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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

‘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

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