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

Mike Mills' latest film, 20th Century Women, is inspired by the yearning to understand his mother who raised him. Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, it stars Annette Bening as Dorothea, a 55-year-old woman who grew up during the Depression and is struggling to raise her teenage son, Jamie, on her own.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mike Mills, wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women," which is nominated for a Golden Globe for best motion picture musical or comedy and is on our film critic David Edelstein's 10-best list. Besides being a subtle comedy, it's 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. She grew up during the Depression and there's a lot about her son's world she doesn't understand.

She rents out a couple of rooms in her home. Greta Gerwig plays one of the boarders, a photographer in her 30s who's deep into the punk scene and tries to educate Jamie about feminism. Elle Fanning plays Jamie's best friend, who he's in love with. 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.

Before making films, Mills designed graphics for skateboards and album covers and directed music videos. 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.


ANNETTE BENING: (As Dorothea Fields) 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.

GROSS: 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, it 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 late '60s - she's really from a different culture. She's from just a different world. She was such a different creature than the other mothers I was around. She was 40 when she had me. She really did sort of walk and talk like Amelia Earhart and Humphrey Bogart put together.

She just wasn't feminine in the way that other people - other mothers - were feminine. So I was always trying to figure out what her deal was (laughter). How did she get to be like this? Who is she? And she's a secretive soul. So the act of writing about her, of trying to understand her that I did in the script feels incredibly familiar to me from my whole life.

GROSS: And did 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 (ph) and take it very seriously. 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, they're 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: Was it what was best for you?

MILLS: (Laughter) Not always. You know, I could use some talking down to at times or just a little bit more of a coddling thing. Or, sometimes, she could be really cryptic. And the sense of humor which you see Annette Bening do in the movie is really my mom's sense of humor. And it's very steeped.

And I feel like '30s, '40s film language - '30s and '40s film heroines - it's sort of like a Howard Hawks-ian mother (laughter). And, sometimes, it's hard to keep up with. And she had incredible irony and sarcasm. And it was funny as hell.

That's not always the easiest thing. And, sometimes, yeah, sure, I would like a more straightforward person who would get down on her knees and look at me eye to eye and talk to me more eye to eye.

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 Benning 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. And the Annette Bening character and my mom, I think - it's not that they're different. I think they both would say that line.

And even if you go to the club and see him, you're not really seeing him. There's a blind spot - key blind spots - between children and parents, between, especially, a mother and a son and something I have experienced as a very new parent. But I feel like my mom was alive to that idea.

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. We're in different cultures - and that there's this gap between us.

GROSS: How did you decide to make a movie that's so much from the mother's point of view? 'Cause I consider...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...The teenage boy in this to be, like, your surrogate and the Annette Bening character to be your mother's surrogate. But most of the story is really her story.

MILLS: Yeah. Sometimes, people call it a coming-of-age movie. And I'm always, like, oh, it's a really bad coming-of-age movie if that's what it is...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLS: ...'Cause the kid doesn't change. The kid doesn't - the son doesn't transform. The son's a vehicle to see the mother and the other woman - to see the Greta Gerwig character and the Elle character. And he's like a catalyst. Things happen because of him. But he's not the protagonist. He's not who you enter.

And I was just much more interested in the women. And Annette Bening's character - yes, the seed of it is my mom. Greta Gerwig's character - part of the seed of her is my sister. And Elle's character - it's a combination of, like, a first girlfriend and some other very amazing, sophisticated women that used to sneak through my window in the night. And...

GROSS: Whoa, whoa, whoa. So OK.


GROSS: Let's stop right there.

MILLS: (Laughter).

GROSS: So in the movie, the Elle Fanning character is incredibly close with the teenage boy. And she - because the house is constantly getting renovated that he lives in because the Annette Bening character, the mother, is always having some kind of renovation done.

MILLS: And it's a huge, old, rambling house that'll never, ever, ever get to be finished.

GROSS: Exactly. Exactly. So Elle Fanning climbs up the scaffolding and goes through the window and actually sleeps the night, very often, in the teenage boy's bed with him.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: They don't have sex.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: They just - they kind of, like, talk. But it's asexual. He'd like it to be sexual.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: And she's totally against it. So let's get back to what you said.


MILLS: You're describing my life, Terry. I don't know if you know this.

GROSS: So was there a girl or several girls who would climb up to your bedroom window?

MILLS: I had a couple. I had two friends who were very whatever you want to call it, popular and sexualized and beyond their years. And they would go out with much more sophisticated men - boys - at night, do what young men and women do and get loaded. And then my bedroom was sort of away from the house so you could easily sneak in and out. And around 4 in the morning, they would roll by my place, get in bed with me and talk to each other about everything that happened, and not just like in a partying way, but like there are real - the real struggles they're having with their sex life and with the guys that they loved and didn't love and all the complexities.

