The choice of black and white, his influences, the personal side of the story, his collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix… Director Mike Mills returns with us to “Our Children’s Souls”.
On February 9, 2020, in the world before, Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for Best Actor, the first of his career, for his insane performance in Joker. Here he is back on our screens, almost two years to the day after his coronation, with a totally opposite role. Without physical transformation, to embody a journalist in charge of his nephew, who questions children about their vision of the future.
Director of Our Souls as Children, Mike Mills (Beginners, 20th Century Women) returns with us to this feature film in black and white. From its aesthetic to its central themes, including its collaboration with the actor.
AlloCiné: “Our children’s souls” has several layers and there are different ways of approaching it to talk about it. What was the trigger?
Mike Mills : Quite simply what concerns the fact of being a parent, of having a child. It sounds like a cliché, but seeing the world through your child’s eyes is completely life changing. The heart too.
So I wanted to talk about this idea of trying to give a kid total respect. Treat him like a peer. Don’t treat him like a little person but a normal person. I also wanted to talk about how intimate and intense it is to feel that you are needed at this point. My film is therefore small and intimate, but it also talks about how it connects us to the rest of the world, to society in general, in the future. So I wanted to cover this whole spectrum, which goes from the intimate to the global, but it was my child who, in a way, launched this film.
It is thus a continuation of your previous ones: “20th Century Women” was inspired by your mother’s story, “Beginners” by your father’s, and “Our Children’s Souls” by yours as than parent.
It’s true, but I hadn’t planned it at all, because I think I wouldn’t have understood how to talk about all this. But coming out and the death of my father gave me a lot of courage, changed my world and made me go down this path.
But I didn’t know I was gonna stay with it 20th Century Women, nor this time. But I really like making a movie about someone I love and can see. Talking about someone you’ve known for many years, and whose different facets you know, helps, not to be universal, but to make them more accessible to others. Because I talk about it very intimately and personally.
Seeing the world through your child’s eyes is life-changing
In this idea of being accessible, are there elements and situations in the film that really happened to you?
Oh yes, so (laughs) My child, for example, liked to hide to scare me. Among other things. Many things related to education also come from there. This story between a brother [Joaquin Phoenix] and her sister [Gaby Hoffmann] it is, in a certain way, me who connects myself to all the mothers that I know: that of my child like others that I know.
The women in my life teach me and show me a lot about how to be a parent, as well as how to be a man. A lot of those conversations and dynamics carry over into the film. I love the fact of starting from something that really happened and finding a way to make a story out of it.
You talked about this desire to connect with the world around us: at what point in the writing process did this idea of interviewing children come about?
Right from the start, when I was pitching the film. I thought, for example, that it would be a bit like Alice in the cities, with a man who goes on a trip with a child but who does not want to be a father. I had done interviews like these in the past, and this movie was born after 2016, so it was also my reaction to the election of Donald Trump and the changes in the United States.
I don’t have a good answer to any of this though, so much so that it prevents me from being creative all the time. But I understood that I wanted to be outside, in the world. Let it not just be my personal story. I wanted to develop it in a larger America, with a lot of different people and voices. So it came to me at the beginning, because I realized that if I was interviewing children, I was going outside the personal framework of the story.
And the film also reflects what my child made me discover. Because I go to his school every day, I know his friends… that made me sensitive to childhood in general. It was a key element from the start, because I thought it would be worth making the film, that it would be an appropriate reaction to 2016.
Seeing these interviews, I said to myself that the film could have been a documentary. Have you considered it that way, even briefly?
Our children’s souls is hybrid for me. Because these interviews are documentaries. And I like how they expand the cinematic language of my film. It therefore has a documentary element and a narrative element. The documentary part took three days of filming, and the interviews took place at the beginning and end of our days of filming the narrative part, and that changed the way the film was made. I feel like it helped it feel like a documentary, letting us feel like we were doing one every day.
Is that why you decided to shoot in black and white?
No, because I don’t associate black and white with documentaries. On the contrary, because I think it gives a fable side. When you see a man and a child walking together in the landscape, one can have the feeling of seeing an ancient image, an image from a fable. And black and white gives you more space. The plausibility contract made with the viewer is much more flexible.
So you can blend aspects of fable and classic film with a documentary sensibility. And it’s all the easier to do in black and white because it’s more abstract, because you don’t know where you are. Your relationship to reality is different and black and white makes a film more artistic.
Since you speak of “artistic film”: the use of black and white and the way the children speak in front of the camera is reminiscent of the New Wave in France. What were your aesthetic references?
There was Alice in the Cities, directed by Wim Wenders in 1973. I love this film and it helped me a lot, because I couldn’t have made mine without it. And the New Wave obviously had an influence on me. Hiroshima, my love, for example, for the way Alain Resnais uses editing and experiments with directing. It influenced me on all my films.
Or even the readings with the texts that appear on the screen in Our Children’s Souls. It’s very Jean-Luc Godard. But it’s not just French films that have inspired me, because I’ve also dipped into European cinema: Les Fiancés by Ermanno Olmi, which has a magnificent cinematographic language, very lyrical. The lighting, imagery and world seen on screen are naturalistic. But the editing and the narration are not linear, and are very beautiful.
I thought a lot about this film but also about Amours d’une blonde, by Milos Forman, with its very luminous black and white. Or Shoot the pianist [de François Truffaut], which is very dynamic and where things just happen. I wanted my film to have that kind of quality. Let it not seem heavy and over-written.
Have the interviews and the children’s answers changed your vision of the future?
Not really, no. I always find it very moving to talk about the future with children, because it is their property, their world. The interviews haven’t changed my perspective, but they do synthesize the problem we face, highlighting what is happening and what we are doing now and the implications this will have in the future.
When you do that in a child-centric story, it raises the stakes. And even when they say very dark, sometimes very pessimistic things about the future or about our society, these children have a lot of positive energy. Because they are children. They have so much life, so much energy, that it’s a very strange experience to hear such a bright, happy, and vibrant person talk about a scary future.
I love the fact of starting from something that really happened and finding a way to make a story out of it.
What led you to Joaquin Phoenix to play the lead role in the film?
I always thought he was the best (laughs) I love his performances, and even though I didn’t know him before, I always felt he was a smart guy, and that’s what I wanted for the character. Not in the academic sense, but a man who’s been through things, been through therapy, who isn’t perfect but is looking deeply into his life. And we feel it in all his performances.
I also felt like he was very funny, and that’s what I wanted for the character. So I was very happy to have him and I could see that he was also very surprising: you never really know what he’s going to do next, how he’s going to do it or communicate something. And it’s the way of acting that I like the most for my films. You feel there is no formula but someone exploring. The honesty he tries to show every day is really something.
Did he bring a lot to his character? And even in the movie?
Yes, much more than his character. Because to make him feel that he could do it, that he understood it and that it made sense, he and I read the script a lot, for long stretches of three or four hours.
He had a lot of good questions when we weren’t sure he was going to do the movie. We were just talking about things he thought were great or too obvious. This rich conversation served the whole film. Among the most feminist passages, those which are most attentive to women, their power and their strength, many came from Joaquin.
Interview by Maximilien Pierrette in Paris on January 11, 2022