It all started with writer-director Mike Mills paying heed to his mother, his sisters, his female friends, and his wife. “He’s a genuine feminist,” said Greta Gerwig in our video interview. “I don’t think many men deserve that title. He’s a listener.”
“20th Century Women,” inspired by his mother and sister and their love of “underdog, misbegotten, impossible houses” when he grew up in Santa Barbara, is set in 1979 and tells the story of Jamie, a teenage boy (Chicago discovery Lucas Jade Zumann) being raised by his single, strong-minded, Depression-era older mom (Annette Bening) who has never been psychoanalyzed and doesn’t care to share what insights she may have about herself.
Mills honed the script for nearly three years before he found his actresses. After having dinner with Bening he decided that she had some of his late mother’s contrary spirit, he told me. “She has strength, poise, but she’s deliciously rebellious. She has a non-compliant streak that was the most essential part of this character.”
As soon as “20th Century Women” screened at the New York Film Festival, Bening’s performance — the juiciest, deepest, richest women’s role this year — put her in the running for the Best Actress Oscar, giving the actress a good shot at landing a fifth nomination, even against the most competitive field in recent memory.
“20th Century Women” gives Bening a role that Gerwig describes as “glorious and complicated and sexy and loving and mistake-filled. She’s everything that humans are. You need an actress of her caliber to be able to do that without a scrap of vanity. It’s completely in the service of this person and the film.”
In other words, unlike most female movie roles and like most real women, Dorothea can’t be pegged as a stereotype. (Think Shirley MacLaine’s Oscar-winning turn as Aurora Greenaway in “Terms of Endearment.”) Nor have we seen Gerwig’s Abbie on-screen before. Like Mills’ sister, “she attended Parsons in New York in the ’70s,” he said, “became a photographer, and found an empowered version of sexuality in the feminist punk scene.”
She also fights cervical cancer. Mills throws Abbie and fellow boarder (and male eye candy) William (Billy Crudup) into Dorothea’s rambling mid-renovation home, along with virginal Jamie and his platonic pal Julie (Elle Fanning), who climbs through his bedroom window to sleep with him.
How did Mills steer Bening and Gerwig to Critics’ Choice nominations and Oscar contention? He encouraged them to be free.
1. Throw out conventional narrative.
Mills dug into his memories, “trying my hardest not to think of it as film,” he told me. “It’s not film structure. My method comes from when I read at 19-20 Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ The book walloped me.”
He borrowed Kundera’s polyphonic blend of narrative sketches and essays interwoven with the background of characters who “go back in forth in time with different modes of speaking,” he said. “It’s more emotional than logical or linear time. Parts of life don’t fit in a story in a nice way. When they don’t fit, you want more truthiness to them.”
He struggled with nailing down Dorothea, and finally understood that he couldn’t. “I couldn’t make it to my satisfaction, hold it together … the horrible thing is you never get it right, you get close, there’s an interesting arrow pointing at a complicated universe. With a real person, you can never capture them. When the person is your mother, you overburden yourself.”
Dorothea is a fictional mother, as semi-autobiographical as the gay father in “Beginners” played by Christopher Plummer, who won the Oscar. Mills says he was raised in “a matriarchy, with a strong mom, who was 40 when she had me in 1966,” he said. “She was a Depression-era, World War II, Humphrey Bogart person. I was constantly explaining the world to her.”
The period details dovetail with his own love of the late ’70s and its music, from The Sex Pistols to Talking Heads. “That music saved my emotional life,” he said.
2. Let the actors find their own way.
Gerwig interviewed Mills’ sister on her own. “Greta’s a great writer-director,” he said. “I wanted to ignite her. They engaged fully. She answered questions she wouldn’t tell her little brother about her cervix and vagina. They talked in a different way than we talked. It was so exciting when she reported back to me. I had her paraphrase it and said, ‘roll camera,’ as she told me that conversation.”
Gerwig studied photography, practiced assembling analog camera equipment until it was second nature, and took a deep dive into punk music. “In the ’70s, cancer was more hush-hush,” she said. “You don’t talk about it. The cervix isn’t something you talk about. I didn’t know about DES. My mother knew about it.”
She dyed her hair Manic Panic fire-engine red, and with costume designer Jennifer Johnson (“Beginners”) explored the stories behind Abbie’s idiosyncratic wardrobe. “Mike treats every object as its own universe of meaning,” she said, “which as an actor is incredibly useful.”
