Mike Mills talks about his Oakland family movie “C’mon C’mon”
Director Mike Mills’ wonderful new film “C’mon C’mon,” which hits Bay Area theaters Wednesday, draws heavily on his own life, an approach he has also used in his previous films. , “Beginners” (2010) and “Women of the 20th Century” (2016).
“I don’t like to be in a room and just rely on my imagination,” he said on a recent visit to The City. “I like to go out into the world and find things, much like a journalist.”
The beautiful black and white “C’mon C’mon” tells the story of a radio journalist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix, in a sweet performance and not at all “Joker”), who agrees to take care of her. 9-year-old nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) travels to Oakland to care for her bipolar ex-husband (Scoot McNairy).
“I love Oakland and love filming there, but we couldn’t afford to go up this time around,” says Mills. Even so, an aerial shot showcases the real Oakland, and the director says he went to great lengths to find an exterior that would “vibrate” with the interior of McNairy’s apartment, which was filmed in Los Angeles. Angeles.
Mills was born in Berkeley at Alta Bates Hospital and lived there until the age of 4, so he has no direct memory of growing up in the Bay Area. But he harbors many other special memories that still inform his profession.
“My father was the director of the Oakland Art Museum; he was there for 17-18 years. It was very expensive for him. He always thought it was the most important thing he had done in his life. So my sisters and I always joke that this building is like our fourth brother, ”he says.
Even though he couldn’t physically shoot “C’mon C’mon” in Oakland, Mills said he instinctively felt the city was a natural fit for McNairy’s character.
In the film, as Viv’s stay in Oakland gets awkwardly lengthening, Johnny and Jesse travel to New York City so that Johnny can continue his current project: interviewing children about the state of the world and their future.
“These are all real interviews,” says Mills. “They have this fiber, a different presence that broadens the mood of the film. You know what I mean? The dynamics of the film are much more interesting because it has this childlike energy.
Norman, the impressive young actor – hardly the typical precocious film broomstick – brings extra energy to the film, with his silliness and unexpected questions for his uncle.
“Obviously my time with my own child is the seed, but the plant grows really fast,” says Mills.
One of Jesse’s most peculiar behaviors in the film involves pretending to be an orphan boy, asking questions from a stranger’s perspective. Mills says he took the idea, word for word, from co-songwriter Aaron Dessner’s daughter.
“And I’ve heard from other parents that their kids do too, or some version of it. So the orphan thing is a weird Jungian version that they like to play with, ”he says. “I really like finding things like that. It makes my job really interesting.
In one of the first scenes, Jesse has dinner with his family and begins discussing, among other things, mushroom tubes. Mills heard a report on the subject on Radiolab and simply asked Norman to listen to it and then repeat what he had heard.
Mills says he didn’t think of it on a conscious level, but the mushroom dialogue captures the film’s themes well. “It really is a magical situation,” he said. “And it’s family; it’s the way families work. These interconnected, yet independent cellular entities that grow in all directions.
The director decided to use more non-fiction in the film in the form of various essays read aloud, marking the end of small unofficial chapters. They include a children’s book on bipolar disorder (“The Bipolar Bear Family”) and works by Professor Jacqueline Rose and cinematographer Kristen Johnson. (Mills was inspired by an essay she wrote for the DVD cover notes for her documentary “Cameraperson.”)
“I love the one from ‘Star Child’,” he says, referring to a children’s book by Claire A. Nivola, which makes Johnny cry as he reads it to Jesse. “I read this to my kid all the time, and he teases me because I’m crying,” he smiles.
“Hopefully when we build the website,” he adds, “we’re going to do a reading room with all the essays and a few more that weren’t successful. I love the collage aspect of it, the found object of it. They add a lot of texture.
Perhaps the most important line of “C’mon C’mon” came straight from Hopper, Mills and Miranda July’s 9-year-old son. The line is not only featured prominently in the film, but it also became the name of Mills’ production company, Hopper Mills.
“I was asking my child for advice on the film, just in a fun way. I said, ‘I can’t tell if I’m being too serious, or should I be funnier.’ And Hopper looked at me and said, ‘Be funny, when you can.’ “
The film has become even more personal for Mills due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aside from a few days of pickup, filming ended in January 2020, before the lockdown began.
“I edited all year. I had to be a Zoom parent. I was teaching Zoom until about 12:30 p.m., then going to edit, remotely, on my own, for about 10 months. I saw (editor) Jennifer Vecchiarello’s screen and I could see her in a little window downstairs, but I also learned to climb a bit, ”says Mills. “Maybe he benefited from the process.”
IF YOU ARE GOING TO:
With Joaquin Phoenix, Gabby Hoffmann, Woody Norman, Scoot McNairy
Written and directed by Mike Mills
R rated for language
Duration 108 minutes