking about some of those things and revealing more about herself?

MILLS: Yeah, well, that's, like, one of the more deep, sad events in my life. So when we had a lot of - we had time. She had cancer, and she had breast, lung and brain cancer. The movie kind of touches on this a bit.

There was a moment where she tried to tell not me but my sister all about her stocks. And my mother had lots of stocks, and it was kind of the most important thing in her life. And she's trying to hand down her stock knowledge. And she had a lot of them. She's just trying to itemize them for my sister. She spent a lot of time writing this list. My sister looked at it. It was chicken scratch. It made no sense. And my mom had a big tumor in her head.

And my sister told me that story, and it was early on in her diagnosis. And she was the first parent to die, so it's the first time us going through this experience. And I remember I was in Los Angeles and I was on the phone, and I just started bawling because I was like, she's gone. I mean, like, she's - I don't know if I can have these conversations.

And then being the youngest - I'm 10 and seven years younger - and I'm the only boy, right? I was there a lot. I was helping. I was cooking. I was picking her up. I was very involved with her body and her process, as were my sisters. But for whatever reason, she couldn't, like, look me in the eye and tell me I have - I'm dying. And if I had looked at her in the eye and said, I want to talk about you dying, she would avoid me and just not deal with it.

And she was pretty far gone in terms of her brain cancer in this point. She'd go back and forth between being very lucid and very funny and then being very lost and very somewhere else. So here I am. I know I have just a certain amount of time left. And if I try to have, like, a real conversation with her, she starts avoiding me. So alls (ph) I can do is to sort of be there, help her, put the lotion on her hands, do that kind of stuff and not ever talk about that she's dying, even though I'm carrying her body all the time and her body's shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.

So that is my life (laughter). And that's sort of an echo of what's going on in the movie. And we had a really great hospice worker. And hospice people are just angels, I think, and their lives are so different than ours. They're around death all the time, and death is such an otherworldly, very spiritual thing.

And I asked her about it, and she's like, well, people die as they lived. And did your mother share this kind of stuff with you when you were alive - and when she was, like, normal, healthy herself? And I was like, well, no. She says, like, well, yeah. People die how they lived.

GROSS: Mike Mills, it's just been so great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Good luck with the film and...

MILLS: Thank you so much, Terry. It's really an honor to be on your show.

BIANCULLI: Mike Mills speaking to Terry Gross. He wrote and directed "20th Century Women," which is up for the Academy Award for best original screenplay. The Oscars air this Sunday on ABC. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Get Out," the first movie by "Key & Peele" comic Jorden Peele. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAMBOOS' "THE BAMBOOS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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