Made in S.B.

Posted online: November 2016

Director Mike Mills digs into family history and explores memories with his films. Raised in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, he is best known for his independent film Beginners for which Christopher Plummer won the Best Supporting actor Academy Award. That movie was about his dad, Paul Chadbourne Mills—former director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art—and how he came out as a gay man at the age of 75. Now, Mills returns with 20th Century Women, which is about his mother, Jan Mills. Starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, and Billy Crudup, this alternative coming-of-age film takes place in 1979 and was shot in Santa Barbara.

By Roger Durling

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-38-39-pmWhat was Santa Barbara like in 1979?

We moved here in the 1970s, lived in Montecito, and my dad was the director of the art museum—he didn’t make a lot of money doing that back in the ’70s. We had a big old house there, it was kind of in ruins. Montecito in the ’70s was not as wealthy as it is now. There were a lot of big old houses that were in shambles and had a Grey Gardens vibe. I remember my Montecito Union school bus stopping up on Cold Springs and dropping off kids who were kind of living in a squatter deal, and it was this big stone mansion. It was much more loose, much more bohemian. It was sleepier and more boring in a beautiful way. It feels like this piece of history that we can never return to. Santa Barbara is a very enchanted embodiment of that natural innocence to me. And it’s very easy to make it look like 1979. The streets in Montecito haven’t changed—all the signs are the same. Everything’s the same. 

Punk rock plays a big part in the film. Tell me about the punk scene in Santa Barbara at the time. 

I was a skater kid, and I went to Santa Barbara High School. I was competing all the time down in Los Angeles, and that’s where I started hearing punk. They would play it around there and all the kids were into it. Eventually, my high school had a version of it, and I was in a band. In my movie, there’s this music club in a few scenes, and you never hear anyone say the name, but it’s based on a club called Baudelaire’s on lower State Street. Back then, we all thought it was sort of dangerous to go down there. It was a super interesting scene. All the local punk bands would play there, and my band would play there a lot. 

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-12-39-28-pmOne of your characters, Abbie (played by Greta Gerwig), says, “Santa Barbara people are always happy.”

Everyone’s supposed to be happy and that makes her crazy. Yes, that is my own feeling too. When you grow up in Santa Barbara—and especially if you don’t really fit in, you don’t go to the beach, you’re like a punk rock kid—Santa Barbara can have a sort of oppressive happiness, where everyone is perfect and everyone should be happy. It tends to erase the confusion and sadness and disquiet that any normal human being feels. So I ran to New York when I was 18 to a messier life, and I put that in the movie. And my mom’s side of the family loves to complain about Santa Barbara even though they love it. My mom would always say: “We gotta get out of this town Michael. It will make you crazy, there’s too much leisure here.”

What was it like for you to be back in your hometown shooting such an autobiographical piece?

For me, shooting here was lovely. There was something very deep about communing with my parents as I’ve done in these last two movies. There’s something very rewarding in it because I feel like I didn’t get enough of each of my parents—for different reasons—so it was very healing. It’s a trip to come back as a 50-year-old man with a camera crew and film these places that the 5-year-old you hung out in. I don’t know how to explain how trippy that is.

[WINTER 2017]

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