“As a filmmaker, I don’t really believe in objectivity or fiction or documentary,” “Beginners” director Mike Mills told Indiewire. “All those categories I find are more professional categories than real things. As a son of a man who pretended to be one thing for 33 years of my life and then was another thing, the questions of ‘what is real’ and ‘what is not real’ are very blurrily vivid to me. And that became a big part of the whole story.”
Honor Roll is a daily series for December that will feature new or previously published interviews, profiles and first-persons of some of the year’s most notable cinematic voices. Today we’re revisiting an interview we did with “Beginners” director Mike Mills who recently cleaned up at the Gothams.
With “Beginners” – Mills’ follow-up to his 2005 directorial debut “Thumbsucker” – Mills very much blurs what is real and what is not. The film juggles chronologies as it details a pivotal period in the life of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a man in his late thirties dealing with the death of his father (Christopher Plummer). Through flashbacks, Mills shows the years leading up to Oliver’s father’s death – most notably in the fact that after Oliver’s mother’s death, his father decided to come out at age 75. In doing so, Mills is actually showing audiences a glimpse a pivotal period in his own life. While parts of the film are largely fictionalized (a romance between Oliver and a young French actress played by Melanie Laurent is fiction, for example), the base of “Beginners” is very much Mills’ own story.
“My dad did come out of the closet when he was 75 after my mom past away,” Mills said. “It was – as you can imagine – a very chaotic, crazy time in our lives. Who is this guy I’d been with all these years? Who is this guy now? He went from being one of the most stuck, emotionally dampened people I knew. A very sweet, kind guy but kind of muted. He went from being that, to totally revived. He became totally emotionally open and vivid. He was doing all things he’d never done before like seeing a trainer and getting testosterone shots and having boyfriends… It was so chaotic, but it was so positive. It was this huge, positive change so late in the game. After he passed way, I was in my own moment of feeling so emotionally tense and keyed into how fragile everything is. And I thought ‘I should report this. This is like the biggest story I know about in a real way and that’s what I should do as a filmmaker.'”
It took a while for Mills to finally get the project going, but once he did, he found the experience “magical.”
“I love shooting so much,” he said. “And I was so happy to finally shoot the movie with these amazing actors. I was just high as a kite the whole time. And if your father ever has been in a hospital, and you want to do some therapy, go be a director in a hospital. You get to control everything, and dad’s just fine. It’s really tames the whole thing.”
What resulted from Mills’ accidentally therapeutic experience premiered in Toronto in 2010 and has since gone on to win at the Gothams. One of its greatest assets is how it brings a perspective few have films have ever attempted, and does so with considerable warmth and authenticity.
“Me and my mom lived with homophobia as my dad did,” Mills said. “Not in the same way, but it effected the whole world that we were in. It’s a part of my family. Someone asked before ‘is this a gay movie or is this a straight movie?’ And I was like ‘oh my god, do we have to do that?’ If you just look at it practically, it’s not a gay movie and it’s not a gay author.”
What it is is a love letter to Mills’ father, and Mills actually said that what would have really been interesting is had his father had an opportunity to tell his story himself.
“I’m really curious what his version of this would have been,” he said. “Can you imagine a 75-year old gay guy writing about this? I would have loved seeing that. I’m most worried about how my Dad and his friends would think of it. But the film is essentially about a straight son’s curiosity and love for his Dad. And my Dad became greater when he was gay. He became much more emotionally open and his friends were such a really awesome group of guys that helped each other so much… The scene that he entered, I cherised. It was just so great to be around.”
The film’s premiere marks one final coming out for Mills’ father, and Mills said his father would have loved every second of it.
“It’s like, if you’re going to fucking do this,” he said, “if you’re going to out all this stuff about your dad and your family again, you have to go for it. You can’t be little. I wanted to make as big an embrace as I can over as much outward energy as I can. So for me, this is about is trying to get things out. And who knows what happens, so I just need to let it go. But of course I want a lot of people to see it. And I think my Dad would really like it that way. He was a very public guy. When he came out, he kept coming out to everyone he possibly could. So I think he’d be psyched.”