On Thursday night at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco “Beginners,” the new film from director Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”), kicked off the 54th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival. “Beginners” is a partially fictionalized account of Mills’ father, played here by Christopher Plummer, coming out of the closet as a septuagenarian. Ewan McGregor fills in for Mills himself as the character Oliver, who recounts the story of witnessing his father Hal’s transition to a gay lifestyle after living most of his adult life married to Oliver’s mother. Soon after Hal’s rebirth, he is diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer that leaves Oliver both caring for and being in awe of the man he realizes he never really knew.
“Beginners” premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival but we fell in love with the film at this year’s SXSW. Friday morning we were able to sit down with Mills and McGregor to talk “Beginners” and hear the stories behind the production.
Though just starting their big push towards publicizing the film’s release in June, Mills is already feeling the vulnerability that comes with basing a story on his own life. “For this film, the questions get awfully personal really fast,” he said. “It’s like, ‘So was your mother really happy?’ Those always happen after people see the movie and it’s like they all feel like they’re all in my family now and we’re all intimate. And I’ve invited them in. I’ve opened that door.”
Mills stressed that while the story and events that the film is based on are of course very personal to him, the film itself is an unique entity.
“One way I describe it to people is,” he explained. “Imagine you live through a tornado or a ship sinking and you took like a snapshot. The snapshot of the ship sinking is real but it’s utterly different than living through it. Walking around and talking about that snapshot is so different for me.”
“I always feel like people are slightly overweighing — they’re like, ‘Oh that’s so personal for you!’ And it’s like, yeah and Christopher Plummer is so not my father. And Oliver/Ewan, it’s a lot of facts that we share… I think it’s some kind of emotional frequency which made it really easy and fun, but Ewan gets out of cars so much more handsomely than I do,” he explained, joking about the film’s autobiographical elements only going so far.
Interestingly, while Mills talked about the distance the film has from reality, McGregor still sounded genuinely affected by his experience with the production. For the actor, Mills’ direct connection to the story provided an express route to the emotions essential to his character.
“I think there were also times where you could see the [emotional] chink [in Mike] a little bit,” he said. “Because there’s some very devastating moments. When Christopher dies in the film it’s very upsetting for everybody. There were other moments when you’d end a scene and cast a glance to the monitor to see how Mike was. When Christopher is told he’s got cancer, there were just moments when I was imagining there couldn’t have been any other way than this. It had to be like this. You would be aware of the movie representing something that actually happened to Mike.”
Obviously Mills used himself as a raw resource for many aspects of the film, yet he still seemed in awe of how engaged his cast and crew became with his story. When Mills recounted stories of how those on set absorbed the emotional timbre of a scene, there was authentic surprise in his voice:
“When Hal died (when Christopher died), Ewan really lost it in a really beautiful way. We shot the movie chronologically and that was one of the last things they shot,” he recalled. “And I remember me and Kasper [Tuxen, Director of Photography] standing over the camera and he was bawling; I was bawling. And I’m looking at the monitor and the camera and I see a teardrop hit the camera and I’m like, ‘Oh no! Water! Electricity! Bad!’ But no that’s Kasper’s tears hitting the camera. And that would happen a few times. I would turn around and be like, ‘Great! Great shot!’ and I’d turn around and the crew is crying.”
In the film itself, the timelines leading up to Hal’s death and Oliver’s own blossoming romance with Anna (Melanie Laurent) are intertwined with each other, though in reality the romance takes place months after Hal passes away. In a move to plant the emotional core necessary for McGregor’s character to feel true, Mills decided to approach the production chronologically, which is not typical of most films. The technique would be a welcome gift to any actor and McGregor, who was grateful for the opportunity, made sure to take advantage of the decision.
“It was very charged; emotions were very high in both the stories” he remembered. “We shot the two stories separately. We shot the first story with Oliver and Hal, we rehearsed for a week and shot for three weeks. And then Melanie and I rehearsed for a week and then we shot the story with Oliver and Anna for three weeks. So there were two separate experiences but we shot the Father-Son story first because that happened first. You’re looking back to that story from the love story with Anna. But the height of the emotional content in that first story really informed the second one. Our emotions were all over the place.”
One of the main challenges for McGregor’s character Oliver through the film was dealing with his sadness over his father’s death and trying to find a way to reconnect to the real world. Mills was careful to balance out this sadness with humor found in both Oliver’s relationship with his dying father as well as in his new relationship with Anna. He admitted that his humor-in-dark-times formula is something he gleaned from his father, especially during his final battle with cancer.
“To me, sadness and humor aren’t disrelated and humor is the best tool I’ve had against the sadness in my life,” he said. “I really think I inherited that from my parents. The darker it got sometimes for my dad, and this is something that Christopher nailed, the more pinched you get as a human, the more he would make a joke to crack it back open again. My dad did make jokes with the doctors when things were really grave.
“Sadness is a super important thing not to be ashamed about but to include in our lives,” he continued. “One of the bigger problems with sadness or depression is there’s so much shame around it. If you have it you’re a failure. You are felt as being very unattractive. One thing I love about Ewan is it’s so hard to get a straight male actor of a certain stature who is willing to be that emotionally open and available and show real vulnerability.”
While McGregor has played his share of sad-sacks, typically the cause has been related to a failing relationship of some kind. In “Beginners” he plugged into a more depressed dead-eyed sadness than usual.
“…sadness is something that you can’t really do properly unless you’re feeling it.” he said, describing generating the appropriate levels of melancholy for the film. “I mean you can’t really do anything when you’re acting unless you’re feeling it but there is something about where you have to descend to a sad place and hold onto it. Then usually what happens is you break for lunch and you’re like, ‘Shit,’ and you find yourself coming back to the surface and you’re having a joke at lunch and you go back after lunch and you’re like, ‘Ok… Oh god.’ You’re trying to get back down there.”
Over the last two decades McGregor has starred in a wide spectrum of films, but exactly how stars at his level end up in independent films is often a mystery. His connection to “Beginners,” it turns out, did not come in an elevator pitch, but a chairlift pitch on the ski slopes of Park City:
“I was told the story by Rich Klubeck [Mills’ agent]. By the time we got to the top of the ski run already in my mind I was running through the story of a guy I’d never met and thinking about what that might be like to live through. And when we met the first time at a coffee shop in Santa Monica, I’m pretty sure I was asking [Mike] lots of questions about what happened — not really about the script or how we would shoot it or how do you like to direct. I was fascinated by the story.”
For Mills, having his audience grabbed by the story is a good point to start from, but he hopes they will be as pleasantly surprised to see a person still growing and developing, as he was during the end of his father’s life.
“When I was helping him defrost food as a widower I didn’t think all this was going to happen,” he said. “He changed in so many ways and the sex was just the beginning. And he cracked open all these emotional doors and this willingness to talk to me in a different way. So if that surprise and acceptance in the audience that things can change when you least expect it …I’d be really happy if that came across.”
“Beginners” opens in Los Angeles and New York June 3rd and will be back in San Francisco June 10th. The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 5th. — Sean Gillane
Photo Credits: Ewan McGregor by Pamela Gentile; Mike Mills shots by Tommy Lau and Rosen, McGregor and Mills by Pamela Gentile.