Mike Mills on directing his dad’s comingout story in Beginners,
. . . there was mom and dad. But then mom died and dad announced he was gay. Tara Brady meets writer-director Mike Mills whose charming new film, Beginners, is based on his own story
‘MY PARENTS got married in 1955 and were married for 44 years. It was only after my mom passed away that my dad came out, aged 75, and had five very, very, very gay years until he passed away.”
Mike Mills has become accustomed to relating the intimate details. Yes, his mom and dad both knew that dad was gay. Yes, they loved each other. And yes, dad was happy to accept her marriage proposal and mom just figured she’d “fix it”. In the era of Eisenhower, when families and psychiatrists were known to dismiss homosexuality as a mental illness or sign up the “patient” for electroconvulsive therapy, ignoring “the problem” seemed like the only sensible option.
“Recently I’ve met so many families with similar stories about a gay family member and so many kids with a gay parent. This is, or was, a much bigger issue than you think.”
This not-so-unusual family alchemy forms the basis of Mills’s charming new semi-autobiographical drama Beginners. Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, is a 75-year-old museum director who announces his homosexuality to his son, played by Ewan McGregor, not long after mom has died.
Hal’s declaration heralds a new emotional honesty between father and son and more than a few hilariously discombobulating moments.
“Ewan captured that so well, mostly just with his eyes,” says Mills. “You have a new blossoming relationship but you do think ‘Hmmm, I’ve never really known this person before but I think I like this’.”
Writer and director, Mills fondly folds details about his 75-year-old father’s late discovery of clubbing and eventual death into the screenplay. Elsewhere the chronologically playful Beginners presents a fictionalised love story between the grieving McGregor and Inglourious Basterds’ Melanie Laurent.
“The love story isn’t direct autobiography but the dad part of the story is definitely a portrait of my dad,” says Mills. “I prefer the word portrait because it implies how subjective that ultimately is.”
Was it daunting writing a film that needed to appeal as a gay narrative and as an affecting heterosexual love story? “It was a complete worry combining the two things,” he says. “It was nothing but worry. A few times I thought ‘I’m fucked’. I went to school in the 1980s and every class was about heterocen- trism in some way. I took a lot of that to heart. Even as a straight guy the narratives of straight guy-ness can bring you down. I thought about that a lot going into this. And my way of dealing with that was to write as exactly as I could my memories. There’s not a lot of editorialisation on top of the little nuggets I could remember. I stuck to what I knew.” It helped, he says, that Christopher Plummer was so determined to get the material note perfect.
“Ewan and I used to stand back and comment on it,” says Mills. “You’d never guess this guy was 80 with a great career behind him. He’s like a hungry young actor with everything to prove. He’s the guy who always wants to do another take. He’s the guy who is always asking questions.” Plummer’s beautifully tailored performance is crucial to the film’s warm, witty treatment of painful personal detail.
Wasn’t it difficult reliving all this material? Or was it more cathartic than that? “Life itself is cathartic I guess,” says Mills. “I have a great therapist so that’s where the therapy happens. This was different.
“Remembering was nice. I sat down and created a log of all my memories with my dad and that was wonderful. It was wonderful having the bravery to write it. But catharsis implies closure and I don’t think there is closure. My relationship with my dad is still filled with mystery and paradoxes and things I don’t quite understand. It’s related, of course, but it’s not like the film answered anything in my life or solved anything neatly. I just enjoyed having this weird conversation in my head with my parents.” Mills is not your average filmmaker. A graduate of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art – a radical private college in New York – he first came to prominence as a graphic designer for the Beastie Boys, Beck and Sonic Youth before creating seminal videos for Moby, Yoko Ono, and Air. It hardly needs to be said that he’s one of the cool kids; Air named a song on the
“My relationship with my dad is still filled with mystery and paradoxes and things I don’t quite understand”
album Walkie Talkie after him and he played guitar with Butter 08, an offshoot of Skeleton Key and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Keanu Reeves, Tilda Swinton and Vince Vaughn all happily took pay cuts to appear in Mills’ debut feature film, Thumbsucker, in 2005.
“I see art as a continuum,” says Mills. “Graphics and film and graffiti form part of a visual language that’s very public, not private and elite in the way that art can be.”
Mills also famously forms half of Sundance’s most glittering golden couple; his wife, Miranda July, scored international success with her directorial debut Me and
You and Everyone We Know back in 2005. The director is bemused by recent comparisons between July’s film and his own: “It’s funny because my films are more autobiographical and a little avant garde in technique. That’s not what turns Miranda on at all. But there’s a positivity about both our films, a positivity that’s born out of real pain or isolation and getting through things. I guess they share the same art spirit.”
Unsurprisingly, Beginners utilises collage, graffiti, and flashback in an accessible but decidedly Proustian way.
“As a film-maker shooting memory does something neat to your brain,” says Mills. “And as a graphic designer you come at everything in a very visual way. It’s not like shooting reality. It’s not a surface application.
“It’s much more exciting to play around with than facts. In script form it put everybody to sleep but I knew I had to convey what life was like for my parents. So I went through all the Life magazines from 1955, the year my parents got married, and collected all the pictures of people kissing or laughing or crying and put them together into little pieces for the film. It really helped to show people that this was a humorous, not ponderous film.
“And I like things in pieces. I love Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being because he comes at the material with all these different perspectives. Some parts are essays. He goes back and forth in time. I like having that kind of leeway. It’s too hard to tell a story as 1, 2, 3, 5, 4, 5, 6 and 7.”
It’s not often one walks out of a movie about terminal cancer and losing parents wanting to turn cartwheels, but even during its big Terms of Endearment moments,
Beginners has enough heart and humour to keep the viewer smiling goofily into the darkness. The marketing says this year’s The
Kids are All Right and the critics say: “small but perfectly formed”. But in truth, Beginners has a lot more going on than either description suggests.
“It’s funny,” says Mills. “Because I keep reading that it’s a small film. And I always think it’s about sexuality and death and love. What’s bigger than that? Really? Giant robots? Those are big and love is small?”
Honesty and a few hilariously discombobulating moments: Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners. Left: Mike Mills