As big fans of music video veteran Mike Mills‘ debut feature “Thumbsucker,” we’ve been keenly awaiting a sophomore film from the director ever since, and when that film, “Beginners,” premiered at Toronto last year, the word was comfortingly strong. But even that didn’t quite prepare us for the experience of actually seeing it — when we caught up with it for ourselves at SXSW, it immediately became one of our favorite films of the year thus far; our review said “it makes you sigh and swoon in equal measure.”
It’s a highly autobiographical picture, following Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as he recalls his relationship with his father (Christopher Plummer), who came out of the closet late in life, as well as his relationship with a French actress (“Inglourious Basterds” star Mélanie Laurent), and it’s executed with real flair, heart and soul.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Mills at the festival, and if we say so ourselves, it’s one of our favorite interviews to date; Mills is an incredibly bright, talented director, and he brought all kinds of insight into his new film. With the film looking more than likely to be a crossover hit when Focus Features opens it on June 3rd, we’re sure that Mills won’t leave such a gap before his next film. Ten highlights from our interview are below.
The recession was one of the reasons it took so long between “Thumbsucker” and “Beginners.”
“I started writing it in 2005, right after “Thumbsucker” premiered at Sundance. And it took me a while to write it, it took me a year or two. Then it took a long time, a lot of fighting [to get it made], even after I had Ewan and Christopher, it took like another year or so. Part of that was I hit that 2008 time. That was right when I was trying to get money really hard. That was when everybody was so nervous, and it was just such a tough time. But this film is here by the skin of its teeth. It was just my pipe dream and then it was going to happen. That’s part of why I was so psyched last night to be there. I still have that taste in my mouth of feeling like I’m the only person that believes this is going to happen.”
The film was based firmly on Mills’ experience with his own father coming out.
“Well my Mom passed away in ’99 and my Dad came out right then and then I made ‘Thumbsucker.’ As ‘Thumbsucker’ was editing, my Dad got sick and a lot of that stuff happened and towards the end he said to me… we would have all of these amazing talks. When he came out he became funnier, he became more diverse. We could have all sorts of conversations that we couldn’t have before about sex and erections and his life and his fears and my life and getting into great arguments that we wouldn’t get into before and it was a lot freer which was great… It was on fire how different he was, and then he fell in love, and he was like a 16-year-old 75-year-old, and then when he was sick he got even more open and wanted to talk about everything, which was great coming from these people that don’t say anything for so long. So he said one night — I was like, ‘How did you guys get married, what was that and what did you guys do?’ And he was like… part of what he said was ‘At one point your mother took off her Jewish badge and I took off my gay badge and we got married in 1955.’ My family’s struggles were all of a sudden thrown up against the much larger social story… I love history and I love trying to unravel how we’re all products of history and even our innermost mysterious parts, our sex, our relationships, our idea of ourselves, are shaped partly by the stories around us. And those stories are specific to times and places. So I was like I could do all that, like the book, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being,’ like I’ve always adored that and that is very much that, it’s a love story set in a very specific time. And so I was like, ‘Oh, this could be my way to do that.’ And then he died, and you’re in grief, and I just sort of kept that conversation going, kept that messy, arguing, wonderful conversation going.”
The Jack Russell terrier in the film is just as crucial a character as McGregor, Plummer or Laurent’s.
“I inherited my Dad’s Jack Russell, and the whole movie is people trying to figure out who they are really, and who they are in relation to others. And when I had that little bit of Oliver explaining to the dog that he is an invention of this man named John Russell, who invented that breed in the late 1800s to hunt, and their specific heights so they can get into fox holes — I was, like, ‘that’s really the movie, everyone trying to figure out how they got here.’ The dog doesn’t know that it chases tennis balls because it was bred to chase foxes, and we all have our own version of those tennis balls and those foxes, and we’re trying to figure those out. And that was what I was trying to do personally through the movie, that’s what Oliver’s trying to do and that’s what Hal’s doing and I think Anna to a lesser degree, so that’s how the dog got in there. I inherited the dog while I’m writing, and I have my dog who’s a border collie, and I talk to both of them all the time. I think that animals aren’t less intelligent than humans, they’re just of a different intelligence. We have five million smell sensitive cells in our nose, they have two hundred and fifty million, they can smell emotion. They can smell different types of emotion, they just have an other type of intelligence. I talk to them like they’re little aliens… I worked on the script for so long that conversation just sort of went from down there on the floor to up there on the page and kind of kept going. When you’re alone you talk to your animals more, and he’s very alone.”
The film didn’t change hugely between script and finished product, but Mills still believes that a film is only discovered through the process of making it.
“There’s things that have changed, things that change when you shoot. I like to keep it all alive. The main answer is that was all written like that and it’s mostly what was in the script. There’s some things that you learn as you’re shooting, and as you’re editing that are key, because when you start you don’t have the brain that can finish it. You don’t really know what it is, and that’s the key job; figuring out what you actually have, not what you’re dreaming of having. But also I’m not precious about my words, I’d encourage everybody to improvise or change. I do lots of things where there’s part of a scene that’s pretty much the script, but at the end of a scene, [I tell the actors] you can say whatever you want. When Oliver’s doing all of his presenting of his graphics and all of that, I basically said this is what you want, this is what you want, go. Which is really very Milos Forman, like ‘Loves of a Blonde‘ and all that, so it’s a little of a hybrid process. But I definitely believe in the energy of the set and the energy of the actor, way more than your written word.”
