Faith is like LSD
Mike Mills on his excellent new movie w/ Joaquin Phoenix, whether skateboarding is washed, how “radical trust” can feel hallucinatory, & more
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Mike Mills — this KINGLY GOAT has been blowing my mind since I was a Teenage Spyplane, listening to Sonic Youth’s Washing Machine, staring at the cover he designed (above right) while “Diamond Sea” played for 20 minutes, thinking about how cool and how slyly mysterious the art felt… Who were these nice dorky boys rocking identical magic-marker-scrawled SY tees with their faces cut off? What secrets did those cropped grins and inky scribbles contain??
Mills — an artist, designer, and filmmaker — just put out his fourth feature, C’mon C’mon. It’s a beautiful, funny, deceptively quiet story about a radio journalist named Johnny, played by a wizardly Joaquin Phoenix, linking & building profoundly with his 9-year-old nephew Jesse, played by a wizardly Woody Norman.
Earlier this week we hit up Mike using encrypted SpyConferencing technology to talk about Phoenix’s finely calibrated bulls**t detector; creating characters who get off big-gas naturalistic fits; how an experience of “radical trust” can reshape yr sense of the possible; whether skateboarding is as cool circa 2021 as it was circa 1979; and more “unbeatable topics.”
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Blackbird Spyplane: When we first meet Jesse in C’mon C’mon he’s telling Joaquin Phoenix and Gaby Hoffman about the “wood-wide web” — subterranean fungal pathways that help trees and plants share resources and communicate. Longtime Spyplane readers know we’re huge “wood-wide web” appreciators over here. How did it make its way into your movie?
Mike Mills: “My kid and I listen to Radiolab a lot together, and they did an episode about it that’s one of my kid’s favorites. So we’ve talked a lot about how amazing it is that a dying tree will send nutrients to other trees, how they’re connected and feed each other, warn each other. When I’m writing a screenplay, if I write about something that’s actually happened — something I’ve actually seen and heard, rather than something I’ve imagined — I trust it more, and I feel like I’m gonna communicate something more rich. So, yeah, on one level, having Woody talk about it in C’mon C’mon is part of the osmosis between me, my kid and the script.
“But also, the film is about this question of, What do the trees of a family give each other, intentionally and unintentionally, consciously and unconsciously? I wanted to get at that sort of underground quality of our connectedness with each other…”
Blackbird Spyplane: Speaking of underground interspecies-infrastructure, you did this cool art book a few years ago called Together, about the wildlife tunnels that help mountain lions and other animals around L.A. cross beneath the highways that disrupt their habitats…
Mike Mills: “I love thinking about place. What you’re talking about with that book is a very deep understanding of place as it relates to Los Angeles — an understanding that’s not human-centric — and I like when you can see all the different systems and different species and even different spiritual energies laying on top of each other in a given place.
“When I’m thinking about place in a movie, I try to think, What are some things that could only happen there? It might be a city or it might be a bedroom, it might be ecological, like the soil can only create certain plants, or it could be like how the scenes that we shot in NYC have more conflict and more energy, whereas in L.A. everything’s pretty easy at the start of the film, and then New Orleans has this deep spirituality that helps finish things out.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It’s cool to think about how clothing can deepen a sense of place, too. Joaquin’s fits in C’mon C’mon are VERY HARD, and all the dark-toned North Face and Patagonia stuff he rocks with those baggy trousers and toasted white Chucks helps gets the idea across that this is a Californian transplant in NYC. Everyone in your movies tends to wear clothes really well — how front-of-mind is costuming for you as a filmmaker?
Mike Mills: “Wardrobe and hair-and-make-up and place are all central to me, because it’s what you look at. I actually had no hair-and-make-up on this movie, everyone did their own hair, and it might have my favorite hair-and-make-up of anything I’ve made, because it feels real — Joaquin, Gaby and Woody’s hair changes from day to day in these little ways. With wardrobe it was similar: we kept things very limited to help it feel real, with something like 5 changes of clothes for each of the leads. I’m kind of a luddite so all of those tiny restrictions help keep things simple, in a way I find freeing.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You’ve talked about how Joaquin helped you work over the script, stress-testing and questioning every emotional beat, and how Aaron and Bryce Dessner from the National, who wrote the score, made you think about collaboration in a new way. Tell me more about working with those guys…
Mike Mills: “Joaquin has this really keen sense of measurement — a sensitivity to those moments in a script where you’re trying to manipulate the audience emotionally in a way you haven’t earned. He knows immediately when you’re doing a move in order to make the audience like you, which is something I’m definitely guilty of — I want people to like me. But Joaquin is brave and really fluent in his flaws, and that’s a lovely, deep thing to be around.
