Interview: Discussing Talking Dogs and ‘Beginners’ with Writer/Director Mike Mills

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Ewan McGregor and Mike Mills on the set of Beginners
Photo: Focus Features

I want to start out by saying this was one of the most difficult pieces I’ve had to write for this site. That’s because I love, love writer/director Mike Mills‘ new film Beginners and I really hope I do it justice with this article.

I’m not saying this because I was invited to the Focus Features junket and fed breakfast at the Four Seasons Hotel. I’m saying it because Beginners is the best film I’ve seen this year and maybe the best film-going experience I’ve had since I went gaga for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last year. That doesn’t mean everyone who reads this article will love Beginners as much as I did, but if you’re a film lover I doubt you’ll be disappointed by Mills’ cinematic confection. It’s that good.

If there is a problem with Mills’ film it’s that it’s almost impossible to describe what it’s about to prospective viewers. The “official summary” from Focus reads like this:

Beginners – imaginatively explores the hilarity, confusion, and surprises of love through the evolving consciousness of Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Oliver meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Melanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds) only months after his father Hal (Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer) has passed away. This new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who following 44 years of marriage came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. The upheavals of Hal’s new honesty, by turns funny and moving, brought father and son closer than they’d ever been able to be. Now Oliver endeavors to love Anna with all the bravery, humor, and hope that his father taught him.

Not bad for a synopsis, but it hardly explains why the film is so wonderful. For one thing it doesn’t even mention Cosmo, who plays Oliver’s dog Arthur. Cosmo, or Arthur as it were does as dogs and children often do, he nearly steals the show from a truly terrific cast of characters.

I say “nearly” because everyone turns in a great performance. Christopher Plummer reminds us why he has become such a sought after actor in his later years, Melanie Laurent reminds viewers how great she was in Inglourious Basterds and for those of you like myself, Ewan McGregor reminds us all why he was once regarded as the next major star of his generation.

Ewan McGregor and Cosmo in Beginners
Photo: Focus Features

Back to Arthur, who is adroitly played by a Jack Russell terrier named Cosmo. For those who haven’t seen the trailer for Beginners (I’ve included it just below), Arthur has subtitles. This could be taken for him “talking,” but as Mills told me in our exclusive interview, “He doesn’t really talk.”

What the subtitles allow Mills to do is find ways to get at the main characters inner thoughts. If you’ve ever been close with a pet you’ll immediately understand the illusion the director is creating. It is both clever and revealing. More importantly, it works.

I asked Mike if he considered doing anything else with Arthur in the film. “Like having him actually talk?” Mills responded. “No. That to me, having him talk is kind of offensive. Dogs don’t talk. I talk to my dog constantly. And I’m aware that my dog is listening to my energy and a bunch of my words. I project the conversation back that I’m having with my dog and this was a way to see Oliver’s thoughts. The drawings and the dog’s subtitles were a way to externalize a character who was sometimes non-verbal.”

The “drawings” Mills refers to are those of McGregor’s character Oliver, who’s a commercial artist working on a CD jacket for a group called, not so coincidentally, The Sads. Mills was smiling as he explained this, because he knew what I was getting at. The bond between Arthur and Oliver is very real, and the two protagonists are definitely in communication with each other, but this isn’t Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

His statements often revealed the playful quality displayed in Beginners. For a film that is ostensibly about the death of a loved one and the aftermath of that loss, Beginners is surprisingly light and full of life. It’s like going to a good old-fashioned wake for someone who lived a full life. Mills has pulled off that rare feat of creating a world both very real and very whimsical at the same time. The closest film I can compare it to in recent memory would be the delightful film Amelie from 2004. One film it most certainly does not resemble is the director’s debut film, Thumbsucker. A film I wasn’t particularly fond of when it came out back in 2005.

For this reason I had to ask Mills if he found increased inspiration living with his wife, Miranda July (You, Me and Everyone We Know, The Future), whom he married only last year and is an accomplished filmmaker in her own right. He immediately lit up, “Yes, I did. Especially in the writing. She’s a great writer, and I would struggle. And she would say ‘Welcome to writing, that’s how it is.'” Whatever struggles Mills might have had while writing Beginners it was worth it.

I also asked if the time it took to make Beginners played a role in the quality of the film. Mills nodded affirmatively, “But I wish it could have been three or four years between films instead of 6 years. Although there were times I didn’t think it would happen at all.” Let’s hope it isn’t six years before we see the next Mike Mills film.

Finally, I had time for one more question and asked if he could sum up the film in one sentence, “It’s about people trying to figure out how to love one another.”

He’s right about that, but it’s also about so much more and I can’t stress enough how much I want you to go see this film as it opens in limited release this weekend and will expand nationwide throughout the month of June.

FYI Mills’ film blog is a terrific read as well. He’s even got a link to a film clip of Alexander Calder’s Circus. That alone is the price of admission.