Mike Mills interview: writing and directing Beginners, and working with Ewan McGregor

As his latest film Beginners arrives in cinemas, we caught up with writer and director Mike Mills to talk about the making of the film...

Beginners, the new film from Mike Mills, has been promoted oddly. The posters currently adorning the country are bright, white affairs, complete with a grinning Ewan McGregor, a pouting Mélanie Laurent, and a dashing, neckerchief-clad Christopher Plummer. There’s also a cute dog, for good measure.

When coupled with the most basic of plot synopses – that 70-odd year old Hal (Plummer) comes out as gay to his son, Oliver (McGregor) – it looks like we’d be in for a pleasant, buoyant indie comedy.

However, the roots of Beginners go deeper. This is actually a very personal story, unapologetic in its tone, and marked by grief. Mills’ own father came out in his old age, and died only a few years later. The resulting film is born out of that emotion, and is influenced by the writer-director’s wide array of creative interests, from his music videos, to his work in graphic design. We recently had the chance to talk with Mills, ahead of the release of Beginners on Friday.

Beginners seems like such a personal project, and one that might be hard to get funding for. Is it a film that was easier to make once you had the actors involved?

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Yeah, because that’s all financing is based on. I think the film industry doesn’t care if it’s personal or not, it’s just who the fuck is in the movie. Like, what movie stars do you have. So it’s all based on the movie stars. That’s like 80% of it, and the other 20% is the script and the story. And I think that people actually liked the story of the dad that comes out when he’s 75, and face all of these external obstacles.

It’s very hooky, it’s very like a Hollywood film in some ways. I don’t think that people like films about people dying, or the mainstream flow of the film world, anyway. And you can’t just blame this on Hollywood. I’ve tried to get financing here, or in Europe, and it’s the same.

So how did it come about that you got Christopher Plummer involved? Was that a script thing?

Yeah, I didn’t know him or anything. Of course, he’s great. And he’d be great to play a 75-year old art historian father. He’s so cultured and worldly, he really fits. And he was quite interested, and his people were interested. So I was quite lucky. So that was actually not that difficult, but it was difficult that I needed to cast a father and a son together. So it was all these things of, like, if Ewan… then Christopher! But if Ewan says no, then I’d have to think of someone else. It was like this three-dimensional puzzle.

So luckily I got Ewan, so that made me think, “Great, Christopher and Ewan would be beautiful together”. And Christopher just liked the character – he didn’t care that it was personal, he didn’t care if he was gay or straight, he liked the struggle, he liked the humour, he liked that there was no self-pity. All of these things made sense to him, and I think that it’s very much because he was born in 1930 or something. My dad was born in ‘24, so they actually shared a lot, culturally. And I think it did fit him quite well. I didn’t know how well it suited him until we were into the film.

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He’s fantastic, and he’s going through such a prolific period at the moment.

Yeah! Well, he was always prolific. But he’s going through a successful period. I think he’s just hungry. It’s weird. When I shot with him, I think he was 79. He was listening to me, the guy who’s done only one other film – I’m not John Huston – and listening to me attentively. So there’s some weird humility. He’s not taking it for granted at all. The whole time, I was kinda like, “Why are you like this?” Because he’s quite worldly, he’s done everything, it’s not like he’s insecure in any way, he’s quite masterly. Both Ewan and I were like, “Wow, I hope I’m like that at that age.”

And what was it like working with Ewan?

Ewan’s just a blessing. He’s one of my favourite people in the world. He’s so nice and easy and down to earth and courteous, and he’ll really engage with you and the other actors. He made it so fun for me. Me and Ewan met Christopher and shot that story, and then we met Melanie and shot that story, so he was my partner through the whole thing. And he is playing a character sort of based on me. And, oh my God, I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t Ewan. He made it so easy, and so enjoyable, and did such a great job.

Whenever you’re asked something, my typical technique as a director is to ask a question back. “How would Oliver feel about this?”, and I would say, “I don’t know, what just happened with him?” Because you want the actor to figure it out and author it. And his instincts were always totally right on. So it was a very lucky experience, those two, and Melanie in a totally different way.

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So is working with actors something that you take easily to?

I think so, because it’s not indigenous to me. I’m not an actor, I’m not hot-blooded like that. So I love it, and I adore them. It’s exhilarating. And it’s so fun as a writer-director to have people doing your own lines. Actors, I think, like seeing a montage of their work.

I was just with Ewan in Seattle, and there was a tribute to him, and he said “I was like a pig in shit”. I think a writer-director’s a pig in shit when they’re watching great actors do their lines. It’s like, “Oh my God, I wrote that!” So I adore it. I adore being the captain of the ship. It’s fun.

In some of the interviews for your first film, Thumbsucker, you said that part of that directing process is making it as simple as possible, and on that film you reused certain set-ups, certain shots. Was there a similar thought process behind Beginners, or has it changed in the five years between the two films?

It was a different kind of simple. For that film, I was really into Wong Kar-Wai and In The Mood For Love. In that movie, when you come into a room, he’d only shoot it from one angle, and I loved that. I copied that. This was different, I didn’t do that. But there are extremely few lights, there’s a directness to the filmmaking, and an unfetteredness. There’s no filtration, and the whole story with Oliver and Anna is handheld.

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The other story is either on sticks or on dolly, so if it’s on a dolly, the camera can’t pan or anything. Because your memories are quite iconic, you don’t look around in your memory. So I wanted it to be memory, which is static, and life, which is jump-cuts and handheld. So, a different technique from Thumbsucker, but I do like a very simple, easy filmmaking world.

