’20th Century Women’ Director on Filmmaking in Trump Era: ‘I Have to Change My Game’

TheWrap Screening Series: “We have a president-elect who has gotten away with treating women so horribly,” says Mike Mills

mike mills 20th century women
Ted Soqui for TheWrap

“20th Century Women” director Mike Mills says he has to “change [his] game” in terms of filmmaking now that Donald Trump was elected as the next President of the United States.

“The Trump thing” hit him like a ton of bricks, he said during TheWrap’s screening of “20th Century Woman” in Los Angeles on Tuesday when asked about his plans for his next movie. “Any ideas I had before [the election]… You can’t just be doing business as usual anymore. I don’t know what to do, but I feel like I have to change my game to have a presence right now or to feel worthwhile of what’s going on.”

Mills argued that his film is timely right now — pointing out that toward the end of the film, set in the 1970s, a voiceover says, “we didn’t know we were at the dawn of the Reagan era.” Mills said that the shift from President Jimmy Carter to President Ronald Reagan is an “echo” of the shift from President Barack Obama to President-elect Donald Trump.

“The Carter speech… I started writing [the film] in 2011 so this issue wasn’t around. That speech felt both prescient and descriptive now, and completely impossible for a politician to say now. Too vulnerable, too expressing doubt about America for a politician to get away with. In the spring, we were finishing the movie and Trump was around so I changed some of the lines that Carter said that angled it a little more to what was going on with Trump. The speech was always supposed to be in there, it was just a little tweak, but I can’t take credit for the resonances.”

In fact, Mills added that he could see a difference in a way the movie — or any movie — was perceived before and after the election.

“It’s just so weird that we have a president-elect who has gotten away with treating women so horribly, you know? That’s getting normalized to a much greater degree than I would’ve ever imagined being possible,” said Mills. “It’s very weird to have a woman-centric film alongside that or underneath that. And it did change the tenure of that movie. We showed the movie I think the day before the election and the day after and the movie did do this weird… it shifted down in gears, sort of. I think all movies did though, let’s be honest. Our culture just took a big hit.”

“20th Century Women” stars Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and Lucas Jade Zumann and is about a teenager growing up in a house of three women who all see love and freedom in a different way.

Mills drew inspiration for the film and its characters from his own family, just like he did for “Beginners,” which was based on the life of his late father. Bening’s character, Dorothea, is based on his mother, while Gerwig’s character is based on his sister. Fanning’s character is based on all the girls (three, he says) who snuck into his bedroom at night to “just talk” — something Fanning’s character, Julie, does every night to Zumann’s character, Jamie, in the film.

“I had my mom and older sisters, and my dad was in the house, but he was an absent-minded professor and a closeted gay man and a man from the 20s, so his idea of involvement is different than mine, so he just wasn’t very present — I didn’t know him very much. I was solely raised by women,” he explained. “The one thing great about making a film about your parents is that you have so much to fu–ing lose.”

He continued, “The writing was based on my mom. She was a World War II pilot… She did always say, ‘in my next life I’m going to marry [Humphrey] Bogart…’ As a writer, she’s my north pole.”

Mills further explained that Greta Gerwig’s character is based on his own sister and that Elle Fanning is playing “all these girls that crawled through my window — three girls, not at the same time. I was very unsuccessful on [the sex] front but I was a good listener. I heard about all the sex they were having with other people.”

However, the actors used their own “instinct” to play their parts — something Mills was thankful for.

“Then came Annette, and what she did was very interesting and strange for me,” he added. “When you make a movie like this, the first thing you have to tell Annette or anybody, don’t be precious about this. It’s not therapy for me, I’m used to talking about these people, it has to be your character. So Annette just rushes in and she has the chops to do that… It’s Annette’s instinct. It’s Annette following her instinct and its her body and timing and soul. When I see her on screen, I don’t think it’s mom, I think it’s Dorothea.”

He added: “The movie is about the itinerary of our lives — we could never predict it. Your life is never going to turn out the way you planned or thought and it’s going to be filled with gaps and surprises and people you didn’t see coming.”