How Mike Mills Turned Joaquin Phoenix Into the Uncle That’s Going to Make Everyone Cry
The “C’mon C’mon” writer-director shares the personal stories that inspired Phoenix’s heartbreaking character and performance—though just how personal is up for debate.
Mike Mills makes personal films. Just how personal? That’s the question that he contends with, an ever-evolving relationship with his work that changes over the years between first being inspired to write a script and the movie finally coming out—or, in our case, over the course of an interview.
It’s tricky terrain because the writer-director’s films are so personal, each one germinating from a complicated relationship with a family member that he’s still working out. Of course things are going to be ambiguous, or contradictory, or a little messy. That’s what happens when you’re deciphering your own feelings about something in tandem with piecing together how to portray that as art, something for the rest of us to consume and then process our own feelings about.
“Obviously, everything is autobiographical,” Mills says. “And the equally honest answer is that it’s not autobiographical at all.”
Mills and I are talking in a library at the Savannah College of Art and Design, across the street from the theater where he will be presented with the SCAD Savannah Film Festival’s Auteur Award. His new film, C’mon C’mon, is screening there too, a key stop in a months-long film festival tour.
Prior to Savannah’s showing, audiences at Telluride and in New York, for example, were spotted still wiping tears as they headed into the streets after the credits rolled, touched by this story of a radio journalist named Johnny, played by a surprisingly tender Joaquin Phoenix, taking care of his estranged nephew, Jesse (newcomer Woody Norman), while his mother tends to his sick father. Stock up on Kleenex: It hits theaters this Friday.
“I keep getting teary. A very Pisces reaction to it all,” Mills says about finally showing the film to real audiences in real theaters.
He finished shooting C’mon C’mon in January 2020, which meant editing it remotely in between orchestrating Zoom school for his child, Hopper—all while warding off the most nihilistic of thoughts about the very personal movie he was putting the finishing touches on in the middle of a global pandemic. Will this ever come out? Are there going to be theaters for movies like mine? What’s going to happen to the film world?
The Savannah Film Festival marks only his third trip away from home since the pandemic. The first time he saw C’mon C’mon in a room with other people was at the packed premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September.
“I was hallucinating that there were glitches, like visual glitches and sound glitches,” he says. “I was so freaked out. I was convinced that it wasn’t working right. And then the lights come on and some people are walking out crying. I was like, they’re crying because it’s so bad…” Actress Gaby Hoffmann, who plays Jesse’s mother and Johnny’s sister, set him straight. Everything played fine. Mike, she said. They were crying because they were moved.
Mills’ films are so personal because they’re about family. They’re about his family, at least at first, after which point they become about our families, in that they’re about the struggle to understand those who are both closest to us and yet perhaps still the biggest strangers of all.
After more than a year-and-a-half of trauma, fear, and the immense stress put on relationships with those we love, it’s undeniably profound to see Mills’ work grapple with ideas of vulnerability, forgiveness, and what it means to care for each other. A beating, compassionate heart has always pulsed through his movies, which have been critical hits and earned awards attention. But C’mon C’mon, his black-and-black ode to the simple power of familial connection, could not be better-timed to what we want—or even need—to feel as we finally start to head back to theaters, peeking our heads around the corner to a world that is coming alive again.
Mills’ 2010 film Beginners was inspired by his father, who came out of the closet as a gay man at age 75 following his wife’s death, a shock that helped Mills see his father for who he really is for the first time. Christopher Plummer won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for playing the character inspired by Mills’ dad. Then there’s 2016’s 20th Century Women, in which Mills loosely explores the tricky relationship he had with his mother, played by Annette Bening, while growing up. Mills received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
C’mon C’mon is different from those two projects in one major way. To reflect on his experiences with his late mother and father, Mills was largely in conversation with ghosts. “Those last ones, people were gone, which is kind of like a moment of grace for the writer-director, because I just have to deal with them when I’m dead,” he says. “This is really different, going through this [with C’mon C’mon]. This involves a living young person.”
One night in the time after Mills had made 20th Century Women and was struggling to come up with an idea for his next movie, he was giving a bath to his now-9-year-old child, Hopper, who is gender-nonconforming and goes by they/them pronouns (their mother and Mills’ partner is the filmmaker Miranda July). It’s a fairly mundane activity between father and child, sure. But Mills was struck by how easily, and without a lick of self-consciousness, Hopper could spout just some of the most profound and unexpectedly wise observations about life. When he really thought about it, these off-the-cuff musings of a child actually deepened how Mills saw the world around him.