And I just kind of happened to be there and I think it's 'cause - I don't know exactly why this is, if I'm - just 'cause I grew up in a matriarchy, if I grew up with these older sisters, for whatever reason I'm often in this position of being around women who are talking to each other as if a man wasn't there.

GROSS: Well, how did you get to be that boy? Like, what made you...

MILLS: (Laughter). I don't always want to be that boy, and that boy's very frustrated.

GROSS: What made you the boy that girls confided in do you think?

MILLS: I guess I was nice. You know, I guess I'm - I have a slightly gentle soul. I'm a Pisces. I don't know what. You know, like I - and I like listening to them. And I'm interested in my - again, I'm raised in a matriarchy, so women have power. Women are who are exciting. Women are who have agency and are just the thing you need. And also as a heterosexual guy, women are what I'm really interested in, and so I'm all about it. They want to talk to me about stuff, and, of course, I would love to have a sexual relationship with these two women that are amazing. But I'll take what I could get, right?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." He also directed "Beginners." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Mills. And he wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." And it's kind of a companion film to his film "Beginners." "Beginners" was inspired by the last chapter in his father's life, and "20th Century Women" is inspired by his mother's life.

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: Well, I didn't think I was going to make a film about my father, and, you know, taking a step back, I didn't know my dad was gay, you know, right? And then he comes out when he's 75, and he has these amazing, amazing years of just opening exploration and mess. And that mess was really helpful for me to see. And then the way he handled how he died was just so intense and wild. And part of my grief process - whatever - was writing that script. And I wouldn't have normally done something so personal. I love it when other people do it. I love Ginsburg. I love Fellini. I love so many authors and filmmakers who use their personal life, but I didn't see me being brave enough to do that.

And one of the weird benefits of grief is that it makes you kind of unsober (ph) and your feelings are so hot and rich and alive. It's an amazing place to write from, and it just makes you kind of braver. So that movie came out and people think, oh, my relationship is so key with my father, which it was especially when he came out. But 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.

And kind of like in the movie - in the movie, I sort of touch on that. I think the thing that would have scared my mom most is when I became more secretive, when I started talking to her less, when I started to have my own ideas about the world and maybe, you know, start to have criticisms of her that are sometimes spoken, sometimes not. 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 of Sony and 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, is 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 Fields) You know you almost died, right?

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

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

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

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

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

BENING: (As Dorothea Fields) Hey.

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

BENING: (As Dorothea Fields) 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 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. I could sense all those things. And I felt it myself. And I internalized it into myself. And I wanted to deal with it. And there was no language on her part to deal with it.

And there's a heck of a lot of shame on her part. I don't know exactly why - all cultural stuff that happened within her particular family. 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.

GROSS: So you mentioned that you went to teen therapy with your girlfriend. And the therapy session was run by your girlfriend's mother.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: And in the movie, the Elle Fanning character goes to teen therapy in sessions run by her mother. And, like, I'm not a therapy ethicist.

MILLS: (Laughter).

GROSS: And yet I have to say there seems to be something inherently unethical about having your child go to therapy that you're leading. I mean, isn't the therapist supposed to have some kind of distance from this?

MILLS: Yeah. Perhaps...

GROSS: And isn't the patient, the person in therapy, supposed to have, like...

MILLS: Not be a child?

GROSS: ...A neutral person to talk to?

MILLS: (Laughter) Well, and I feel like it was part of me kind of making a painting of what it was like in the late '70s. And there was more boundaryless behavior in all different directions, including therapy stuff. And this did happen.

And I'm sort of, you know, reporting from my life there. And I feel like therapy, especially in California in that moment, is in this phase of great expansion, great growth, all this new stuff happening, all these sort of new things being practiced - and maybe, like, a little looser and not as - you know, that we're not as boundaried (ph) as it would be now.

And I felt like I didn't want to talk about that just 'cause it's sort of zany. I felt like it was an accurate way to talk about the pros and cons of therapy in the late '70s. And this - these therapy sessions - I only went to, like, two or three. Just - I was trying to get in with my girlfriend and her mom, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLS: But the detail I love from that that's in the movie is - there was this polished, wooden stump on the ground. And there was a wicker basket filled with rolled-up magazines that were taped into rolls. And if a kid needed to have a particularly cathartic moment, the therapist would ask, do you need to beat the stump now? And the kid would, like, wail on the stump. And just something - that's how I like to write, like, from very strange, particular, concrete things I've seen.

