“I’m such an insecure writer, I need to talk to me about it a lot,” says writer-director Mike Mills in an interview in a small recording studio at the Detroit Foundation Hotel. “And that’s why I have all these other texts (incorporated into the film). I feel like it’s company, you know?
His new film, go! Go on, is indeed marked – like the 2010s Beginners and 2016 20th century women before him – by incorporating a range of scriptures, music and other texts reflecting his omnivorous tastes, although his cast is also good company. Local opening this Friday, go! Go on follows Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) as a traveling radio producer who takes care of his young nephew, Jesse (played by English actor Woody Norman). During their travels – through Los Angeles, New York, and New Orleans, although the film begins here in Detroit – they frequently check in with her mother, Viv (a splendid, welcome Gaby Hoffmann) as Johnny leaves. takes to a radio project based on interviews. At the same time, the three are working to form a stronger connection of their own.
Johnny’s vocation in the film, Mills says, speaks to the film’s themes of listening and working to understand, of course – but it also has roots in his own long-standing affection for radio storytelling.
“The radio works like that, like This american life or Scott Kerr or Radiolab are just big important things for me and in my cinema. Ira Glass’s work has influenced all of my writing and my way of thinking about stories – really, I think I just want to have this job, ”Mills says, seeming to be half-joking. “And then it stuck in history because it made sense: listening as a way of being, almost, for this guy. I feel like listening and just being there for others – or just getting involved – has become so important. ”
But the specific subject, he says, serves as a sort of continuation of a project he did for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, shot in Silicon Valley alongside a group of other artists. .
“All of these (tech) companies have futurists. And they’re so involved in the future and stuff. And so I had this idea that I was going to find kids whose parents work in these tech companies – their parents all had to work at Apple or one of those companies – and ask them questions about the future, ” he remembers. “And it was so interesting and it was so dark and hopeful. And there is always something very natural about asking a child about the future, one way or another. And so I wanted, always wanted, to do more of this piece.
For Mills, who also worked in graphic design (an apparent influence on his approach to making collage-type films), interviews with school-aged children in each of the film’s locations became a must. Referring to these sequences as “documentaries” (although Phoenix plays, arguably, like his fictional character), he calls them “the ground on which the film sits”.
“I’ve been here once before,” Mills says of Detroit, but was prompted to return – at least in part – by the affection expressed for the city by an old friend, one of the former professors. of her child. “She talks about Detroit all the time, and she talks about it with so much love and pride. So it’s definitely (been) on my mind. And I just love, I love it – what it feels like – “he draws a diagram in the air with his hand -” LA, New York, Detroit, New Orleans – kind of like a map. And I knew New Orleans and Detroit are cities that have really been through a lot of things and have vulnerabilities, but also such a strength, so I think that attracted me – especially thinking of this population of children that we were sort of looking for in all these different cities. ”
The students presented offer a wide range of feelings and perspectives, with questions and answers ranging from the existential to the trivial, from the hope to the dark. What results look like an honestly presented build-up from young people across the country; in Detroit, crew recruiting efforts focused on the Boggs Center and Gesu Catholic schools. For Mills, who is a parent himself (his partner is writer and director Miranda July), his sense of affection is evident.
“Karri Pitkin was our assistant producer and she comes from the world of radio; she did Radio Rookies at WNYC. She tended to find a school (in every city), and so the Boggs School became like our big house, and we filmed there. And they were so generous to us and so helpful and the kids over there are really, really brilliant, ”he recalls. “It’s like that for me personally. But it’s also like this gift that the film gives, these people I meet and these communities that I can enter into and that I would never normally have access to as a civilian.
Giving the film a meditative and patient air in an uncertain time, these interviews help reinforce Mills’ air as a filmmaker of questioning, listening, and careful research of his surroundings. To this end, they also help broaden the scope of the film and anchor it more concretely in our world. In that sense, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the map Mills drew in the air covers a healthy part of the country, with towns near its borders in each cardinal direction.
“It’s really, really impressive, all these young people with the Joker coming to interview them – just fully introduce themselves. And having really smart answers, making themselves vulnerable: saying things that weren’t easy and put them in a more difficult position, ”says Mills. “The more power you empower and the more serious your question, the more serious and responsive your energy is – which Joaquin was really good at – especially as they soared high.”
The film that has formed around these themes is guided – somewhat loosely – both by these interviews and many other quirks and centers of gravity, cultivating an air of free-form abstraction in search of emotional intimacy. Shot in black and white and moving not only across the country but back and forth in time, Let’s go shows his seams through signs of persistent editorial tinkering on the part of Mills, his sound team and his editor, Jennifer Vecchiarello, with whom he says he often argues “in a healthy way” that has become essential to his work. While the film is framed and structured around his travelogue, necessitated by Johnny’s meditative project, he mostly feels – like all of his stuff – motivated by the struggle to navigate what he calls ” primary relationships ”, within non-traditional and often fractured families. For Mills, formal experimentation to get to the heart of these struggles is essential, something he says is part of all of his work as a matter of personal preference or taste as much as anything else.
“I really don’t like synchronized sound. It’s like heteronormative sex. It’s like we can have other types of sex too, ”says Mills. What would it be like, he asks, “to have sound alone (decoupled from the images with which they were once associated)? Or to have the pictures without hearing, or you can hear it, but it’s at such a low volume that you can’t discern what they are saying. And I like that too, it’s more like a texture than a scene. I think it’s a bit like in European cinema… all my heroes make films like that, like Alain Resnais or Fellini. So I don’t know if it’s actually specific to this movie.
Asked about the future – not the planet or the rest of us, but the kind of low-budget, realistic film Mills specializes in, focusing on the day-to-day – he acknowledges that it doesn’t look right. .
“It will totally disappear. It’s an endangered species, ”he says. “And then making black and white movies like this is particularly threatened. And God bless A24, you know, I really feel like they’re oxygenating the movie world right now. Not just (with mine) but with other films they make.
When asked if directors get “picked up” after one or two smaller, critically-acclaimed films, perhaps part of the problem, Mills retorts.
“Well, obviously all of these directors have free choice, don’t they? ” he says. “I don’t think ‘recover’ is the right word – because it’s like, it’s fucking hard for these people to get these movies. Like, I know some of them that went through this process. and it’s like going to the Olympics, you know? But, yeah, I have no interest in these movies, I’m sorry. Like, I don’t – I’ll see them all on the plane. Like, when I come here, and I’m like… ugh. What an amazing resource dumpster fire.
At that last part, we both laugh. For Mills, the writing and filming process is less like the Olympics than a gradual accumulation of resources – texts, images, stories and even numbers – from the world around him; once he’s had enough, he’s got something to present what he likens to a “playpen”, some sort of space in which he and his coworkers can all hang out.
“My handwriting is really like ‘oh I heard someone tell this story.’ And I pick it up, ”he said. “Oh, I remember that. I pick it up. And then there’s a lot of assembly training. I write stuff, but it’s my favorite way. It’s a little more journalistic. At least I tell myself I’m more of a journalist – like, I can go find things. So finding the tune, it doesn’t matter – just looking, I find it all mentally healthier, and I kind of need it to stay mentally healthy, ”he says. “It’s all done and Johnny’s deal in the movie because – probably – because it’s me-ish. Those are just the issues I’m thinking about.”