Mike Mills says Joaquin Phoenix was perfect for heartfelt indie C'mon, C'mon because he 'isn't too sweet'
Inspired by his life with and connection to his own kid, writer and director Mike Mills wanted to explore the relationships between children and adults in his upcoming black-and-white drama, C'mon C'mon.
"The idea definitely came from my kid, just being around my kid, and the world my kid introduced me to: other kids, other parents, other moms in particular, my kid's mom," Mills tells EW during an interview at SCAD Savannah Film Festival. "It's such a heavy experience taking care of a person and the impact they have on you. Trying to show them the world is the most intimate personal thing and the most public, social, historical, big thing at the same time. So I wanted to write something about that space; trying to take care of someone and the impact it has on the adult, how much it changes the adult."
C'mon C'mon stars Joaquin Phoenix as radio journalist Johnny, who finds himself unexpectedly taking care of his curious and quirky 9-year-old nephew Jesse (played by newcomer Woody Norman). As the duo travels from Los Angeles to New York City to New Orleans to Detroit, Johnny and Jesse learn how to be around one another and forge a close bond — an experience not dissimilar to that of Phoenix and Norman's while making the movie.
"I love Joaquin and Woody together," says Mills. "There's this scene of them in New Orleans together after there's this parade scene. It's a quiet scene between he two of them. They're just holding hands and Woody plops his head down on Joaquin's chest and it's because — we shot in order — they'd been together for months now, and they were just great friends by that point and loved each other in some way. So the film was this scene, but it's also what's really happening. I watched that scene happen and it's much more than my direction. It's this event."
Mills chose to explore the relationship between uncle and nephew, rather than father and son, partly to give his own child privacy, but also because Johnny being an estranged uncle gave him the opportunity to delve into someone having to learn the parenting experience in a time crunch. "Of course the film loves that compression," says Mills. "Every scene, it's like he doesn't know how to do what needs to be done in almost every moment. It's almost like a Buster Keaton technique — just being bad at your job. I really wanted the man to not be broken down or weird or kind of a goof. There's so many men that are like that in film and television and I wanted it to be like, yeah he's been to therapy, he can talk about his emotions, his life is as he exactly wants it to be at all, but it's not because he's a failure in any way."
Mills was confident that Phoenix would bring "his intelligence and humor" to the role, and also some needed edge. "Let's be honest I can be too sweet," says the director. "Joaquin isn't too sweet so I thought we would be a good combination and I think it really played out."
While casting the Joker star was straightforward enough, Mills was concerned finding his young lead would be more of a challenge. "We anticipate this is going to be the hardest thing in world and maybe the film won't happen," says Mills. "Joaquin and I had this agreement that it's going to have to be a hell of a kid and who knows if I'll actually find that kid and let's just agree to not making the movie if we don't feel like 100 percent we found the right kid." Feeling the weight of the task at hand, Mills made sure the studio allotted a generous amount of money and time to the search for Phoenix's costar, casting the net wide and internationally. But he needn't have worried.
"The first link I get from my casting person, there's Woody," says Mills. "He's kid number three and he was quite amazing." The director also couldn't believe that Norman was actually English. "That was totally wild," he says of realizing Norman's American accent was just another facet of his skill set. "The film gods helped us out. It shouldn't have been that easy. It shouldn't have been anything like that."
They quickly moved ahead with flying the now 12-year-old out to the U.S. to meet with Phoenix. "Joaquin shows up in his pajamas," says Mills. "They were doing really well together, but we quickly realized the more freedom you give Woody, the more playful it is and more inventive and spirited, because Joaquin's really funny but Woody was just right there on the response every time. They really went toe-to-toe right away. It was really pretty obvious to us that that was the only kid that could do this...We're going down the Woody train tracks."
Norman isn't the only young person in the movie. In addition to the fictional road movie aspect of the film, C'mon C'mon is also interspersed with documentary-style, real interviews from children around the country. "We interview a bunch of kids from 10 to 14 years old and they're real, non-actor people from the cities we were filming in," explains Mills. "It was this idea of, I wanna make a film that's as intimate as giving your kid a bath, but it's also thrown up against the largest issues that are happening in our society and I wanted the kids to talk about that. So we interviewed all these young people about the future, what life is like now, their understanding of the world, [but we] asked them in the highest, most adult way. We really wanted their answers to be almost like the setting of the film. These kids' take on America these days: that's the landscape that my two little figures were walking through."
Not only is the movie a mix of scripted and unscripted footage, it's also entirely in black-and-white, a decision Mills said he made because that was how he'd seen it from the very beginning. "I always saw this kid character and this adult character walking through New York City landscapes or L.A. landscapes, New Orleans landscapes in black-and-white and I think that's partly because that image to me is an archetypal, fable, mythological kind of image," he says. "I wanted to have this film have that feeling. Yeah, it has documentary qualities to it, it has actual documentary parts to it and it feels very now, but it also feels like a classic or some film you just haven't seen. Black-and-white pulls you out of reality and puts you into a different story land."
C'mon C'mon is in theaters now. Watch Mills' full interview above.
A portion of this conversation is also included in the season premiere of EW's The Awardist podcast, available below and wherever you listen to podcasts. Our new season covers the road to the 2022 Oscars with interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Ruth Negga, and more Oscar hopefuls.