Mike Mills talks about directing Beginners, which was partly inspired by his own father's decision to 'come out' as gay at the age of 75, following the death of Mike's mother. He also discusses how the film differs from reality and how his actors - Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer - dealt with that aspect of the process.
When you were making Beginners were you aware of how personal it would be in terms of doing interviews subsequent to finishing the film? And was it a big consideration in terms of how much you reveal of yourself?
Mike Mills: Yes. I thought about that. But it didn't stop me too much. I mean, films that I love do that, so like Fellini or there's this great Hungarian film by Szabo called Lovefilm from 1970, which I really adore, but it's very personal. So, so many filmmakers that I really adore do reveal themselves and those are my heroes, so I'm sort of just emulating my heroes. I'm not being that brave... if anything I'm being kind of conformist to these things that I like. And then when your second parent dies and you're in that grief place there is something... you're just a little bit braver than you normally are, or you just don't care. You're willing to risk it or whatever. It's been six or seven years since my dad passed away and I'm very different now. I don't regret anything but I'm not quite sure if I would have been quite so brave if I wasn't in that moment.
So, how do you find the balance between which facts you'll stick to and where to bring in the drama? Beginners is not autobiographical but it does draw on your father's own decision to come out at the age of 75, following your mother's death, as well as the fact that your dad later died from cancer...
Mike Mills: Well, it's all an interpretation. So, I don't like saying that it's a portrait of my dad because that implies a certain subjectivity. Even when I'm trying to just really document something, it's really my version and by the time I cast Christopher [Plummer] and put it in a new place and write it into a film format... experience is not film. So, just from the get-go you're turning it into a story. You know, my dad never called me after going to the Akbar gay club, he never asked me about house music, never told me that younger gay guys don't like older gay guys, but we had conversations all around that and had things very much like that, so that piece of fiction is a pretty accurate description of what it was like. But it's fiction. So, it's a weird blend. But you know, documentaries aren't real - documentaries are edited and distilled and are more about the maker than the subject... or as much.
Did you cast Ewan McGregor because you saw something of yourself in him? Or just based on previous performances?
Mike Mills: Obviously I'm enough of a narcissist to want to be a film director [laughs] but I don't really get off on the idea of making a self-portrait. It was more like: "OK, this is how I know how to write this." I really did like having a modern love story and my father's love story and writing across that, so it ended up being from my perspective. But it was never to be me. Having said that, I put a ton of myself in it, but the conversations with Ewan were never like: "Be like me, imitate me". I've come to find out during press that he did sort of look at me, but I'm glad I didn't know that while shooting because that would have made me nervous. So, in choosing Ewan, obviously I didn't choose an American, which is interesting. But I couldn't think of an American that could be Oliver. I mean, Oliver is a lot of me but he's also a character and he could have been many different ways and I would have been happy. But the way Ewan did him, I'm really happy with, because Ewan's instincts and mine really did sync up. I mean, growing up in Santa Barbara and growing up in Scotland is very different. I started writing when I was 38, I had been in many long relationships but I wasn't married or anything; Ewan has been married for 15 years and has kids and all of that. So, we had a really different history but it certainly worked out. I'm so happy with everything he did.
He's said that he tried to capture your spirit - do you think he did?
Mike Mills: Well, you're blind to yourself... I mean, I'm blind to my accent, I'm blind to my posture, so when I see the film I don't think Christopher Plummer is my father or Ewan's me at all. But I had an email from an old friend who just saw the film, but who I hadn't seen for years. and he said: "Man, Ewan nailed you!" So, I was like: "OK, I guess I'll have to own up to that."
And I gather Christopher was nervous about playing your dad...
Mike Mills: Not really. Someone has said this and it's been rippled through the press thing. He was never nervous. I was nervous that he would be nervous, so I think someone has mis-quoted me. Christopher is a very knowledgeable actor, so he knows that he's talking to the audience and not to me. But that's what I wanted. I wanted the actors to not worry about the autobiographical side and turn it into a story. My biggest fear is that this could be an unsuccessful, narcissistic, self-pitying memoir and I'm sure there are people who will find it that way. But I thought about that a lot and I knew I was making a story. So, Christopher knew that it was a character. In our first conversation I told him not to hold back, or feel like I was asking him to imitate my father. I wanted him to inhabit his predicament and that was enough. I know enough about acting to know that my dad's predicament, just on paper, is a good one for an actor. It's enough of a motivation. Christopher, luckily, was born five or six years around my dad... he's younger but they share a sense of humour and a world view, so his instincts were very accurate. One of the first things he said to me was: "Thank God he has wit and no self-pity!" But that's very like my father... he could have said that, and that was during our first meeting.
What was Christopher like to direct?
Mike Mills: Yeah, it's weird because he's definitely a legend and he's masterly. The man knows a tonne of s***. But at the same time, he's very willing to listen to me. I've only directed one other film [Thumbsucker], which wasn't tremendously successful, but that's pretty nice that he listened to me at all, especially since I'm not John Huston or anybody. But I'm a pretty confident director and especially with this film I felt like I knew what I was talking about... I also had bigger fish to fry than Christopher Plummer with regards to my dad's memory. So, in a way I was brave with him. But he's hungry. He wants to do a good job, he's not resting on his laurels, and that's cool. It's really amazing. He's really open to direction and he's really in love with other actors. Those are his family. So, he's very supportive and open to them. He's not some easy flower but he's hungry to do better and that's a very interesting thing in a 79-year-old legend.
How much did your dad's revelation change you as a person? Did it teach you to be more confident in yourself and true to yourself?
Mike Mills: Not so much the revelation about being gay, although there was always something odd in my family and there was always something strange... but totally unspoken. It was some loneliness and there were holes. And that kind of drives you crazy! So, when he came out it was like: "Aha! Great!" So, that was sort of sanity making. But watching him go through real relationships and real love and real hot new love... and watching how messy it was for him and uncontrollable and how vulnerable it made him... just how un-story-like it is. And watching your dad do that, especially, has a real direct and easy educational influence on you. You really relate to it when you see your dad do something, so it did give me a new model of what love and relationships require.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Universal