In spite of the name changes and of what Mike Mills tells you, Ewan McGregor does play Mills in the director’s second feature, Beginners (five years after his acclaimed debut with Thumbsucker). Beginners is the personal story of Mills’ father who revealed his suppressed homosexuality in his 70s after Mills’ mother passed away. As Hal, his father is portrayed by the great Christopher Plummer through flashbacks from his son Oliver, played by McGregor, a man who is dealing with his own sexuality as he falls for Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Mills spoke to Paste about McGregor’s insistent representation of himself, about his concerns in honestly depicting the gay community of his father, and about the power of a little dog who almost steals the film.
Paste: Over the years, whenever Thumbsucker would come up in a conversation I’d say, “Where is that guy that did that film?”
Mike Mills: He’s been trying to get back to you ever since then.
Paste: I totally, now, give you my permission to have all those years because it has paid off with Beginners.
Mills: [laughing] I was trying. I was writing this as Thumbsucker was coming out. And it only took me a year or two to start showing [the script] to people. But it took me those other four years to get people to say yes. 2008, 2007 happened in there and it where it was really hard to get any movie financed. This is a cheap movie but it was hard to get that. Even when I had Ewan [McGregor] and Christopher [Plummer] it was really hard. For longer than not it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen. It seemed as though it was my crazy pipe dream.
Paste: Tell us about the film.
Mills: It’s about a guy, Oliver, whose Dad came out of the closet when he was 75. He had five very gay years and he passed away. He’s remembering that time as he’s also trying to—not just to fall in love but stay in love—which has always been a problem. And his gay dad—the memories of his gay dad—is teaching him how to stay in love. Pointing him, encouraging him, pushing him toward staying in love in a relationship with somebody. It’s a lot about who you are, who you are in relationship to the big story, the big cultural story of what we are. Your time. For his dad, it’s like, getting married in 1955, what was the story that was available then for a gay man versus a straight man? For Oliver, he was born in ’68, I think, so what are the stories of love that are available in our historical context? What are the stories that are in your family of who you are? What is the story for the dog? John Russell made him to be a certain way [a John Russell Terrier]. He’s trying to figure out who he is. And what’s the story that’s sort of unconsciously rolling in your head that Oliver’s trying to figure out that’s been stopping him from staying? And Anna, too.
Paste: It’s not by the book, but it all seems to work. So many things—like the way you use the dog as a device to get Oliver to talk is fascinating. Something about the way Ewan does that, I guess it’s a testament to his acting. And I read something about Ewan wanting to study your cadence and your way of speaking?
Mills: That wasn’t to “be me”. I’d say “You’re not us. You have to make story, though. You have to make it real for you.” I kept saying that over and over. And he wanted me to record it cause that’s how his dialect coach does things. You have like a specific, it’s not an abstract accent, it’s a specific accent. So I did that but I’d read a little bit and I’d say, “Now, Ewan. Don’t copy me.” As I was still recording I was like (tapping the microphone) “What did I say?” And I’d do some more lines of dialogue. “But remember, you’re your own person.” It was really important to me. He thought that was funny.
But with the dog—I love dogs. I inherited my dad’s dog. I have a border collie that’s hyper-intelligent. Knows so many words. I talk to them all of the time. And they talk back, you know, in my head. Or I say things that are their voice. And we have very funny conversations. I’m my funniest with my dog. And I wrote this for so long that I sort of just went from talking to them to talking to them in the script, you know? And especially when you’re alone you do talk to your animal more? I said some very important things to my dad’s dog that were key for me. That’s how I got in there.
Paste: Did your dad have those kind of conversations with his dog?
Mills: When he was straight, the dog was like this surrogate, safe, emotional place. The only time I saw my dad cry when he was a straight man was when we had to put to sleep one of our dogs. When he was a gay man he’d cry more. Which was great. So, my dad talked to the dog but not as much as I do.
Paste: And Oliver did it right from the start, as soon as he brought him into his house. Those are such great scenes.
Mills: What I told Ewan, we had a rehearsal one day, it was just me and Ewan and Cosmo, who plays the dog, who is the dog, canine actor, let’s call him. So I told him, the important thing is that you’re not talking down to the dog. You’re not talking to the dog as an animal that’s less intelligent. We have five million smell sensitive cells in our noses. They have 250 million. They can smell all different emotions. They can smell the menstrual cycle of a female dog. Let’s just say their intelligence is other, not less. So treat them like a highly intelligent alien that can’t speak. And just talk with him. So Ewan just started talking with him. Ewan is so good. He got it right away. It was really interesting watching him get comfortable and just talk with him like another human being, not as a dog, not as less.
Paste: With a great sincerity. Not laughing at himself for doing this. There was no element of that.
Mills: Yeah, he caught onto that. And he loved Cosmo. He got a dog just after we finished filming. [With my own life] it happened kind of organically. I talked to them all the time. And they talked back. It was a pivotal time in my life. I had my second parent pass away and I’m alone at that point. When you’re alone in the house you’re talking even more. While Miranda July, who’s my wife, is not Anna at all, I met her at this time. I had a few key things that happened between me and Miranda. And I got off the phone, and I looked at Bowser, and I said something really pivotal. Like, I had a turning point. Not unlike what happens in life all the time. And I said it to the dog and I think I probably made the dog say something inside my head or I said it out loud. So that just, sort of, got organically into the script. And then the grief time with me, with both my parents, is not just down and depression and sadness and heaviness. There’s a lot of like, life is short and you’re kind of soaring, and you want to do everything you didn’t do, and you’re hungry. You’ve seen death. You’ve seen someone literally die. You’re alive. You’re really aware that you’re alive and they’re not here anymore. Go do something. So for this movie, everything you love is in it. Like drawings, graphics, fields of color, whatever you want, do it! You know? Talking dog. You do that all the time. Fuck it! Do it! You know? It was like that. I’m not there right now. I was really intoxicated. I was like, unsober. Thank God. It was a real lesson. It was like a weird gift that I got that I’m not totally responsible for that’s funny to look back on. I’m not in the same place.
