Beginners begins with an ending, with introverted thirty-something Californian illustrator Oliver (Ewan McGregor) mourning the death of his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet at 75, following the death of his wife, Oliver’s mother, and then died five years later. Oliver inherits Hal’s house and his dog, who’s telepathic and knows 150 words of English, and whose thoughts we glean through subtitles, which along with numerous drawings, notebooks, postcards and graffiti contribute to this film’s charming, text-heavy, scrapbook texture. Oliver falls in love with a gorgeous, funny, friendly yet oddly unknowable French girl (Mélanie Laurent, of Inglorious Basterds), who he takes rollerskating and whose smile inexplicably breaks your heart, in part because she doesn’t speak for the first part of the movie. Oliver meets Anna at a Halloween party, where he’s dressed as Freud and she suffers from laryngitis. As he falls in love he remembers Hal falling in love, or something like it, in his final years, when everything in life was new again and he enjoyed speaking to inanimate objects and trying on various forms of expressing his sexual identity the way one tries on outfits. Oliver also remembers his mother, back when he was a boy and they used to rehearse movie deaths for fun, or go to the museum and imitate the sculptures. Memory and the present are intertwined. They bleed into each other and fold into a single narrative that’s admittedly a little sketchy in some of the emotionally complicated bits yet brims overall with spontaneity and moments of truth that are touching and wry.
Beginners is the second feature from writer/director Mike Mills, who previously made Thumbsucker and many music videos and is also a graphic designer, a musician, and probably a lot of other things too. He’s a very sweet, endlessly curious man. We met for our interview in a fancy hotel in Toronto, where there’s supposedly massive televisions hiding behind the bathroom mirrors, though no one could prove this to me. Mills wore a tie and carried a small camera and was very generous.
writer/director Mike Mills
JB: Beginners feels like a very natural progression from Thumbsucker. It also feels very personal. What prompted the film?
Mike Mills: It comes from my real dad, actually, who came out when he was 75 and passed away five years later, just as I was finishing Thumbsucker. I started writing Beginners right after that. I think I’m always going to be writing about families and relationships and people trying to figure out who they are, trying to get the bad story out of their head and get to the better story. That’s certainly true of both films and seems to be the case with the one I’m writing now. But Beginners was a very immediate reaction to my life.
JB: Did your father know that you were planning to incorporate his story into your next movie?
MM: My dad was really having his party by then. I said to him, “I want to make something about you and mom and your whole deal.” And he was just sort of pleasantly taken aback. I interviewed him a few times, so he knew I was investigating. When he came out, he really came out. He was very politicized, very social, very involved in gay pride groups in Santa Barbara. So I felt he would be down with this idea of coming out more and more and in different ways.
JB: Having seen the film, it’s difficult to imagine it with anyone besides Christopher Plummer playing Hal, but were you ever feeling like you should cast a gay actor in the role?
MM: My first concern was with finding someone who could really get my dad right. But there’s also this fact that my dad was sort of playing a straight man, or half wanted to be a straight man, for 75 years. He didn’t really have any gay affectations. I liked the idea of taking Captain von Trapp and having him be gay. I thought about this a lot, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but this intuitively felt more natural to me.
JB: I guess you were developing the project for a fairly long period. Was it difficult to finance?
MM: It was difficult in that Thumbsucker wasn’t a hit. Beginners is also what people call a “small” film, which I don’t know if I understand, given that it’s about things like death and love and self-discovery. Even after I got Ewan and Christopher attached the economic crisis hit and it remained an uphill battle. But the more alone or hopeless I felt about it, the more I thought this might be the last movie anyone ever lets me make, the more it made me want to invest even more of myself into the project. What makes me unique as a director? What interests me most? Those were the questions that kept me working and the answers all got thrown in.
JB: Both Thumbsucker and Beginners develop this theme of finding one’s voice, quite literally. Did you grow up with a speech impediment or otherwise have a tough time feeling confident speaking?
MM: I’m definitely a recovering very shy person. But even if you’re not shy, I think figuring out who you are and not listening to those voices that demand that you conform or be simpler or more likable is such a common issue. It’s central to family relationships. So much of what constitutes our voice is the result of what story we inherit from out little family, or immediate family, and also from our bigger family, which seems to have to do with the place we grew up.
JB: It’s interesting to consider how your filmmaking relates to your work as a graphic designer. I think about the way you photograph empty spaces or the way you incorporate text, which is especially layered in Beginners. Is it that your work in graphic design informs your filmmaking, or is it more that you have a particular sensibility that imbues everything you do with these motifs?
