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‘C’mon, C’mon’ Director on Why the Joaquin Phoenix Film ‘Had to Be in Black-and-White’

TheWrap magazine: Director Mike Mills talks about how cinematographer Robbie Ryan crafted an ”al dente, not overworked, use of black-and-white” for the relationship drama

This story about “C’mon, C’mon” first appeared in a feature about black-and-white cinematography in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The idea for “C’mon, C’mon” started with a mythic image that writer-director Mike Mills couldn’t shake. In his mind, he saw an archetypal picture of a man and a child, holding hands, walking through a landscape together. That tableau evolved into the story of Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) and his nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), and even as the narrative took on deeper dimensions, there was one aspect that remained from Mills’s very first vision.

“I knew the film had to be in black-and-white,” the director said. “It underlines the fable quality of the story. Black-and-white thrusts you into symbolic space, it’s more expressionistic and more about art and stories and all of our reflections on ourselves. Also, you don’t see black-and-white movies about kids very often and I knew it would help the audience take this kid more seriously. It takes your focus off all the textures in the color world and lets you just look at human faces.” (Likewise, the influential late director Samuel Fuller once said, “Life is in color, but black and white is more realistic.”)

Mills collaborated with the prolific Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan, whose credits include Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” the latter of which garnered him an Oscar nomination. “Robbie is a great collaborator, listener, helper in everything,” Mills said. “In our earliest conversations, his biggest concern was that in black-and-white things tend to look just simply better. But how do we do more than that?”

It was a challenge that both men were eager to accept. “’The Favourite’ had all those big interiors with just light coming in the windows,” Mills said. “And I thought a similar thing could be done for a contemporary film in black-and-white. We used a lot of natural light, which Robbie is so good at, so that the film has a kind of al dente, not overworked, use of black-and-white.”

Ryan and Mills discussed the work of legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, who shot the “Godfather” films and also the modern monochromatic beauty “Manhattan.” “Interior nighttime scenes are the hardest challenge for any (cinematographer),” Mills said. “Gordon Willis understood how to make a dark scene feel motivated, and Robbie is a master at that chess game, too. Robbie can light a room at night so that it looks like he didn’t do anything. You need so much depth and talent to pull that off.”

For Mills, it was when he’d finished “C’mon, C’mon” that the cumulative power of the format fully struck him, thanks to an old friend. Annette Bening, the star of his 2016 film “20th Century Women,” told him a quote she’d heard from Mike Nichols: “Black-and-white is not reality, it’s a representation of reality.” Mills said, “I love thinking of it that way. It pulls us a bit out of the verisimilitude contract we make as an audience. And in that sense, it’s a superior art form.”

Mills admitted that his decision to film in the format comes with certain consequences. “C’mon, C’mon” marks his second feature with A24, the studio which he praises for its courage and dedication to supporting directors’ visions. (A24, it should be said, financed and distributed 2019’s black-and-white stunner “The Lighthouse.”) “But A24 had to write a smaller check here than if the same film was in color,” he mentioned. “All over the industry, the contracts change when the project is in black-and-white.”

But Mills added, “So I know there’s still a hard reality with getting financing and budgets for black-and-white, but I would happily make all my films that way.”

Read more from TheWrap’s four-part feature on black-and-white cinematography here:

Why ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ Cinematographer Grew Superstitious While Making the Black-and-White Drama

‘Passing': How Classic Hitchcock Thrillers Influenced the Dreamy Black-and-White Look

Why ‘Belfast’ Cinematographer Added Splashes of Color in the Movie’s Black-and-White World

Read more from the Below-the-Line Issue here.

Wrap Below-the-Line issue - Dune