Sometimes the beginning of awards season offers pleasant surprises. Such is the case with Beginners, one of the year's best films, which recently debuted on DVD and is now suddenly on the shortlist of potential Oscar contenders with early and surprisingly robust attention from both the Gotham Awards where it won the top prize and the Independent Spirit Awards (3 nominations including Best Feature).
I had the opportunity to speak with writer/director Mike Mills recently about Beginners, his second feature. The film famously draws heavily from Mills' own life to depict the relationship between a lonely artist named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and his gay father Hal (Christopher Plummer) who comes out late in life shortly before succumbing to cancer. Oliver does his own romantic soul searching with an actress named Anna (Melanie Laurent) after his father's death.
The film moved me deeply this past summer and I told Mills as much as we began to talk. I had just rewatched the film on the morning we spoke.
NATHANIEL: It's so fresh in my memory, but how about you? Have you watched the movie recently?
MIKE MILLS: No. You know, most of my friends are filmmakers. A lot of filmmakers I know, we never watch our films after they're done. They're like old lovers or old worlds we were in. Since I premiered it at Toronto in 2010 I haven't watched the whole thing straight through. I watch parts of it and when I do Q&As I end up watching the end a lot or I peek in. Parts of it are tolerable but watching the whole thing is slightly torturous. More than slightly torturous.
Because you've lived with it for so long?
MILLS: Yeah. I've seen it probably a hundred times in making it. It's not the same experience for me, obviously, as it is for the audience. I'm thinking of all the strings behind the puppets. Maybe in a few years. It's strange. It's kind of sad. My wife [Miranda July] doesn't -- I have a lot of director friends and none of us look at our movies.
Well, Beginners is also so autobiographical. So is it at all harder to watch for that reason, than say your first feature Thumbsucker?
MILLS: It's not -- well, I don't think so. While it is very autobiographical by the time I've written it, turned it into a story, cast Christopher and all these people, it is a story for me; it's not 1 to 1. For me, I'm the most aware of how much it is not my life. But having said that, I do watch the end a lot. So often, I watch Hal die. I've watched Hal die so many times. The section right after that where it talks about what you do when someone passes away, there are some very real things in there. The daisies at the end -- there's a black and white photo of daisies. That's my mom's photo. That part can really hit me. One, it reminds me of my mom. Two, 'whoa! I put something incredibly intimate and vulnerable in this very public thing.' It almost surprises me every time that it's in there.
I was going to ask. It feels so personal. The very specific can become universal of course. But on the other hand, we are aware that it's based on your life. So...
I'm very happy to remember my dad. It's not like a painful thing. Even his death and even his illness and all of that, we had a lot of great times around that. We had more closeness than we had ever had. So most of the stuff I'm showing you in the film are positive memories, things I enjoy being around. To be honest, most of the stuff with the dad... I pretty much wrote down things my father said to me to the best of my memory. But by the time you've put it in a different place, you've put it into a larger fictional context, and you have Christopher saying it, I really don't go "oh, that's my pop". Do you know what I mean?
But those flowers slap me in the face. They kind of sneak up on my every time. I worked on the father stuff so much and I got really used to thinking of it as the weird hybrid of personal and story.
The first time I saw the film I thought of it as a kind of tone poem but the second time through there was far more structure than I remembered. The early scene when the dad wakes up in the hospital and he thinks he's at an exhibit. The son has to say to him "They're just personal photos, they're not art." That line was so interesting in the context of this particular movie where your personal story is the art. Was that a conscious decision?
MILLS: You write unconsciously, hopefully. It's kind of like you plant a lot of plants. But in the end there's a great editing process that is much more conscious and you are sort of feeling scenes. You do try to stick to themes - In my film love, relationships, our fears about love, things about memory and what is true and what is not what is real and what is not... those all became stronger through lines so things that related to that tended to stay.
When I wrote that scene I wasn't really that concerned that it was having a meta comment on the film itself. But by the time I was finishing my script I'm aware and I do enjoy that. And my film is very self-referential. It's about how we make stories of ourselves and stories of love and stories of family within a story about love and family and ourselves.
There's another line I wanted to talk about in the context of casting. Ewan's character complains about a work assignment that it's too much like past jobs "You do something once and that's all that people want from you." In Beginners you have Christopher Plummer playing against type as Hal, working against that. But it was wonderful to see Ewan McGregor doing exactly what he's best at as Oliver. He's an incredibly gifted reactive actor.
MILLS: Yep, yep, yep.
I was so pleased to see that you understood that about him. Can you talk about working with them?
