Writer/director Mike Mills is a man who understands how to translate grief into art. After losing both of his parents within a few years of each other, he crafted a script for a movie based on his experiences, which includes the remarkable story of his father coming out of the closet at age 75 almost immediately after his wife’s death. This script eventually became the film Beginners.
Mills recently sat down for a round-table interview in New York, and was joined by cast members Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent (best known to American audiences for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). The three discussed their work on Beginners, a low-budget production and a true labor of love for all involved.
Though much of the film deals with the sense of loss when a loved one passes away, Mills was determined not to create a pity party.
“Grief isn’t just all sad – part of it is you’re really cranked up,” he explains. “You’re alive. I felt incredibly emotionally raw. No assumptions made sense. You know? Supermarkets are suddenly hallucinogenically weird.”
This energy helped to constantly propel him forward in the making of the film, and pushed him toward unusual creative touches, most noticeably a large number of graphic illustrations that serves as a recurring motif, as well as several historical slideshows.
“I think I had a weird bravery to do all these things, like having the drawings in,” Mills says. “Daring to sort of put these lyrical essays into a film. I’m not sure I would have had the bravery to do these things if I wasn’t in this sort of drunken heat of grief.”
Christopher Plummer with director Mike Mills
In the film, Ewan McGregor’s character, Oliver, handles his father’s coming out quite well, almost casually. When asked if that was an accurate reflection of his own reaction, Mills responds:
Well, I was very supportive, but I wouldn’t say ‘casual.’ And for me, personally, it came on the heels of my mom passing away, and that was really the headline of the family, and Pop’s coming out was weirdly under that.
So it comes in that context. And my dad was a very sweet man, and a very unselfish man, and I was really afraid that he was going to pass away next. So when he came out, he was saying ‘I’m alive. I want to be more alive. I want to go do these things.’ He was self-denying for so long, so it was pretty easy to say, ‘Go, Pop. That’s great.’
And I have so many gay friends, and gay people whom I admire, that wasn’t an issue for me. I don’t mean to make it easy, though. Or to have your 75-year-old dad all of a sudden be really horny. To talk about sex all the time and men all the time. It wasn’t all easy. But it was very positive. He was very filled with love and life.
When the discussion turned to his cast, Mills said it was “uber-miraculous” that he was able to secure such reputable actors as McGregor, Laurent, and Christopher Plummer.
Though McGregor is playing a heterosexual character in Beginners, he is certainly no stranger to playing gay roles. What’s his approach for playing a character?
I find that I don’t approach characters as being gay characters or straight characters. I mean, somebody’s sexuality is a very important part of who they are, and it’s a very important part of the make-up when you’re approaching a character. But it would be a mistake, I feel, for me, to feel like you’re playing a ‘gay character,’ or you were playing a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie.’ I think you explore what makes your character up, in a broad sense.
For instance, when I was playing a gay character like Phillip Morris – well, Phillip Morris is a homosexual man, but he’s also someone who’s been in prison, he has a family history. He was brought up in the South. There’s an awful lot of things that make up who Phillip Morris is, his homosexuality being one of those things. An important part. But not the be all and end all. So I’ve always been slightly reluctant to even think about approaching a character as a gay character or a straight character. They’re just people, and they’re sexual preference is a part of who they are.
Ewan McGregor as Oliver
Laurent, who with Beginners makes her English-speaking film debut, had nothing but praise for her director and costars. “I was terrified of working in English. But Ewan was amazing. He helped me a lot.”
Of Mills, she said, “When I was working with Mike Mills … I would always say to myself, I want to be that sort of director. I want to be that nice director who says hi to everybody, and who says, ‘Oh, my God, you are so beautiful!’”
She joked that the language was occasionally a barrier. “One day, I said, is it a comedy? Everybody laughed. ‘It’s not a comedy, Melanie! It’s a drama!’”
That having been said, there is an immense amount of humor in Beginners as Mills elaborated on. “For me, the comic relief, the laughing or humor or levity, and the heavy stuff, they go hand in hand. I don’t have to think in two different boxes. When I’m depressed, the first tool I reach for is the humor tool. And it was natural to my portrait of my dad – and my mom – that sometimes when things got the darkest, they would say the funniest things.
So it was a real natural part of me writing them. And Christopher [Plummer] knew that. The first thing he said to me was “Thank God [Hal, Plummer’s character] has wit.” And I was like, “Thank God you said that.” That was really important to me.”
Laurent said that when she saw the completed film for the first time, it moved her to tears. “I think it’s rare to talk about homosexuality like this. I think there have been amazing movies about it, but they’re sometimes clichés, sometimes big stuff … [Beginners] is a normal story. And I think Oliver has a really human, good reaction. It’s not easy, like ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ But he understands.
I love being in that sort of movie. If one person in the world thinks that homosexuality is not normal, but after the movie, he said, ‘Well, maybe it’s not that terrible. If it works for just one person, it was great to make the movie.’”