The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of 20th Century Women.
The opening shot of the ocean felt very lyrical. What made you decide to open your film with this particular shot?
Mike Mills: In the script, the first shot is of a car burning and of course that seems like such a good way to begin a movie. We had a helicopter to do the biplane stuff at the end and I knew that pilot could do some amazing lock-offs in the air. That particular shot has no stabilization. It’s just a helicopter sitting there. Knowing that he was coming, I said let’s shoot some other stuff too as long as you have a camera in the air. There’s a lot of stuff he shot that wasn’t actually intended that we ended up using. When I saw the shot, it really spoke to me in the sense that Santa Barbara is the boundary, or the limit, of the horizon. It was kind of mysterious to me but I really lucked out in it being a first shot. The movement is a big part of it as well that we discovered in the rehearsal process. Another big influence on the movie is Fellini’s 8 1/2 and his constant camera movement and constant sense of moving, which was kind of new to me and that was very fun. So I wanted the whole thing to be more of a ride than anything I had done before.
“My mom is a much more reclusive ghost than my dad was.”
Knowing that this is a love letter to your mom, do you find that it was more challenging to write about your mom?
Mills: Yes, they’re my parents in a very specific way. They’re also just people from a certain time. I’m really interested in history and inner life and my parents were a great way to access it because they were close to me and I can report on them intimately. My mom is a much more reclusive ghost than my dad was. She was and remains a mystery to me on many levels. I have older sisters and my dad was always working, so he wasn’t very present in my house. Me and my mom were kicking around, doing everything together. Because I’m born in the late ‘60’s and she was born in the ‘20’s, we were a world apart and so the movie comes from that gap that existed between us.
What was it about this role that really spoke to her?
Annette Bening: It’s a fabulous invitation when someone is enigmatic in a script, which she was even on the page. I was the age of the young girls in the film, about 19, so the coastline and world was something familiar to me, but something that I had never experienced before reading a script. I wasn’t necessarily any one of these people, but I knew all of them and Billy Crudup was definitely one of my boyfriends in the best sense. Sweet, surfer, stoner, could fix a car, type of guy. With Dorothea, it was a great challenge because I was always in this state of tension. I’m always trying to find that fine line since there are all those contradictions about her. When we talked about her, Mike talked about her as he knew her, but that was his perspective. I had to make her mine since it would always be me playing her. In movie making, it’s taking everything into the moment.
Lucas and Elle, this is more like a period piece for you in a way. What did you learn and use about 1979?
Elle Fanning: Both of my parents grew up in Georgia in the 1970’s. They had known each other since the 2nd grade, so my sister and I asked them to tell stories. I was very into this period of time that I never lived in. I’m excited to feel that freedom of a new time period and Mike’s script is so authentic, so the script for me was the research in a way. Julie felt very modern to me, so it didn’t feel like I was playing a girl in the ‘70’s. It felt like I was playing her now. I was in high school when we were filming, so there are parts that are like me and my friends. I played the girls I know and Julie has so many thoughts going through her head and it’s hard being that age, so I was happy to try to do justice to that age. Mike gave me the book “Road Less Traveled” that she reads, specifically the love and sex chapter was her favorite. So I had to highlight things as homework from Mike. I would come to set and Mike would ask for me to do the “Road Less Traveled thing” and that would be the scene of me explaining the book.
Mills: I remember that book, thinking that it was so messed up. I gave Elle the book asking what would Julie think of this book and she picked the sex and love chapter. I would ask for her to tell me about it as Julie.
Lucas Jade Zumann: Mike had me do some research and watch documentaries. Being a teenager myself is already something I have in relation to Jamie’s character, but something I did not identify with was the more destructive trait or the punk. That was something I hadn’t thought about before and I asked some of my family members about it who lived through the punk scene. Looking through the documentaries, photos, and reading the book called “The Cultural Dictionary of Punk” is where I certainly learned a lot.
How did the wardrobe selection inform your character?
Bening: Jennifer Johnson [costume designer] is one of those people whose genius you can’t see because she never points to herself or she never calls attention to what she is doing. What she is doing is very specific, which is really hard to do since everything looks like clothes and everything looks like something you understand. It never pops out at you. It’s very beautiful that way. Every time we had a fitting we just wanted to talk and get to know each other. We became friends. It’s a tough job since she’s not building anything.
Mills: We didn’t have a lot of money. In Julie’s therapy group, the girls came to set in 2015 clothing and they would be in perfect period clothing when they came out of the dressing room. I always sort of thought, “how did this happen?!” We don’t have enough money for this. And that happened all the time. Every choice she made in the depth of the film and achieving period landed on Jennifer’s shoulders.
Fanning: I worked with her once before and she picks these colors to represent these characters. For Julie everything was slightly dirty since she doesn’t have time to shower. She had oily hair and her clothes had an ease to them. She doesn’t dress sexually and is more put together with her oxford shirts and jean skirts.
Zumann: I felt comfortable in everything I was wearing. I really liked a lot of the things she picked since they were warm and comfortable. Even having not lived in the 1970s, I felt after watching the film it triggered a sense of nostalgia that hadn’t been there which is weird since I hadn’t lived through the 70s. It was almost like there is a nostalgic sense to the film in general because of the wardrobe and the way the film looks.