DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday. The film "Moonlight," written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the play by Tarell McCraney, is up for eight awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
"Moonlight" is fiction but draws on the lives of Jenkins and McCraney. It's the story of a quiet, introverted African American boy, Chiron, living in a housing project in Miami's Liberty City. He's constantly bullied, and as his mother because addicted to crack, she becomes less present in his life. The movie is told in three chapters, each focusing on Chiron at a different age - as a child, a high school student and as a young man. As time goes by, he grows more aware of and confused by his sexuality. McCraney and Jenkins grew up in the housing project where the movie is set. Terry interviewed them in October when "Moonlight" was in theaters.
Let's start with a scene from the first chapter of the film. The young Chiron is at the home of the drug dealer and the dealer's girlfriend, Teresa, who have been giving Chiron the guidance and comfort he hasn't been getting at home. Bullies have taunted Chiron with a derogatory word for gay, but Chiron doesn't know what that word means.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")
ALEX HIBBERT: (As Little) What's a faggot?
MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Juan) A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.
HIBBERT: (As Little) Am I a faggot?
ALI: (As Juan) No. You could be gay, but you don't got to let nobody call you no faggot. I mean, unless...
HIBBERT: (As Little) How do I know?
ALI: (As Juan) You just do I think.
JANELLE MONAE: (As Teresa) You'll know when you know.
ALI: (As Juan) You ain't got to know right now - all right? - not yet.
HIBBERT: (As Little) Do you sell drugs?
ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.
HIBBERT: (As Little) And my mama - she do drugs, right?
ALI: (As Juan) Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Barry Jenkins, Tarell McCraney, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love the film. Congratulations on it. So the explanation that the drug dealer gives to Chiron about what the word faggot means is it's a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves. That's really a great definition to give a kid. Which of you wrote that line?
TARELL MCCRANEY: I think the sentiment is certainly both of ours, if I may be so bold. I know Barry constructed the scene for sure. I think in the original, he asks about it, and the drug dealer says something like, you know, you don't have to know right now, which actually happened to me. That's an actual conversation I had with a drug dealer in my neighborhood. He kind of said, you know, you don't have to know everything right now about who you are.
GROSS: Well, Tarell, in the movie, it's the drug dealer who becomes, like, a father surrogate for this boy and is really the only person who's willing to kind of take care of him, provide for him, reassure him. Did the drug dealer who you refer to play that role in your life?
MCCRANEY: Yes, the drug dealer who was in my life was a man named Blue who was dating my mother at the time and sort of came into my life when I was 5 or 6 years old and was very affectionate to me, very kind to me, very generous to me in a way that I hadn't quite experienced with many male figures, including my own father at the time. And I just remember him - I remember at some point thinking he treats me like I'm his son regardless of the fact that I don't share any of his blood.
And I did know that he was a drug dealer. And I did know that my mom did drugs. So I mean those - you know, those conversations were had but not as, you know, eloquently as sort of Barry made them happen, which I think is sort of beautiful. And then one day I came home from school and - no, came home for a weekend, and I actually think it was my birthday weekend. I had gone away to my biological father's aunt's house. And I came home, and my mom said, you know, Blue's dead, and he's not coming back anymore.
GROSS: What happened?
MCCRANEY: He had been shot and killed over the weekend. He had gotten shot and killed by, we assume, rival drug members in the neighborhood - drug dealers in the neighborhood who then later came in and moved into that neighborhood.
And I just remember having this kind of feeling of - what's the word? I remember feeling like I need to start counting now. I need to pay attention now because when I go away, things will go away. When I stop looking, when I stop paying attention, the things that I care about, the things that are good to me will disappear.
GROSS: So, Barry Jenkins, you directed and wrote the screenplay for "Moonlight." What did you relate to about the story that made you want to adapt it into a film?
