Dorothea [Annette Bening] enlists the help of her boarder Abbie [Greta Gerwig], a free-spirited punk artist, and young savvy neighbor Julie [Elle Fanning] in her son’s upbringing at a time brimming with cultural change and rebellion...
Dining room… The “family” gathered… Abbie [Greta Gerwig] and Dorothea [Annette Bening], flanked by Jamie [Lucas Jade Zumann] and Julie [Elle Fanning], with handyman/artist additional boarder William [Billy Crudup]...
Acclaimed filmmaker Mike Mills brings us a richly multilayered, funny, heart-stirring celebration of the complexities of women, family, time...and the connections we search for our whole lives.
It is a film that keeps redefining itself as it goes along, shifting with its characters as they navigate the pivotal summer of 1979.
Set in Santa Barbara, the film follows Dorothea Fields [Annette Bening], a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie [Lucas Jade Zumann], at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Bening as Dorothea, conveys with subtle yet tremendous emotional power both her unconditional love for her son and her increasing bewilderment about the world she is watching him enter. She enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie’s upbringing—Abbie [Greta Gerwig], a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields home, and Julie [Elle Fanning], a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor—as this makeshift family forges fragile connections that will mystify, haunt and inspire them through their lives. –A24
Following his main character’s lead, Mills wisely enlisted the help of Production Designer Chris Jones and Set Decorator Neil Wyzanowski SDSA to re-create the essence of the era, depicted primarily through the ever-evolving Fields home. Together, the filmmakers create a poignant love letter to the people who raise us and the times that form us.
“Dorothea is 55 and looks like Amelia Earhart,” Mills wrote of his film’s main character. “Jamie describes his mother by her stark contradictions: she writes down her stocks every morning, smokes Salems because they’re healthier, wears Birkenstocks because they’re contemporary, reads Watership Down then carves rabbits out of wood, and never dates a man for long.”
Bening wears a silver bracelet, a piece of Mills’s mother’s jewelry, throughout the film. “It was like a talisman,” Mills imparts. “I often think of filmmaking as a bit of a spiritual magic trick, so I find it’s a good idea to invite the Muses in to help you.”
Bening agrees that such objects carry a mysterious weight. “What was important is that it meant so much to Mike. We all know the most banal objects to someone else can be the thing that gets you right in the heart. The objects Mike uses weren’t so important themselves, but it’s the totality of all they represent, and that’s what allows you to leap from the personal into this kind of story.”
This keyed Wyzanowski’s approach. “The movie is about Mike’s mother and his memories of her, first and foremost, along with the other women in his life blended into the other women characters. With this in mind, we tried to integrate Mike’s memories of his mother and family into what the script and action required from the sets. One of the best ways to accomplish this was the use of family heirlooms and items from Mike’s home. We layered these in throughout the rooms of the Fields house, each room had some object from Mikes’ past or family or home. While helping to create the scene, these items also imbued a sense of history and depth to the characters and their rooms.”
Mills agrees, “You see my parents’ bedspread in Dorothea’s room, as well as my parents’ chairs and some art. It’s subtle but imbues the film with a bit of that inexplicable magic of origins.”
Wyzanowski adds, “The actual family pieces included: Thonet bentwood chairs, the Howard Hack painting in the dining room, some pottery in kitchen and dinner scenes, the quilt on Dorothea’s bed that Mike mentioned, rugs throughout the rooms, flyers in Jamie’s room, a bench in the hallway, and not the least, the carved rabbit. These items were present, but not focused on.”
“Since those items were important, but not nearly enough to decorate an entire house, and a large one at that, I used them as a starting point to select the elements that we needed in order to realize the rooms fully.”
“Towards the end of the movie is a lovely scene in Dorothea’s room where Jamie reads to her. The wooden chest he sits on at the foot of the bed was a family heirloom, there’s the quilt covering the bed. The rugs came from Mike’s home, there was even one from Mike’s grandfather’s rug company. Dorothea sits at a desk as she listens, and just behind her on the wall is a picture of Mike’s actual mother. The remaining items...brass bed, desk, mirror, plants, lamps...were sourced to create the full room.* As we said, the personal items add a depth to the sets that, while not apparent to the viewer, help infuse the room with history...and the other elements not only complete the story, but help set the “present day” aspect of the film.”
“Mike, Chris and I strived to show a version of the 70s that had elements of the modern materials that were popular (ie: chrome, glass, veneer, plastics, etc) but with an equal amount of other period items to create a feel of Dorothea’s and the other characters’ histories and idiosyncrasies.”
