Mike Mills is not exactly a household name, but he is well on his way to becoming an important director. In 2005, his first film “Thumbsucker,” won awards at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and he was honored with the Guardian New Directors award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Mills’ latest film is the poignant “Beginners,” a beautifully made movie based on his father. That character (Hal), played by Christopher Plummer, decides at age 75 to come out of the closet. Ewan McGregor plays Mike’s onscreen character of Oliver and gives a riveting performance. Other members of the cast include Melanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds”) as Anna, Oliver’s love interest, and Goran Visnjic (“ER”) who plays Hal’s lover.
In addition to filmmaking, Mills has worked as a graphic designer, creating album covers for famous bands such as Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys.
Mills recently sat down with a select group of journalists and the following interview has been edited for print purposes.
Why did you decide to write this very personal story about your father?
Mills: My dad was so filled with life – so human, so bittersweet, and brave. It was an amazing story that had a huge impact on my life so how could I not write about it? By way of background, I’ve always admired directors who told personal stories such as Fellini’s “8,” or Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.” I love Leonard Cohen and Ira Glass’ radio program “This American Life,” which is first-person stories. I suppose you could say people who write from that point of view are my heroes.
How much of Mike Mills and your dad do we see on screen as characterized by Ewan and Christopher?
Mills: Obviously it’s a lot of me. But a script is so much smaller than life and when you’re writing yourself as a character, the script is just a couple of layers of a very multi-layered, confusing person. I feel like if you saw the movie and then met me and hung out with me, you’d be disappointed. I don’t think of Hal as my dad or Oliver as me, but think of them as the characters because it’s their body and soul and psyche. My dad is pretty different from Christopher in lots of ways and I embraced that. I’m happy to have my personal dad and then have this strange hybrid dad onscreen. When I look at Ewan, the last thing I think is that’s me and that’s probably because I spent time with him and enjoyed him a lot. It’s weird, but we’re the same size and since we had a very limited budget, once or twice he would actually wear one of my shirts and I’d think ‘damn, it looks so much better on him’ (laughter).
Did you have a connection to the gay community before your dad came out?
Mills: I did because I went to art school in New York City from 1984 to 1989 and had a lot of gay friends and teachers. The gay struggle for identity was a big part of my art school experience because we had many discussions about the gay community. A lot of people I worked with right out of college were gay and involved in activist groups, so I had a lot of awareness about the issues.
What happened when your dad came out?
Mills: My dad’s coming out was a super great, positive experience and he became a more interesting dad and much more emotionally engaged with me. He became way more alive and part of that was thanks to my mom. They were friends for 60 years and her dying shook him and shattered him and made him want to live his life as fully as he could. So even his coming out is tied to my mom in some ways. Anyway, my dad got involved in the gay community very fast and my parents’ house became like gay community Santa Barbara 101.
How did your dad change after he chose his new lifestyle?
Mills: My dad was born in 1924 and wore ties, was poised, gentlemanly, shy, kind of restrained, and very aesthetic. When he started meeting these guys, not just guys he had romantic crushes on, but his new gay friends, he would often gravitate toward very unaesthetic, very wild, very boundary-less, un-shy people, and that really touched my heart. These opposites attracting was weird and bittersweet and human.
You had your actors do improvisational work in the preparation of their characters, such as sending Christopher and Ewan on a shopping expedition. Did you learn that technique in directing school?
Mills: No, not in directing school but I did work with this woman named Joan Scheckel who is an acting coach and also has workshops for writers and directors. She makes you, as a director, act out all the scenes and do physical things like beating a table to different rhythms or running around the room, the purpose of which is to physicalize the experience. So I was definitely influenced by her and worked that way in both of my movies. These actors are pretty amazing so I didn’t have any fear about them getting it right and didn’t need to practice the script, but I wanted them to experience the feelings.
Some of Oliver’s dialogue moves back and forth between being melancholy and humorous after Hal dies. Is that an accurate depiction of your family’s experience?
Mills: I think the two are definitely connected. During the dark times in the hospital when my mother was sick, my father and mother would often say very funny, subversive, irreverent things. I think Oliver is doing pretty well considering his second parent has just died. Sure he’s morose, sure he’s down, sure he’s restrained by his emotions, but he falls in love with this beautiful girl two months later. So from my personal experience with grief, he’s doing pretty well. When I’m down or depressed, I make a lot of jokes because I’m trying to get out and find happiness again. So I use humor or irreverence to turn a scene on its head.
