In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.
As a follow-up to his Oscar-winning film, Beginners, Mike Mills wanted to explore this relationship with his mom, who passed away nearly two decades earlier. In 20th Century Women, Annette Bening stars at Dorothea, a mother worried that she’s losing her son.
In an attempt to connect with him, she ventures to a rock club in 1970s Santa Barbara, and the resulting scene takes on the full scope of her life, thanks to some creative formatting from Mills.
Here, Mills breaks down the scene, which flashes forward across time for a little bit of perspective.
I had this idea of wanting to be able to talk about her death. Maybe it’s because I’m writing about my real mom, who has been dead since ’99. Her death is a key part of my understanding of her. I was searching in a way that I wasn’t even totally aware of for a way to include that. It’s so central. What it does that I really like is, from that point on, it changes the frame of the story. It heightens the stakes of the story, and it changes even small things that you watch her do. Every time she smokes a cigarette, every time she does anything from that point on in the story, the stakes are heightened.
I experimented a lot with where it was placed and experimented with it being even earlier, because, like I said, I really liked how it changed your take on everything you see after you know that. Usually, this would kill drama. It tells you the end, so supposedly, it kills your investment in the story. I find the opposite to be true. It also reflects the influence of Milan Kundera on me and his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which does move like this. It talks about the main character’s death long before the end of the book.
I was doing this in a more traditional way earlier, where you’d have narration and below it or above it what I anticipated we were going to see. It made the script read so long and made it feel so broken apart. The columns made the read feel more like how I envisioned it was going to be like because I’m also the director. I’m a graphic designer, so I’m used to hacking the system a little bit. This feels much more like how it’s going to play. These images are going to fly by in a sort of lyrical way. The page count was also what I knew the actual result of film time was going to be.
I’m a writer-director, so I know that line looks very pronounced here in the script, but I know in my head that I’m going to shoot that wide and far and in a Gordon Willis ’70s way. It was going to be a very understated, not heavy-handed moment. On the page, it’s a little more heavy-handed than I know it’s going to be. It’s meant to counterpoint the heaviness of what came before. What came before is potentially a little — as Richard Brody described it — sententious.
Plot is very important, but it’s not my main interest at all. I’m not interested in typical character transformations. I don’t respond to that as an audience member. My process is really horrible, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to use it. It took me two and a half or three years to write this, but it’s probably because I was wandering around in the dark, trying to find in my memory or interviewing people little nuggets that have a grippiness to them. I hope to find in their concrete specificity something universal in them and weave them together to create something like a story.