Director Mike Mills draws inspiration from Detroit in ‘C’mon C’mon’

Nov 29, 2021 at 11:27 am
click to enlarge Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman star in C’mon C’mon. - A24 Films
A24 Films
Joaquin Phoenix and Woody Norman star in C’mon C’mon.

“I’m such a not-confident writer, I need to talk myself into it a lot,” says writer-director Mike Mills in an interview in a small recording studio at the Detroit Foundation Hotel. “And that's why I have all these other texts (incorporated into the film). I feel like it's company, you know?

His new film, C’mon C’mon, is indeed marked — like 2010’s Beginners and 2016’s 20th Century Women before it — by the incorporation of a range of writing, music, and other texts reflective of his omnivorous tastes, though its cast makes for good company as well. Opening locally this Friday, C’mon C’mon follows Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as a traveling radio producer looking after his young nephew, Jesse (played by English actor Woody Norman). Over the course of their travels — through Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, though the film starts off here in Detroit — they check in frequently with his mother, Viv (a splendid, welcome Gaby Hoffmann) as Johnny chips away at an interview-based radio project. At the same time, the three of them work to form a stronger connection of their own.

Johnny’s vocation in the film, says Mills, speaks to the film’s themes of listening and working to understand, sure — but it also has roots in his own longstanding affection for radio storytelling.

“Radio work like that, like This American Life or Scott Kerr or Radiolab are just big important things to me and in my filmmaking. Ira Glass’s work has influenced all of my writing, and the way I think about stories — really, I think I just want to have that job,” says Mills, seeming to only half-joke. ”And then it stayed in the story because it made sense: listening as a way of being, almost, for this guy. I feel like listening and just being present for other people — or just engaging — became so important.”

But the specific subject, he says, serves as a kind of continuation of a project he did for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, shot around Silicon Valley alongside a group of other artists.

“All these (tech) companies have futurists. And they're so involved in the future and all that. And so I had this idea that I was gonna find kids whose parents are working in these tech companies — their parents all had to work at Apple or one of those companies — and ask them about the future,” he recalls. “And it was so interesting and it was so kind of dark and hopeful. And there’s always something very natural about asking a kid about the future, somehow. And so I wanted, always wanted, to do more of that piece.”

For Mills, who’s also worked in graphic design (a seeming influence on his collage-like approach to filmmaking), the interviews with school-age kids in each of the film’s locales became integral. Referring to these sequences as “documentary” (even as Phoenix performs, arguably, as his fictional character), he calls them “the ground the movie sits on.”

“I’d been here once before,” Mills says of Detroit, but he was prompted to return — at least in part — by the affection expressed for the city by an old friend, one of his kid’s former teachers. “She talks about Detroit all the time, and she talks about it with such love and pride. So it's definitely (been) in my mind. And I just, I like this — what this makes —” he draws a diagram in the air with his hand — “L.A., New York, Detroit, New Orleans — kind of as a map. And I knew both New Orleans and Detroit are cities that have really been through a lot, and have vulnerabilities, but also have such strength, too. So I think that attracted me — especially thinking of this population of kids that we were kind of hunting for in all these different cities.”

The students featured provide a diverse array of feelings and perspectives, with questions and answers ranging from the existential to the trivial, the hopeful to the bleak. What results feels like an honestly presented accumulation from young people around the country; in Detroit, the crew’s recruitment efforts centered around the Boggs Center and Gesu Catholic schools. For Mills, who’s a parent himself (his partner is the writer and director Miranda July), his sense of affection is plain.

“Karri Pitkin was our producer-helper and she's from the radio world; she did Radio Rookies at WNYC. She would tend to find a school (in each city), and so, the Boggs school became like our big home, and we filmed there. And they were so generous to us and so helpful and the kids from there are just really quite brilliant,” he remembers. “It's like this ‘get’ for me personally. But it's also like this gift that the film gives, these people that I meet and these communities that I get to enter that I would never normally get to as a civilian.”

