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Mike Mills (Beginners)

Mike Mills: The Interview (Beginners)

We sat down wth Mike Mills, the writer and director of Beginners. Starring Ewan McGreggor and Christopher Plummer, it's a story about a man who has just learned that his father is gay at the age of 75 years old and that he doesn't have much time to live. 

Shakefire: Tell us about the film. It’s based off a true story surrounding you and your father, correct?

Mike Mills: Well it is and it isn’t. A lot of it is sort of very autobiographical. My dad did come out when he was 75 after being married to my mom for 44 years and did have almost five years of a very gay great life and he passed away. So in some ways it was making a portrait of him, you know. And there are some real fact facts; like all the stuff about 1955, they were married, my dad did have a show, so there are some real things like that.

But then I have two sisters that were very much involved in my dad’s life until the end, and I didn’t put them in. And I’m very aware that not only is their version of the story not in or my dad’s version of the story, which would be different I’m sure from his perspective, I could come up with different versions of the same story. If Christopher didn’t play the role it would be a whole different thing. So yes, it’s based on a lot of things. It’s also its own strange little beast now. When I look at Christopher I don’t think that’s my dad ever. And the stuff with Oliver and Anna, that’s not me and my wife at all. That’s just me talking about love, relationships issues that for sure I know about, but also a lot of women and men that I’ve known throughout my 20s and 30s.

SF: How did you go about casting Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer? Did you always have them in mind for the lead roles?

MM: Yeah, I don’t write like that. I don’t write with actors in mind. I don’t have that first choice thing. I don’t think like that. I just write for years and years, and then I have this rude awakening like, “Who the hell’s going to do this?” I’m not like a famous director so I can’t like…when you’re my stature you don’t think, “Yes, I’m going to get Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.” You know? There’s this whole kinda campaign that goes on. You don’t know how lucky it is that I’m here talking to you with those two people in my movies. So it’s like that [laughs].

But the idea of those two together is like a dream. I didn’t even know how good casting it was when I met them and got them into it. Ewan really connected with Christopher in a deep and intricate way. They looked so similar. They really look alike. They had such a great time working together. It couldn’t have been better. I can’t imagine who else would do it.

SF: Talk about the drawings in the film. They’re very unique to the film with their cartoony style, etc.

MM: I went to art school and I do the drawings. I have this whole background as a graphic artist and that’s kinda how that got into the movie. And also all the still stuff; the sun, the pets, the presidents, and all that, that’s coming from that expanded visual language that I got coming from more of an art context. I do those drawings.

SF: So you did all the drawings seen in the film?

MM: Yeah, and some of them…Ewan really liked drawing and wanted to learn. He builds bikes and motorcycles and stuff so I think I tapped into that side of him. We had a fun afternoon where I would just draw a little bit, toss him a drawing, and he would finish it. So we ended up doing that in the movie. I filmed him a couple of times where it’s his face and it goes down and you see him drawing. It’s really cool.

SF: The title is Beginners. What does it signify?

MM: I was writing a letter, as a director you write all these letters like a statement of the director or whatever, and I was trying to explain like how it’s about my dad who dies in the movie but it’s not really about dying or really about the end or my dad didn’t seem like a dying person. He wasn’t sad and retiring. He was just getting started. He was so hungry. And I wrote beginning….beginning…Beginners.

It also seemed to describe the couple where I knew the last scene, the last vision of them, was side by side on a bed. And it kinda really was just the beginning of the relationship. So it seemed like a good way to describe both sides. And then to me, ultimately I think it felt pretty positive. Beginning has a positive feeling to it or implies change, and my dad did this radical change and took all these risks so it kinda helps to describe that.

SF: Do you think it’s ever too late for someone to make a change in their life? I mean, 75 is pretty late.

MM: Well I thought so. I didn’t see that coming and I didn’t think he was going to change like that. Even when he came out, I didn’t understand how much he was going to keep changing, like emotionally and his willingness. Food probably tasted better to him after it. He just became so super alive and engaged and hungry and ready. That’s a big part of why I made the film. I thought he was stuck; I thought he was fading away as my mom had just died. I thought that’s it, this is not going to happen. Before this happened to me I probably would have answered that question differently.

Be sure to check out Shakefire's review of Beginners

Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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