GROSS: My guest is Mike Mills. We'll talk more about writing and directing his new film, "20th Century Women," after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, it stars Annette Bening as a 55-year-old single mother raising her 15-year-old son, who's slipping away from her into his own teenaged world. The story's inspired by Mills' relationship with his mother. The film is a follow-up to his film "Beginners," which was inspired by his relationship with his father, who came out at the age of 75, six months after Mills' mother died.

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: What did you tell her when she asked you that question?

MILLS: I don't have a good answer.


MILLS: You know, my answer would be something like, well, you know, this is truly how my mom was. And my mom continues to confuse me. My mom is really mysterious to me and doesn't make sense on a whole lot of levels.

And I made this film not because I know her so well but because I want to know her so much better. And we both enjoyed that. And I think that provided an opening for her. And, you know, she's trying to play this character right. And so I think she's trying to suss out, how protective is this guy going to be about his character who is his mom? And I'm sort of saying, Annette, please help me figure it out.


MILLS: And she's - she is - there's an openness to my interpretation of her. And there's an openness to her. Like, she is - the way I figured out my mom in writing her, which really I had a lot of struggles with, was she's a trickster figure. And it's kind of a hackney thing to say. But as soon as I had that phrase in my head, I was like, oh, now I get her.

And it's like I said before, if you ask her to do X, she's going to do Y. And as soon as you understand that as an author - as you understand that as your characters, one of their prime pieces of software in their head, it really gave me a lot of access to how to write her. And then it - and kind of in retro-engineering, it helped me understand my mom a bit. You know, that's just sort of how her software works.

GROSS: So you've - you did interviews with people to better understand the lives of teenage girls and mothers and women. What did you do to kind of interview yourself - in other words, to get back in touch with who you were at age 15 so you could, you know, most credibly write the character of the teenage boy?

MILLS: Well, luckily, that is just me. And the beginning of my writing process is I just try to remember as much stuff as I can. I write them down on single five-by-seven cards. I don't think about structure. I don't think about Final Draft, which is the software you write scripts in. And I'm just, like, compiling, compiling, compiling. And I had, like, a character stack. And those are the Jamie stuff. And that's anything that kind of related, including, like, the fainting game, the skating stuff, any little details like that.

But then the - a key thing for me in writing younger people and teenagers - and especially these guys that are in my movie - is to not treat them like teenagers. In their mind, they're fully developed entities. They're at the peak of their game. They don't think of themselves as 14, 15 years old. They think of themselves as complete. And so I found if I just wrote as I would write myself - and in lots of ways, myself now - it just felt better. And it worked better. And then showing it to Elle and to the different kids I approached for Jamie, Elle felt it was very accurate. Elle felt - I invited her to change it, and I invited her to make it more accurately teen. And she was like, no, no, no, this is - this feels right. So that was very nice.

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 own 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: We're going to have to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you.

My guest is Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women," which stars Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning. And he also wrote and directed the film "Beginners." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women" which stars Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning. And he wrote and directed "Beginners." "Beginners" was inspired by the last chapter in his father's life. After at the age of 75, his father came out as gay. This was about six months after your mother died that that happened?

MILLS: Yeah. My mom died in June, and he came out over Thanksgiving as I think, like, a lot of college kids do. They come home, and they come out on Thanksgiving break...

GROSS: Right.

MILLS: ...And my dad came out that Thanksgiving.

GROSS: And "20th Century Women," Mike Mills' new film, was inspired by his mother who was born in 1924, gave birth to Mike when she was 40, and, you know, there was just a big kind of cultural time difference between mother and son. And the movie is all about that gap. And it's also just about the difficulty of being a mother and raising a son and wanting what's best for him and not understanding who he's becoming.

So at the beginning of "Beginners" which is based on the story of your father coming out at the age of 75 six months after your mother died, the beginning of "Beginners," the main character, like your surrogate, is throwing out trash bags, like these big, hefty bags of his father's possessions because, you know, he - the son doesn't need them and what are you going to do with all the stuff that the father left behind? And it's - I found that a very emotional experience. I think all of us who have lost a parent or a loved one have been through that experience.

We talked about this the last time we spoke of having to dispose of so much, like, stuff that the person behind. But I was wondering, like, in doing this film where I know that you used some actual objects that your parents owned, including like their bedspread. You use some of that on set. Was there anything that you regretted having thrown out in retrospect?