BARRY JENKINS: You know, I saw myself in this character Chiron both in the way that he felt sort of isolated from the world around him, the way - Tarell just did this great job of creating a character who, over the course of the years, kind of retreats, you know, retracts within himself to escape the world around him. And then also, you know, Tarell and I grew up blocks away from one another. And we went to I believe the same elementary school at the same time. And both our moms succumbed to this ordeal with crack cocaine.
And I had never talked about that in my work. I had really never talked about it with even some of my closest friends. And so when I read the piece, you know, I thought, this will be a great way to kind of hide behind Tarell but deal with some of these very personal things. You know, I was like, oh, this is Tarell's story. This is great. I'm just going to tuck a few things in.
JENKINS: And it'll be all about Tarell, and I'm just the guy pressing the button, you know? But of course, you know, when you get into something this heavy, this deep, there's no way you can really - you can sort of manage or compartmentalize how much of yourself you give to it.
And so what ended up happening was I kind of became this character in a certain way, which was great because I think the only way to do the film, to complete it in the way that we did and to give myself to these actors in the way I had to was to just fully allow myself to live in the piece.
GROSS: So just, you know, regarding the question of homosexuality and masculinity, you know, like, proving your masculinity, you probably had no problem, you know, like, proving your masculinity to the other kids in the housing project where you grew up because you were on the high school football team. You were a running back.
JENKINS: Yeah, I did not. You know, I wasn't known as a neighborhood tough or anything like that. But yeah, I was, like, a scrappy kid. I kind of kept to myself, you know? There's - Tarell and I have had this conversation recently actually. There are elements of the character Chiron, his personality, that I think are much more like me than they are like Tarell as far as the middle school years go.
You know, Tarell very quickly realized that he wanted to be an artist, you know, and he was involved in the theater. He was very expressive, whereas I was not. I really sort of kept to myself. I kind of just watched the world. And I think to keep people from messing with me, yeah, you know, I went out to run track. I went out for the football team not because I love track or love football. You know, I just thought, you know, I can do this, and if I do this, this is one less thing for anyone to sort of, like, poke at, you know?
And I kind of excelled at those things. And it became not a performance in a certain way because I - you know, like Tarell, I didn't have many father figures. And what ended up happening was these coaches became the father figures in my life. And it's why there were certain things in the play that, again - you know, I never had a Blue in my life, but I remember, you know, a coach teaching me how to hurdle, you know, how to jump over these hurdles, which was actually a very complicated, complex thing.
And you don't believe you can over the hurdle until you sort of get past this block. And when I read the swimming scene in the play, I was like, oh, I know exactly what that is. So there were just all these things that were spread throughout the piece that I could put myself into.
BIANCULLI: If you're just joining us, our guests are Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of the film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with Barry Jenkins, writer and director of the film "Moonlight," and Tarell McCraney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based. It's up for eight Academy Awards, and the ceremony airs on ABC Sunday night.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So you didn't know each other growing up in the same housing project, but one of the things you have in common is growing up with mothers who were addicted to drugs, to crack.
GROSS: So, you know, in the movie "Moonlight," the boy's mother is addicted to crack. We see her grow increasingly dependent on it, and we see her life increasingly go to pieces as a result of it. How old were you when you realized that your mothers were addicted?
MCCRANEY: I was - I believe I was 7 when my mom had her first overdose. I remember I was on my way to school and I couldn't tie my shoe correctly, so it must have been, like, first grade or second grade - so 7, 8. But I remember my aunt came and said, you know, you have to go to school. And I said, well, my mom's sick. And they said, that's OK. I remember there were paramedics there.
I didn't know what I would do after school. Like, I remembered - you know, I was one of those kids who always had a very strange reaction to things. I wasn't - I was like, she'll - I think she'll be OK; I hope she's OK. I also don't - I don't want to make her mad by not going to the right place after school. I want to be in the place that she needs me to be after school. So I had to be around 7 when I realized that what she was going through was caused by drugs.
JENKINS: Yeah, and I was much younger. I was 3 or 4, I want to say. And I remember it as just these snippets of imagery, of just things going on around this very small apartment that I could see but could not see, which I think was an inspiration for the hallway with the pink light in "Moonlight."
