“Can I tell the story of how we first met?” Mike Mills asks Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix looks skeptical, searching his brain, which is cased on this soggy October morning in New York by a frankly remarkable haircut—the kind of haircut that un-bald actors who play bald get when the not-actually-bald parts start to fuzz up again. A sort of male-pattern-baldness flow around the edges of fresh growth up the middle that creates a look that is more or less: great horned owl. Phoenix definitely does not seem to remember anything notable about the first time that he met the director of his latest movie, and he looks nervous. “Sure, why?…”
They’d been set up on a lunch by a mutual friend who knew that Mills wanted nothing more than for Phoenix to star in his next film, C’mon C’mon. “And as I arrive, you’re wearing your iPhone cord around your neck. And I see you, and, you know, I’m a big admirer, so I go: ‘I so admire your work…’ And you go”—here, Mills mimes Phoenix strangling himself with his headphones the way a mobster does it with a garrote wire. “I don’t know if I imagined you saying ‘meeting over,’ or if you actually said it out loud.”
Phoenix looks amused.
“And luckily I laughed,” Mills says. “Cause I thought it was fucking hysterical.”
“That’s so funny,” Phoenix says deadpan, “because when you were just saying now that you admire my work, I wanted to vomit. And I was like: I have no respect for him.”
They both laugh hard.
The lunch was actually kind of a failure, in one sense, in that Phoenix had showed up to politely tell Mills in person that he couldn’t do the movie. “But we just kept chatting,” Mills says, “and it was still very much, like, ‘This is interesting, but I don’t really see a way into it.’ But we kept hanging out around the idea that ‘I can’t do it,’ but just kept chatting and it was very fun from the get-go. So even when he’s giving me horrible news, it was hysterical and super interesting.”
The role, and the film, center on a middle-aged audio reporter (a sort of This American Life correspondent) who gets unexpectedly enmeshed in the life of his nine-year-old nephew. In portraying the singular challenges of raising a child, C’mon C’mon is a movie that prompts the question: Why would anyone have children? While also providing an existence-affirming answer: This is why. The relationships are rich, the characters are complex, the moments are vivid, and the details feel undeniably true. There is a scene where the nine-year-old, Jesse, is messing around with his uncle’s audio equipment in a park beneath some train tracks, and Phoenix’s Johnny says that what he loves about recording sound is that you can “make this mundane thing be immortal.” That’s the immediate marvel of the film: the way the seemingly mundane—in every gesture, exchange, and squabble—has been captured and made immortal.
The movie is beautiful and absorbing—in both its subject matter and its monochrome. There is such care with which C’mon C’mon showcases small-scale moments between members of families. But this virtue of an intimate scale also makes it not the obvious thing for the would-be Academy Award winner for Best Actor to turn to after playing the Joker. “But Joaquin knew what a 180 this would be, and that was on my side,” Mills has said elsewhere. As in a savvy, deliberate swerve. So they just kept meeting, reading the script together at Mills’s office in L.A., Phoenix doing his part, Mills doing all the others. There were no other indications that this thing might really happen, but there was at least momentum. “It’s so out of your control. And, like, he’s so out of your control,” Mills says, gesturing at Phoenix. “But there was forward motion. So I was just going with that.”
We have collectively watched Joaquin Phoenix do things onscreen and in public for nearly four decades, even though he has just turned 47. Which is how we know enough to know that he comes with his own weather. He seems to introduce chaos at times, converse benignly at others—in person, as on screen, tacking between ordinary and extraordinary in unpredictable jags. He is in this way a joker, but also a regular Johnny. You never know which. When Mills and I arrived at the same time to the hotel suite in midtown Manhattan, Phoenix was already there.
“You know it’s very loud,” he’d said to Mills, gesturing to the balcony outside. “It’s nice.”
“Like good loud, or…?” Mills said, uncertainly.
