Mike Mills talks about filmmaking, working with Christopher Plummer, and the job he never thought he’d get to do. A Q&A with Clara Sturak.
Mike Mills is happy. And he should be. His second feature film, Beginners, has appeared on more than 25 Top Ten lists for 2011. It’s garnered 4 Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Supporting Male, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Feature. At the east coast version of the Spirits – The Gotham Independent Film Awards — Beginners took home both the Best Ensemble Performance and Best Feature (in a blush-worthy tie with Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life). Its star, Christopher Plummer has already picked up several trophies for his performance as Hal, and is on a fast track to Oscar. And the film has become a must-see for that neglected and always searching group of moviegoers –- thinking adults.
I spoke with Mills by phone not long after his exhilarating win at the Gothams, and as the buzz about the film, especially the superb performance given by Plummer, was becoming louder…
AD: What has all the success with “Beginners” been like?
MM: I’ve never been in this place before, so I’m still a little lost here. Does this mean something? I’m not sure…
With my first film, “Thumbsucker,” I just felt really lucky that I got to make the film; that Focus [Features] bought it. But the film only made, I think, 5.8 million in box office. So, maybe with all the attention more people will see this one. Maybe people will just give it a try.
My wife was at home watching the Gotham [Independent Film] Awards – which was just an amazing night for us – and she saw Dee Rees from “Pariah” being interviewed before the ceremony started. And Ms. Rees said, “Winning doesn’t make your film any better, and losing doesn’t make your film any worse.” I think that’s a great statement. (ed. Note: Dee Rees took home the “Breakthrough Director” award.)
I see this as part of the journey, as part of making the film, in a way. It’s all part of the film: raising the money, getting people involved, getting it into festivals. You just keep trying to tell the story with all of your interactions. For Thumbsucker, I did publicity with Tilda Swinton, who is really good at doing that. That film is about people who don’t communicate trying to get to an open place, and [in each interview] Tilda would just keep talking about that. Not just about the characters in the film, but about that subject. She just keeps pushing the bubble open…
I’m glad to now have the opportunity with Beginners to do the same thing – just keep the conversation going.
AD: Tell me about the use of art in your film. You are a visual artist. Did you create the art we see the lead character, Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) make in the film?
MM: Yes. I did research for the film from 2005-2009. A long time. All of the stills in the film, the stuff from the ’50s, were from the Library of Congress 1955 photography collection. I kept putting more of different parts of myself into it. The only reason the stills stayed in the film is that I had to keep telling the story [and that was a way to do it].
I did the drawings. The character is part me, part not me, and a lot Ewan, actually. Ewan brought a lot to the table. He’s a really crafty guy — he’s great at making things with his hands. In the scenes where we see Oliver drawing, I would start a drawing, and then Ewan would take over and finish it, so it was created by both of us.
AD: Tell me about casting the film. Was this your dream cast?
MM: When I’m writing I don’t really think about what actors should play my characters. I find if I do that, I just end up writing really bad versions of them.
But once we really began making the film, yes, I mean how could I not want Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer? In a way, I felt it was unrealistic to even think of such actors for my little film. But people were very encouraging. Then I saw pictures of them together, and they look so alike! Also, they were 38 and 79 [years-old, respectively] at the time – the perfect ages for Oliver and Hal.
So, the cast I ended up with was like the dream-I-didn’t-dare-to-dream cast!
As a filmmaker, you’re an entrepreneur – you do everything thing you can to get your film made. Part of that is casting. Having Ewan and Christopher helped to get the film made.
It started with Ewan. I sent it to him, and it went into his pile. [I was lucky in that] my agent knew Ewan and his wife, so Ewan read it. Once Ewan said we wanted to do it, I almost didn’t believe it. I was like, “No way. No he doesn’t!” But Ewan is just a down to earth, great guy.
He and Chris both did it for scale. Which helped me get the film made.
AD: Christopher Plummer was excellent in the role of Hal, a character based closely on your father. Hal, like your father, comes out as a gay man late in life, and then passes away after a battle with cancer just a few years later. What was it like to work with Mr. Plummer on what must have been an emotionally challenging process?
MM: Chris’ style is ‘no big fuss’ – when we first met, he just asked, “Is this you and your dad?” And we went from there. And Chris has a great humility about leaving this earth. Men of his generation, I think… these guys don’t complain. It’s a very deep ‘chin up’ personal culture. For instance, when we spoke of my father’s illness and death, Chris said simply, “Thank God he had his wits.” Christopher could go to such quiet, soft places as an actor. His performance was not very pronounced – it was very real.
They are both cultured men, my father and Christopher. My father was a museum director, a very grand gentleman.
The film is a story about love. [After he came out], my dad and I started having these intense conversations about all these new relationships – his love life vs. my love life, and what I was doing wrong.
Falling in love with someone reminds you of all the people you love, even family. You try to take the stories you’ve learned – the bad stories and the good stories – and move forward. During filming, the two main storylines [Oliver and his father and Oliver and his new love] took equal amounts of time. We spent 15 days filming with Christopher and 15 days filming with Mélanie [Laurent, who plays Anna, Oliver’s love interest.]
