Mike Mills wants more movies about mothers.
During Friday’s New York Film Festival press conference for “20th Century Women,” Mills’ comedy-drama about three women — played by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning — the writer-director had a very simple request for everyone in attendance. “You all should make movies about your mom, because it’s really a trip,” Mills said. “And then have an amazing actress do it.”
In the film, Bening plays a 55-year-old single mother named Dorothea who turns to two younger women (Gerwig and Fanning) to help her raise her teenage son. Mills based the role of Dorothea on his own mother, and set the film in 1979 in Santa Barbara, where he grew up. “For this film, I was really interested in how our emotional lives are so historical and influenced by the prevailing winds of the time that we’re in,” Mills said.
Much of the story of “20th Century Women” is comprised of characters dealing with and reacting to cultural phenomena from the late 70s, including punk rock, feminism, books, movies — even President Jimmy Carter’s famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Songs from groups like Black Flag and Talking Heads are both part of the soundtrack of the movie and part of the story, as Dorothea listens to the music of the era in an attempt to connect with the younger generation. Bening said that part of the character resonated with her particularly due to the fact that she was 19 in 1979.
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“I very much was fascinated by that world,” Bening said, adding that she grew up not far away in San Diego. “I loved the script because I thought it contextualized that period for me in a way that I hadn’t seen.” Though Mills showed pictures of his real mother to Bening to help her prepare for the role, his goal wasn’t to recreate his exact mother on film. “I was always saying to her, ‘Take what’s interesting, and dump the rest,'” Mills said. “To me, Dorothea is very much Annette.”
Fanning’s character of Julie is a teenage friend of Dorothea’s son Jamie (played by newcomer Lucas Jade Zumann) who tries to teach him about everything from how to look cool smoking cigarettes to why having sex will ruin their friendship. Again, Mills used his real life as inspiration for the character, interviewing women who were teenagers in 1979. “She’s based on girls that [Mike] knew growing up who were older than him, and were these girls that would come to his room drunk and he’d really have these experiences of smelling their smelly breath,” Fanning said, adding that a big part of her character revolved around secrecy and lying. “I’ve never gotten to play a girl like that.”
While the role may have been a new experience for Fanning, Mills said the actress immersed herself in the character so well that he could rely on Fanning to give him insights into Julie’s mind. “I would say, ‘What does Julie think of that?’ and she would have an answer,” he said. “You can’t do that with everybody.”
Mills said he knew that in order to create three-dimensional female characters, he would need the help of real women and his female cast bringing their own interpretations to the roles. “Ultimately I’m a straight, white male trying to write about women,” he said. “I can only go so far.”
“20th Century Women” is premiering at the New York Film Festival. It will open in theaters on December 25.