As part of NYFF Directors’ Dialogue series, 20th Century Women’s Mike Mills was interviewed by artistic director, Kent Jones. Here are excerpts from the conversation as reported by Murtada.
Dorothea is Humphrey Bogart
Mills based the main character in 20th Century Women - Dorothea played by Annette Bening - on his memories of his mother. She used to always tell him “In my next life I’ll be married to Bogart”, so while writing the movie Mills would ask himself what would Bogart say whenever he was stuck. To him Dorothea was like many of the characters Bogart played; underdogs who don't win, fail valiantly, make great jokes along the way and always help the weakest person in the room.
Ginger Rogers in Stage Door
Dorothea was also inspired by the character Ginger Rogers played in 1937’s Stage Door. She is as subversive, wisecracking and knows her way with a witty putdown as Rogers’ Jean Maitland.
Working with Bening
Mills believes Bening was the only actor who could play Dorothea. He talked about how she’s exactly the right age, looks beautifully natural which is rare in actresses of her age and calibre. She also reminded him of his mother because, while professional, she has no interest in pleasing anyone, even her director. She would listen to his stories but kept her process private, so he had to learn to give her space. He loved what she delivered because she continously surprised him. While she worked out the character’s psychology, Bening did not work out the beats of every scene, opting for freedom and intuition.
Mills movies are personal and based on his memories, in addition to Bening, Christopher Plummer played a character based on his father in Beginners (2010). So to avoid being precious he hands full authorship of the character to the actors or as he put it “give them the keys to the car”.
Mills revealed that 20th Century Women owes a big debt is Fellini’s Amarcord (1973). They both have multiple narrators and are love letters from their authors’ to where they grew up.
20th Century Women was the Centerpiece selection at NYFF and will be released on Christmas Day by A24.