Abbie has an affair with her hunky roommate, handyman William. “I love that they have sex, but they’re not supposed to be together,” said Gerwig. “He’s the perfect person for her at that moment. She hasn’t been with anyone since her surgery, her body has felt off limits. He’s so deeply non-judgmental and so kind.”
Mills invited Bening and Gerwig to play with their characters: “I was always telling everyone, don’t be precious, don’t worry about the real people, run with it. If Annette had an idea, I just wanted to give her gas. We shot mostly the script, but if someone feels something isn’t right, I’m open to that.”
They filmed in chronological order as much as possible, with five-10 takes, in order to live with the characters. “That really helps the most important scenes at the end,” Mills said. “So they’re loaded. I let them play: ‘Here’s what happens, don’t worry about my words.’ Let them go and they say your words, and do it different every time. It makes the process come alive, turns everyone back on. Some improve when they do it in their own words, then come back to the lines, go back and forth. It’s 80 percent what I wrote.”
3. Let them play their own age.
During filming, the director juggled three versions of Dorothea. One was “the memories of my mom, and then Dorothea, and there’s Annette Bening, who was her own complex thing: funny, intelligent, and beautifully her age.” His mom and Bening were both Geminis, who are “allergic to boredom, don’t like to be pinned down.”
Making Bening glamorous was “never discussed, never an issue,” said Mills. “To get her hair grey cost 10 grand and took three days in the chair. She wanted to do that. Annette’s a mom, emotionally intelligent. She knew we wouldn’t squash down the contradictions in the character. She was excited by the paradoxes in the character and liked to keep them open.”
Bening grew up in San Diego and loved the familiarity of the California setting. She dug around in her boxes, looking for a macrame handbag from the period. She was fascinated by Mills’ portrait of an extended family.
“They are all interwoven, with a lot of tension, and coming and going, and people trying to connect,” Bening said. “The story took many turns life didn’t take. It’s a dense and eccentric screenplay. I read it as a movie. Dorothea to me was an enigma and I was interested in that. Who is this woman? There is a certain unknowingness about her. I don’t think she’s inner-directed, which was an interesting thing to play.”
It was refreshing to find no cliches, to discover that “things happen between the women that are surprising,” she said. Now 58, Bening has long sought and rarely found roles that are as complex as women at her age. “I like that about Dorothea. She’s not easy, she doesn’t always do the thing you want her to do. She is seeking inner freedom. And I am, too.”
4. Remember Jimmy Carter, Humphrey Bogart, and Howard Hawks.
The movie peaks with Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech and a hilarious dinner when Gerwig’s Abbie confesses she’s having her period and forces everyone at the table to say the word “menstruation.” Dorothea’s reaction is priceless.
“Dorothea was born in 1925,” said Mills. “‘Casablanca’ and Humphrey Bogart helped me to figure out my mom’s voice, anti-authoritarian, funny, and witty. I watched ‘Stage Door,’ where the women are fun and not male-centric. The great menstruation dinner party was me trying to be Howard Hawks.”
5. Embrace multimedia and surprise.
Mills said he refuses to “over-privilege live-action photography. I adore cinematography, but the still photo is equally valid and I was proud and happy to sample ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in my movie. Books got into this film and I am indebted to Godard, Resnais, Fellini and Truffaut. I studied the art-school version of cinema.”
The digital color-streaking freeway driving scenes were inspired by the displaced colors of trains taking off in the 1966 Czech classic “Daisies.” “I was trying to express a pre-digital life,” Mills said, “when cars were magical transportation vehicles to take you to music or whatever.”
While Mills structures the film as a series of short modules, “there has to be throughline or it dies,” he said. While editing with Leslie Jones (“The Thin Red Line”), Mills imagined how his film would go over with audiences at Hollywood’s Arclight Cinema. “The piece has to revolve about the mom and Jamie,” he realized. “We need to be talking about them. That ties it together.”
Fearlessly, mid-movie Mills jumps into metaspace outside the fiction narrative, casting Dorothea’s voiceover far into the future. “The mom is a trickster figure,” he said. “Who but her would speak from the dead and mess with the rules? It was accurate to her energy and magic, to lift the whole stakes of the film to where I wanted it, to give it new weight if you knew of her mortality.”
A24 will release “20th Century Women” in theaters December 28.