MM: I think it’s the latter. I don’t really make a big division between media in my head. I went to art school, and I think a lot of what I do just comes from an “art” context, rather than a strictly cinematic context. With this film I felt free to put all that stuff into one project, to speak through drawings or stills. But, you know, one of my favourite graphic designers is Jean-Luc Godard. The graphics in his films are cooler than anybody’s. His sense of design influenced me as a graphic designer before I was a filmmaker. A lot of my still photography is also pretty flat or proscenium. You could say that comes from graphics, but it also comes from my love of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, or Robert Adams—it comes from the photography that I like. Also, in my family things were always vague or unexplained or confusing, so I think the way I construct images has a lot to do with trying to make things clear and expository and observable. So it’s as much an emotional sensibility as it is a purely aesthetic one.
JB: The style of Thumbsucker felt more severe to me, more pared down. Something about Beginners by contrast feels looser, perhaps more guided by the emotional patterns of the story.
MM: Yeah, Thumbsucker turned out to be a little more formal that I intended, partly by shooting anamorphic, which actually has a lot of restrictions.
JB: Funny you should mention that. I was really aware of the aspect ratio as I watched Thumbsucker recently.
MM: You don’t want to totally control films. They have their own life. I knew I wanted more movement in this one. The story between Oliver and Anna is all hand-held, no marks, and hardly any lights. The story between Oliver and his dad is all locked off or tracking shots. I thought that was a good way to talk about the difference between memory and being in the present. The bottom line was that, while the film has a death at the heart of it and several sad parts, I really wanted it to be filled with life.
JB: It’s interesting the way you introduce the character of Andy, the young boyfriend. It’s a sort of snapshot. I think he says one line.
MM: That’s right. And he’s part of a much longer barrage of information.
JB: Right. From the start of the film these sorts of moments made me feel like part of what I was watching was Oliver trying to come to terms with the discrepancies in his memories. You also have these flashbacks scattered throughout that seem to respond to something happening to Oliver in the present, though the parallels are always just shy of being obvious, which makes them more fun and interesting. Were these flashbacks part of one narrative thread you had in your mind, while everything in the present tense was another thread and you then had to find ways to marry the two? Or did you just write it all in the order that it came out?
MM: I wrote it as two stories. I wanted to interweave them. That was what interested me. There’s a film called Love Film by István Szabó that has a similar structure that I’ve always loved, and that’s kind of how I was living at the time. I was writing this right after my dad died, and when something like that happens it’s like the past just keeps flooding into the present. The person’s gone, but scenes from the relationship you shared with them are still ringing in your ears. So it felt natural and intuitive. A lot of this was derived from my own very real memories, which the more you examine the more crazy and unreliable they seem. Try and stare at a memory—I invite you to do it—some pivotal moment in your life. They’re so fragmentary and slippery. The longer you try to look at it the more it tries to slip away, and when all you have left of your parents are memories, that’s a banal but pretty earth-shattering discovery. I tried to work that feeling into the film, like when Oliver remembers his father wearing a sweater but he was really wearing a robe. I don’t think anybody notices this, but there are memories that reoccur throughout the film and each time they’re a different take, and something is slightly different.
JB: In making Beginners did you uncover any shocking memories of your parents that you’d completely forgotten?
MM: No, but I’m glad I wrote them all down, and not just those that made it into the film. I have this big stack of 5x7 cards that I made notes on to start with, and I was just looking at them recently and already noticing how easily things slip away, things you thought you’d never forget. I didn’t unearth anything big, but it was really interesting to write from my parents’ perspective. One discovery I made was realizing that they were funny. They liked to use humour in this subversive way, maybe just out of the desire to make life more unusual or beat back unhappiness.
JB: Sounds like something you inherited from them.
MM: I guess so, but you never think of your parents as funny. There are those two main things: your parents aren’t funny and they don’t have sex…
JB: Or they’re only funny when they have sex!
MM: [Laughs] Anyway, there’s lots of stuff in the movie that didn’t actually happen to me or my family. I have two sisters that aren’t even represented in the movie. It’s not a memoir. Your parents dying is so much bigger than making a movie about it. But making this movie has been a way of hanging onto all these things.
JB: And maybe also a way of letting go of them.
MM: Yeah, that’s true. Spewing all this out into the world is a funny sort of way to burn it all up.