“I like it cause I can be like, ‘That’s not what I said, there was a jackhammer! He misinterpreted me!” he said, gesturing toward me. “And I’m suing! I’m suing him, I’m suing him.’”
Out on the balcony, he bounces around at times, listens intently at others, reacts with his face when something seizes his ear, bites his nails when he’s bored, asks Mills genuine questions of his own about how he directs, and jumps up from time to time to get some potatoes from one of those silver hotel platters that’s come for him in the suite. He’s wearing tinted glasses, a black “Support the Animal Liberation Front” sweatshirt. He’s carrying around some extra weight (and the horned-owl haircut) from Ari Aster’s next film, Disappointment Blvd., which had just wrapped shooting in Montreal. He’s really just acting a little impish the whole time. The only thing he seems to relish more than the sounds of the midtown jackhammers are the sirens.
I ask Phoenix if it is different to play a character who was not based on someone or something that people already know—a character, like Johnny, so blandly everyday that there’s a lot you can do as an actor to swing things one way or the other without people saying: ‘Hey, that’s not how Johnny Cash would’ve said it.’ When the character was evolving into something that you’re going to have to embody, how does that happen?
Is it mysterious?
Is there a way in which when you’re playing somebody that’s—maybe there’s a novel ahead of time, or a real person—?
“It’s all stupid.”
Mills starts cracking up.
“It’s all just so stupid. Really! It is, isn’t it?” Mills is laughing harder—and Phoenix is at least smiling now. “It’s so wonderful, and it’s beautiful, and it’s fantastic. You’re just sitting around, you go, Oh I enjoy being in this person’s company for whatever reason, we just start talking, maybe we talk about things that aren’t related at all, and then we discover: Wow, actually that’s steering us directly towards the heart of this moment, we didn’t even fucking realize it. You give yourself over to the creative process, like whatever that thing is that’s, like, beyond my understanding or control. And I don’t want to fucking control it. And that’s what it is for me. So to say… I couldn’t really tell you. I’d be making shit up to try.”
I suggest that this is probably more honest than those who say they deliberately and relentlessly craft a character for months ahead of time.
“But I think that’s true also!” Phoenix says. “I think all these things exist simultaneously. It’s whatever inspires you or inspires thought. Sometimes it’s sitting down and reading something. Sometimes it’s some of the NPR shows that we listened to….It’s hard to say where the inspiration comes from. I try to consume as much as possible, and not control it, like not dictate what is going to inspire me. But I think mostly it was sitting around and talking, right?”
Every film is different, Mills says, because it’s comprised of the relationships between the people who make it, a collective relationship that forms a one-off shape, unique to that film. Mills says he tries to convene a film set like it’s “a dinner party—a nice one. With, like, my friends.” That’s what he tells his assistant directors: “We’re the hosts and they’re the guests.” The vibe of a Mike Mills set / party, is one, he says, where he doesn’t quite know the destination, and so relies on each of the guests to take it there. Mills describes how he, Phoenix, and Gaby Hoffmann (who plays Phoenix’s sister) all seem to thrive with “that thing about not knowing how it’s going to work out, or where is the thing that’s going to help you going forward. Like, I love that. And so I think we all kind of vibe that way.” That’s how it worked with all the actors, Mills says, even Woody Norman, who played 9-year-old Jesse. Everyone, he says, helped steer the ship.
This little disquisition prompts Phoenix to lean forward with a look of disgust, and to interject. “You give waaay too much credit to other people.” Mills starts laughing, showing that he may indeed have been granting a little too much to his collaborators. “That’s so amazing,” Phoenix goes on, smiling wryly, “but I can’t let you do that. You have a real curiosity about other people, and their feelings and what they have to say. But I also think you’re very, very clearly driving the conversations. That’s really your strength and what’s beautiful about that style of directing, which I really love and appreciate, because it allows people, especially when you’re working with kids, it allows people to feel that they are in control of their own lives and what they say and do, but the truth is it’s completely being set up. The room and the energy. It’s very smart. I mean it’s dastardly and manipulative…” Mills is laughing hard again. “But it’s brilliant.”
