Mike Mills is a graphic designer-turned film-maker. His new movie, “Beginners,” is inspired by his own experience. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a graphic designer whose father, at age 74, came out and declared that he would spend the rest of his life as an openly gay man. The film goes back and forth in time as the father, played by Christopher Plummer, thoroughly enjoys his new life, even after he becomes ill with cancer. After his death, Oliver begins to explore a relationship with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent of “Inglourious Basterds”), both haunted and inspired by his father’s late-life changes.
I spoke to Mills about grief, dogs, and falling in love without talking.
I loved the authenticity of the portrayal of the designer, very rare in movies. Was that you in the close-up of the hand doing the lettering and drawing? It was clearly someone who was both talented and experienced.
It’s me and Ewan. I taught Ewan to draw a bit. He wanted to learn. He’s really crafty. He builds bikes and motorcycles and cars. He started drawing and he was very quick to figure it out.
And when he did not want to do what the client wanted for the album cover — that was very true not just for artists but for any creative person.
Especially when you are in that grief place, where you don’t really want to compromise. You feel like life is short so you want to go for it the way that seems right to you. You can be unreasonable and uncompromising and not even aware of it. It’s sort of a beautiful thing. It’s a weird gift of grief.
Tell me about your decision to structure it the way you did, impressionistically rather than chronologically.
It started because that was what grief was like for me. You’re walking around in the present, but bits of conversations and memories keep coming back to you. All those emotional exchanges are still so alive, constantly slipping in time. All the assumptions that we assume all day long become impossible to sustain. Incredibly un-complacent and uncomfortable. And as a film-maker, I like movies that do that, like “8 1/2” and “Stardust Memories” or “Annie Hall.” They’re very formally playful. I’m more comfortable if I can work on a story in a more broken-down, multi-viewed way. I’ve got the history monologues, the conversations with the dog. The denser and more multi-platformed it is, the freer I felt.
The dog is wonderful!
Animals are really important to me. I have a boarder collie and it is one of the most important relationships in my whole life. We talk all the time. Obviously, in the movie, it is Oliver projecting what the dog is saying. It’s a way for him to express his feelings. It became a neat, sideways way to get into Oliver’s brain. Dogs are wonderfully mysterious. We don’t know what they are thinking. It’s that otherness that fascinates us. They love us across the species divide and we love them. The same thing with the drawings. It wasn’t me trying to get my drawings into the film. It worked as a way to show Oliver’s emotions. I could go from a memory to cut to a drawing and it made sense emotionally because you’re seeing his reaction, his world.
I’d like to know where the idea came from that when Oliver meets the girl he falls for she can’t talk and can only communicate by notes.
That came from Lou Taylor Pucci, who was in my last film. He plays the magician in the party scene — partly because I got that whole idea from him. He met a girl when he had laryngitis and he couldn’t talk. He met a girl and fell in love in a way that he wouldn’t have if he was talking. He couldn’t be superficial and take the easy route. He got really vulnerable really fast. He told me that story and I asked if I could use it.
There’s a very privileged, tender moment in the film when Oliver’s father tries to explain to him that the rainbow is a symbol of gay pride. Oliver is torn between reassuring his father that everyone knows that and letting his father have the pleasure of teaching him and feeling so excited about something that is new to him.
My situation was a lot like the movie. My dad came out after my mom passed away. They were married for 44 years and knew each other since junior high, since they were 13. And then he had five very gay years. And he became much more engaged with me as a dad, and much more real, fully emotionally ready, willing, and able. He had spent a lot of time pushing down the central part of himself. And then he was fully integrated and his energy was like pinging. When part of you has been asleep for so long, when you wake up there is a tremendous charge. His bravery was deeply influenced by my mom. Even if their relationship was some kind of complicated negotiation, they were great friends for 65 years. It’s shocking and scary when someone dies. It really affected everyone in my family. And in a way it scared my dad, made him go for it.
Ewan McGregor does a wonderful job of conveying a lot of different emotions. For example, with his father’s boyfriend and in the hospital with all of his dad’s new friends. He is happy for him but a little jealous, too.
Yes, like — I’m glad you are so happy, but why weren’t you so happy with us? My dad was drawn to people who were a bit crazier and wilder than he was, more in touch with their emotions. Like when he says, “You want me to be with someone like me, but I like Andy — he’s fun.” It’s the turbulence, the paradoxes, the un-idealized aspects of a real relationship.
I liked the way you made the mother a real and complicated character in the film, and showed us her relationship with Oliver.
She wasn’t easy or simple. I felt very lucky with how those parts came out. I had to find someone who could understand her intelligence and lived with this complicated decision — and her mischievous sense of humor, this fighter, anti-pretentious, underground army quality. And Mary [Page Keller] made it so real.