I currently reside in Venice Beach, close to good friend and constant collaborator Travis Mauck (Creative Director of ENDPAIN) whom I've worked with since 2010. In addition to writing and directing my first narrative feature film this year, I'm hoping to begin documenting stories of human resilience and passion for ENDPAIN internationally to compliment my previous American work.
When Director James Mills first began his short documentary film, “Moon Child,” his intention was not to showcase his family’s eccentricities, but rather to explore his relationship with his mother—one that was fractured with resentment. While Mills was growing up, Tammy Schmitt, his mother, who suffered traumas from her own childhood, allowed her life to spiral out of control from addiction. At the age of twelve, Mills was permanently removed from the care of his mother and became a ward of the state.
In “Moon Child,” Mills explores his family dynamics, as three generations of women come together to tell the story of Vina Schmitt, grandmother, mother, and self-proclaimed “Moon Child” of Oceanside, California. Sexually and physically abused by her stepfather as a child, Vina’s forced loss of boundaries led her to pursue a life of hard living filled with surfing, skating, and booze that extended far into her mothering years. Now a grandmother, Vina’s daughter and granddaughter recollect the ways in which Vina’s life story and mental health has impacted their own, and wonder if the intergenerational trauma can be healed.
The film is beautiful in its own right, but it brings to surface the shadow elements of ourselves and our society. Ultimately, “Moon Child” is James’ love letter to Vina, and in turn, an olive branch of acceptance for his mother. It is through the eyes of his lens that Mills is able to truly come to love and accept where he came from. We sat down with Mills to further understand the intentions behind the film, and how it has healed his relationship with his family.
AN INTERVIEW WITH
DIRECTOR JAMES MILLS
ENDPAIN: What are some of your earliest memories as a child and how old were you when you first moved foster care? What was your relationship with your family at the time?
James Mills: My earliest memories through the developmental stages of my life are fond ones; my mother instilled empathy and expression into me throughout my early youth. She was a heroically giving and loving single mother before addiction came into play when I was around eight or nine. I was taken away multiple times into custody of the state until I was finally deemed a ward of the state and permanently removed around age 12.
EP: What was your initial inspiration to create this film? What were you seeking to accomplish?
JM: Beyond exploring my own past and heritage in hopes of further forgiving my own mother, I wanted to see the similarities between lineages—both innate and nurtured. I had started shooting a documentary about my grandmother a few years ago, but other commercial projects got me sidetracked, and Moon Child was shelved.
Naturally though, the subject never stopped fascinating me. It's my blood; it's literally the backstory of my creation and the science behind what makes me, me. I believe that's a natural source of inspiration for anyone; finding themselves. And perhaps, just as importantly, I wanted to forgive my mother. I think I knew subconsciously that finding out the depths of her story would connect, and erase, some dots of resentment.
EP: Had you been in touch with your feelings about your family before making Moon Child, and how did your relationship with them change during and after?
JM: I'm very open about my childhood and, for the most part, feel that it's shaped my character into a man that I'm proud of waking up as most mornings. But my relationship with my mother has never been fully repaired. Throughout the process of making this film, I found my mom either ignored or made the same excuses about my upbringing—the same ones that my grandmother made for my mom's upbringing. There were emotional moments while filming in which we all simultaneously had this realization and bonded because of it.
EP: Vina shares some deeply traumatic experiences that can be difficult to watch, and I’m sure were difficult to film. Why did you feel it was important to include these scenes?
JM: Because Vina's right: we glibly gloss over subjects of rape and molestation. We pretend that only "monsters" do this, that they're rogue outliers tucked away from society, but the reality is our own family members do this shit sometimes. The lasting effects of these actions are seen in our own promiscuities, in our own offspring. Though perhaps not always capable of clinically articulating her observations, Vina is very, very intelligent. Her assertion of molestation is both accurate and important, and I appreciated her calling me out on my own bullshit of immediately thinking it was too graphic to share.
We hear these stories and immediately associate them with the aforementioned "monsters," and we separate them as far away as possible from ourselves because we don't want to hear the sordid details. But it's the sordid details that these victims are ashamed of because we don't want to hear them. It's the sordid details that they will never forget, that will always haunt them. The details are real; they're real to Vina and a LOT of other humans out there. Vina's a hero for sharing it and putting us all in our place—of course, I had to include it.
