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Why ‘C’mon C’mon’ Director Didn’t Want Lead Male Character to Be ‘A Bad Person’

TheWrap magazine: ”I see so many dumb, bad, negative men…I wanted him to be more like people I know,“ Mike Mills says

This story about “C’mon C’mon” director Mike Mills first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Mike Mills’ movies strive to capture the most intimate moments, thoughts and feelings, but also to find how their gravity intersects within the wider universe of ideas and history. It’s why his latest, “C’mon C’mon,” has the warmth and familiarity of a blanket but the profundity of a much larger story—and in this case, the writer-director said, hitting that sweet spot came from his own experience of being a parent.

“When you’re holding a kid or giving them a bath or helping them, it is just about the two of you, and it is the most private little cosmos,” said Mills, who had a child with his wife, filmmaker and artist Miranda July, in 2012. “But raising a person in the world, you’re also integrated with politics, capitalism and what does it mean to be a man or woman. It’s kind of related to everything to me.”

“C’mon C’mon” is a meditative film with the loose narrative of a radio journalist, Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), who is estranged from his sister (Gaby Hoffmann) but agrees to look after her young son (Woody Norman) while she deals with a family crisis. Forced to keep Woody for longer than he expected, Johnny includes the boy as he interviews other kids for a radio project about their lives and their expectations for the future—and Woody takes to his uncle’s sound equipment, wandering New York streets holding up a microphone. It’s an intimate bonding moment between uncle and nephew that also reveals the natural world and our relationship to it.

On the surface level, Mills’ Oscar-winning 2010 film “Beginners” was about Mills’ dad, 2016’s “20th Century Women” was about his mother and “C’mon C’mon” is about his own experience as a father. But while Mills said that Phoenix’s character started from a “me-ish” place, he added that it’s the “mystery of writing” as to how a new person grows out of the pages and out of an actor’s performance.

“We wanted him to be a smart, sensitive, awake, aware person who has flaws,” he said. “Life isn’t going exactly as he wants, but he’s not a failure or dumb or a bad person or any of that kind of stuff. I feel like I see so many dumb, bad, negative men, and for sure there’s lots of them in the world. Men don’t need any special help from me, but if I was going to have a guy in the movie, I wanted him to be more like people I know.”

Mills isn’t blind to the fact that he’s hardly the first filmmaker to try and extract deeper meaning out of a story about parenting. So when it came to making a movie that didn’t feel too cute and contrived, he leaned on his actors to trust themselves.

“(I was) trying to find a way where actors can rely on their instincts, speaking up if anything felt stupid or false or unnecessary,” Mills said. “I don’t know how to describe that. It’s a constant chiseling at a stone. How can I help this have a little bit more life and unpredictability and layeredy-ness and open-endedness?”

Incredibly, he found that Norman, a British actor who was only 9 when he was cast, had as much of a “radar for clichés” as seasoned Oscar-winner Phoenix. And he’s learned that his job as a director—and as a dad—was easier if he just let him be a kid.

“It’s allowing them as much as possible to have space and freedom,” he said. “No marks, no direction—no ‘Come here and do this exactly like this,’ ever. It’s always, ‘I don’t know, how do you think he would do that? Try it differently.’ “The more freedom you gave Woody, the more authentic it felt. Woody has this peace with himself. He’s very in touch with himself and has the space to be authentic if you just let it be.”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.