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Q&A Special: Director Mike Mills on Beginners | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Director Mike Mills on Beginners

Q&A Special: Director Mike Mills on Beginners

His mother died and his father came out: the film-maker on the beguiling movie that resulted

Mike Mills, director of 'Beginners', with his onscreen alter ego Ewan McGregor

At Thanksgiving in 1999, a 75-year-old retired widowed museum director came out to his family. He had only recently been widowed after a marriage lasting more than four decades. One of the people to whom he broke the news was his son Mike Mills, then in his early thirties and not yet a film director.

This year the movie inspired by that moment was released, and it now appears on DVD.

Beginners, written and directed by Mills, features a delightful and zesty performance from Christopher Plummer in the role of Hal, who announces his homosexuality to his son, a cartoonist played by Ewan McGregor. Its playful stylistic quirks which bear traces of Mills’s previous career in graphic design and music videos, Beginners might easily be greeted as a niche event in movie history: a film about the experience of elderly men giving vent to sexual leanings they have long suppressed. In fact, Mills has used the incident of his father’s late change of tune to tell a hopeful story which asks larger questions about how we all of us fumble and trip towards emotional fulfilment.

Michael, tomorrow I’m going to throw you a ball. I hope you catch it

The story is split into two interweaving narratives. In one half McGregor’s character Oliver witnesses his father’s efflorescence even as he dwindles towards his death bed, denying thoughts of mortality to the last. In the other, after Hal’s death, Oliver struggles to ignite his own love life, stunted not just by grief but also by some ill-defined trauma lingering from childhood which he cannot identify, though it’s certainly to do with his mother’s unhappiness. An entanglement with Anna, a ravishing French actress (Mélanie Laurent), starts to lure him watchfully out of his shell.

Mills (b 1966) is a wry and quizzical West Coaster with thinning grey hair and piercing blue Celtic eyes. Beginners is only his second full-length feature. Having graduated from art school, he moved from designing album covers for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Beck and Sonic Youth to shooting music videos for Air and Moby. Then in due course came ads and short films. When his father died, Mills was in the process of finishing off Thumbsucker, his independent feature debut starring Tilda Swinton, Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughan about a teenage boy trying to beat his eponymous addiction. He tells theartsdesk how the death of his mother brought his father out of the closet and the death of his father brought the film to fruition.

Watch the trailer to Beginners

JASPER REES: Is the half of the film without the father in it autobiographical? Is Ewan McGregor (pictured below with Mélanie Laurent) channelling you?

MIKE MILLS: All the emotional stuff are things I know about. It’s much more squarely in the box of fiction but it’s coming from a real emotional thing. One of the great ways not to make a good movie is if the director gets too controlling or too sentimental. And that was never my intention. My great fear was that it would be a self-pitying narcissistic memoir. After writing it for years, I was very comfortable with it as a story.

How many years?

I started in 2005 and we shot in 2009. I have a very good therapist and I work out my stuff there. The film is part of how I dealt with my mum dying and my dad coming out but I wasn’t dredging up unconscious bits of it in the script. I told them both [Plummer and McGregor], "You’re not mimicking us." I said to Chris, “Inhabit that guy’s problems. You’re 75, you want to have sex, it’s not easy for older gay men, you are concerned about your son’s relationships, you don’t want to die.” It’s very classic. Ewan really liked the love story, too. That’s the first thing he said to me. I was very relieved because a lot of people don't like the love story. He could just really relate to it. He had his own connection to it, his own attachment, which me as the director of this story especially wants. I want the actor to take authorship. I remember saying to Ewan, “If there’s any part of me that you want, take it. I’m not really precious about it. But I’m not asking for a self-portrait. I’m a little afraid of that.”

Are the events as portrayed in the film relating to your father more or less as they happened?

My real story isn’t exactly the film. My older sister when I was 18 said, “You know Pop was gay?” This was before my parents got married. I didn't know that. But it was presented and it seemed like a thing of the past. It was never discussed between me and my mom or my dad. And my dad was a very proper guy, and very kind. He didn't seem very sexual in any direction. So when he came out it wasn’t totally surprising. I’d heard about this idea. It was surprising that he wanted to go out and have sex, have boyfriends, go out and do something about it.

