Director mines his own tale in new film 'Beginners'

Hal and Oliver
Christopher Plummer as Hal and Ewan McGregor as Oliver in Mike Mills' movie "Beginners"
Image courtesy of Focus Features

Life can serve up some strange twists, as film director Mike Mills knows. Mills' new feature "Beginners," which opens this week in Minneapolis, is based on a revelation in his own life.

Mike Mills is very matter-of-fact about what happened.

"Well, it was two seismic shifts on top of each other," he said. "Because my mom had just passed away, and that was really huge, because I was very close to her. It was the first big death in our family. And six months after that, my dad came out."

After more than four decades of apparently happy marriage, Mills' father announced that not only had he been denying his homosexuality, but he was now deeply committed to exploring that part of himself. At 75years old, he plunged into the gay community, going to discos and wrapping himself in rainbow flags — and then told his son all about it.

"And when he came out we started having much more intense, interesting, messy, great conversations about love, and each of our love-lives and what was going on," Mills said.

Mike Mills
Director Mike Mills based "Beginners" on his own life. It's the story of a 75 year-old man who announces to his son he's been covering his homosexuality during four decades of marriage and has now decided to explore that part of his personality
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Then, if that wasn't mind-spinning enough, doctors found Mills' father had terminal cancer. He died five years after his wife.

"Then, when he passed away, I wasn't done with that conversation or it was still rattling around so much inside me," said Mills.

Different people would deal with all this in different ways. Mills, who makes documentaries, music videos, and directed 2005's feature film "Thumbsucker," based on a Walter Kirn novel, decided to make a movie. He said he began writing six months after his father died, while he was still grieving.

"A lot of it is about my memories of my dad," he said. "And if you examine your memories for any period of time, I think you'll find they are very untrustworthy. They are very emotionally pure, and true, and real, and yours. But in terms of the facts and what you actually can see in your memory they are very strange and much more like dreams than a newspaper."

"And when he came out we started having much more intense, interesting, messy, great conversations about love, and each of our love-lives and what was going on."

Which explains the way Mike Mills made "Beginners," jumping backwards and forwards in time, and blurring the roles of father and son, caregiver and patient, teacher and pupil.

"Beginners" stars Christopher Plummer as Hal, the father, and Ewan McGregor as Oliver, the son. Oliver has to help his dad through the niceties of modern dating, sometimes early in the morning as Hal returns from a night of revelry.

"I went to Akbar tonight," he explains to his son after awakening him with a phone call.

"You did?" Oliver grunts.

"They had some wonderfully loud music," Hal said launching into an imitation of the drum synthesizer he'd been hearing. "What kind of music's that?"

"Probably House music," groans Oliver.

"House music!" exclaims his dad. "OK!" He then grabs his glasses and carefully scribbles the name on a notepad.

McGregor and Mills
Ewan McGregor discusses a scene with Mike Mills during the shooting of "Beginners."
Image courtesy of Focus Features

Mike Mills said he knew from the start that while it was his story, he needed to let it go if the film was to succeed. He relied on his stars professionalism to develop the characters.

"And they both did it in really sweet, nice ways," he said. "Like they both got it and they both got that it was my thing but it helped me if they weren't precious with it. They helped me if they made jokes about all these people, or were light about it, and I encouraged that environment. So I think they felt pretty free."

"Beginners" is often funny, but there is a deep undercurrent of grief, particularly as Oliver deals with his father's illness. Hal's boyfriend Andy is the same age as Oliver, but doesn't know about the cancer. Hal sends Oliver to deliver the news but Oliver fails.

"I couldn't tell him," Oliver said.

"That's OK," responds Hal.

"No, it's not. You can't hide this from him. He loves you."

Hal looks at his son. "For someone with so much relationship advice, you seem awfully alone."

Despite the at times somber tone, Mike Mills said he had a wonderful time making the film. He said the story on the screen may have started as his, but now it's become about the characters developed by Plummer and McGregor. He's moved on.

"I feel comfortable in my relationship with my dad," he said. "And it's gosh-darned weird talking about yourself all over the place, and that's a little crazy-making. But in terms of how personal this film is, it's so far so good."

Indeed, Mike Mills believes "Beginners" is the best thing he has ever done.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.