The Daily Heller: Yann Kebbi Sketches a Mike Mills Movie

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C’mon C’mon (A24) is a black-and-white gem of a film written and directed by Mike Mills (whose features include Thumbsucker, Beginners and 20th Century Women). The film centers on Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix), an emotionally stunted and soft-spoken radio journalist who travels the country interviewing a variety of kids about their thoughts on the world and their future. Johnny’s saddled with caring for his young nephew, Jesse (Woody Norman), when his estranged sister, Viv (Gabby Hoffmann), leaves to care for her mentally disturbed husband (Scoot McGairy). Johnny develops a bond with Jesse as they travel from state to state.

For his film, Mills engaged French artist Yann Kebbi to roam freely around the sets and draw whatever he wanted during shoots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. (A24 subsequently published a book of the work.)

I recently asked Mills and Kebbi to discuss their collaboration—a rare opportunity for an artist to visually interpret a film while the filmmaker is in the process of making his art.

Johnny interviews Jesse in Los Angeles.
Mike, what, if anything from your graphic design experience before making films, influenced your decision to have Yann chronicle the making of C’mon C’mon?
Mills: I think coming from art school, not film school and design, has made me open to still imagery, drawings, graphics, all being a very legitimate part of cinema language, a very exciting part of cinema language. I think I’ve always been most excited by people who don’t stay in their proper medium or proper career lane—from the Bauhaus world to the Eames, who also made films without film school training, to artists who use graphics and designers who make “art.” 

Yann, what appealed to you about spending time on set drawing images about the making of this movie?
Kebbi: It was a very different setup than where and how I usually work, which is alone in my studio or outside, but always kind of lost in my thoughts. That was all new. I was surrounded by a lot of people working and moving, sometimes right in the mix of the shoot. Being there for a specific purpose, I was very dedicated and very focused on doing and doing more. When working on the set was getting a bit too intense, I would just leave and go draw the people and the city, which is one of the things that first appealed to Mike, I think—that I could just go and do my thing. I love drawing in the U.S. cities; the small details and differences urge me to draw. It was also a way to get out of my comfort zone, and that’s always interesting in terms of result, I think, good or bad.
Viv on telephone in Los Angeles.

Mike, you note in your introduction to the book that you wanted someone with a David Hockney approach to capture the personality of the film as it was being made. Yann’s drawings indeed have this quality. But they are also so narrative as to tell a story on their own. Did you also follow convention and have a still photographer on set?
Mills: Lovely unions insist you have a photographer on set; it’s just the law, ha. And I never asked Yann to be like Hockney, and Hockney was actually really inspiring to my cinematography or just conception of the film in general—that black-and-white imagery, and something quick and sort of al dente could be emotional, and intimate, and maybe more alive feeling because it was quick and personal. I don’t think Yann and I ever talked about the “narrative” or drawing a narrative, or even Hockney. I purposely left the job very wide open for Yann because I didn’t want to interfere or tell him what to do; I was more interested in how he might surprise me and my authorial voice. Since I’m a writer/director, writing about very personal things, I can feel claustrophobic by my own authorship and I’m dying for some outside, heterogeneous intrusions! I think that’s very important, actually. Yann ended up drawing so much more than I expected, and often many drawings of the same scene, so that did end up having like a temporal quality, a sequence, but I think Yann was deliciously free of narrative responsibilities! 

Yann, Mike says he couldn’t make the original idea to intersect your art and his film together as one. Did you have a sense as you were making your sketches how this process might work?
Kebbi: Not at all; I tried not to overthink it, nor to adapt my work toward this idea. Though I was curious of how the drawings would feel on the screen, especially because of the light.

I just wanted to produce enough to know I did my best, but also for Mike to have a wide range of choice and visual approaches to pick from.