Did he sit on it for the duration of his marriage?

Pretty much. We talked about it a lot after he was sick. I interviewed him a lot. He was very honest and willing to talk. My parents met in junior high. They went on a date in 1939 – they went to see Gone with the Wind. They turned 18, they got drafted. My mom went off to work on Long Beach in the navy yards. She married someone else for a year and then they reunited in 1950-something. Like in the film, my mum proposed to my dad. They were 30 at this point which in 1955 felt like you’d flopped already. My dad told her he was gay. My mom did say, “I’ll fix that.” My mum was not at all a passive wife. My dad’s gay experiences - he wasn’t very happy about it: it was in bars and bathrooms, there were vice squads; he did know people that went to mental institutions, whose families committed them and had electric shock therapy. He did see a psychiatrist who told him it was a mental illness. And so my mom was much more bohemian. The scene in the film is not the exact conversation but it’s getting to a point where it’s the real events. My dad told my mom he was gay; she was like, “No biggie.” She didn’t judge him. But in that culture, in that mindset, the goal was to become straight. She did think you could make someone straight and he did want to be straight. He didn’t want to own his gayness at the time.

There is a scene in the museum her husband runs which suggests by her maverick behaviour that she is somehow unhappy in her marriage.

That scene isn’t just talking about being someone who married a gay man. It’s being a strong woman who was born in 1924 and was very anti-conformist and was like a fighter of that stuff. My mum had to fight to get into architecture school at the University of Washington. She was trying to be a pilot in World War Two right as the war ended. So in many ways she didn’t fit into the wife box or the feminine box neatly. That scene is also about my portrait of a part of my mum that hated pretension and the museums and wealth and fanciness.

At which museum was your father director?

The Oakland Museum and the Santa Barbara Museum.

Was there an Andy? (Pictured left, Plummer with Goran Visjnic as Hal's boyfriend Andy.)

He’s more of a piece of fiction but I was trying to talk about this thing that did happen. My dad was a little bit British-feeling, he was a little proper, very old world, very polite, very gentlemanly, very civilised, very learned, restrained, maybe a little removed; very aesthetic, very poised. So not just men he had crushes on, but the men in this new gay community that he gravitated towards, were often really unlikely - like not aesthetic, not contained, kind of messy, kind of hot-blooded, all-over-the-place emotional. And I find that really beautiful and heartbreaking. I felt that’s what my dad wanted to be a bit more. My dad wanted to get out of the shell he had inherited and made for so many years. So I was trying to talk about that a little bit.

When did your mother die?

She died in June 1999. My dad came out that Thanksgiving when he was 75. I have two sisters. Katie is a film studies professor and she came to set and would have less problems and has been to screenings with me. Meg is a bit more private. They’ve been very involved. It wasn’t easy. They were very involved in my dad passing away so it’s very strange to exclude them [from the script]. In a way it wasn’t wildly off because they are 10 and seven years older than me and I’m the only boy. So they feel very sibling-like to each other and slightly aunt-like to me. Being younger and a boy you are not as let in. It didn’t feel totally wrong but it’s not accurate.

When he comes out he fucking comes out. It’s like gay gay gay

To what extent did Christopher Plummer (pictured below) go about owning the role?

You can’t help but tell a story now and then, and Chris said, “Ah yes, tell me another of your stories. Let me steep myself in stories of your father.” And I was like, “What a very beautiful word. My dad would say a word like that." Christopher is the tea bag, my dad is the hot water. The tea is the character. Christopher is a very learned actor that thinks about the audience a lot, like as a stage guy. He’s not thinking about pleasing me or my relationship with my father. The scene where Hal tells Oliver that the mum proposed to him: all those facts are very much based on my family. The scene was short and a little mean argument between the two of them. Christopher was saying, “I need to tell her more.” I loved it when he started saying “I”. As a director, autobiographical or not, that’s what you want. Especially in this case. I was like, “What do you need to tell her?” “I need to tell her I loved her.” I was like, “Interesting you said that. How did you know he loved her?” “He did. He did. I just know.” My dad really did love my mom. They were together for 44 years. It wasn’t a hot passionate relationship but they took care of each other to the end. I was like, that’s interesting.