You know, my mom was a very hard-working, working-class single mom. She raised - I have a brother and a sister who are nine and 10 years older than me. And so for them, I think it was a much more jarring process because, you know, they knew this very, very strong sort of woman. And then very rapidly, I remember, over the course of weeks, everything kind of just got torn apart. And it literally felt like she just disappeared, you know? Everything just changed overnight.
GROSS: I want to play a scene from "Moonlight" in which Chiron's mother is addicted to crack, and she's having a lot of trouble finding enough money to keep her supplied. And in this scene, she doesn't have enough money. She's drug-sick and that - she knows that her son, through the drug dealer's girlfriend - that the girlfriend sometimes gives him money to help him out. So she wants him to hand over some of that money from Teresa. So here's the scene with Chiron played as a teenager by Ashton Sanders and the mother, Paula, played by Naomie Harris.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")
NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Paula) I need some money.
ASHTON SANDERS: (As Chiron) For what?
HARRIS: (As Paula) That's my business. Don't you ask me no [expletive] like that.
SANDERS: (As Chiron) I don't have no money.
HARRIS: (As Paula) No, no, don't lie to me, boy. I'm your mama. That bitch over there ain't no kin of yours. I'm your blood, remember? Now, I ain't feeling good. I need something to help me out. Come on, baby. Come on, baby.
SANDERS: (As Chiron) Where am I supposed to get money from?
HARRIS: (As Paula) What? Teresa ain't give you nothing? Your little play-play mommy ain't put something in your hand? Give me that damn money, Chiron. Give me the damn money.
SANDERS: (As Chiron) I don't have no money. Mama, come on.
HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money, Chiron.
SANDERS: (As Chiron) Mama, come on. All right...
HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money.
SANDERS: (As Chiron) All right, all right, here, man.
HARRIS: (As Paula) Yes, that is what I thought. You're my child, OK? And tell that bitch she'd better not forget it. Go on to school. Ain't you late?
GROSS: That's a scene from "Moonlight." The story is by Tarell McCraney. Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay and directed the film "Moonlight." Did money become an issue like this in your home?
MCCRANEY: Most certainly, most certainly for me. I think we - there were times, you know, that we were without food, and the lights got turned off often. We often used my neighbor's phone, which actually, for me, is the inspiration for Teresa. We had these really awesome neighbors to our left and right in our apartment complex who just were extremely generous. They had kids of their own, but somehow they were trying to take care of these four kids that they knew were in a bad place.
GROSS: Barry, what about you?
JENKINS: No, my mom was just completely absent for those years. You know, I like to say the character Paula is a blend or a composite of my life and Tarell's life or of my mom and Tarell's mom. And I think these years, the teenage years in the film and in the play rest exclusively with Tarell.
I'm sorry. I'm having a moment because I just remember directing that scene. And it's funny to hear it. I can hear the birds chirping in the background, and it's a bit jarring. I'm very cool, calm and collected on set, but this was really, really difficult to do. And so to hear it out of context or in context and hear those birds...
GROSS: ...When you say it was difficult, do you mean emotionally difficult, or it was just, like, a difficult scene to shoot?
JENKINS: Emotionally. It wasn't difficult to shoot at all. Naomie showed up extremely prepared. That actually was the first scene in the film that she shot. And she did all her work in three days. So when I say it was difficult, it was - you know, I was very jarringly thrown back into this time with my mother, reliving some things that actually happened and some things that clearly happened to Tarell.
And it was just the most difficult thing I think I've ever had to do in my life because I've gone a long time without thinking of my mother as that person, you know, because I do think that's a whole other person from the mother I know now. And I think because of that, I hadn't really dealt with what that time was like, you know, or what she went through.
And seeing Naomie fully embody these very dark things that I know she went through, it just opened up this portal where I saw so many other things that aren't in the film that I know my mom went through. And it was just really difficult to be professional and do those things because my job, you know, on set as a director is to live those moments with the actors. But it's different when the actor is living a moment that's taken from someone you love's life.