When you’re grieving, the past is incredibly rich and alive – even more than the present. The present feels kind of like a charade.
AD: I adored Hal and Georgia. I thought: I want them to be my friends. But then, I also thought, they might not have been the easiest parents to have.
MM: (Laughing) Yes. Well, my parents were very popular people. They were very cultured, very social. Mary Page Keller (who plays young Oliver’s mother, Georgia, in flashback scenes) was just wonderful [in the role]. Some of the stuff the character does in the film could have been without base, and it could have felt over-the-top, but she was very real, very honest. I was so lucky to have her in the role.
AD: In Beginners, Los Angeles is more than just the setting; it acts almost as a character in the film. This story could have been told in any location. How did you come to the decision to feature Los Angeles and its surroundings?
MM: When I’m writing, I always start with, “Where are they?” — Where are they in a real way, specifically? And, in life, you have certain places that mean something to you. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 10 years now, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. There are places in LA that I just love, like the Cosmopolitan Book Shop on Melrose – which you see Oliver shop in. Anna, who’s an actress, lives at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Hal lives in Los Feliz; Oliver lives in Silverlake. When they’re driving on Sunset from one house to the other, they’re driving the right direction. That accuracy is important to me.
I love places. And I wanted to answer, What is this place really like? We were very lucky – we got to shoot at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). It was so great. There were two rooms [in the museum] that made perfect sense for the film. They don’t allow film shoots normally. But, my dad had been the director of the Oakland Museum, and they knew who my dad was. Also, I knew how to talk about the paintings, and I think they liked that.
Hal’s house in the film is a Richard Neutra house. Again, we were so lucky. Because the film was shot in fall of 2009 after the financial crisis hit, once we got financed and got started, it really was a blessed production [because locations were available, and less expensive than they would have been pre-crisis].
The year before, it was bad news central. Imagine trying to sell a script that’s describing drawings, and has a talking dog with sub-titles – it’s not something that makes you think, financing this will help my career… It wasn’t an easy sell.
AD: What are you working on now? Would you ever direct another person’s script?
MM: I spend a lot of time reading other people’s scripts, partly just to learn, and partly, I hope I’ll fall in love with one – and it will be so much easier [than having to write one myself]! Writing is hard!
AD: And yet, so far, you’ve chosen to both write and direct your films.
MM: Making a film is so hard, so difficult, you get tested to your core. I feel like if I’m going to do something so hard, I’d better make it about something I could contribute to — something that has a real, deep meaning for me.
AD: Okay, would you ever write for another director?
MM: I don’t think I have it in me to just “knock out” a script in a way that another person would find interesting. I wish I did!
AD: Do you and your wife, [filmmaker and author Miranda July], have any plans to collaborate?
MM: Maybe sometime way down the road, when we’re elderly. We try to keep our work lives very separate from our home life. My wife, Miranda, is my great love, and the thing other than work that’s in my life. And, we’re very different people. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about work. Being a director can be a 24-hour-a-day job, and as a 45-year-old, I’m really looking for some relief from that.
AD:What’s harder, writing or directing?
MM: Writing. Writing requires you to be wrong very much of the time. You spend a lot of time thinking, I don’t know if this is any good –- it can be a very vulnerable place. I’m very proud that I’m a writer-director. I mean, that was Truffaut’s job! That’s Woody Allen’s job! It’s mind-blowing.
I love being a director. When I’m shooting, I’m like a pig in shit. I’m at my happiest, my most humane. It’s that “living in the moment” thing –- it’s a joint adventure. And by the time we’re shooting I’ve been trying so long to get the film made, I’m just so fucking happy to be there!
AD: Can you tell us about your new project?
MM: Well, as Mr. Fellini said, “You’ve got to leave it a mystery…” But I will say that I’ve been hustling, trying to finish the script. I’m about two-thirds done — knock on wood. Writing is an ever-humbling experience.
AD: Do you have a group of people to whom you show your work for critique?
MM: Yes, I show it to an intimate group first, then the circle widens. When very different people give you similar notes, you know it’s something [to take seriously.]
I don’t really believe in the artist locked away in a room creating – I write for other people. As painful as it is to have other people read and take notes, I want the writing, and especially editing, process to be collaborative.
AD: Other than more folks being made aware of the film, what’s been the result from the awards attention Beginners has gotten?
MM: There has been tons of good that’s come from it. For instance: I got to do a director’s roundtable for the Hollywood Reporter with Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Michel Hazanavicius, Steve McQueen and Bennett Miller. They’re all sweet, real people. I was totally impressed that I got to chat with them. At the Gothams, I got to meet Jim Jarmusch! I was overwhelmed. I have access to things like that, that I’ve never had before – it’s tremendously encouraging.
It’s sometimes easy for me to feel like I don’t have a job – now I feel like my big toe is in the door of really having this job! I’m starting to feel like I can continue to make films that have a fair amount of risk to them. I have great hope that maybe I can keep going, and that means the world to me.
I feel like I was born to do this. It’s my favorite, favorite thing to do, and I spent so much time thinking, I’m not going to get to do it, and now I feel like I might actually get to do this job, that there’s a place at the table for me to work.