What was your frame of mind when you wrote the script?
Mills: I wrote the script six months after my dad passed so I was bummed a lot of the time. Also, for a long time it didn’t seem like the film was going to get made. The economy collapsed and there was a lot of rejection. That made me really sad because I love being a writer/director and wanted to tell this story more than anything I’ve ever wanted to do. I found myself making more and more jokes as a way to deal with what was going and I think that’s what kept me sane.
Did Ewan’s interpretation of you reveal anything new about yourself?
Mills: I’m incredibly handsome and super charming (laughter). I’ve had a lot of therapy and have looked at myself so nothing really new was revealed.
When you watch the film, does it bring up old emotions for you or are you just objective?
Mills: As the filmmaker, I probably saw it 75 to100 times before we premiered it in Toronto so it’s really a different experience because I’m watching where the lights are hitting and is the sound mix right, or is this a bad print.
What is one of the joys of filmmaking?
Mills: There are moments of grace when you are with the audience and that’s pretty much why I think we make films. It’s to be in that dark room with all these strangers and you can feel when people are with it. I basically watch the film through the eyes of the audience, which is wonderful. I just did this tour of 10 cities and every night there was a screening. One was in suburban Atlanta where they gave out free tickets to a random group of people. It’s a huge honor to have people’s attention for 100 minutes and when it works with a diverse group of human beings, I feel wildly lucky.
How do you think the film will play in smaller markets?
Mills: Some people will not respond well. For example, we did a screening in Georgetown and afterwards this man came up to me who was pretty perturbed. He got into my face and discussed his discomfort. I thought damn, my dad only had to come out in Santa Barbara, but I have to come out for him everywhere. That’s part of the privilege of making a film like this because you get to push the boundaries a little bit and maybe that guy will give the situation some thought.
In your film, the city of Los Angeles almost becomes a character. Why was that important to you?
Mills: For one thing I love Los Angeles and even though my dad didn’t live here, I decided to set it in L.A. and wanted it to be an organic part of the story. So in the film, Hal lives in Los Feliz, Oliver lives in Silver Lake, and Anna is staying in a downtown hotel. I was happy to shoot in Elysian Park and Griffith Park, the used bookstores, and the L.A. River because that’s part of my life.
Was it difficult shooting in L.A.?
Mills: No. We got a tax break and shot in the fall of 2009 when the city was really desperate for film production. We got deals everywhere because the economy was so down. Shooting was easy because I knew exactly where I wanted to shoot the scenes and since the story takes place in basically one neighborhood, we only needed one base camp.
Why did you decide to give dialogue in the form of subtitles to Oliver’s pet dog Cosmo, played by Arthur?
Mills: The pet isn’t really talking. Oliver is having a conversation and he’s projecting back what he thinks Cosmo is saying. The first thing Cosmo says is ‘dogs don’t talk.’ I talk to my pets constantly and sometimes I’ll say what I think they’re thinking. To me it’s incredibly organic and natural and I’ve met a lot of pet owners who say that they talk to their pets all the time.
What would you like the audience to take away with them?
Mills: Maybe I’m giving too much importance to film, but I do think that films are how we figure out our world. They are how we understand straight or gay love, so if this film can make the world a bit more open, that would be huge and wonderful. This story isn’t just about Hal coming out of the closet, but is also about the emotionality between Oliver and Anna which is so raw that it freaks some people out and has caused a stir.
Do you think people will be encouraged to acknowledge their sexuality as a result of this film?
Mills: That’s a huge, intense, confusing big, big thing and movies are much smaller. When more and more people come out, it makes it just that much harder for someone not to understand or to hate a gay person. It normalizes the situation and makes it part of the public’s sphere so I hope my film is just one more film that has a gay character. It’s like putting another brick in the wall but we need a lot of bricks to create an open atmosphere. With Anna and Oliver dealing with emotions as well as Hal, hopefully there will be a broader acceptance of how messy and complicated we human beings are. If the movie helps, I would feel very honored.