Exclusive: Beginners Director Mike Mills

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While Mike Mills is first and foremost a graphic artist who has done album covers and music videos for acts like Moby, the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, he transitioned into dramatic feature films in 2005 with his adaptation of Walter Kirn’s Thumbsucker an understated and underrated film starring Lou Taylor Pucci, Tilda Swinton and Vincent D’Onofrio. Mills’ second dramatic feature Beginners is a more personal film but it also makes Thumbsucker seem conventional with its two-pronged non-linear story.

It stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver Fields, a graphic artist whose 70-something father Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, comes out of the closet after the death of Oliver’s mother and decides to start dating and become active in Gay Pride activism. He is only a few years into that plan when he becomes terminally ill, and after his death, Oliver meets the mysterious Anna, an actress played by Mélanie Laurent, who made such a wave in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few years back. Suddenly, he finds himself becoming immersed in this new relationship, which helps him start to come to terms with his father’s passing. It may sound like a fairly straight-forward story, except for the fact that both stories are told at the same time with flashbacks to different points in Oliver’s life and how his father’s decisions affected his own ability to find love. Even more fascinating is that Christopher Plummer’s character Hal is greatly based on Mills’ own father who had a similar late-life journey.

Last week, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with the filmmaker to try to learn more about the inspiration for his film and how it differs from real events in his life.

ComingSoon.net: While watching this, I thought back to the dysfunctional marriage between Vincent and Tilda in “Thumsucker,” but I didn’t realize it was based on things from your real life. At what point after your father passed away did you decide to make a movie based on that? How did it come about?
Mike Mills:
It was when he was still alive that he was sick but not acting at all like he was sick. It just seemed so big, his story, and what he was doing seemed so brave and I could just feel the life and love. We were having a bunch of sessions about relationships and what could happen and what can happen, and somewhere in there, I knew I somehow wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t know how I was going to. It wasn’t until six months after he passed away that I started writing. Even then, I didn’t now if I was making a documentary or what I was doing, and eventually, I settled on what I ultimately really feel is a story. It definitely started with my dad but by the time you write in the scenes and by the time you cast it and shoot it, I’d be very much lying if I called it a memoir. (chuckles)

CS: I wondered about that, because once you start writing and characters start taking on their own life and doing what they’re going to do when you’re writing, at what point did you have to say, “I want to include more of what really happened” or did you always try to go off it and let it go where it was going to go?
Mills:
Well, in terms of the Hal character which Christopher Plummer plays, I really was trying to make a portrait of my dad and things that happened, so in many ways, it’s very true. But when you think about it, I have two older sisters that I didn’t include in the story, and I know their portrait of my dad would be quite different, and my dad’s version of himself would be quite different. You get highly aware of how subjective your version of this person is and how much of it is a story even if you’re just trying to write down what you saw at some point. I would say the love story between Oliver and Anna, which is the other half of the film, is much more in the traditional canon of fiction. It’s all the emotional stuff I know about, but I’m not writing about me and my wife; I’m writing about my life in not such an autobiographical way.

CS: How hard was it to get financing for such a personal story and did you run into any difficulty along the way? Did you always lead into any meeting by saying that it’s based on your own father?
Mills:
I’d never be so tricky to try to hide parts that are based on my dad. It’s tricky to describe to people that while it’s very personal, it is this weird collaboration between my dad, me and Christopher Plummer. In terms of getting the film financed, it was quite difficult, because structurally it’s strange, emotionally it’s quite raw and some points unresolved. It has cancer in it, and it has a lot of things the film industry doesn’t really like very much, but then also there’s this great crush in 2007/2008 when I was trying to find money because the economy collapsed, so it was quite difficult even with Christopher and Ewan attached.

CS: Was the structure always non-linear and did it take some time to figure out exactly how to structure it that way?
Mills:
I wrote it like that and in a way, it was very natural to how I was feeling, because I started it six months after my dad passed so when you’re in that state, the past and memory, all these conversations you had with the person that’s gone, just keep flooding back, so it’s very indigenous to where I was. It was all written like that in those historical essays were in it, all the drawings were in it…

CS: What were some of the challenges of shooting a script like that? I imagine all the hotel scenes were shot in one week and you did all the stuff at the house. You had two very different journeys and story arcs that have to intertwine, so did you do all the stuff with Christopher Plummer first?
Mills:
Yeah, so we rehearsed with Ewan and Christopher for like a week and we shot that story, all pretty much chronologically, so it started with the hospital and it ended with Christopher passing away, then we stopped and we rehearsed with Mélanie and Ewan, then began that story with the first scene for them at the party to the last scenes at the house. I loved that and I did that with “Thumbsucker” too, but it was really important to do with this movie so that when Ewan is remembering the past, as he does often, he knows what he’s remembering, he really is remembering. I like shooting that way, because it just makes everything so much easier, the feeling of the story grows up inside, not just the actors but the whole crew.

CS: Let’s talk about casting Hal, because the character is based on your own father, so you had to find an actor who could embody that but give it his own spin while understanding all the layers the character is going through. How did you end up with Christopher Plummer? Was he the first person you thought of?
Mills:
Well, how can you not think of Christopher Plummer, the 70-year-old dad who is an art historian and very cultured and worldly, he’s so perfect for that, and then the first thing I said to him was, “This has to be your character. You can’t get burdened by my dad. My greatest fear was that it would be the narcissistic memoir and what I want to do is that I want to share my dad with the world in the story form. You have to own it and be the author of Hal, so that it feels real and there’s something really at stake here in your performance and it makes it real for the audience.” Christopher got that so well, and all of Christopher’s instincts were things that he adds to the character were always so wonderful to me, and it didn’t wildly veer off track from where I saw Hal, but where it got different, I feel like it got richer.