Viv and Jesse at home in Los Angeles, as Jesse talks and Viv watches as his mind roams in wonder

Mike, you write that you made an edit of the images to use in the film. At what point did you realize that this match up was not working, and why?
Mills: Films are not in the writer/director’s control! You think they are, but they aren’t, at least for me! I thought Yann’s drawings, because they were still in a moving film space, because they were not “me,” not “mine,” would all be exciting. They would be mysterious interruptions, and kind of their own little film. But it just raised so many questions with viewers—who did the drawings? Jesse? Which wasn’t my intention at all, and for whatever reason very not interesting to me. What were the drawings saying about the story, etc., etc. So, in both a motion sense it became a stop to the flow of the film that just didn’t work (as it has in the past for me), and in terms of the story and what it was saying, I couldn’t find a way to make them exist on their own terms. So I kinda feel like I failed my original idea, and failed at my invitation to Yann; I have found making films is filled with failures. They’re unavoidable. 

Yann, your work is a beautiful blend of tight and loose—is there something that clicks inside of you in terms of how realistic or abstract you take a picture?
Kebbi: It is a balance. On one side it is me trying to find an equilibrium in the drawings, between technical achievement and feelings or expressivity. The other side is the context, the format, the techniques, even the mood. So, things you don’t really control.

Some drawings are loose because they are done very quickly during a shoot, and some are more composed because it was a longer and quieter time to draw. Often, I feel the quicker ones are closer to truth; they retain a kind of intent that you lose sometimes getting too comfortable.

Downtown Los Angeles.
Wall of Jesse’s room. On the wall is a Mills heirloom, a Dorothea Lange photo and a silhouette of his kid.

Mike, did you consider that the drawings might have represented 9-year-old Jesse’s inner thoughts?
Mills: This is what I really didn’t want. Don’t know why exactly, something kinda reductive about that? And that’s what a lot of people thought I was trying to say.

Yann, what were you able to achieve that a photographer could not have accomplished?
Kebbi: I hope the drawings convey a sense of something very particular, and also the idea of movement, life and accident.

Viv and Jesse at home in Los Angeles.
Viv on the phone with Johnny at Paul’s house.

Mike, after realizing that you could not make your original concept work, did you conceive the book as a complement to the film?
Mills: We always had the idea of making a book of Yann’s drawings, from before we started actually shooting/drawing. But again, Yann was so productive, as the days went on it became more and more obvious this was a serious and big and wonderful body of work on its own! 

And after seeing what Yann produced, do you have any interest in doing either an animated film or a graphic novel?
Mills: Not really. Yann’s work reminds me much more of Bonnard, or Matisse, or, yeah, Hockney. I think they are about capturing motion or even multiple views of a singular event in a still, non-time based, non-sequential form—and that is what is beautiful about them, to me at least? That they are drawings! Beautiful old-school drawings. And in the end, this is such a special and strange artifact, it really shouldn’t exist. And that’s what is wonderfully wrong, expansively broken about the whole adventure—to me, at least. That and just the fact that Yann does such beautiful and interesting drawings. 

Roller skaters at Venice Beach, Los Angeles.
Johnny and Jesse walk in New York.
One of Mills’s favorite drawings, drawn on the last day of shooting for Johnny and Jesse.

How did you both enjoy working with each other?
To see how Mike would have to organize and interact with what felt like a lot of people, and at the same time realize or achieve what he had envisioned for his film, was amazing.

It looked overwhelming and very hard to me. Also because Mike had this easy way to bring a good and gentle mood. Though I’m sure it is hard, he kind of made it look easy. Always careful to others. That was kind of a lesson for me. Mike has been very respectful of the drawing process; he clearly has understanding of that, and I am thankful. He would sometimes just take a quick look, a hint that he likes one drawing in all the rush of the movie. In what could be sometimes a stressful environment for me to “perform,” he made it easy and clever. It was kind of very simple and organic; I was just there, getting lost in my drawings on the set, and that was the best way for me to process.

Mills: Yann is such a kind and gentle soul, at least with me! And he was so hardworking. It was wonderful to have him in the middle of the shoot, in the middle of the film crew and equipment, doing drawings. It was so unusual and inspiring. I loved it. 

Viv and Jesse listening to Johnny’s recording for the end of the film.