How New Orleans Enchanted 'C'mon C'mon' Director Mike Mills

The director discusses shooting his latest film with Joaquin Phoenix in a city he explored for the first time.

c'mon c'mon joaquin phoenix woody norman

Beginners and 20th Century Women director Mike Mills' latest,C'mon C'mon, is something of a travelogue. The black-and-white film charts Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), an Ira Glass-type radio host, who starts to care for the son of his estranged sister, Viv (Gaby Hoffmann), while she is taking care of the kid's troubled father. Johnny's nephew, Jesse (the wonderful Woody Norman), is a savvy and charmingly weird child who likes to pretend he's an orphan and ask his real-life mother about her fake dead children.

Though Johnny starts his babysitting duties in Jesse's hometown of Los Angeles, eventually work calls him away, and because Viv is overwhelmed, she allows Jesse to go with him. This means Johnny gets a pint-sized apprentice as he completes a project interviewing schoolchildren from cities around the country about the future. Tiny Jesse tags along wielding oversized recording gear in New York and New Orleans.

A sense of place is crucial to C'mon C'mon, which uses its story about familial bonding to comment on America's youngest generation as a whole. Sitting down with Mills, Thrillist asked him about his favorite location to shoot in and, while it was hard for him to choose, he described his process of getting to know New Orleans.

I wanted to somehow get in the world, go into America a bit. I did a project before where I interviewed kids about the future and I really wanted to do more of that. A film that really influenced this film that I adore and that helped me in post-2016 a lot was [Wim Wenders'] Alice in the Cities. And I would keep watching that just as medicine. Then finally I was like, "Wow, I feel like I could do my own blues riff off of that"—like, a person who shouldn't be a parent with a kid. It helped me because a lot of this came from my experience of being an adult. My kid's a little person and has their own mysteries and their own privacy that I couldn't interfere with too much, so I needed to find a way to make it not us, but where I could still report on things I've seen or things I've felt. That helped with both the road film part and helped me figure out, "Oh, estranged uncle." That was the other piece I really needed.

I live in LA and I've lived in New York for a long time. I just have many friends from New Orleans. I've never really spent serious time there, but I've heard so much. Like if someone's from New Orleans, it's all they talk about. One of my best friends grew up in New Orleans, so it's always been an enchanted place. Each city needed to be a new representation of the future. Detroit used to be the future, and it's this collapsed future, and New Orleans is the future's underwater, maybe really for real. Like, people live with that notion. New York is immigrants. And LA we didn't do the future, but it's an ever memory-erased city.

New Orleans is a deeply magical place. And we bumped into such an amazing community of people that really helped us. They were like our weird New Orleans film family. The house that we shot at is Jackie Sumell's house, who's an amazing artist who we met from this other friend, Lori Tipton. Then Sunni Patterson, who [plays the person who] lives in that house, is a poet activist. Not an actor, just a friend of Jackie's.

One of my producers, Andrea Longacre-White, is so great at finding people. And I was like, "I want to go to New Orleans and not talk like a film industry person." Because New Orleans is so easy to get wrong as a tourist and as a white dude and blah, blah, blah—so fraught. I just want to cruise around with someone who will tell me what's up.

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Lori and her partner took us around and just gave us an insider tour. And I was like, "If this radio journalist came to New Orleans, where would he stay?" And she was like, "Well, not an Airbnb and not a hotel. He's someone's friend." And I was like, "Who's he friends with?" And she's like, "He's friends with Jackie, my friend." And Jackie's an amazing abolitionist, political artist and lives in that house. We drove by the house and I was like, "Oh, yes." It's in the Seventh Ward. It's not touristy. Gorgeous house. Lots of history. And it was just like that. I met Jackie. Jackie's a hysterical, amazing person. I was like, "Jackie, who lives at your house?" She's like, "Not a white person." "But who?" She had an amazing list like Neneh Cherry, Rihanna. I was like, "Let's get real Jackie." And she was like, "Sunni." Sunni Patterson is who played that role and brought so much to the movie.

In part of negotiating for "we want to shoot your house" with Jackie, she responded, "Okay, that's all cool. Here's my two things. I want all my kids to be able to be around at all times. And learn about filmmaking." And I was like, "Easy, yes." "And I want all of you to take an anti-racism class with The People's Institute." And I was like, "Rad. How rad of you to ask us that? This is a very cool adventure." So voluntarily almost everyone came on the weekend and we spent a day with them. And then they came and visited us on the set and came to our wrap party. It was very New Orleans.

I loved ending in New Orleans. It's just such a deep place. And its moons are very alive. It just seemed like such a great setting to have your deepest, most vulnerable, emotional awakening and connection. I didn't know that. I learned that as the process went on. Because I really just went, "New Orleans," based on this feeling. That thing [that Jesse says] about ghosts and reincarnation—that comes from Gaby [Hoffmann]. I had this series of vignettes that are this biography of the mom. It's a little bit inspired by my wife [Miranda July], my kid's mom, who's a very deep spiritual person and goes there with [our son], Hopper. And it's really beautiful. And I was like, "Gaby, what would you talk about that's really something thick and has a lot to it?" She is really into reincarnation. So everything she's saying, that is just her. And then Woody remembered that. So when I'm shooting that scene in New Orleans, I didn't write that line, "She would love it here." That's Woody just remembering that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.