An interview with Mike Mills
Ordinarily, by the time a filmmaker is sitting in front of me for an interview, the film they are promoting is a distant memory in their mind. They finished it months beforehand and whatever issues went into making it have been dealt with in the process. Sitting down to speak with Mike Mills about his second feature film, BEGINNERS, is different. In talking about his film, he must inevitably discuss some of the more intimate moments of his life.
“I opened the door,” Mills tells me when I apologize in advance if anything gets too personal. The truth is, he sorta did. BEGINNERS recounts what it was like for Mills after his mother passed away and his father came out of the closet at 75 years old, only to be diagnosed shortly thereafter with terminal cancer himself. The relationship he formed with his father in the final years of his life informed Mills on all kinds of love and showed him the walls he had put up in his own life to protect himself from getting hurt.
“I started to write before he died,” Mills confides. “One night, we started getting into these intense conversations about relationships. He was way more engaging, emotionally available and he also challenged me about why I never stayed with anyone. I really appreciated how unpolite he got with me.” I’m sure spending his entire life married and in the closet gave him a fairly unique perspective on the subject. “In many ways, the film is a continuation of our talks about love, across the orientation divide and the generation divide.”
As personal as BEGINNERS is, Mills believes that this only broadens its universal appeal. “I don’t believe in generalizing as a way to make things more accessible,” Mills asserts. “I believe that by making things really concrete and specific, they become more relatable. It’s like they’re real, like they have more nooks and crannies.” Mills isn’t kidding about getting particular with the details either; actual family photographs and heirlooms were used in the film’s sets.
This would mean that Ewan McGregor would be playing the role based on Mills. “I really don’t like thinking of it that way,” Mills says of the idea. “I feel like I stole from myself by any means necessary but I’m not interested in making a portrait of myself. I never looked at Ewan and thought, ‘There I am.’” The reason for this is likely twofold. The first is that Mills sees the character of Oliver (McGregor) as just a part of him that he ran with; the second is because they really look nothing alike.
And his detachment didn’t stop there either. “Even with Christopher [Plummer] playing my dad, you would imagine it would be hard sometimes but it never was,” Mills claims. This might be just a testament to how strong Plummer is in the film. His curiosity and enthusiasm are terribly endearing, which in itself also affirms Mills’ great strength as a director and his dedication to the story. “If it was bad or fake or false as a film but true to my life, who would care?”
I’m sure his parents would have cared. BEGINNERS is a touching love letter to his mother and father, told with a deep yearning to understand who they were and what they knew of love together. For Mills, this quest is ongoing. “I don’t really believe in closure. Losing your parents is so much bigger than making a movie.” This is not to say progress wasn’t made either; Mills is hardly downtrodden when speaking with me. “I really enjoyed communing with my dad and writing from their perspective. They were really interesting people just past being my parents.”
So interesting in fact that Mills’ dad would actually inspire the title for the film. “My dad was so hungry; he was just getting started; he just couldn’t get enough,” Mills describes with fondness. “He was so happy and so not dying. He was just beginning. I learned a ton from watching him. We should really try to be ourselves. It sounds trite but its pretty profound.”
And with that, it is time for Mills to begin again.