Annette Bening applauded the emotional specificity of 20th Century Women at a New York Film Festival press conference on Friday.
"None of these women have any clichés," explained Bening, who herself grew up in a beach town and was 19 years old in 1979, when the film takes place. "I loved the script because I thought it contextualized that period for me in a way that I had never seen. … There's something that he's written that pops out and just smacks me in the head, that's so smart and hasn't really been said before. That was thrilling to be able to be a part of that."
"I'm interested in how our emotional lives are historical," said Mills, who prioritized "nailing the 1979 emotional accuracy - what are the interior concerns and thoughts and feelings that go on then." Of crafting the female characters, he explained, "I'm very much trying to base everything on real women. … Yes, ultimately, I'm a straight white cisgender male guy trying to write about women, but I can only go so far, I'm on the outside looking in. I was trying to make those limitations of my perspective part of the story."
Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, the coming-of-age tale centers on three women who teach a young boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) about girls, life and love. Also starring Greta Gerwig and Billy Crudup, it features characters who are deeply rooted in Mills' life. For example, Bening's Dorothea, a divorced woman born during the Great Depression, is based on Mills' mother. "I was trying to make a portrait of her to remember her character," he explained. "You should all make movies about your mom, it's really a trip!"
And Fanning's Julie, an introspective 17-year-old experimenting with sex and self-possession, traces back to a childhood friend, but Mills then interviewed women who were teens in the 1970s. "I had a slight reporter, journalistic approach," he noted, revealing that the onscreen stories of Julie's first menstruation and sexual experience were contributed by his close friends.
To inform their characters, Mills equipped each of the actors with character-specific music, books and movies (i.e. Fanning read The Road Less Traveled, and Zumann read A Cultural Dictionary of Punk). During their first day on set, the entire cast danced freely in that 1906 house "that's totally falling apart, where you can see daylight in places you shouldn't," said Mills. "I wish I had video of that."
After making its world premiere at the New York Film Festival as its centerpiece film, 20th Century Women will hit limited theaters Dec. 25 before expanding wide Jan. 20.