Director Mike Mills on filming in Santa Barbara

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Santa Barbara plays the backdrop for the new movie, “20th Century Women,” written by director Mike Mills. It’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Mills grew up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s and the film is semi-autobiographical. It explores the relationship between a 15-year-old boy and his single mother who, while trying to figure herself out, enlists two younger female characters to help raise her son.

Mills spoke with KCRW about what it was like being a kid in Santa Barbara and what it was like coming back.

On Santa Barbara in the 1970s

“It was more bohemian and eclectic. Even Montecito had a lot of different characters. It’s very different now, economically. It was sleepier, too, or maybe that’s just the romantic view of a kid talking about his hometown.

“Another thing I tried to capture in the film was boredom. And I say boredom in a positive sense. Back in those days, we had less stuff to fill our lives. There was more air around us. More time. More space to figure yourself out,  fail, try things and just hang out with each other. To me, the lushness, the bush-lines streets, those creeks, they all go hand in hand with that.”

On setting the film in Santa Barbara

“Santa Barbara is so visually beautiful. We shot in Montecito, at Miramar Beach, East Beach and even out by the airport. It was a key part to creating the atmosphere that all the dynamics between these people happen in.

“I loved Santa Barbara as a pre-digital landscape. 1979 is a pre-digital world. It’s a pre-Reagan world. That time, to me, has deep roots in post-war, slightly more socialist American culture. So, going to the beauty and lushness of Santa Barbara seemed like the perfect place to set that particular story.

“It hasn’t changed [aesthetically]. Those sidewalk-less, sign-less streets remain in this sort of pre-digital, pre-contemporary, Maxfield Parrish painting kind of world. Those groves of oak trees, the creeks we shot in, it really has remained much like it was when I was a kid there.”

On the notion of escape in the film

“That’s the voice of someone who grew up in a small, suburban town and wanted to get out. That was true for me and the people who I was around, especially if you’re involved in something like punk music. It always felt like punk wasn’t supposed to be in Santa Barbara. It was supposed to be in Los Angeles or somewhere else, and you had to get out to get to something more real.

“Actually, Santa Barbara was a great stopping point for all the bands on tour. Between Los Angeles, Ventura and San Luis Obispo, every single band stopped in Santa Barbara at the Goleta Valley Recreation Center or one of the places downtown.”