There was a seed of a movie there. But it couldn’t be just that. He had to get away from making it about him and his child. “I didn’t want to mess with my kid’s deal too much, right?” He needed to create some remove from reality. That’s when the idea about making the film about an uncle discovering things through the lens of his nephew’s perspective popped into his head.
“The thing that was rad about it was, if you’re an estranged uncle who doesn’t have a kid, that’s great for filmmaking,” Mills says. “Because every frickin’ scene, you’re gonna have to learn everything. You don’t know what to do. It’s like a Buster Keaton setup: Every meal, every travel instance, every time telling stories is the first time he has done it.”
That’s true of an uncle who is suddenly put in charge of caring for a child who he hasn’t seen in years. But Mills learned it’s not that different from his own experience as a parent. (A scene based on that bathtime epiphany, for example, is featured in the film.)
“My kid is 9 now, so it happens less. But when they’re younger, every six weeks they’re kind of like a different person,” Mills says. “Someone installs a new piece of software and you’re the last to know. But then you figure it out.”
Almost every interaction between Johnny and Jesse involves some eureka-level discovery. There’s this shock element that goes along with that, especially through the prism of an estranged uncle. Here is this young person who you don’t have a parental relationship with, yet they are doing something to you that you never thought would happen.
“That’s really very much what the film is about—the surprises that happen to you and your heart and your mind while being around someone who needs you, like life and death needs you, and is younger,” Mills says. “Not younger in terms of less than. They just have a developmentally different view on the world, which I find to be actually highly accurate and highly intelligent. Probably more intelligent than a group of adults is because they’re less weighed down by what they should be doing.”
This is Mills’ third time promoting a movie with roots in private details of his family history, and he’s becoming more intuitive about how he talks about things and what, exactly, he’s willing to share. Some might assume that this part, talking about such personal things with the press, is uncomfortable, but he actually likes it. So much of the filmmaking process is so lonely. This stage of the process can be like a jolt recharging the batteries. “I’m like, oh, fuck, you saw the movie!? Oh, wow, you’re nice. And you have intelligent things to say. That’s cool. It’s kind of amazing.”
Still, he’s careful about what he says when it comes to Hopper, and is trying to draw a line in the sand about just how autobiographical C’mon C’mon really is. Making a movie is a long journey on a long road. Yes, there’s the personal anecdote that might serve as inspiration. But, in many ways, things stop being solely autobiographical the minute the production leaves the station.
“Hopper would be the first to understand that, like, ‘This is Mike’s deal. This isn’t me,’” Mills says, explaining that Hopper calls him Mike. There’s the temptation to wonder if, in contrast to Beginners and 20th Century Women, which he wrote after his parents’ respective deaths, this was a more surreal process. He was writing a script somewhat based on his relationship with Hopper, and Hopper would be right there while he’s writing it.
But it’s not that personal, he swears. Of course there were times when Hopper would say something and he’d write it down. But that’s 10 seconds. The movie screening at film festivals and the two of us sitting and talking about it—that wouldn’t happen for three years after that. Those are three years filled with extrapolation and collaboration.
“I really want the actors not to be thinking it’s my personal movie at all,” he says. “It’s their movie. That’s my main job, to get it under their skin, make it their movie. So is it really personal? Because it’s kind of not. Yeah, the origin is. But Joaquin and Woody are not me and my kid at all. Christopher Plummer is not my father. Annette is not my mom. They are their own mongrel manifestations, and I love that difference.”
People who have seen C’mon C’mon are responding to it for myriad reasons. There’s the revelation of Phoenix’s sweet, understated performance as Johnny, a total 180 from the unsettling intensity of his work in Joker. Those who are uncles and aunts have been moved to see that unique relationship portrayed on screen. Anyone who has had any attachment to a child—parent, uncle, or otherwise—can’t help but have big feelings watching Jesse and the other kids in the film face down a world brimming with cruelty, darkness, and unfair obstacles, yet respond with whimsy, curiosity, and an intense life force that leaves you with actual hope.
“My movies always have that sort of tenderoni vibe,” Mills says. “I think because I deal with enough middle-grade depression, I can’t make a movie that’s going to depress me more. It’s going to help me connect, or help me believe in connection, or help me believe in positivity, or help me believe that love can happen.”
And that’s where things really do get personal. Making these films has helped him on that journey.
“I do feel like all the last three films, the impetus does come from trying to kind of hold on to a very complicated person,” he says. “I don’t have it figured out. I don’t have my dad figured out, I don’t have my mom figured out, and I don’t have my kid figured out. I would like to know them better. That’s what the film does.”