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Mike Mills gets extremely personal with 'Beginners'

The story of an elderly man coming out as gay after a long marriage is based on the writer-director's own father.

June 03, 2011|By Steve Appleford, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • "Beginners" film director Mike Mills.
"Beginners" film director Mike Mills. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Memories are unsettled things for director Mike Mills. Even the most precious are fleeting and untrustworthy and only grow foggier the closer he looks at them. He discovered this while writing the script for "Beginners," inspired by the story of his late father, who came out as a gay man at age 75.

There is a funny moment early in the film, in which the adult son played by Ewan McGregor recalls being told of his father's true sexual orientation, with narration set against contradictory images flashing on the screen: "I remember him wearing a purple sweater when he told me this — but actually he wore a robe."

"Memories are so broken apart," says Mills, 44. "I can remember my dad saying the same things in a sweet tone and in an angry tone. In some of my memories, I'm looking at myself in a shot-reverse-shot structure," he says of the technique of showing movie characters in conversation from opposite camera angles, "which is impossible, right? The language of filmmaking has infiltrated into my dear precious memory of my father. How unstable and unreliable is all this stuff?"

His father was Paul Chadbourne Mills, an accomplished director of art museums in Oakland and Santa Barbara, who began an active gay social life after 44 years of marriage, three kids and the death of his wife, Jan. Then, just five years after coming out, he died of lung cancer in 2004.

"Beginners," which is set for release Friday, is the second feature from Mills, whose 2005 debut, "Thumbsucker," earned wide critical acclaim for its off-center coming-of-age tale. Both of his indie movies unfold as playful and deeply felt stories, with warm, naturalistic imagery rooted in his own early years as a favorite graphic designer for the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and other alt-culture heroes.

In the film, the son, Oliver, also a graphic designer, charts his romantic struggles and feelings of loss in a series of drawings. He has imaginary conversations with his little dog via subtitles that are hilarious and sad. Though not strictly autobiographical, the script was written, Mills says, "in this who-am-I crisis thing I was having after my second parent died: What do I do? What's my history? How did I get here? What are all the things I love?"

An ebullient Christopher Plummer plays the father, whose final years embracing a new life is interwoven with a parallel story of Oliver struggling through an otherwise charmed new relationship with an actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent). Both sides of the young couple are passionately and hesitantly in love, running to and from genuine commitment. For the still-grieving Oliver, his father's example as an older man discovering real love in the face of imminent mortality is a crucial guide.

Mills had his own romantic history to draw from for the fitfully graceful and awkward love story but says the film does not depict his courtship with writer-director Miranda July, whom he met during the latter stages of writing his "Beginners" script. They were married in 2009. "I had real fresh access to how love makes you face all the parts of yourself that you don't want to face," he says. "But I wasn't doing a portrait of me and Miranda."

Even so, it was an exceptionally personal film for the director, and Mills kept the production close to home, setting the story largely in his own neighborhood of Silver Lake. "It's still really alive in me," says Mills, bearded and sitting at a Sunset Boulevard cafe near the home he shares with July. A couple of scenes were shot right outside. "My dad's gay experiences really had a very positive influence on me and my straight relationships — how to better accept all the weirdness and ambiguity and ups and downs and paradoxes. I knew from the beginning I was writing about love."

His oldest sister had once told him, "You know, Pop was gay," but the information failed to register with him then. And yet Mills wasn't all that surprised when his father ended decades of secrecy and threw himself into a new kind of life. His dad started wearing all black, became active in the gay community in Santa Barbara and began having conversations with his son with new depth and feeling.

"He became so much more emotionally open and available and interested," Mills says. "Not that it was easy or without its mistakes or foibles, but he was a much more interesting dad in lots of ways."

When his father died, Mills knew he wanted that story to be the basis of his next film. Movies as autobiography had always interested him, from Woody Allen's work in the late '70s to his first viewing of Federico Fellini's surreal "81/2," which follows an Italian director through a moment of creative crisis. For "Beginners," Mills slowly pieced his story together through remembered moments sketched out on file cards. The finished script attracted the early interest of McGregor, who saw no need for changes before shooting began.

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