In the early 2000s, the mother of writer-director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) passed away, and soon after her death, Mills’ 75-year-old father came out as a homosexual. A few years later, even as Mills adjusted to his father’s new lifestyle, the older man was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Mills has taken his own life experience with his father’s homosexuality and illness and made it the basis of his terrific new (fictional) film Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor as the son and Christopher Plummer as his larger-than-life father (in what is a sure-to-be-nominated performance).
Rich with both humor and honest emotion, Beginners also follows McGregor’s character after his father’s death, as he himself tries to find love with a beguiling French woman (Inglorious Basterds‘ Melanie Laurent.)
I and another writer sat down with Mills last month in Chicago to talk about Beginners, Mills’ own father, and the film’s tremendous cast. The following is a reprint of that interview.
It’s interesting how the film’s themes resonate differently for different viewers. Some come away seeing it as romance, some as a movie about homosexuality, some as a drama about living with loved ones who have cancer.
Mike Mills: It’s a combination of all those things, and I like it as kind of this bouquet. To me the whole energy of the script is the different interweavings of these differences.
Yet it also has a very lighthearted–even whimsical–tone at times.
Mills: That’s how I see life. I’m fully capable of being depressed, and maybe that’s why I really lean on humor and try to make it part of any project I’m doing. That’s the kind of movies I like, that combine humor and real emotions. In some of the more gnarly, bad hospital places my dad would say something really funny or just do something really unlikely.
You’ve said you didn’t want the film to feel like a memoir. So how do you keep the balance between the “fictional” film and all the details of your real life and real father?
Mills: I have no problem talking about my dad. I’m very fond of him, so it’s easy. My goal with this film is to reach out and share, and the best way I knew how to do that was with these very intimate, personal, concrete details. On the other hand, there’s so much that’s really just Christopher, and I love that. I’m so glad that in the film there’s my real dad and there’s Christopher, and the character of Hal. From the get-go, I knew it was going to be this strange, mongrel, hybrid thing.
How did Melanie Laurent get involved in the film?
Mills: I didn’t write the role as a French woman, but in starting to look at actresses I really wanted someone strong, smart, and kind of un-careful. There are a lot of American actresses that fit that first part, but it’s the “un-careful” part that’s hard to find. Someone put Melanie’s name on a list, and Inglorious Basterds hadn’t come out yet so I couldn’t see it. So I just looked her up on YouTube.
I always look for interviews, not movie clips, because I’m just trying to figure out who the actor really is. So I found this video of Melanie, speaking at her college, and she said she was really hungover, and her hair was kind of a mess, she’s smoking up a storm, she’s talking left and right, and she’s smart. She’s not all perfect and pretty and poised, and that was really important to me. To me her character is surprising and wild and really smart, though not in a normal way.
With Plummer and McGregor, were you looking for certain aspects of your father and yourself, or were you just looking for someone who could carry the drama?
Mills: I love them both for different reasons. Ewan’s so instinctive and naturalistic, and Christopher had the grandness of my father–he had the cosmopolitan worldliness to play a museum’s art director. And it was similar to why I picked Melanie: they’re un-careful. They’re like super-generous, and they’re gonna expose themselves.
You tried some different things during the rehearsal period?
Mills: I’d do little exercises. One day I said, “Christopher, I want you to be gay now—you’re beginning your gay life, and you want to make yourself attractive to younger guys. How are you going to do it? And Ewan, here’s $300, go help Christopher buy a scarf. Go to Barneys without me and make sure he’s okay, be the son.” So all of a sudden they’re stuck in a car together alone, they have to talk, they have to start figuring their characters’ lives out.
They go to Barneys, and Ewan’s heading to the scarves, and Christopher just takes off in the other direction and starts flirting with one of the girls there. Then he gets fascinated with mannequins wearing these jeans that are really tight—skinny jeans. Christopher ends up spending like an hour at the jeans section trying everything on, and getting three or four pairs—Ewan ended up having to buy about $1,000 worth of jeans. And that’s actually very much what it was like with my dad.
Did you have a close relationship with your father before your mother passed away and before he came out, or did you kind of discover him after that?
Mills: I had what I thought was a close relationship. My dad was a very kind, nice man. He was very sweet, very supportive—he was a really good dad, but he was a little distant. People of that generation just worked, worked, worked, so I didn’t really see him a lot and when I did he was sort of vague to me.
Then when he came out he was sort of the opposite of vague—he was very present. I learned a whole lot, and not just about his gayness and what was happening in his life. He started talking a lot more about my mom and him and his childhood. He was never that revealing when he was my “straight dad,” so that was all great. It wasn’t always easy at the time, but looking back it was awesome.