From Ava DuVernay’s 13th to rousing works by Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann) and Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), the 2016 New York Film Festival has showcased, thus far, several powerful female-driven works. Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, while written and directed by an esteemed male filmmaker, is no exception, featuring three impassioned performances from stars Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, and Greta Gerwig, who play characters united by their varying affections for (and consequent impact on) a teenage boy in 1970s California.
During a Friday afternoon press conference, the NYFF Centerpiece film’s director and stars, including Mills, Bening, Fanning, Billy Crudup, and Lucas Jade Zumann, discussed the film’s unique treatment of gender, classic inspirations for some of the film’s most emotional scenes, and the adorable on-set ritual that united the actors like the unconventional family they play play onscreen.
Here are five things we learned from the people behind 20th Century Women:
1. Mills based Bening’s character on his mother
As he penned the script for 20th Century Women, Mills (Beginners) turned not only to the decade which birthed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Patti Smith as inspiration, but to his own flesh and blood. The filmmaker said his own mother, who died of cancer 17 years ago, inspired Bening’s character.
“While this character is based on my mom, my mom was very much a mystery to [Annette] in that time. She was even a mystery to me; I was born in 1966, and that’s a huge generation gap, and that’s sort of what the movie is about, in a way,” Mills said. “So, we watched a lot of old movies, like 1937’s Stage Door, and Bogart films… it helped me figure out my mom’s way of responding to things [in her life], all of those really subversive, strong, funny women in those films.”
Bening said that, as a parent of four, the role challenged her, though she found an exciting energy in being able to tackle the role of a mother who wants nothing more than to endow her child with an uninhibited sense of freedom.
“There’s a certain tension one feels as an actor… usually you feel like you’re on a little bit of a tightrope. I guess I felt that way, particularly with [Dorothea] in a way that I found fascinating, but not easy,” she said. “[The performance is an interpretation of] Mike’s subjective experience of his mother… he’s telling me what he thinks, I’m looking at pictures, I’m thinking about [her as a real person]… We try to find [balance] as we’re working. It’s a moment-to-moment thing as you’re shooting.”
2. Fanning filtered her performance through M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled
In the film, 18-year-old Fanning plays Julie, a free-spirited teenager who spends most of the film exploring her sexuality, though she refuses to sleep with the one boy she has legitimate feelings for: Dorothea’s son, Jamie (Zumann).
Fanning said Mills wanted the performance to be as authentic as possible, so he gave her a copy of M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled as a tool to help her prepare for the role. Fanning revealed most of her performance was filtered through her own interpretation of the 1978 psychology book. Mills assigned passages for her to read, later asking her to explain how Julie would react to Peck’s writing and filming the results.
“Mike asked me to read [the book] and pick out anything I thought Julie would find interesting. Then, it would be like homework, in a way, where I’d take that in and the next day he’d be like, ‘explain what you read last night to Jamie.’ And that would be the scene,” she said. “Stuff would be crazy in there, like ‘marriage isn’t real’ or ‘you should have open relationships.’ It was the kind of stuff Julie would abide by… those are her rules of life.”
3. Without Casablanca, 20th Century Women probably wouldn’t exist
Throughout 20th Century Women, Mills makes the bold decision to intersperse scenes from classic Hollywood films – Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, in particular. Mills’ screenplay references the Humphrey Bogart/Ingrid Bergman classic several times, with the 2016 drama’s final scene paying sweet homage to the 1942 black-and-white romance.
“Casablanca and Bogart are so important to Dorothea’s character,” Mills said, referencing her attraction to an unlikely suitor and the undying motherly love she harbors for Jamie. “To me, it defines the film in a way. [As characters, they’re like] ‘As Time Goes By’ meets the Buzzcocks… we were editing the movie and we said ‘Dorothea and Jamie were kind of like Rick and Ilsa.’ It’s this love story, really, between two people, that isn’t really going to work out in the traditional sense of a love story.”
4. The cast and crew had huge dance parties to get into the mood
To liven up the set of the film, which was shot almost entirely in and around a large Santa Barbara-based house built in 1906, Mills urged his cast and crew to engage in dance parties to get the creative juices flowing.
“Music is part of the culture of each character. It’s part of their history, and it’s also, really, a part of their storytelling,” Mills said of the film’s roaring soundtrack, which includes cuts from Talking Heads and Black Flag. “I remember the first thing we did in the house, as a group, was having these dance parties. We had music for each character… this 1906 house is falling apart [around us], you can see daylight in places you shouldn’t, and it was a gorgeous thing. We just danced around the whole house… it was our sage burning.”
5. The film’s female characters are fierce, original, and important
Bening said when she first read Mills’ script, she was blown away by the uninhibited way the director was able to write strong female characters – especially Julie and Dorothea, separated by many years in age but united in their affections for Jamie.
“The task, as you get older, is to maintain the sense of intuitive, instinctive connection to the material,” she said. “The relationship between [Julie and Dorothea] I found interesting and unique. The writing of all three of the women… none of them have any clichés in them, and for a teenage girl [like Julie] to be so complex and to be explored in such a specific, interesting way is so great.”
She continued: “And the fact that we have this relationship, which is not an easy one, it doesn’t fall into any of those traditional [categories]. It’s somewhat awkward, and yet I felt that Dorothea did see [Julie] pretty clearly. And then, of course, it turns out [Julie] sees Dorothea more clearly than Dorothea sees herself.”
20th Century Women hits theaters in limited release on Dec. 25. Watch the film’s first trailer below.