EXCLUSIVE: Oscar Nominee Mike Mills Reflects on Late Mother’s Contribution to ‘20th Century Women’

by Stacy Lambe 12:00 PM PST, January 24, 2017
Photo: Getty Images

For many, today’s announcement of the 2017 Oscar nominations was marked in their calendar, with would-be nominees ready for their call. But not so for filmmaker Mike Mills, the writer and director behind the semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women, who was fast asleep when his publicist woke him with the news that the movie earned him a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

“When my publicist called at 5:30 in the morning, I had no idea it happened that early or people called you like that,” Mills reveals to ET. “I just jolted out of bed, thinking there was an earthquake or some sort of emergency and it was the last thing I saw coming.”

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He actually has been busy this morning with dad duty while his wife is away, getting his son ready for school. “Hopper doesn’t care at all about the Oscars, I’ll tell you right now,” he says, jumping on the phone after dropping off his son. It’s a nice, humbling moment in the midst of awards season that has seen 20th Century Women nominated for several Critics’ Choice Awards, Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, and now, an Oscar.

The film, starring Annette Bening, is a deeply personal story inspired by Mills’ relationship with his late mother and sisters growing up. So, the recognition on this level makes it all the more sweet for the filmmaker, who says he feels really lucky for a movie like this to get made. “The script took me three years to write,” he says. “It totally killed me and I thought I failed so many times.”

In fact, Mills finds writing much more difficult than directing. “I actually feel like I’m a much better director,” he says with a laugh. 

20th Century Women cast Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Annette Bening with director Mike Mills Photo: Getty Images

Despite his fears, 20th Century Women quickly landed on critics’ best-of lists, with many heralding Bening’s award-worthy performance. “It doesn’t follow the rules,” Mills says, referring to the film and script, in particular. “It’s all the more unlikely to get recognized and awarded like this and all the more important and all the more meaningful that it is.”

While the film does expose his family’s experience to a wider audience, Mills says his sisters have been extremely supportive and generous throughout the process. “I just got a text -- I was busy dropping the boy off at school, so I haven't talked to anybody -- but I got a really sweet text from both my sisters,” he reveals, adding that “they seem very happy.”

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However, the two people who have served as the biggest inspiration for his work -- his mother (20th Century Women) and his father (Beginners) -- are not alive to share in the moment. “These films are made possible by my parents being gone,” Mills says. “I couldn’t have made them with them alive. In a weird way, this whole thing is predicated on their absence.”

While he hasn’t thought about what his parents would say, he has no second thoughts about Bening, whom he agrees was snubbed this year. “When I heard the news this morning, I felt slugged,” Mills says, adding that her performance “was so beautiful and alive and multi-layered.”

“She’s very wise about the world. But I’m not as wise as her and I was like, ‘God, dang!’” Mills says. “She gets my Oscar 10 times over.”