Mills didn’t test-screen the film, but he did show early cuts to friends to hone the finished product.
“Not like a big test but twenty people, five people, friends, filmmakers. I do that a lot because you really lose it [along the way]. A film is for people, my films are for people, so I need to measure how it’s going, and especially something like this, for me, I’m being pretty daring, that people are going to follow a certain through line or keep with it. I know there are films that are way more avant garde, but I was trying to push it. So you need to kind of keep testing to see if it works well enough… Do you end the scene on Ewan or end it on Christopher? Does he say that one extra line or not? And that changes the whole meaning. Having someone say a line at the end of the scene can utterly change the scene and then you multiply that by how many scenes you’ve got, or even within a scene and it’s endless how much you can change a movie.”
Despite the subject matter, it’s a life-affirming film; which is what Mills’ parents would have wanted; it’s partially a tribute to them.
“Well my experience with my dad dying was quite sad. But there was also so many things that made me appreciate things more. Me, it made my taste buds for life enhanced, and ultra vivid, and that’s what I was trying to get across. That’s what I was hoping for. If I were to say ‘Mom and Pop, I’m making a movie about you guys,’ [they’d say] ‘Oh that sounds morbid, we’re dead. Go live life!’ So I kind of had that voice in my head the whole time. That’s what my Dad would want. He would want to put a fire under people in a positive way, not in a crucifying way, but he would want to excite, he would want to be the catalyst that excites something… I mean I wouldn’t call it a love letter, but I love them and they’re gone and I miss them and I’m thinking about them, so it’s kind of like that. I love my straight Dad and I love my gay Dad. You know there was a lot about my gay Dad that gave me a lot and I dearly love my Mom, she’s utterly the biggest punk rascal I’ve ever met and she’s a great character. Like they’re both amazingly filmic, I didn’t realize that until I was doing this. So yeah, it’s very filled with a longing for them.”
You could never simply translate reality across — just the process of writing something ensures that it’s already become its own thing.
“Even if I left the room and I tried to write a scene about us meeting and talking, it’s like my version, it’s my dream, it’s my perspective, and then I make it into a scene that’s playable, so I cut out parts and [it becomes] very abstract. So from the get-go you have to realize that now you’re translating it into a story, and by therein doing, you’re ultimately not in reality anymore, you’re in a different place. My sisters would have a different version, my Dad would have a different version. And then it really becomes different when it’s in the body of Ewan, Christopher and Mélanie. And I love that. To me I was waiting for that moment to get it off my shoulders, and to have them inhabit it and bring it to life in a different way. Christopher’s different than my Dad but I love Christopher as Hal. It’s them now, and so many people go ‘It’s just so personal,’ and it is, but I look at that and go, ‘No, it’s Ewan and Christopher doing this neat thing.’ I often feel like me and my Dad [are] mostly watching them.”
The film’s about loneliness, in many ways.
“All over Anna’s [Laurent’s character] story, it’s me, and Anna’s me. It’s not me and my wife Miranda [July] — it’s all my friends, and it’s the women I’ve dated before, and me and my guy friends. I think a lot of us found ways to be alone, and maybe we didn’t even know how much we did that. We want to be with, and we love other people, but for the long run we don’t actually know how to do that. I know a lot of people like that, so I was trying to do a portrait of that, and that part of the film was more of an amalgamation. All of Hal’s problems are pretty much external problems and all of Oliver’s problems are pretty much internal and sort of like the unresolved hangovers of the decisions that Hal and Georgia made. All the things that they didn’t get that don’t bug them, bug the kid. That’s what it’s like for me and my sisters. All of the paradoxes and contradictions that were my parent’s choice and their decisions rattle around in our souls much more than they ever did in theirs.”
Working with Christopher Plummer was an experience for the ages.
“He’s amazing…Plummer and Mélanie [Laurent] are opposites, which is kind of great for the story. Mélanie is like the most on-fire jazz improviser, but highly intelligent, knows what she’s doing and just kind of lets go and jumps. And Plummer is incredibly aware of story, and an audience, and an audience through the lens. And he will construct a whole little play within one scene. Like he was at the table talking about how they got married and he was like, ‘You’re the camera,’ and he knows he has a long scene, and he starts off and for the first third, I was lining up the camera, and I was, like, ‘OK you’re doing something, I’m not going to tell you anything,’ and then he comes over to here, and then he reveals himself. Like he thought all that out, it was kind of beautiful to watch, it’s like palpable experience coming out… But also, he’s like a rake, right? If you do anything wrong or dumb he’s going to tell you all about it, with great humor. He’s actually a lot like Vince Vaughn in Thumbsucker. Vince Vaughn at the end of the day you’ll have a smile headache… but often it’s at your expense a little bit so you’ve just got to be on your toes. If he makes fun of you and you make fun of him back, he cracks up. He loves to spar, he’s very funny and very subversive and that’s great for the character and you just want to keep that going.”
Mills is more sure than ever that he’s meant to be a filmmaker.
“I really enjoyed doing it, but it makes you self conscious but that’s like the worst thing and eventually, you’re going to start getting nailed, one way or the other, and that’s painful. So writing and having a new project it’s like your armor through this part. I love directing, on this one, I’ve always loved directing but I knew it more now, and I knew it while I was doing it, I love this and I love actors. As a formally very shy person, I love actors and what they do and I love being captain of the ship, call me vain or whatever, I fucking adore it. I’m so in tune with that, I can’t wait to get back.”