Providing the film with a meditative, patient air amid an uncertain time, these interviews help to reinforce Mills’ air as a filmmaker of questioning, of listening, and of attentive inquiry to what surrounds him. To that end, they aid, too, in broadening the film’s scope and grounding it more concretely in our world. In this sense it doesn't seem like a coincidence that the map Mills drew in the air covers a healthy portion of the country, with cities near its borders in every cardinal direction.

“It’s just really fucking impressive, all these young people with the Joker coming and interviewing them — just fully showing up. And having really smart answers, making themselves vulnerable: saying stuff that was not easy and did put them in kind of a harder spot,” says Mills. “The more power you give and the more serious your question, the more serious and receptive your energy — which Joaquin was really good at — just the higher they rose.”

The film that formed around these themes is guided — a bit loosely — both by these interviews and many other quirks and centers of gravity, cultivating an air of free-form abstraction in pursuit of emotional intimacy. Shot in black-and-white and moving not just around the country but back and forth in time, C’mon shows its seams through signs of persistent editorial tinkering by Mills, his sound team, and his editor, Jennifer Vecchiarello, with whom he says he argues often “in a healthy way” that’s become essential to his work. While the film’s framed and structured around its travel narrative, necessitated by Johnny’s meditative project, it feels chiefly — like all his stuff — driven by the struggle to navigate what he calls “primary relationships,” within nontraditional and often fractured families. For Mills, formal experimentation to get to the heart of these struggles is essential, something he says is part of all his work as a matter of personal preference or taste as much as anything else.

“I really don't like synced sound. It's like heteronormative sex. It's like — we could do other kinds of sex too,” Mills says. How would it be, he asks, “to have the sound be on its own (decoupled from the images they once were paired with)? Or to have the images without hearing, or you hear it, but it's at such a low volume that you can't discern what they're saying. And I also love that, it's like a texture more than like a scene. I think that's something like in European filmmaking… all my heroes do movies like that, like Alain Resnais or Fellini. So I don’t know that it’s actually particular to this movie.”

When asked about the future — not of the planet or the rest of us, but of the sort of mid-budget realist movie Mills specializes in, centered on the everyday — he acknowledges that it doesn’t look good.

“It’s totally going away. It’s an endangered species,” he says. “And then making kind of quiet black-and-white movies like this is especially endangered. And God bless A24, you know, I really feel like they're oxygenating the film world right now. Not just (with mine) but with other films they’re doing.”

When asked about directors getting “scooped up” after one or two smaller films that net critical acclaim being perhaps part of the problem, Mills counters.

“Well, obviously all those directors have free choice, right?” he says. “I don't think ‘scooped up’ is the right word — because it's like, it's fucking hard for those people to get those movies. Like, I know some of them who’ve been through that process and it's like getting to the Olympics, you know? But, yeah, I have no interest in those movies at all, I’m sorry. Like, I don't — I’ll see them all on the airplane. Like, when I come here, and I’m like… ugh. What an amazing dumpster-fire of resources.”

At that last part, we both laugh. For Mills, the process of writing and filming is less like the Olympics than, essentially, a gradual accumulation of resources — of texts, images, stories, and even figures — from the world around him; once he has enough, he has something to present what he likens to a “play-pen,” a kind of space in which he and his collaborators can all hang out.

“My writing is really like ‘oh, I heard someone tell that story.’ And I scoop it in,” he says. “‘Oh, I remember this.’ I scoop it in. And then there's a lot of formation in editing. I do write stuff, but that's my favorite way. It's a little bit more journalistic. At least, I tell myself I'm more of a journalist — like, I can go find things. So finding listening, whatever — just looking, I find all that way more mentally healthy, and I kind of need that to stay mentally healthy,” he says. "It's all wrapped up and Johnny's deal in the movie because — probably — because it's me-ish. Those are just the issues that I'm thinking about.”

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