MILLS: Oh, well, of course, you regret everything you throw out. And that scene in "Beginners" - my dad was kind of a packrat, and he was an academic. And he had so much paperwork, and you have to go through it. And we didn't throw out everything. We had to sort out what's going to maybe go to the archive of the museum and what's not. And you find all these weird emotional landmines in the process. And when my mom - focusing back on my mom, oh, my gosh. You know, every piece of clothing she wore - we have some of the stuff. Annette wears my mom's bracelets, which my sister still has and wears like on a daily basis.

So - but any remnant of your gone parent you crave or you want. You want any sort of thing that might trigger them and bring them back. I have my dad's World War II Army uniform in my closet, and it's just sitting there next to all my suits. And I love visiting that on a daily basis, and I can't think of anything really in particular. There's a lot of - there's paintings in the movie that I grew up with, all these chairs. There's this really beautiful bedspread that's from Madagascar. My parents had really amazing taste, and, like, watching Annette lay on that bedspread with a black and white cat which my mom had, there is something deeply evocative for me, obviously.

And Annette doesn't particularly look like my mom. She isn't my mom, obviously, but there is this kind of weird communing that happens if with nothing else than just with your memories of this person. And the farther the person has gone from your life, the more those memories are fragile and cherished. So even just a commune with my memory becomes very meaningful.

GROSS: If your mother was alive, you'd probably have to tell her you were making this movie based on her life.

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: And considering that she wasn't very open about her inner life, she probably wouldn't have liked the idea very much.

MILLS: Not at all.

GROSS: So knowing that it's an idea that she probably wouldn't have liked, what responsibility do you feel to protecting her privacy? Because she's been dead since 1999, but still...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I always feel like there's this conversation you have constantly with people who you love who are dead...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...About how they would feel if you did something. And then you have to ask yourself does it matter? They're dead.

MILLS: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: Does it matter that they'd find it an invasion of privacy or a little offensive or, you know, just like beyond their comfort level?

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: Do you respect that or do you just live your life and not always second guess things because it maybe would have offended somebody who you can't ask about it and who can't react?

MILLS: Yeah. I didn't second guess it. I like third, fourth, fifth, sixth guessed it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

MILLS: You know, like - and much more than with my dad. My dad had sort of like a grandeur to him and my dad would - I think he would have loved having a film made about him on some levels. And he would have loved to seen an older gay man in a movie. By the time he came out, he was like a politicized gay man, and he would just - and an older guy - and there's just not a lot of representation of older gay men, right? He would have just loved that. So that was kind of easy in a certain way.

This time around, my mom is a very tricky ghost. And my mom, like you're saying, she wouldn't have wanted this on a lot of levels. She's very private. She doesn't want to be pinned down. She doesn't want me talking about how I wanted to know more about her sadness and her aloneness and all this stuff. And so there was lots of conversation about that, and then in my head, you know, with her ghost, as you're saying, and then I need to inhabit her to write her, right? I need to be in her perspective to write her. And what right do I have to do that as a cisgendered sexual guy? How can I ever possibly do that? So there was a lot, a lot, a lot of struggles. And I remember one certain point there was a sort of conversation with the ghost that went something like, OK, mom, you died in '99, and I was 33. And I'm 46, 47 now, and I'm sorry. I'm just going to do this.

And I know that it's filled with enough love and enough understanding that I feel like when I - if I ever see you again, I can defend myself or I can deal with your ire. I can deal with what you're feeling. And there are pieces of her, parts of her that I did keep private. There was a lot of her that's not in the film, and it's fine. You know, it's not like I'm leaving out something that needed to be there.

GROSS: So - but you did keep asking yourself, you know - if I meet her later, can I defend this?


MILLS: Or just in your head - right? - it's a lot of magical thinking. In your - as you said, like - I think especially with dead parents, they're fully in your head.

GROSS: Yeah.

MILLS: They're alive.

GROSS: Yeah.

MILLS: You're having at what feels experientially like a very real conversation. And when I did say to her, look, I get to do this. I'm your son. It was my experience, too. I've been living all these years after you've been gone. I get to do this now. There's some - like your rights of - whatever you call it - like there's been enough years that your rights have elapsed. Like, I get to do this. And that was sort of my own little weird coming of age moment as a middle-aged man - right? - in this process. And there was some sort of like OK heard back. I felt like there are some like, OK, I get that. And then the other conversation I had with her - my mother is an incredibly practical woman. She is a Depression-era person, and I can hear my mother saying, well, Michael, would this help you in your career and your job?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLS: I was like, yes, mom, this would really help me with my job. She's like, OK. Now I can understand it, so - and then if I felt like - if felt like if it wasn't filled with like a deep, deep, deep attempt to understand her, be fair to her, be fair to her - be more fair to her than I was as a 15 year old, I might feel differently. But I feel like, obviously, this is filled with like a real different energy.