“With the Dessners, I’d just done this project with them where they taught me a kind of radical trust — I hadn’t even met them when they sent me all the audio stems for their songs and said, Do whatever you want. They didn’t know me! Experiencing that level of generosity and faith was like taking acid — it changes your whole sense of what’s possible. One of the things I talked about with them for this score was ‘Clair de Lune,’ and the place they got has a similar emotionality and gentleness. To me, their score is the sound that exists between Johnny and Jesse — the sound of being open and receptive to this other person who’s having a deep impact on you.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You started skating as a kid in 1979, and there’s a couple scenes set at an L.E.S. skatepark in C’mon C’mon — is what thrilled you about skateboarding back then still legible and alive when you look at the culture today?
Mike Mills: “Yes and no. When I was skating, I got beat up at Santa Barbara Junior High School because I was wearing Vans. Someone called them clown shoes and attacked me. It was the same if you were into punk and wore creepers or dyed your hair: You’d get cold-cocked. So there was this kind of delicious, hidden, unknown quality to skating. Punk and skating to me were totally interwoven, and both felt very new and very ours-and-no-one-else’s — and there was a power in that. I don’t know if skaters today still feel that…
“That said, when we were shooting the skaters under the bridge, I was like, These kids aren’t going to do anything we ask. I was mostly wrong, but 20% of them were like that, and I was like, ‘I know you.’ And I actually appreciated that energy.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Part of you enjoyed that they were, like, “You’re the authority figure here — f**k you.”
Mike Mills: “I respected it and admired it. Skaters have a particular mindset and a particular way of moving through the world, where it’s something like a subversive game.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You sent over a few cherished possessions, like these two Peter Fischli & David Weiss books. Years ago at the MoMA or someplace I stumbled on their movie “The Way Things Go,” which captures this insane, extremely funny Rube Goldberg contraption they built out of car tires, foam, see-saws, newspapers set on fire & other weird detritus … I’ve never forgotten it, ‘cause I think it’s the first time I’ve ever laughed at a piece of sculpture, but I don’t know very much about their other stuff…
Mike Mills: “Ah man, ‘The Way Things Go’ is the greatest film ever made! I first saw it when I was 18, at Cooper Union. Hans Haacke showed it to our class. But yeah, look them up, because with each piece they make, they do something really different. It’s like they disown their former identity, completely erase their ‘art software,’ and start on something else.
“I thought that was so punk, their whole way of, ‘I can do anything, and I’m gonna surprise you, every time you think I’m going right, I’m going left’ — that’s what growth means in punk language. So I’ve tried to do the same thing, and in a roundabout way that’s how I got into filmmaking.”
Blackbird Spyplane: The other thing you sent is this painting. I need a modernist still-life of some beautiful flowers in the crib pronto, this s**t looks great. What’s the story?
Mike Mills: “It’s by a Bay Area artist, I have to see if I can track down his name for you. It hung at my parents’ house when I was growing up in the East Bay, it came with us when we moved to Santa Barbara, and then I inherited it, and now it lives at my house in L.A. I love flowers and big, messy bouquets, and I love Bonnard, and this reminds me of his paintings of his wife in the bath.
“That connects it to C’mon C’mon for me, because I had to basically find a way to write a movie about giving my kid a bath, and this painting gave me confidence. The fact that it lacks stakes and lacks drama and supposedly lacks importance — although I find it deeply dramatic — that’s kind of what I was hoping the film would be. ‘If he can do a painting like that about flowers, I can do a movie about giving my kid a bath.’”
🛀 C’mon C’mon is in theaters now via A24, and it’s great. You can watch the trailer here.
🛀 Mike Mills’s site is here.
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