Exclusive Interview With Mike Mills On Beginners

Mike Mill’s melancholy study on love and loss, Beginners, premiered (U.S.) at the SXSW Film Festival back in March. While there, Mills sat down with me to talk about his film, which stars Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer and comes out in theaters on June 3.

McGregor plays Oliver, a man dealing with his father’s death and his own difficulty finding a lasting relationship. Through a series of flashbacks, the audience follows Oliver through the last few months before his father’s death. Already dealing with his father’s illness, these months are made more tumultuous when his father (Plummer) comes out of the closet after 40 years of marriage. Check out the interview below.

Mills has plenty of experience doing music videos and commercials, and he talked about his jump to feature films as something he has always wanted to do. “As soon as I got started I hoped to make feature length documentaries and films, so that was always the intention, and my videos are very story based. So I was always practicing to be a filmmaker.”

He added this about his design and sense of aesthetic. “To me it’s not like a specific mood so much as you know, I did start the film after my dad passed away and after your second parent goes you’re in this pretty intense grief-y high. And you really like, you want to say everything you could possibly say, and I wanted the film to have everything I could do in it, so that’s how the sort of graphic-y still world and the drawings…I wanted to bring everything I could to it. And the tone that the graphics wanted to get to wasn’t a specific tone but like a dense bouquet. I kept thinking of this old painting of flowers at my house, and I wanted it to be like that.”

On separating himself from the story he was writing, Mills said “maybe at first in the writing process, my grief and the writing were blurred. But a year or so after that you’re kind of differentiating, you’re telling a story. And my goal from the beginning wasn’t to get self-involved or self-pitying, even though it was a very me film. I could hear my dad’s voice saying ‘Michael if you’re going to make this movie make it for everybody, if you don’t it’ll be awfully embarrassing.’

That was my biggest fear if it ever became like self-pityiny, I’d just want to go shoot myself. I told the actors that this is the story we’re not looking down we’re looking up and how many people we can reach out to. And when I look at Christopher and when I look at Ewan I don’t think it’s us, I don’t think Christopher is my dad, but I do kind of feel my dad when we’re watching what Christopher is doing, and I was very happy with that.”

He added, “the whole thing isn’t really like cathartic. I remember once when we were shooting a heavy scene in the hospital and Christopher is like ‘is this hard for you?” and I was like ‘No, I’m fucking making my movie, I’m so excited!’. I’m not thinking like grief and my dad, I’m thinking I love directing. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I was so much more in touch with how much I love directing, how much I love being on the set, how much I love the actors and the crew. Really I’m like the happiest when I’m doing this. So I kind of think that’s a little bit in the film, funny, even though the film’s about these sadder things.”

Mills talked about the story and how he related to his own father. “I think that’s part of the story. My dad was this really sweet man who I didn’t really know, I didn’t really see that much. My parents were totally committed but in a way he wasn’t there. And later in his life when he came out, my gay dad was really interesting. My gay dad like talked a lot about everything, and we became quite close and became physically affectionate and all this territory that wasn’t open to us before became open. And just naturally Ewan really loved Christopher, just in life. I think just a younger actor looking at on older actor…like when Christopher’s character died Ewan really cried.”

Given the budget, (he told us it was $3.2 million), Mills said  “all the actors did it for scale and I threw in my fee. It was a labor of love for everybody. We were lucky in that, when it was shot the depression was really being felt and there wasn’t a lot of filmmaking going on in L.A., so we got in a lot of locations we never could have, the film was incredibly fortunate. I did feel like there was a guardian angel running around saying ‘go through this door, go through that door.”

About the balance in the film between the sad elements and the funny elements, Mills said “it was a lot of trial and error. You can go too far one way, and then you when you start showing your edits to people you’re like, ok they get, I can cut back on this part, or no they like this part I can add more. So that’s something you don’t know how to do until you start doing it, at least for me.”

Mills wanted the look of the past story elements to be different from the present story elements. “I knew that for the past I wanted it to be much more locked off and on stick, the camera is very static or if it’s moving it’s moving on track. It’s very composed, and much more graphic. And then the present is hand-held and much more in the round, and longer pieces and just messier. So I knew that from the beginning it would be like that. And then soon into the writing I know it would be like this bouquet thing I was talking about, like anything’s possible. And that all pretty much stayed, the big decision didn’t change.”

He added about his choice to use different graphic elements (still-shots montages, colored screens), “Those are the films I like…that’s the world I like. And that…even Thumbsucker has a fair amount of that, has a bit of multi-ness to it. And that’s the kind of filmmaking that makes me happy, that makes stories penetrating for me and makes me excited. I feel like filmmakers kind of like me that love lots of movies, you’re sort of writing all these unrequited letters to all these directors that you love…and those movies are part of how you figured out your life along the years anyway, so it kind of makes natural sense.”

That concludes the interview but many thanks to Mike Mills for his time. Be sure to check out Beginners when it hits theatres on June 3rd.