Jones points out, “Since this film is very much from inside Mike’s head, the challenge for us was in really trying to reach inside that head and pull not just a memory but a reality out of it. Of course, there is also the fact that Mike himself is a graphic designer. He is obsessed with colors and also fascinated with how objects become icons in our lives – a theme in the film. The look is not typical, because this is not so much ‘the 70s’ as it is Mike’s personal experience of the 70s.”
“The late 70s are kind of the beginning of ‘now’,” says Mills. “And yet the late 70s are a completely different world from what will come just around the corner – with all the changes that follow: Reagan, the 80s desire for wealth, the tragedies of AIDS and the impacts of the internet, 9-11, as well as unchecked economic disparity. That’s why 20TH CENTURY WOMEN can feel like an elegy for a time and an innocence we can never return to.”
The house, a veritable character in the film, breathed that innocence, optimism and bewilderment and, at times, melancholy. In a constant state of repair and re-design, it reflected its occupants and the time. “We had a lot of discussion about the house – how big it should be, how much it is supposed to feel like it is falling down around the people inside it, and how it should flow,” recalls Jones. “But the most important thing about the house is that it had to have a richness to its bones – all those cracks and flaws that make it feel warm and full of history. Once we found that, we set about giving each individual room its character’s style.”
“We laid a ton of track through the house so the camera could really move, and did a lot of complicated set-ups,” Mills notes. “The movement is not only physical but metaphysical. I like films that are structured by surprise and I like to use dislocation, where you move quickly from funny to sad, from static moments to the unexpected. DP Sean Porter and I chose to shoot in wide format and pour lots of organic light through the film. I love how natural light looks cinematically – it’s beautiful and I find it creates a very real space. It also impacts the actors in their naturalism. It’s a real part of the gestalt of this film.”
“To add to that naturalism, every room has a plant and/or cut flowers,” Wyzanowski points out. “This was a cue from Mike, but also was influenced by the research Chris and I did into 70s interiors. We found several images of homes almost overflowing with plants. To both of us, this exuberant use of plants felt very much of the 70s and very much in the vein of California at that time.”
“As to the renovation of the house, once again, this was an element from Mike and his history. His mother was very much into restoration of architecture, and this was a strong aspect of his growing up in Santa Barbara. Fortunately, the house location that we used had this layer of renovation already present! The house, located in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles, had sat empty for a great many years. Not long before our shoot, a new owner moved in and began work to restore and renovate the house. This allowed for us to accent the work and incorporate it into the sets for the film. That house also has a long history, and that history helped create more depth in the sets.”
It’s the summer of 1979, and the house being reinvented on the inside gives metaphor for the growing subculture of punk, introduced through Greta Gerwig’s character, Abbie.
For Mike Mills, growing up in sleepy Santa Barbara, “The discovery of punk was both a revelation and an electric emotional conduit. For me the energy of punk was something euphoric. It felt like running towards freedom with your eyes closed. I remember almost overnight going from Elton John to The Clash. The culture hadn’t really offered a lot of emotional bandwidth until I discovered this music. And I wanted some of that energy, that verve, to be at the core of the film.”
This is especially prevalent in the sets for Abbie’s art scene and the punk rock club where she takes the entire household for a night’s exploration, but it is also an undercurrent in the house that’s always in transition.*
Mills divulges, “The film’s aesthetic draws from punk’s passion for the collage, for the tearing apart and reassembling of familiar elements from our world into something full of connotations and hidden meanings.”
Dorothea tells her son...
“This is the really hard part. And then what happens is, there’s a hard part but then it gets better. Then it gets hard again.”
Books... Writer/Director Mike Mills notes that when he was growing up, “Books were another means of defining one’s identity or searching for direction.
When the members of Dorothea’s house aren’t listening to music, they’re often reading – reading actual ink-paper-and-glue books that are dog-eared and underlined.”
Some of the carefully curated books in the film are:
· FOREVER, Judy Blume [Julie]
· FUTURE SHOCK, Alvin Toffler [Dorothea]
· OUR BODIES, OURSELVES [Abbie, Jamie]
· PHOTOGRAPHY, Susan Sontag [Abbie]
· SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL, ed. Robin Morgan [Abbie, Jamie]
· THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED, M. Scott Peck [Julie]
· THE STAND, Stephen King [Julie]
· WATERSHIP DOWN, Richard Adams [Dorothea]