Phoenix gets serious suddenly. “But it’s necessary, right? Because a film can’t really be democratically run, there’s one vision behind it. And you have to drive that. To find the way to corral everybody in the direction you want to go while allowing them to feel that they are expressing themselves and discovering something about the character and about themselves, and imbuing the character with their own feelings, and vice versa. And I think that’s what was such a great process—especially for Woody. Because I was an actor when I was 8 years old, when I started acting, and I have a lot of concern and excitement for Woody, right? And what is that process going to be like for him? And I was so fortunate, the people that I worked with as a young adult, but when I was a kid, I never had somebody like Mills. So it’s such a treat to have somebody like that to introduce you to the world of filmmaking in that way. I was so excited for Woody that that was going to be one of his first real experiences on a film, because it’s a special way of working. But there’s definitely a real thought process behind it, and control. The way that you’re talking makes it sound like it’s just people showing up and throwing shit out! That wasn’t exactly my experience…”
It’s like bumpers at a bowling alley, I suggest. “You threw a strike! Nice!”
“Yeah, exactly,” Phoenix says. “Exactly.”
This was Mills’s first time back in New York since filming C’mon C’mon in December 2019. He spends some time at the windows of the suite, gazing out at the city he’d moved to for college and cut his teeth in as a graphic designer, music-video director, and commercial director. He’s never lost his Santa Barbara skateboarder affect—a little nasal, a little punk. (He sounds, at times, a lot like his and Phoenix’s mutual friend, Spike Jonze.) “I haven’t been anywhere for two years. It’s pretty wild.” They shot the movie in New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans, which roughly serve as the backdrop to the three acts. They wrapped their time in New Orleans at the very end of January 2020, just as concerns about Covid were really creeping in. “Like, Joaquin left to go to the BAFTAs wearing a hazmat suit,” Mills says. “Like, literally. We had to get him a whole thing. He was a little ahead of the curve.”
Mills has light eyes and fly-away hair and an almost physically palpable tenderness that one senses at first contact and witnesses at first glance. Almost immediately upon sitting down on the balcony, Mills turned to Phoenix to express his affection, and nearly dropped his heart on the table between them. Phoenix saw it happen as it was happening and lifted a finger to hush him. “Shhh… shhh… shhh…,” he said, like he was quieting a paramour who risked ruining the affair by blurting out “I love you.” Moments like these only contribute to the mounting sense, established first by his films, that Mills might be considered Hollywood’s leading softie.
For his three most recent films—Beginners (2011); 20th Century Women (2016); and now C’mon C’mon (2021)—Mills has focused on the relationships he knows most intimately. What can I intensely report on in my real life that might resonate? What relationships in my own life can serve as the beating heart of a story that might be worth telling on film? If Beginners, the first film in this now-triptych, can be oversimply framed as a film about a relationship with a father (Mills’s real-life father), and 20th Century Women a film about a relationship with a mother (Mills’s real-life mother), C’mon C’mon is a film about a relationship with a child. Though maybe not specifically his child, because, as Mills explains, he wanted “to try to find a way to write about that without casting too much of a shadow on my kid’s path. Writing about dead parents is relatively easy—but this is the first time I’ve written about someone who’s alive. So I had to figure out how to do it. And that took a while to, like, create a distance between us, while still really writing about things that I had observed or felt.”
All of these films of his serve as sensitively engineered vessels to showcase those specific interpersonal dynamics. One could reasonably be turned off at times by the sentimentality and the externalizing of emotion. (There’s a scene in C’mon C’mon when two characters shout at one another: “I’m not fine, and that’s a totally reasonable response!”) But the deeply recognizable feelings are also why his movies work so well, and why they are so beloved by many. The films begin with relationships and interactions and moments between characters so lived in that the means by which we get from one shore of the movie to the other (the plot) can be less personal—and, in this case, lightly borrowed from elsewhere.
