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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Filmmaker Mike Mills redesigns his personal history with Beginners

OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS: Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor
  • Focus Features
  • OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS: Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor
As if being a graphic artist, designer, screenwriter and filmmaker weren’t enough for Mike Mills, he describes himself “As an autobiographer…” on one of his blog entries. For his acclaimed new film Beginners, Mills draws heavily on his personal experiences and family history. Ewan McGregor plays Mills’ surrogate self, Oliver, whose septuagenarian father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay, and contracts terminal cancer himself five years later. Beginners’ splendid performances and emotional truth have earned Mills acclaim, and he discusses the challenges of using his own life as raw material.

Can you tell me about the difference between your real experiences and what we see in Beginners?
The real answer is, even when I’m trying to make a portrait of something that really happened, by the time you’ve experienced it, abstracted it, written it, got Christopher Plummer to be in it, it’s completely different. Many parts are real: my Dad did have a party in his hospital room, my parents did live down the block from where Allen Ginsburg wrote “Howl,” and more.

Did you feel self-conscious casting a movie star to play yourself: “Hmm, who’s handsome enough to play me?”
I set myself up for a tremendous embarrassment for a year and a half: “Do you really think you’re as good-looking as Ewan McGregor?” For the film to work, it’s got to take some true feelings and actions. The goal is for the actors to communicate with people, not with me, to take nuggets and then forget about me and talk to the audience. Their bodies and souls and spirits make people care about the film. I made the film from my perspective, but I wasn’t that interested in myself.

When Oliver meets Anna, she has laryngitis, so she can’t speak. Did you write that after casting Melanie Laurent, who is French?
That was serendipity. I like writing from observation, almost like reporting. Lou Pucci, who starred in my first film Thumbsucker, told me that he once had laryngitis and couldn’t talk before his audition for Across the Universe. He met a girl at a party, and because he couldn’t talk, they got to this much deeper place right away. For my films I like to take personal stuff, documentary stuff, stuff that comes out of nowhere — that’s filmmaking by any means necessary.

Oliver has issues with intimacy and depression in the film. Do you think growing up with a closeted father left Oliver emotionally damaged?
I would never say that anyone should be casually reduced to one thing. I would never say Oliver was damaged by his parent’s choices. He was affected by his parents’ choices. None of us are clean and perfectly-formed personalities. I always resist when people are called ‘dysfunctional.’ We’re all functional.

Because the movie cuts back and forth in time, was it challenge to keep track of Oliver’s emotional arc — when he’s up, when he’s down, etc?
I knew from really early on that I wanted to write it like that, being in the present but with a great sense of absence. It’s like the past is rubbing against your psyche, when you realize things like, “Oh yeah, I can’t call him now.” Even when Hal was dying, these incredibly sad, pivotal moments will have these funny or very happy breakthrough moments. In terms of mapping them out, the two storylines had to have some overall emotional arc. If something happened in the past, Oliver has to apply it to the present.

The subtitles that show us the dog’s thoughts provide some of the best comic relief. When did you decide to make the dog such a part of the story?
My dad had a Jack Russell, which passed away while I was writing Beginners. Obviously in the film, the dog isn’t talking, but I’ve talked to my dogs, and talked back as them. Honestly, it seemed like one of those ideas that woulnd’t make the final cut. The reason it stayed was that it gives you access to what Oliver’s thinking. The dog provided a front and back door to Oliver.

As an example of your music video work, could you tell me about the development of your video for Moby’s “Run On?”
I like telling a story in a different way. I really do like breaking things apart and looking at them from multiple angles. I feel happiest when it’s not a monolithic view of reality. When I’m working on a video, I’ll put the song on repeat and have it on in the background. My first idea is pretty obvious, but over hours and days the ideas become less obvious and more tied to the music. The song has a Gospel base so I started thinking about Moby as a Jesus figure.

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