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Mike Mills’ black-and-white film C’mon C’mon is a gorgeous exploration of a relationship between a boy named Jesse (played by Woody Norman) and his uncle Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) while the kid grapples with growing up and his complicated family dynamic.
Mills’ screenplay was inspired by his relationship with his own child, says the filmmaker, while star Gaby Hoffmann was drawn to the script due to her experience as a mother — and because she thought it is a rare story that leans in on “the things that I think about all the time.”
Mills and Hoffmann spoke to THR about how the A24 movie came into fruition, the young Norman’s incredible talent and why Phoenix — at first — thought he couldn’t deliver what the script was asking of him.
Where did you get the idea for the film?
MIKE MILLS The seed or the soil of it is totally me and my kid — that’s where it started. The concerns in the film come from my experiences of being a parent to my very specific kid. And then the plant that comes from that seed is its own different shape and different thing, but it can’t exist without that beginning. But it’s even interesting to me how it’s from us and not — what all the different actors brought, what just the writing process brought, what the different cities brought, kind of manifested this initial intention in all these ways that I can predict, but also is interestingly surprising.
Gaby, how did you get involved?
GABY HOFFMANN I got a nice email from Andrea Longacre-White, our producer, whom I’ve known for years, vaguely, saying that Mike wanted to have dinner with me. I said, “I’m not too busy. Sure!” It was very flattering and very exciting. And we had a lovely long dinner in Brooklyn on a balmy summer night that I now see was the beginning of what hopefully will be a lifelong conversation about everything. Because the movie is about everything.
MILLS When we had that dinner, what do you remember about where I was at with the whole Joaquin Phoenix of it all?
HOFFMANN You were still in the process of courting him. You told me that hopefully it would be working. It wasn’t definite yet. Anyway, by the end of that dinner, I was all in, because I just wanted to keep talking with this person. I felt confident that the collaboration would be fulfilling. And then the screenplay was — maybe this is hyperbolic — but I think it was my most favorite screenplay I’d ever read. Not just because it’s so beautiful and well-written, but because it’s talking about the things that I think about all the time. I’m a mom, and this is what my life is, and that’s not what I usually come across in screenplays.
Mike, what was the process of courting Joaquin?
MILLS He was really sweet, and we had another nice meal together. He came to the meal, I think, to tell me, “This is interesting, but I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to do it justice. I wouldn’t know how to say yes to this, to really deliver for you.” I’m like, “Everything about you is super interesting and feels right on the money to me.” And the soul that I’m seeing and this love of humor and this ableness to talk about anything, that’s all he needs to send that guy forth. It seemed like it was probably over, but then he texted me the next day with just a question about the issues in the film — not even the script, just a conversation about children and adults and parenting and families and all the layers of that. … The whole time, I still didn’t know what’s going on. Then he came to my office, we read the script a lot and we just started talking again, or cracking each other up or just kind of fucking with each other in a really fun, creative way. And that was going on for months. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I’m like, “This is so interesting. And I’m learning so much about my script and it’s so fun to have a pal.” I was very happy and lovesick at the same time.
How did you find Woody?
MILLS Clearly, I did something really fucking good in a past life because he came in the very first round of casting, like kid two or three. And he’s British, so he’s doing an accent the whole time. And he can cry on any line. He’s just a very deep person. And I’m on a little bit of a rampage of trying to get people not to describe him as a child actor, because I feel like that constantly diminutizes his work.
HOFFMANN I’ve been saying that same thing for months in these interviews, when people say, “What’s it like to work with this child actor? Did you give him any tips because you were a child actor?” And I’m like, first of all, we’re all lining up to get advice from him. He’s the most prepared professional, and it was just a privilege to work with him, as it is to work with any talented, smart actor. He had ideas, like any other devoted, hardworking actor. He brought something fresh and new. He’s made my job so easy. Somebody said to me in an interview — I kid you not — something like, “This kid was so good. I almost thought for a second he was a regular human being.” And unfortunately, that is a general sense that people have: like the kids are somehow not people. Of course, they aren’t working in necessarily the same way — emotional, sophisticated, learned management, whatever — but they’re people. And they’re so often not treated that way.
How did you and Woody develop a rapport?
HOFFMANN Mike sent Woody and I out on a couple of dates — we had a chaperone, of course, and we hung out. We went to lunch one day. We took a walk. The next day we hung out a lot at Mike’s office. Mostly talking about the weird YouTube videos he watches. Making jokes, talking about food, music he likes — he’s fascinating. He’s got a lot to say about everything, so it was really me just listening. I feel like we had an easy rapport with a little distance, almost like a son and mother might have. I didn’t mind if our bond didn’t feel extreme and intense right away — that didn’t worry me. It felt familiar, like kids and their moms, especially at that age, like they’re going through something, but it was very easy from the get-go with him.
Mike, what was the most challenging scene for you?
MILLS The film is often just so tiny, intimate — like, two people in a bed or two people in a bath. But then that scene where [Johnny] loses [Jesse] on a New York City street and the bus comes, that was like 300 extras, two cameras, a bus, all the cars are ours — so that’s a lot of choreography. It’s a different kind of beast. Same thing in New Orleans, when they’re in that parade, that’s about 300 people all in costume. Shooting in New York City, all the people walking up and down are just pedestrians, and Joaquin’s really good at using the Force, and no one knows it’s him and we’re far off on a long lens, and no one knows that we’re making a movie.
The kids that Johnny interviews throughout the film — are those real interviews, or were the kids child actors?
MILLS I did a project years ago with SFMOMA, where we interviewed kids whose parents worked in tech companies about the future. And I’ve done this kind of work in the past. … so at the beginning of writing this, I wanted all this intimacy [for the characters], but then I wanted to throw them out in a big world of kids. I was like, “Those interviews, what if I could incorporate them?” The kids you see in the film, they’re all nonactors. Those are all real interviews. There’s nothing scripted. I had the questions, but then Joaquin and Molly Webster, who is really [a producer from] Radiolab, would really be there with the kids.
It is weird to have Joaquin Phoenix all of a sudden walking into your bedroom. Sometimes people would be like, “You’re the Joker!” And he’d be like, “Yeah, but if you want to talk about that, let’s do that in a minute. Can you tell me about your room?” or, “What do people always get wrong about your neighborhood?” The kid has no choice but to be there and do the interview, and they’re both pretty magical at it.
What does the title of the film mean to you?
We don’t learn about its significance until the end.
MILLS I wrote that title, but I really don’t know what it means. I just like it. And I like that it’s open-ended, and it feels right to me. Always did. I don’t have a good explanation.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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