GROSS: My guest is Mike Mills. He wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Mike Mills about writing and directing his new film "20th Century Women" which is inspired by his relationship with his mother.

So your mother was kind of emotionally mysterious to you when she was alive. She died in 1999 of lung cancer.

GROSS: 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 all's 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. OK.

GROSS: So your mother had you late in life. She was 40. You married when you were 43 and had your son at 48?

MILLS: Forty-six.

GROSS: Forty-six.

MILLS: Forty-six.


MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So you were six years older than your mother was when she...

MILLS: I know.

GROSS: ...Had you. And that was - she was considered late. Of course, you're a man so physically, you don't have the considerations of having to, you know, like, get pregnant...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And carry the child...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And everything. But in terms of, like, relating to the child, it's, you know - it's a similar thing. Your child was born into a really different world than the world...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You were born into. And that is so much about what your movie is about...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, when your child is born into a world that you wouldn't have recognized...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, when you were young. So I just - I'm curious what some of your thoughts are about, you know, having a child at age 46, knowing...

MILLS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That there's this, like, this, you know, big gap in years.

MILLS: Well, the crazy - yeah, and the crazy karmic thing is, like, I was always kind of mad at my mom for having me so late. It made me always aware of her mortality. As a kid, I was always, like, counting the years. Like, OK, well, if she lives to be 75 or whatever, I'll be this age. And I was always kind of doing the math and feeling slightly ripped off like I was not going to get as much time, and I was always worried about it.

And I was always like I'm not going to do that. And just the way my life worked out, I wanted to have a more solid - I wanted to be married earlier. I wanted to have kids early. It just didn't happen that way for me. And the movie's kind of all about that. Like, your life does not turn out the way you expected. What are you going to deal with the way it is, and how can you enjoy these moments of grace, as fleeting as they are, along the way, you know?

And then my boy - he's born in 2012. I'm born in '66. I'm born before what to me is the hugest sort of AD-BC line, and that is the digital era. You know, like, that - I think that has just completely changed consciousness and humanity (laughter). And he's on the other side of it.

And I worry about that all the time, or I'm just worried about being an older parent all the time. I don't have a great answer for that. And it's - I don't have - there's no resolved thing to say, but it's not something I'm comfortable with. And I adore him, and I adore that he's in my life. And I was worried I wasn't going to get to have this in my life, so I want all of it, right? And it's funny that I ended up here, yeah.

GROSS: You mean having a child later in life?

MILLS: Yeah, when I didn't want it to happen, when it's like my main complaint with my parent - there's some weird karmic tale that I don't know what it is that this is what has happened, and that I'm even later than my mom. And, yeah, how did that happen? I don't know. Like, it's just - life does that to you.

GROSS: But you probably became a parent when you were ready to.

MILLS: Apparently.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MILLS: Yeah (laughter). But I feel - yeah. I don't - yeah, I mean, there is a line in the movie that is exactly this. Whatever you think your life is going to be, just know it's not going to be anything like that. And I very much feel that.

And it was really interesting talking about me and my mom in our relationship. There's something incredibly weird, magical, healing to inhabiting your mother and writing her, especially as a new parent. My boy was born a year into the writing process of the script, and it changed the whole script, changed everything. And I could start to talk about my parent feelings through my mom in this movie format. And there's something really trippy and interesting about that.

And she has a line in the movie like, you get to see him out in the world as a person. I never will. I wrote that after dropping my son off (laughter) to one of his first days at preschool. And when you watch your kid walk off to - not a stranger, but a person you don't know that well, and then I walked around the side and there was a gate and I could look through the slots of the gate. And Harper (ph) was gesticulating and talking and happy and fine, but he was kind of like, who is that? Who is that person who's talking to that woman?

And I kind of got the sense of like, wow, you know, - that is this key, never explained to you before, element of being a parent and being so in love with this person that you can never explain to someone before it happens to them.

GROSS: Wow. 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.

GROSS: Mike Mills wrote and directed the new film "20th Century Women." He said some interesting things we didn't have time for in the broadcast, but we do have that for you as an extra on our podcast. The film opens Christmas Day in New York and LA and opens wider January 6.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll discuss Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, who is Donald Trump's choice to become the next secretary of state. We'll talk with Steve Coll, who's the author of a book about Exxon and has an article in The New Yorker about Tillerson's relations with Putin and with a Russian oil and gas giant and the potential political and economic conflicts of interest he faces. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. We're closing with a Louis Armstrong recording from the soundtrack of "20th Century Women."


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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