CS: What about Ewan? He’s a great actor and he’s done a lot of different types of things, but he seems really well-matched to this role. Did you always feel he was the actor who had to play Oliver?
Mills:
Well, I had to cast them together, right? Like the father and the son, so I thought of these two together, and I remember looking at pictures of them side by side going, “Ooo, they could really be father and son.” With all these people, I’m not this big powerful director that could just get these people, so instead of campaigning and meeting everybody around, I said, “Let’s just meet Ewan.” He’s so nice and so lovely and down to earth and just wants to do the script and likes it for all the right reasons. I really felt like Ewan is a really naturalistic actor, he can just be so subtle and real, but then it’s hard to find guys that are that willing to be that emotionally open and available and vulnerable without being dysfunctional, it’s just part of life.

CS: Was Mélanie’s character always French in the screenplay?
Mills:
Not at all. She was always strong, like I wanted her to be her own girl, strong and intelligent, free but not some crazypants actress. I started looking everywhere for that girl, all over Europe and America and Israel, anywhere really, and Mélanie just jumped out. I just found her so interesting. She did this amazing audition. She’s a writer/director herself, she just did her first feature, so she did this little audition that was really a whole short film with music and costume changes and scene changes and shots without her, and I was like, “I want that mind and that spirit in my film” and it worked out really nicely I thought. I liked that she was French.

CS: The biggest surprise for me was seeing Goran Visnjic from “ER” as Hal’s boyfriend Andy, because we really haven’t seen him play a role like this. He tends to be very serious and brooding and he’s smiling in every scene in this movie.
Mills:
Yeah, well I love that. It’s obviously fun when you get to do that with an actor and Goran, I didn’t even know he was coming in. We were auditioning lots of guys and he just came in on an audition. I remember him in “The Deep End” with Tilda Swinton, and I went, “Oh, it’s him!” because I love him in that movie. I don’t really watch TV that much, I don’t have a TV, so I didn’t really know him from the “ER” thing but he came in and he really did Andy just right off the bat, and I loved the whole physical transformation, and he really got the boyishness of the character.

CS: You’re an artist yourself and that’s a big part of Oliver’s life. One of the funniest scenes is when he’s with the band trying to be really artistic about their album cover, so was that something you’ve experienced while working with bands? Did you do all the art in the movie yourself?
Mills:
Yeah, yeah. Well, the drawings… I did go to art school, I didn’t go to film school, and I do drawings like that and I do graphics, so I did sort of mine that part of myself. The drawings are a lot of the time me drawing, but a lot of time, it’s a drawing I would start and Ewan would finish, so we could have him (drawing), and he really wanted to draw, and he has a very strong creative world on his own, so he’s really into motorcycles and cars and he develops all those things, so it came quite naturally to him as part of the realism as a character. I’ve done record covers and I just did the new one for the Beastie Boys after I made the film, but I was kind of mining things I know, but I was really trying to talk about those scenes as grief a little bit. When you’re angry, you’re really unreasonable. He does this kind of wild record cover that isn’t quite what they want but he’s trying to be true to himself, and part of grief is like “I’m alive, I need to do what I feel is right and true,” ’cause I’m kind of drawn to that energy, and I was trying to physicalize that in that scene.

CS: Hal kept the fact he was gay a secret for so long while staying married for 45 years, but you don’t really get too much into why, at least in his own words. Ewan in hindsight puts it together, but the two of them don’t have any conversations about it. Were you able to talk to your father about that and have those conversations yourself?
Mills:
Oh, yeah. I took a lot of that into the movie. (Oliver) talks about how the dad wants to see a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist in the ’50s told him that he had a mental illness. In the film and in real life, I had a conversation where my dad revealed that my mom knew that he was gay, and said, “I’ll fix that.” So he knew he was gay and mom knew he was gay and that was a strange negotiation they made in ’55. One of the more amazing things that happened between me and my dad when he came out was he became so open so that we could talk about anything, and me and my straight dad couldn’t always talk about anything, but me and my gay dad could talk about so much more and were so much more in engaged, emotionally-present conversations.

CS: To think that someone could have a relationship like that at the age of 75 and completely change their life is pretty amazing. I don’t think when you’re younger you think that it’s possible to change your life so drastically at that age.
Mills:
Yeah, it was very brave, and not only did he come out, but he started having relationships, and when you start relationships, you really risk a lot and you make yourself very vulnerable for the desire of live, and that was really amazing to watch. It wasn’t a revelation to himself, but it was more like finally having the nerve and maybe seeing that life is only so long, and finally just insisting on doing it, and I think that can only come for my dad after my mom passed away. I was actually partially inspired by her death, because when someone you love dies, it makes you really aware that you’re still alive and that you should be grabbing onto life in a really real way.

CS: It’s been five years between “Thumbsucker” and this so I wondered if you’re looking to tackle another narrative film pretty soon or will it be another five years for your next movie?
Mills:
Yeah, yeah. I started writing this as I was promoting “Thumbsucker” and I’m writing a film now, so who knows? We might talk in five years. It would be nice if it was shorter, but it’s out of my control.

Beginners opens in select cities on Friday, June 3.