Three Great Things: Mike Mills

The writer-director of C'mon C'mon, out now in theaters, on his deep love of Fellini, Feist and wildness.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the current release in theaters of Mike Mills’ new feature, C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman and Woody Norman, the acclaimed writer-director shared some of the things that he loves most in life. — N.D.

Federico Fellini Interviews
I love to read Fellini on directing. To me, I compare it a lot to the work of Buddhist writer Pema Chödrön. It’s deeply spiritual, and his focus is very similar, because it’s all about groundlessness: you can’t grab on to outcomes, your life is constantly in flux, nothing is fixed, etc. That’s his whole philosophy on directing. It’s not about your preconceived idea of what your film is, the film is what happens when that preconceived idea hits reality and changes. I find that really beautiful. He writes about there being no ideal conditions, or rather that any conditions in which your film happens are the perfect conditions, because they’re what make your film. Everything is transient. It’s super helpful to have as one’s building philosophy the idea of the transient nature of every single thing. I always feel better after I have a dose of either Pema or Fellini, and I recommend them as a double bill.

I went to art school, not film school, and I never thought I was going to be a film director. But at art school there was a free film every Friday night, and one of the first films I saw in that series was . I was 18, and I can remember the feeling of seeing the film that night. It took me 10 years from that time to figure out I wanted to be a director, but I was transported by the magic of that film, of it taking flight. I found it really subversive and it’s still huge for me. As a filmmaker, Fellini is my main homie, because I get so much out of his work, but I never try to be like him because it would be so fucking hard to be so virtuosic, so masterful.

I think about Fellini all the time, also because he’s such a warm, generous, funny, deeply humanistic person who totally embraced flaws and failure. I find that combination really powerful. So when I’m directing, when there’s so much shit flying at me, I really rely on that kind of mentality, that trust and intuition. I’ve come to have faith that what the universe is throwing at me has some kind of composition and design to it, that there’s some kind of meaning or reason – or even help – in all these restrictions. And I now find it easy to surf that idea in real-time filmmaking life.

Leslie Feist
I met Leslie when she moderated an event I did with the National a few years ago, and we immediately hit it off. When I was editing C’mon C’mon during the pandemic, Leslie and I developed a really amazing art friendship where we just shared ideas. It was company of the highest order and so supportive. It was really fun to hear about the amazing new show she’s been working on and to talk to someone working in a different medium who was going through similar stuff. Her voice is in C’mon C’mon. She recorded a bunch of stuff with Aaron and Bryce Dessner that we played with, and when her voice comes on, it’s like a heartsong. I just love everything about Leslie’s music.

I find her records to be very deep holistic projects that were made with so much consciousness and really embrace intuition. And then I love her voice and her lyrics and not just the ambience of the music, but the ambience of her personality as it manifests in song, of her soul. I think she’s a very deep person who’s working in a mode that I really relate to. I think our bond as artists is because, in our different mediums, we’re both making art from a very personal space and trying to connect to people, but not embracing normal commercial tools to do that. We’ve both been doing our thing for a while, so it’s just fun to talk shop with someone who has so much experience under their belt. And she’s also just a funny, lovely person!

I go a lot to a place in the Tahoe National Forest that used to be a gold mine and has been grown over for more than 100 years. There is nothing like being way out in the woods. People think it’s calm, but I find it like being in a city, except it’s a city of trees and animals and other living organisms going through different processes. The density of plant life is incredibly humbling, and it just makes me feel better. It’s an inversion of scale: my concerns and my internet and my narrative is totally dwarfed by the density and complexity of non-human, nonverbal plant life going on around me.

The Beat writer Gary Snyder wrote an amazing book called On Wildness. He has a very philosophical take on wildness, which he defines as the whole great spectrum of what is out of our control and hasn’t been touched by us or isn’t under our dominion. He finds that wildness to be a deep power center of creativity, of spirituality, of actually understanding yourself as a human, and he writes about it really beautifully and mischievously. He’s trying to allow us to let go of this illusion of us humans having control of our reality. For me, it comes back to Fellini, because the one thing we’re not in control of is the universe. The universe is in charge, so if you listen to the universe, it will help you out. It’ll tell you a lot of amazing things. It’s not going to sound like what you thought it was going to sound like, not what you planned or what you wanted initially. It’s something else. The idea is to find other ways to get past the illusion of control and tolerate it.

A forest is so aesthetically beautiful and such an embodied, immersive experience, you’re entertained into the idea of your smallness. Being in the wild is like a spa for my intuitive decision-making bell and helps me tune it so I can hear it ringing positive or negative. It helps me know where I’m going. George Saunders wrote a book about Russian literature, which is really about writing. For him, writing is all about whether the sentence that you just wrote makes you feel good or bad. That’s all you need to know. If it’s bad, you cut it or fix it; if it’s good, you move on. For me, being in a forest is about getting in touch with that sense of intuition inside myself.

Mike Mills was born in Berkeley, California in 1966. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1989. Mills works as a filmmaker, graphic designer, and artist. Mills is best known for his independent films 20th Century Women (2016), Beginners (2011), and Thumbsucker (2005) as well as his exhibitions at the Alleged Gallery, which were documented in the book, exhibition and film Beautiful Losers. His latest film, C’mon C’mon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffman and Woody Norman, is out November 24 through A24 Films.