EP: Mental illness is still widely stigmatized and swept under the rug. In what ways do you think society’s perceptions around mental health worked against Vina? How can society change to make people affected by mental illness more inclined to heal?
JM: It's been easy for people to label Vina as "just crazy" and then disregard or neglect her entirely. That's obviously a lot easier than finding out her story and developing an understanding as to what may have led to the way she behaves and thinks, and I'm sure that has ultimately led to her isolation now.
I think that a lot of people that live solitary or lonely lives have difficulty recognizing their own mental instabilities, which probably only perpetuates their societal ostracizing. Anyone who's worked with mentally-handicapped people will tell you that there's a lot of things they see and notice that normal (i.e., boring) folk are incapable of. I think people should embrace different ways of thinking to expand their own rationales and better the well-beings of those that are feeling mentally ostracized.
EP: Of course, you are an integral part of your family, but you remain relatively unknown in the film. Why did you choose to not include yourself as a primary subject?
JM: Too many filmmakers talk about themselves. They talk about their lives and their struggles and their "story," which unfortunately is rarely a noteworthy one. I'm no different in that regard. To me, just because events happen to someone doesn't make the story itself worth telling: it's the character that makes the story. Vina is the character we can learn from, not me.
EP: You have said that this film is a love story – can you expand on that? What is the definition of love to you?
JM: I think love is blind: the ability to look past (not ignore) someone's actions and stick with them because you know them. You know who they really are, and you love them for who they really are. When we hurt one another, it's usually a response to how we've been hurt before. Loving someone is the ability to stand by that person through the bottoms of their choices and not make excuses or condone their mistakes, but understand why they did them and help them get through the rocky times with a smile and shoulder to lean on, as you both push forward. It's unconditional, and that’s how I feel about my mother and grandmother. I wanted this film to show the essences of both, what makes me love them.
EP: At ENDPAIN, we believe in sharing “what is,” so we can reimagine “what should be.” How do you feel Moon Child touches on this idea and in what ways has your family dynamic evolved since the making of the film?
JM: Before making the film, I was more concerned with forgetting my mother, rather than forgiving her. Throughout its creation, especially in the editorial phase, I've learned that the latter was what I really should be doing. It's a long process, but I am becoming more forgiving, and we as a family are growing together day by day. The goal is to trust each other enough to hear each other's opinions and critiques, not as attacks, but rather as encouragement, and sometimes, pleas for affection. I think this can only come about once a family really trusts that they're all there for each other, unequivocally and unconditionally.
EP: How did Moon Child personally help you heal from some of the intergenerational family traumas? From your experience, what would you say is the role of storytelling in healing?
JM: Forgiving one's mother is much more than just the tangible relationship you have with her now. Your relationship with your mother, in my belief, goes back to the developmental stages of your youth and dictates how you perceive the world and humans in many ways. Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child explores this fundamental belief through science and proves its value over and over again: the way we were treated as a child correlates to the way we treat others, and ourselves, in the present day. Understanding how my mother was treated, and reinspecting how I was treated, has helped me go a little easier on everyone, including myself. Storytelling is the best way to hide this medicine in the popcorn, per se: to make people feel that level of understanding without having to be didactically instructed it.
EP: You have worked on a script based on Moon Child. Tell us a bit about how you plan to expand on this story and what your hopes are for the future.
JM: I wrote a script that focuses on my grandmother and mother working through some of the same resentments that I am now working through with my mother. The film is a black comedy about a 45-year-old woman (Vina), who kidnaps her drug-addicted 25-year-old daughter, on her houseboat to make her kick her addiction and, hopefully, rebuild their unusually destructive relationship. It's the sixth feature I've written, but I feel that it's far and away the strongest and most realized—the first that I've known in my gut that I simply need to make. I think that's in large part because of "Moon Child" and what it's taught me. We have a great group of producers pushing it forward (including ENDPAIN's own supremely talented Travis Mauck) and I'm really excited about its direction.
EP: How do you hope Moon Child will be received by the audience? What is the message you are trying to share?
JM: I hope audiences can inspect the consequences of their own actions after seeing the effects of Vina's and my mother's because I really think we need to empathize and be there for one another. We shape each other in every single word we exchange. We are constantly evolving and learning from the actions of our peers and parents. Sometimes for beauty, sometimes for shame, but our souls never stop keeping score. There's always time to make more beauty, and that usually comes from being yourself and your own inner child, something Vina is so remarkably good at.