Soon after Mike Mills' mom died, his septuagenarian father confessed something: He was gay. Beginners, the director's third feature, is the story of what happened next—both to his dad (played by Christopher Plummer) and to him (Ewan McGregor). Here, Mills explains his approach to the movie.
DETAILS: What did you find out about your dad by making the movie?
Mike Mills: When you're a kid, you look to your dad to be the parent, the mountain, the stable thing. When my dad came out at 75, he was anything but stable. When you're writing and trying to be him, you stop being the kid. You're just this man who's got only so much time left, who hasn't experienced something that his body and mind and soul want.
DETAILS: But Beginners also has a troubled love story, between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent. What was your inspiration for that?
Mike Mills: When my dad was straight, there was a bit of politeness in my family. But after he came out, he really laid into me, about "What the fuck are you doing emotionally with your life?" And we had all these arguments about what he thought he could ask for in love and what my generation requires.
DETAILS: Did you always imagine Christopher and Ewan in these parts?
Mike Mills: I don't write with actors in mind. My main thing was that I needed to find two that feel like a family, and these two made a lot of sense. You just look at their faces. And Ewan is Scottish and Christopher is Canadian, which in a weird way fits my slightly Anglophile, not-fitting-in-correctly-in-America family. And it was really proved right when they met: Ewan was very enamored of all of Christopher's experience and Christopher's sense of humor, and they got along wonderfully and had a really tight bond.
DETAILS: It's hard not to notice that McGregor's character is a graphic designer, just like you.
Mike Mills: When I started the film, my second parent had just died and I was coming on 40, and I was really not normal. [Laughs] When you're in the grief world, everything becomes super-important. Like when you go to the store, it feels like, "This is the last time I'm gonna go to a store, I've gotta make it the best time I ever did." Everything is very important, and you want to include everything, so this film has everything. It's not just that he's a graphic designer—the film is in so many ways a collection of everything I've been interested in my whole life.
Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in a scene from Beginners.
DETAILS: Since the material was so personal, was it difficult to step back and let the actors interpret it?
Mike Mills: Even though it has a lot of facts, a lot of memories, this is fiction. The one command I could hear echoing across the living-and-dead divide from my parents was, "Don't make this for yourself. Don't make some self-pitying memoir. So I knew from the beginning that I did not want to make this looking inward. I said to my actors, "This is a story that you have to make real for yourselves, for an audience. And the more I pushed it that way, the more comfortable I felt. Christopher took ownership over Hal, the character based on my father. As a director, that's the best news that you can get, when your actor says, "No, I wouldn't do this." I was very much like, "Right on! Tell me what Hal would do."
DETAILS: Is it true you took your cast to Magic Mountain?
Mike Mills: I do experiential rehearsals. I didn't tell them in advance. These people do not like roller coasters. You get them on the Colossus and, lo and behold, it scares the shit out of them. In line, they wouldn't talk to me, they were so upset. Then we're all screaming like children, like animals. And when we get off, they're crying, but hugging each other. It broke the ice in a big way.
Mélanie Laurent a scene from Beginners.