Paste: When I saw the film I figured you must have known someone, and I didn’t realize till later that it was your father—just because of the accuracies of the hospital scenes.
Mills: My dad did come out. There’s tons of real autobiographical stuff in the movie. It’s fiction; it’s a story by the time you get done with it, by the time you get writing, by the time Ewan and Christopher’s bodies take on these things, it’s its own thing. Which I’m happy. I want it to be that. But, it really came out just after my dad died, is when I started writing it. Like the year after both my parents passed away, the difference between being now here in present and some memory is very pourous. And you’re often just taken away. So that’s where it was when I started writing. So, that structure just came out of what was happening to me. I wrote on all these 5 × 7 cards. I’d write one memory, one image, one idea. It could just be like, the muzak that was playing in the ICU room while my dad’s unconscious. I know my dad hates that song. Just little things like that. I accrued a ton of those. That’s how I built the movie, out of these very small, concrete, specific moments could have a ripple effect.
Paste: Andy—the character who plays the father’s partner—was so insecure about what people would think of him, especially Oliver who was the son of his lover. He would imagine, mind read, all of things that Oliver was thinking. I thought that was really genuine. And it seemed genuine that it never occurred to Oliver to think that way. Was that also from your father’s real experience?
My dad, when he came out, all of a sudden there were a lot of gay men in our house. He joined this group called the Prime Timers, like in the movie. They were an amazing community. I was worried about my widowed dad who was 75, and all of a sudden he’s acting like he was 40, and he has this rich life. So, his gay friends are dear to me, for being fun and great but also because of the care they took with my dad. There were a lot of guys that he met. My dad had hid his gayness forever. But when he came out it was safe and easier. By the time he came out it was in a fairly comfortable environment in Santa Barbara. He knew a lot of people that came out when they were young and did get disowned and did have violence done to them, physically and emotionally, and had a much rougher time, and have the scars of that. So, I wanted that character to be represent the other version of coming out, and to have a wildly different experience. So, Andy is sort of an almalgamation of lots of guys I met. Love, when it really happens, is un-idealized, quite messy, unexpected, not what you thought, not as pretty as you thought. And I wanted Andy to be that. I wanted Andy to be kind of “unlikely”.
I would never have made this film if it didn’t happen with my dad. I really enjoy films by people who are really processing something as they’re making it and it’s really personal and only they can talk about that. That’s how I got to this. I have straight eyes. I’m straight. I have lots of gay friends. I’ve really respected so many gay people, gay artists, gay filmmakers. I went to art school in the ‘80s in New York City when Act Up was huge, and the politicized activist reaction to the whole AIDS numbness, not willing to address it, was alive. And those people I respected so much. I had some teachers in school that were involved with that. They were, like, the people I looked up to most. So, when I come to this, it’s with a lot of fear of getting it wrong. You know? The audience I’m worried about the most is the gay audience because I treasure my dad’s gayness. It brought so much to me. His friends, like I was saying, they were so great to him. And that means so much to me. And the stuff that they’ve been through in their lives is not my experience. So I try very hard just to stay true to the concrete things I knew and saw, and not try to overstep my visitation.
At the beginning, when this came out, someone asked is it a gay film or is it a straight film? I was like, aren’t we past that? Aren’t there gay and straight people in our lives, and it’s about relationships? It doesn’t mean they’re the same. Our differences are in the same house. You know? So this is a house with different kinds of people.
Paste: You’re obviously not going to change people that are truly homophobic over night. But hopefully, for people that maybe haven’t thought about it, you did put it in a respectful, honest light.
Mills: It’s like the thing that Harvey Milk always said about coming out: It would make gayness more accessible. Like, if you know someone that’s gay—so much of homophobia is just ignorance—they just become more human, and you just kind of “get it” more. It’s not as easy to demonize. So, there’s one more gay person than everybody knows. And it’s great that Christopher embraced that.
Paste: He’s so good in this.
Mills: He treated it just right. He didn’t treat Hal as a gay person or a straight person. He treated him as a person who loved Andy. As a person who didn’t get to love Andy for a long time and wants to now. And I thought he handled it very respectfully and with ease, and we didn’t need to have a big conversation about it.
Paste: Christopher and Ewan are both outstanding. Did you think of anyone else before Ewan, at all?
MM: I didn’t think of Ewan because I was having such a hard time getting this made it’s like a pipe dream thinking the Ewan McGregor would be in this movie. You don’t want to have pipe dreams as a filmmaker. You want to have real dreams. But then it was, like, try it. Once he responded, once I met him, I felt so lucky that it worked out. Because he was my great creative friend—like, a great translator. He was my through line. We made the movie together like we were partners in it. He and I met Christopher. He and I met Melanie. We met everyone together. He, more than anybody, was so great at being attentive to me, to what happened in the reality behind it. He’s so good at following his instinct. He’s such a fluid actor.