GROSS: So it made you think about what your mother had gone through.
JENKINS: Yeah, absolutely.
JENKINS: And not even think about it. I mean I could see it, you know? I could feel it.
GROSS: I'm wondering if you both had a really complicated mix of love and anger directed at your mother, love 'cause she's your mother and anger because you were being put in the position of having to parent your mother.
MCCRANEY: Well, certainly I mean I think we all have those complicated relationships with our parents. I think the addiction sort of ratcheted it up a little bit unfortunately. I also would say that one of the great things about the scene we just heard - if there is something great about it - is that you can hear the toggle of that parent who is trying to somehow keep a connective tissue to her child by saying, I'm your mother; she is not. I am, and don't you forget it - while at the same time being totally beholden to the monster that's driving her to take money out of her child's hands and run out into the street.
I mean to me, even at that young of age, those things counted to me. In my head, they needed to be sorted into a box that said, I understand that she loves me. I also understand that she needs this thing more than me right now.
And so more than anger, I felt hurt. I felt unworthy. And that later translated to a sort of disconnect where I couldn't sort of be near my mom because I always felt like I wasn't worthy, I wasn't enough, that something else was worth more than me.
GROSS: That you weren't worthy, you weren't enough, therefore she needed drugs?
MCCRANEY: No, that drugs was worth more than me. And - but I also - I mean Naomi - again, Naomi Harris is what I would call a G. She's a master artist in that she did a lot of great research. And one of the things that she often talks about is finding her way into that character.
And she should totally be able speak for herself, but I remember her saying this, and it devastated me because she said that the majority of the women that she had done research on it about crack addiction in this period of time in the these neighborhoods - more often than not, they had some - they had suffered some sort of sexual trauma as a child. And I remember my mother very close to the end of her life confiding in me that that's how it started for her, that she had been molested for a very long time and had been trying to find some way to cope and thought, you know, having children and having a family would do that. And then - but it just didn't quiet that pain inside of her, and so she tried to with the best of her abilities.
So again, even in that moment, I had to - well, not had to, but I found compassion. I found empathy for what she was saying. It still didn't make me feel better that drugs were the only way that she could get that quiet or at least try to get that quiet, but I understood.
GROSS: How old were you when she confided in you?
MCCRANEY: Thirteen, 14.
GROSS: Could you handle the idea that your mother was, you know, sexually abused for a long period of time?
MCCRANEY: I don't know if I could. I mean whether I could or couldn't - I mean one thing my biological father actually said to me that stays with me - if you can't be ready, stay ready. So I mean she said it, and I just took it the best I could.
I also know that she was trying to figure out whether or not I had been molested as a child, which I was. And I wouldn't tell her. I wouldn't say it. And she just - then she broke down in tears. She was like, look; the reason why I'm saying this is because I don't want you to have this burden on you like I have it on me.
BIANCULLI: Tarell McCraney and Barry Jenkins speaking with Terry Gross. Barry Jenkins wrote and directed the film "Moonlight," which is based on the play by Tarell McCraney. It's up for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay.
Coming up - Mike Mills. His film "20th Century Women" is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. This is FRESH AIR.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "20TH CENTURY WOMEN")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Mike Mills, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love this movie. I'm glad you made it (laughter). So my...
MIKE MILLS: Oh.
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.
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..."
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "20TH CENTURY WOMEN")
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...
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...
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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.
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).
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.
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).
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...
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.
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This is FRESH AIR. Jordan Peele, who's best known for his collaboration with Keegan-Michael Key on the comedy sketch show "Key & Peele," has written and directed his first feature film. It's a comic thriller called "Get Out" in which a young, white woman brings her black boyfriend home to meet the parents. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: It's generally lazy to describe a movie as X meets Y, as in, say, it's "Bambi" meets "The Exorcist." But Jordan Peele's horror comedy "Get Out" really is "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" meets "The Stepford Wives." Peele has cited those films as inspirations and has plainly yoked them together, and he has in doing so moved the horror genre explicitly into the area of race.