For help on the plot front, Mills turned to Wim Wenders’s Alice in the Cities, a 1974 film—about a childless journalist who’s left temporarily looking after a stranger’s young daughter—that he’d long loved and had started watching over and over again after the press run of 20th Century Women had ended and the presidency of Donald Trump had begun basically simultaneously, leaving Mills feeling “completely lost” about what to make in that new world. At first, Alice in the Cities served as a “little medicinal thing,” but when Mills eventually came up for air, he wondered if there was a way to graft the stuff he’d observed about his own relationship with his child onto a premise like that one.
The movie required a character who basically needs to be able to maximally feel, think, act, and live, but also worry, as he does at one point, that he might not remember what’s transpired between him and his uncle during this profound period as he gets older. It’s the perfect articulation of what it is to be nine: so evolved as to be capable of transforming the lives of everyone around him, but incapable of comprehending that power.
In the two years since wrapping the film, Mills’s kid, Hopper, has reached the age of Jesse in the film. As well, Phoenix and his partner, Rooney Mara, had their first child, River. And as it happens, so did my wife and I; our kids are one month apart. Phoenix locks in at a different frequency talking about first steps and the weird back pain derived from hoisting a baby up from the floor (“where it’s somehow so perfectly designed to hurt you the most?”) and the vagaries of day-to-day living in the presence of a small child. Mills seems amused, knowing what was coming for us. It would only grow more insane. It would consume us to an ever greater degree.
That was, of course, what his film was about. The way they capture us, seize us, make us understand that one’s life may be divided into two by the death of a parent, or a marriage, or a move, or a major turning point in a career—but that actually the only thing that can irrevocably divide a life into Never-Again and Now-and-Forever is the assumption of the care of a child, whether one’s own, or in the case of C’mon C’mon, someone else’s, if even for just a couple weeks.
Toward the end of our time together, I ask Mills a litany of questions on this topic that unfortunately amount to: Why do you suppose people still have children?
I think I’ve almost killed him, he looks so mortified by the question.
“Oh, that’s all? Well, that’s a big question.”
It’s the biggest question, I say, though I don’t know if I mean that—and neither does Phoenix.
“Is it?” he says, returning from his platter of potatoes. “What’s the purpose of life, man?!”
“It’s so big…” Mills says, before practically filibustering with thoughtfulness on “the deepening” of everything in his life since the birth of his kid. “But how do you talk about that?” he says later, returning to the question. “I feel like I could talk about anything, but it’s interesting how much it threw me trying to talk about Hopper.”
He is mystified at the thought of his child. Confounded. Confused and in love. Confronted by a failure of language in face of that thing. Again, this is what he wanted to make a movie about. Whatever he was feeling in that instant we were talking—that ineffable everything that was nearly bringing him to tears—that’s what he wanted to capture in the mason jar of this film.
I ask Mills, given that feeling he described of being lost for a while, how he knows where to focus his creative energy, how he knows how to navigate within the movie-making system, and, more generally, how he thinks one is meant to live a creative life in the world right now.
“Uh,” he says, looking a little shook again. “Like, all that? You’ve just described the Bermuda Triangle or the hell jungle for me… If I started thinking that way, I’d just get depressed. Nothing good happens—or nothing very productive—when I start thinking, like, how to operate in the world, or how to be in the world, and impact in the world. All of that is very important, like really important. But as a creative person, when I start thinking that way, it just fucks me. And so I come back always to: Is there something that I’ve seen that I can report on really intimately? And then maybe because I have a real intimate connection to this thing, I might, if I’m lucky, say something relevant and true enough, to, like, have some worth out in the sea of the world? So that’s, like, my whole bet.”
Focus everything you’ve got on one project?
“Or, like: one relationship.”