It’s not surprising to learn that writer-director Mike Mills, who won the best feature Oscar last year for 20th Century Women, went through a rough patch after returning to writing for the first time in a decade. The soothing influence of Carey Mulligan after the death of his wife had been a nice distraction for years and brought him joy, but it was a painful experience to watch the creation of the film through her eyes.
Then it hit him: he’d been missing the first screenwriter in front of the camera and the director had to step back to let someone else have a go at making the movie. He reached out to another great fellow back to the small screen: Joaquin Phoenix. He sent him a draft of the script.
It took months for Phoenix to respond to the gentle firecracker in the craft, but when he did, the two men wound up collaborating to create a film of uncommon honesty and freshness, a take on 70s LA that asks: How much of ourselves should we reveal?
“When you realize that you’re going through a writer’s slump, I think you miss the chance to have a connection with other people through the process,” Mills says. “With Joaquin, I always felt like I was taking a shortcut, finding my way back to what I love about writing, and it was something that we had something in common.”
Two years after their first meeting, they finally agreed to make C’mon C’on, a lush, real and organic take on 70s LA and an affectionate, sometimes bitter, look at friendship and love in all its complications.
“It wasn’t an easy shoot,” says Phoenix. “But it was a good shoot.”
Check out C’mon C’on’s hilarious billboard in the video below.
“I’m definitely glad that I did it,” he says. “I loved that experience. I really did and it was the right decision for me to make, even when I questioned the decision.”
Directors serve a dual role in C’mon C’on, which both introduces and contrasts Phoenix’s exceptional first-time director. Mills has also served as Phoenix’s director, writer and costar of the 10 episodes of the AMC series Graves, a comic satire about post-Citizen Kane political dynasty.
Graves has already earned back the Emmy bonus Mills claimed when he was brought on to direct the pilot. But C’mon C’on might define a new genre for him: Mann-sel-love, as the Hollywood dry tongue, Terry Gannon, puts it in the series.
“It’s so unique for someone who hasn’t tried film before to step into directing a film,” says Mills. “That said, maybe it’s not that uncommon for someone who’s known their whole life as a director, the script is just something they’ve been hearing about for years. It’s the first time for him, and you want to find a balance of watching him tell the story and making sure it’s worthy and has some kind of purpose.”
Mills grew up in Ruston, Louisiana. He spent some time in New York, but his father, a lawyer, didn’t want him to move away when he was young. Mills eventually got the movie-making bug after making his own documentaries for the fifth-grade class trip. His feature film debut, Thumbsucker, was a satire of AIDS that gained him recognition, leading to a gig directing his first series, the HBO series Brothers & Sisters. After hearing Mills win the best feature Oscar for 20th Century Women, one of the producers said it was “one of the most believable, most human movies I’ve ever seen, with the director the best part of it.”
It’s this scene of Mills pouring out the story of his life with his wife, and talking at his screenwriting script, that Phoenix’s character Kit Pheganou enjoys. It’s that self-hagiography Mills shares with the audience that is so poignant and relatable in C’mon C’on.
“You realize if you don’t make the journey, that it’s really going to resonate with you more than if you do, and that’s something that could only really happen through it,” he says. “One of the reasons I wanted to make C’mon C’on in the first place was because it’s just a beautiful way to tell the story of your life, and making it is only the part you can control.”