The film works as a satire and a ghoulish thriller. It's a scream. Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a black photographer who travels to an affluent, upstate New York town with his white girlfriend, Rose, played by Allison Williams, to meet her family. Rose hasn't told them he's black, and Chris is nervous, and so are we, given the movie opened with a young black man snatched from a sidewalk and thrown into a white car.
The expectation is that this town does not want black people, that Chris will get the cold shoulder and then some - quite the opposite, it turns out. Bradley Whitford is Rose's father, Dean, a surgeon, and Catherine Keener, her mother, Missy, a psychiatrist and also a hypnotist. And both are hugely welcoming. Rose has warned Chris that her father would announce he'd have voted for Barack Obama a third time, and sure enough, he does.
Dean is so solicitous that he acknowledges how Chris must feel awkward in the presence of their black servants, the housekeeper whose manner is meek and whose hair recalls the '50s and '60s doos you see in "The Help" or "Hidden Figures," and the gardener, the housekeeper's husband, who shuffles around like he's from another era, too. But Dean says the couple is like family.
Such odd vibes in that house, though. When Dean asks Chris about their relationship, it's almost too lighthearted.
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BRADLEY WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) So how long has this been going on, this thang (ph)? (Laughter) How long?
DANIEL KALUUYA: (As Chris Washington, laughter) Four months.
WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) Four months.
ALLISON WILLIAMS: (As Rose Armitage) Five months actually.
KALUUYA: (As Chris Washington) She's right. I'm wrong.
WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) Atta-boy, better get used to saying that (laughter).
CATHERINE KEENER: (As Missy Armitage) Please. I'm so sorry.
WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) Oh, yeah, I'm sorry. She's right. I'm wrong (laughter). See?
WILLIAMS: (As Rose Armitage) Does he have an off button 'cause this is exhausting.
WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) I know and I want to give you a tour.
WILLIAMS: (As Rose Armitage) Can we, like, unpack first?
WHITFORD: (As Dean Armitage) You want to unpack before the tour?
EDELSTEIN: The performances are not over the top, just heightened enough to be eerie. Whitford's Dean is a little too effusiveness and Keener's Missy a shade too much the warm, tousled Earth Mother eager to help Chris confront his repressed guilt over the death of his mother. But Allison Williams makes Rose a reassuringly empathetic presence. She picks up on those odd vibes. She lets Chris know she understands his discomfort. Kaluuya, a British actor, is the perfect hero. His eyes are always going wide in disbelief over how invasive these people's friendliness can be.
This is Jordan Peale's directorial debut, and it feels like the work of someone who's been making features for years. He uses the wide screen, like John Carpenter in "Halloween," to throw you off-center. You jump and then laugh at your jumpiness and then jump again. He teases us mercilessly.
The movie is low-key until the last part when it's not. As he proved on the TV sketch comedy show "Key & Peele," Jordan Peele knows the difference between parody and satire. Although "Get Out" goofs on horror conventions, it's after something deeper. Many filmmakers depict the racism of, well, racists, the Klan and white supremacists. But without giving too much away, I can say that Peele, who has a white mother and black father, is tweaking liberals.
The movie is a metaphor - the paranoid extreme of what can happen when white people appropriate black culture. Peele makes you believe not just that the end of the comedy "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" could be the horror of the "Stepford Wives," he makes you believe that it has to be.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. This Sunday, he'll be live-blogging the Academy Awards at the magazine's culture website vulture.com.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, we talk with nature photographer Joel Sartore about his photo art project, making beautiful studio portraits of animals in zoos and rescue centers, animals like the Bengal slow loris, the white Arctic fox and the snow mouse.
JOEL SARTORE: They're animals that will never have their voices heard before they go away, before they're led off to extinction.
BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF NINO ROTA'S "LA DOLCE VITA")
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