That’s also reflected in those narration sequences, with the still photos, which gives an iconic view of history (“This is what pretty looked like in 1938”).

Yeah, iconic, but also very easy. Very easy bits to get, and very humble fragments. Very direct. Ultimately, it’s a very dense bouquet of a film, but the pieces are all quite humble and simple. Also, the way it was constructed in terms of writing, like, “How am I going to remember my dad? How am I going to create a portrait of my dad?” Well, I’m going to stick to these very simple, very concrete fragments, kinda like a William Carlos Williams poem. I remember the tattoo, I remember the cookies, I remember the mousse in his hair, I remember him whacking things when he took a pill. And I just believed that these little pieces would add up.

So do you only think you could tell that story, your father’s story, by having the proxy of Oliver’s story as well? Because you say the hook is this old man coming out, but it’s actually the story of his son grieving and moving on.

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That was the hook that people saw, and always liked, and still like. It still is the thing that people see when people write it up. But from my perspective, that wasn’t how I knew how to write it. The thing that interested me… “What is the film?”, when people ask that, for me, it’s the conversation that me and my dad were having about love and relationships – what is possible, what is impossible, what is real, what is not real – while he was gay.

And the arguments that we had, the beautiful, messy, new conversations that we started having. They really influenced me, they really helped me get married, or be really with someone, married or not. And that’s the film. So it is this two-way street. The love that can happen now, or in 2003, and the love that can happen in 1955, you know?

That’s such a heavy, personal investment in the film. Do you not worry that when you throw it out to audiences and critics, that it can be misread?

Of course they are going to misread it! And they’re all going to make fun of me for casting Ewan. It’s going to be too personal, too narcissistic, all that. That’s going to happen at some point. I learned with Thumbsucker, people attack filmmakers and film directors so much more than graphic designers and artists. [laughs] You’re much more of a public figure. It’s like you’re running for office or something, like you’ve invited it on some level.

And I think being in grief, like I was, it made me really brave, or it made me think “Everything’s already fucked up, blown apart, my second parent just died”. I was kinda like, “Fuck it, I don’t care, this is the kind of film I want to see”. I love it when Fellini does 8 ½. I love it when Truffaut does 400 Blows. These are the films I like. There’s a Hungarian film called Love Film (Szerelmesfilm, 1970) by Istvan Szabo, and it’s very similar to this. It’s all about memory, it’s very personal. And that’s what I love to watch.

So the whole time, while it really seemed like I might not get to do this film, in a weird way it made me more obstinate and brave. So now, seven years later, I feel different. I’d be more nervous now, but then I was really in some sort of state.

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And this is only your second film, so was it this personal sense of boldness that made you want to make a second feature film? Because you wear so many different hats as a creator – as a designer, and so on.

Making features takes a long time, and it’s not like they eliminate the other things that you do. In a weird way, they encourage them. So I’m going to do all of them, and I want to make films. It was never a question of “Am I going to make a second one?” I’m not a big writer person, I don’t come from writing.

And then this all happened. When I was finishing Thumbsucker, my dad passed away, and then I started writing it just after that. But it wasn’t that conscious. It’s not like… “I’m brave now!” or “I am grief now!” You don’t know you’re in grief when you’re in it, it’s like, “I’m going to write a story about this”. I didn’t know I was in a ‘fuck it’ mentality, that’s just where I was.

So you don’t see the roles of graphic designer, music video director and feature film director as working in competition? Do they complement each other?

As I was making Beginners, I made videos, I did art shows, I did graphics. And they all helped each other. It takes like a few weeks to make a music video, a month. And you can do that when you’re doing this – it takes forever to make a film.

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Having graphic design and music videos as part of your background, do you see them as influencing your style?

Totally. Especially that I went to art school, and I look at all these artists all the time. And now that I’m here, I went to the Cortauld Gallery, the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Art and somewhere else, like, in two days! That’s just fun for me. I didn’t go and see a movie, you know. And that’s just the way I live, and I saw things at those places, and I’m writing notes.

That Cortauld Gallery has that amazing Manet painting of the woman at the bar, with her reflection (A Bar at the Folies-Bergère). She’s at this bar, and there’s a mirror behind her. And the reflection’s the wrong perspective. It’s proto-Modernism, because it’s very self-reflexive – because she’s looking at you, but then her reflection’s looking at the customer. And the perspective in the mirror is wrong, it’s like the wrong camera angle.

So I was, like, how could you do that with a character in a film? Show one perspective and another one, either visually, or just a perspective on a scene. A woman meets a man and she feels happy about him, and a woman meets a man and feels reticent. How can I show both those things? So I had that little conversation in my head. And that’s how it works for me.

They’re all one big blend. You’re communicating with people. Sometimes it’s with graphic things, sometimes it’s with film things. They all inter-relate. Photography comes from painting, the language is shared. And film comes from photography. Those are the roots.

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Do you find yourself influenced by music in the same way?

Super. That’s the biggest thing for me, because it’s not what I’m doing. And it works on a more subliminal, emotional level. Like I haven’t listened to MIA in a while, and I just heard her, and I thought “Oh, yeah, collage!” With Beginners, I felt like I rediscovered collage, and that way of putting things together.

My first big love in high school was Robert Rauschenberg, and I thought that Beginners was very Rauschenberg-y, all these pieces and all these memories. His authorship was the putting together of found elements, and my authorship in Beginners was the putting together of found memories. MIA really has that big-time. I’m writing something now, and I really want to do that even more.

Mike Mills, thank you for your time!

Beginners comes out in UK cinemas on Friday.

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You can follow Michael on Twitter here, or read his blog here.