How did your relationship with your father change?

I kind of knew so it wasn’t shocking. The big news was that my mum died. That was huge. We were all with her when she passed away. That was intense and painful and shocking. When someone dies it’s primally confusing and shocking that they’re not there any more. She had brain cancer so she became very Allen Ginsberg towards the end, very free association.

How did your father mourn?

I was terrified he was going to die. I was teaching him to cook and how to buy clothes. He was a widow in this house he’d been married in forever. That was really sad and terrifying. The day before he came out he said, “Michael, tomorrow I’m going to throw you a ball. I hope you catch it.” I was like, “Fuck, he wants to move in. What a drag.” When he came out I was slightly relieved that he didn’t want to move in. When he said “I’m gay” it was shocking a little bit and surprising but in it he was saying, “I’m alive, I’m not just withering down and I want to be more alive.” My dad was so self-sacrificing, so self-denying, and didn't grab at things, so it was strange, but there was a positivity to it. There was a life to it.

Is there a part of him which was waiting for this moment?

Totally. He thought he was straight. He thought he’d gotten all that out of his head. It’s even more complicated. He knew he was gay but he thought he’d buried it deep enough. He said he didn't think he was going to come out, he didn’t plan on this. But in the six months after my mum died he just started having all these sexual feelings towards men. He said, “I’m starting to stare at the mail man’s legs.” They wear shorts. It surprised him. He didn’t think it was coming. When he came out he was bewildered and terrified.

How did you respond?

In a weird way it was confirming. Right, there were some problems; right, there was some loneliness, some voids, there was sadness that no one talked about and is still hard to figure out. When you’ve had a nagging feeling that’s bothering you all your life and someone comes along and says something that makes it make sense it’s a relief. But when he comes out he fucking comes out. It’s like gay gay gay. Everything is gay. He’s in every kind of club you can imagine. He wants to have boyfriends, he has a trainer, he has a therapist. It’s a very tornado-like experience. My dad went from me holding his elbow as he walked to having a physical trainer and riding a bike. If you’re the son of that person it’s positive. It’s a huge relief. You just saw death and you’re very happy that someone’s still alive that you love. He could be a fairly self-absorbed man. When he came out as gay he got even more myopic sometimes. All he wanted to talk about was this new gay world and that could be annoying and frustrating. But it was such a relief for him to have all these friends. He could have dinner every night. He could have a movie night, a book-reading night. If you’re worried about your dad being lonely, your dad should be a widow in the gay community because you’re just not lonely. You’re surrounded.

Was he in denial about his cancer?

Both my parents. They were born in the Twenties, they were teenagers in the Depression. If they got a cut or broke a finger, “I’ll be fine, don't worry about it.” They got glasses at the pharmacy. If you have an issue, go deal with it. With cancer, it was “I didn't want to stop the party”. And it worked. Doctors talk about “failure to thrive”. It happens to people in comas. My dad really was on a ventilator and in a medically induced coma. He kept coming out of it. They were like, “Well, he certainly doesn’t have failure to thrive.” They ended like having to bolt him down.

When did you start thinking about the film of this experience?

Towards the end. He was still alive but in and out of hospital. As the end came he got more and more talkative, more and more intensely honest and willing to talk about anything. I could ask him if he had affairs.

Did you tell him about Beginners?

I think the first thing he said was, “Why would you want to do that?” I was like, “Your love life, your sex life, your emotional life – what was allowed to you was so clearly historical. It’s so much about being born in the Twenties. It’s so much about being married in 1955. How can I not? It’s so fascinating.” I gave a fairly long description like that. He was like, “Uh.” That’s so my dad. He always wanted me to know that he loved my mum and that it wasn’t just totally a lie. I think he was concerned about that. But later I did interview him a little bit so he knew what I was doing and he would talk. That was his endorsement.

In that culture the goal was to become straight. My mother did think you could make someone straight and my father didn't want to own his gayness

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"Did he sit on it for the duration of his marriage?" Really Jasper!

how could i find out who chose the artworks for Ewan McGregors house in the film.

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