MILLS: Christopher is often used in much more hard almost villainous figure. The part I liked about him is that he reminded of an ambassador, a captain of an old ship. But I could see in him, especially in The Last Station, that he can do vulnerable, he can do confusion and doubt. That was the combination I wanted really badly, a king who walked out of his land and into a new world. Christopher got that very well. The way I like to work is very soft, with time and space for the actor. We rehearse a lot -- I don't do the script -- we just rehearse by doing experiential experiments. I want them to feel it as much as possible. I don't rush things and I think you really feel that in Christopher's performance. I think there's a little bit more space and wobble and vulnerability than he has in a lot of his other roles. Christopher was born within five or six years of my dad. There's really something about men of that generation. They share such a cultural paradigm. Christopher's instincts were often so much like my dad's. Just recently I was hanging out with Christopher. It occurred to me -- and I don't know why I never thought this before -- that they're very different, my dad and Christopher, but they would have liked each other a lot. You know? They're both very cultured: my dad an art historian, Christopher pretty much a theatrical dramaturgical historian. When Christopher applied his own desires and instincts to the role, it fit very nicely.
Ewan, you described it really well, he is the most thoughtful actor I've ever worked with, and the most with the other person. He's deeply connected to whatever is going on with the other actor in a way that's so generous and non showy and I think often gets overlooked. He's tremendously good at being really there. In the scene you're concocting on that set, he's very alive and sensitive to the moment. I find that really rare, like, just in men --and especially rare in straight men movie star guys. He's so unlike everything you associate with those words.
They're both so good in it. Their rapport is beautiful.
MILLS: Yeah, and then Ewan totally changes with Melanie! We shot it chronologically so we shot the whole dad side of the story first and pretty much in order. The whole set had one vibe and then we broke and did more rehearsal with Melanie. And then we did Melanie's story in order. It was really fun to watch Ewan change. He was totally infused with the different actors he was around.
I think that's why -- my personal opinion -- that's why he's so great at playing romantic drama.
MILLS: Yeah, but he also loves romance. Talking with him, he loves love. He's very sensitive and alive to it. I think because he likes emotions, rich, deep quirky emotional situations. He doesn't over act but I think he really likes getting into that turf.
How did you find the cinematographer. The lighting... there was so much evocative range in it, I thought.
MILLS: His name is Kasper Tuxen. He's Danish and he's pretty young. I had just worked with him on one or two ads before. I was planning on working with someone else and was developing a relationship with someone else but then they had a baby and couldn't do it so I was scrambling at the end. I met Kasper on an ad. Kasper's energy is bounding young puppy energy which I really wanted on the set. I wanted to remind us all in an every day way that there's positivity here. Let's not be down and dour and depressive. Kasper is so filled with that.
I wanted to use no lights or as little light as we possibly could and we barely used a generator. That's quite difficult. Your latitutde as a DP is much narrower. You have to nail it. We were often shooting in pretty dark interior situations. Kasper could just get it right away. He didn't fuss much. He didn't freak out at those constrictions. He really embraced it. That was really fun. We both adore Gordon Willis so we talked about him a lot -- lighting the room, not faces, being much more naturalistic while still being cinematic.
What was the hardest scene to get right?
I don't know. It was all very fun to shoot. They're all such good actors. I was in heaven. There wasn't a lot of difficulties. You might think it was the stuff with the dad it but that went the most smoothly, probably because it was written very concisely. A lot of it was from direct observation. Christopher and Ewan are such honed actors and it was just very tight and efficient. The stuff with Melanie was more messy on purpose. We shot it differently. We shot all that handheld. We had no marks on the ground. We never had lights around. The idea was 'you guys go anywhere you want, time it however you want. Make it as messy and documentary like as you can'. Those scenes were rambling and experimental in the way they were acted and shot. That was harder to edit and hold together as a story but the shooting was a really fun party the whole time.
In addition to being a writer I also studied illustration so that Oliver's drawings were a special treat for me to watch.
Cool! You know what was such a trip about that? In the script I wrote all the drawings. I knew what I wanted so I wrote, like, "huge boulder on man". People reading it were like "This is never going to work." Luckily everybody enjoyed it... not just watching drawings happen but it gave you access to Oliver's brain in a different way.
So who did the drawings then?
Mostly me. I went to art school not film school. I do a lot of graphics. It was me but Ewan is super crafty. He builds motorcycles and cars. He's very much like a designer, you know? So we spent an afternoon at my place and I would start a drawing and he would finish it. He got pretty good. Often it's a drawing I started that he's continuing.
I was going to ask about the shots of the drawings, if that was you.
Yeah. My little chubby freckley hands in there.