Monochrome is in vogue this awards season as major contenders including “Belfast,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth” and “Passing” have all opted for lush black-and-white cinematography. Mike Mills called on “The Favourite” DP Robbie Ryan to shoot his latest project, “C’mon C’mon,” with similar rich imagery.
“I freaking love black-and-white movies,” Mills says. “It’s not a binary choice. It’s part of the history of cinema.” The movie, which A24 releases Nov. 19, centers on Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Johnny, a grizzled documentary filmmaker who has never had children, and his precocious, inquisitive 9-year-old nephew Jesse (Woody Norman), who embark on a road trip across the U.S. Mills says there’s something archetypal about the image of the two opposite characters thrust together. “I wanted to play that out — this documentary strand and this child fable. It felt old, like a drawing.”
Mills pointed Ryan to the 1974 Wim Wenders film “Alice in the Cities” as a reference for the specific family dynamic the director was looking for: how older people interact and connect with a kid.
The opening scene sees Johnny in Detroit on assignment, interviewing young people and asking them about their fears, expectations and views of the future. Ryan starts out with an intimate close-up of Johnny and his first interview subject. “The idea was to avoid the wildness and avoid the real world,” Mills says. “But right in the next shot, we’re out in the Detroit landscape and seeing location shots.”
Complementing the visuals is the film’s score by brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner. Mills brought the composers in early before he had even started shooting. As he had done with Ryan, the DP provided sketches and photos as he came up with ideas.
Aaron Dessner began to build his arrangement by tinkering on the piano, but ultimately the interview segments helped the score come together. “We based pieces around the soundscape of L.A., New York, New Orleans and Detroit,” says Dessner. “We would play a lot of different instruments, process them and drop them in different octaves to create this experimental world.”
Mills was drawn to the chord movement, which Aaron Dessner recorded on a Korg MS-20 monophonic synthesizer that was deliberately out of tune. Says Dessner, “We built this one main theme [‘My Anger’] that you hear at the beginning of the movie.” But Mills meant the effect to be subtle, not emotional. “He didn’t want to push you too hard,” Dessner explains.