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Mike Mills' 'C'mon C'mon' feels like a shared memory

Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>
Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>

Updated November 19, 2021 at 1:56 PM ET

I went to Mike Mill's bungalow in L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood to ask him about what I think is the most public radio movie ever. Long before I reached his house, I had my headphones on, my microphone ready, and my recorder rolling to capture our greeting and the barking sounds of his dog McGee.

"I knew what you were doing," Mills tells me. That's because he's a big public radio listener, especially of shows like This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass.

"I look at Ira Glass' life and that seems genius," he says, even sounding a bit like the radio legend. "Ira's had such an influence on me and my films and my writing. So I've been...a fan forever."

In Mills' new film C'mon C'mon, Joaquin Phoenix plays a radio journalist named Johnny. Johnny learns a bit of what it's like to be a parent when asked to take care of his nine year old nephew Jesse. They travel the country together as he works. Mills, who wrote and directed the film, says he was inspired by his relationship with his own child.

"If you're a parent, you're constantly grieving the end of these different versions of your kid," he says. "The kid you knew a month ago is always sort of disappearing. And I feel like they kind of accelerate your own experience of your time on Earth as a parent, too."

There's a great line in the movie, he says, that he got from Starlee Kine, a producer who has worked on This American Life. He consulted with her for the film. "The kid, Jesse, is recording the sounds of the train going across the Manhattan Bridge...And Joaquin [Johnny] says, 'You know, you're recording this banal thing, but you're, like, keeping it forever. You're, like, making it immortal.'"

That idea, Mills explains, came from Kine. "Starlee said [that's] why she loves to record stuff: You kinda get to hold on to it in our incredibly ephemeral world. You get to grab on a little bit."

Mills also cast Molly Webster, a senior correspondent for WNYC's Radiolab, to play the part of Roxanne, a radio journalist working with Joaquin Phoenix's character. Webster says Mills was open to collaboration. "He, me and Joaquin, really talked through: who were we as journalists? What were we hoping to accomplish?" she recalls. "He was so interested in really nailing and truly representing the craft of radio journalism."

Joaquin Phoenix, Molly Webster and Mike Mills at a Q&A as part of the New York Film festival in October.
Cindy Ord / Getty Images
Joaquin Phoenix, Molly Webster and Mike Mills at a Q&A as part of the New York Film festival in October.

Mills also consulted Kaari Pitkin, former executive producer of the New York Public Radio program Radio Rookies, which trains young people to tell their own audio stories. Pitkin helped find real kids across the country, and during the production of the film, Webster and Phoenix interviewed them, asking, "What happens after you die?," "What's your superpower?" and other questions.

Throughout C'mon C'mon, those interviews are interwoven with a fictional story Mills wrote based on his close relationship with his child Hopper.

"There's some very Hopper moments or things that Hopper did or said, but it's also more of an abstraction from that inspiration — or from that sort of gooey heart," Mills explains. He says he included scenes from their life. "There's something so intimate, like talking with my kid while giving them a bath, [or] talking with my kid about something that happened at school when we're trying to go to sleep."

In one scene, Johnny tears up while reading the book Star Child to Jesse. "It's true, " he tells the boy. "We forget everything. You'll barely remember this, you'll have a few blurry memories."

"No I won't," Jessie protests, playfully. "That's very stupid. You're just the stupidest stupid person."

Mills, who's married to fellow filmmaker Miranda July, says he tried to capture the kinds of intimate, infuriating, silly and poignant moments he's experienced as a father.

Actress Gaby Hoffman, who plays Johnny's sister and Jesse's mother in the film, says C'mon C'mon "gets at so much of what is true, the essence of parenthood and its beauty and complexity and challenge."

Hoffman says she feels grateful for the movie, "because I don't see many films made these days that are actually about life, the actual experience of what it is to be alive in this world, in this country right now."

Mills' films are also about who he is and was. He was born in Berkeley and grew up in Santa Barbara where, as a teen, he skateboarded and played in punk rock bands. "I continued to be such a wannabe musician," he says. "I work with musicians all the time; I idolize them. I find that their art form is more tapped into magic than mine and I'm always trying to get mine to be like music."

In the 1980s, Mills studied art at Cooper Union and lived in New York's Lower East Side. He became a graphic artist who made music videos. Among his clients: The Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and Air, who named a song after him.

"When I was in my twenties and thirties in New York City, I met a whole community of skate artists, which is a lot of how I got into the film world," he says. "Weirdly, that's how I met Spike Jonze. That's how I met so many people that [have been part of] my film upbringing."

Mills also was brought up by his non-conformist mother, who had wanted to be an architect and a World War 2 pilot. He describes her as a "hard-drinking, hard-smoking, short-haired, pant-wearing, sort of Humphrey Bogart-vibed person. That's mom. And mom had me when she was 40 in 1966. Very unusual."

Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>
/ Courtesy of Julieta Cervantes / A24
Woody Norman as Jesse in <em>C'mon C'mon. </em>

In 2016, he wrote and directed a film loosely based on his relationship with his mom. Annette Bening plays her in 20th Century Women.

Mills also wrote and directed a film loosely based on his relationship with his father. In the 2010 film Beginners, Ewan McGregor plays Mills, and Christopher Plummer plays his father.

"My dad came out of the closet when he was 75, after my mom passed away. And I started writing that really quickly after he died," he says. "So that film has a lot of, just like, direct memory. "

Mills says the idea of memory comes up in all his movies. "Like, what are you going to remember? Who are you going to remember it with or what are you forgetting? Or what are you getting wrong?"

He shot C'mon C'mon in black and white, so it does feel like a shared memory.

"Most of my films, most of my writing, needs to start with someone I know, someone I can observe, someone who I love and someone that I'm trying to figure out."

Mills says he makes films about the people he loves, to capture their essence forever.

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