SUMMER MOVIES: Mike Mills stays close to home with ‘Beginners’The last decade has been something of a turning point for writer/director Mike Mills. Around the turn of the century, his 75-year-old father dropped two bombs: he was gay and had terminal cancer. These revelations formed the basis for Mills’ second feature film, Beginners (opening in Vancouver on June 24), one of the summer’s most buzzed-about indies.
“My dad passed away in the fall of 2004 and I started writing it after that,” Mills says, over the phone. “Before he died, I knew I was trying to figure out some way to talk about this, even beyond him being my dad... I feel like I was so unfinished with the information that was given to me by the time my dad passed away. I wanted to process and I wanted to remember. You know, my family was based on this very deep paradox and that left a lot of questions bouncing in my head.”
Those questions make up the majority of Beginners’ narrative, which follows Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he tries to come to terms with his father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) death. Four months later, Oliver meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), which forces him to confront a lifetime of emotional baggage.
“Me and my dad talked about love, like real conversations about love, what really happens, and it got much more argumentative,” Mills recalls. “He didn’t just buy what I said on first blush, you know, he challenged me more about what I thought was possible and real in relationships. The script kind of became a continuation of that conversation about relationships and love from this generational divide, my dad being born in ’24 and my being born in ’66. And, from straight to gay orientation, across that divide.”
Mills was struck by McGregor’s ability to negotiate the emotional architecture — in part from those conversations between Mills and his father — of Oliver’s construction, ultimately turning in a performance that’s both raw and charming.
“Ewan’s the funnest, easiest, most down-to-earth collaborator I’ve ever worked with,” Mills says. “He’s great. But, as an actor, especially as a straight male movie star kind of guy, he’s so willing to be vulnerable. So willing to have real emotions and really be present in the scene with the other actor. He does all that without being broken or neurotic or dysfunctional, it’s just a natural part of being a human which was like, my dream for that to happen.”
That’s also part of Mills’ clever, empathetic script, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, tiptoeing carefully between the sweet and sentimental, the haunting and hilarious. This construction, and its visual execution (Mills is a graphic artist) is part of what makes the film feel so fresh: the viewer sees, in bits and pieces, all the memories that — as in real life — inform Oliver’s decisions. In particular, it’s Oliver’s memories of his father’s remaining years — out, happy, in love — that spark his reckoning.
“Before my dad came out, he felt pretty stuck,” Mills says. “Sort of the last thing you would expect from him is that he would be so hungry, you know? And so much more vital, and that he would risk so much with his kids and his community, and then with the guys that he loved or the guys that he wanted to be in the community with. You risk a lot when you love somebody... That willingness to risk [and] change really surprised me.”
Mills also maintains that even though the film is rooted in real-life events, it’s overall a work of fiction, a distinguishing characteristic his father appreciated.
“My dad was an art restorer and he knew about art, he knew how people take from their lives,” Mills says. “My dad was a man who fictionalized himself for a very long time. He knew a lot about the sort of shape-shifting that goes on with like, perception and who you are. I knew from the get-go that I wasn’t telling the all-encompassing, final version of my father. I’m telling one angle, one perspective, one slice and this film is so small, comparatively. That’s the main truth: a film is like a little island in a very big sea.”
The film’s subject matter naturally lends itself to melodrama, but fuse that with Mills’ personal connections to the story and few could have blamed him if Beginners slipped into overwrought art-house territory. Mills admits that his biggest fear was that the film would be seen as self-pitying or narcissistic.
“I think part of the big help, honestly, was having gone through a bunch of therapy,” he laughs. “It’s not so secret or personal or private. It’s not anything I’m ashamed of. So I can be pretty loose and un-precious about it. I don’t really want a portrait of myself. I want to exploit things that I know in a very firsthand, concrete way, to make the story more grippy and contagious. Even my dad, I wanted to exploit the facts of his biography and the real nooks and crannies of his story that I knew about, but in the end, it had to be a story. It was kind of easy for me to steal from myself and not worry about it too much. I think. Maybe I’m totally deluding myself.”