Six years after his entertaining and intimate debut feature 'Thumbsucker' hit theaters, graphic designer-artist-filmmaker Mike Mills returns with 'Beginners,' a personal exploration of his relationship with his father and the people who've touched his life.
Set in 2003, the film stars Ewan McGregor as Oliver, a graphic designer recounting the final years with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who at 75 reveals he's gay and has been diagnosed with cancer. Left with more questions than answers after his death, Oliver, with his father's adorable Jack Russell terrier in tow, meanders through life until meeting French actress Anna ('Inglourious Basterd''s Mélanie Laurent). Beginning a relationship with her, Oliver thinks back on his time with his dad while trying to understand the relationship his parents had; conflicted if love is really possible with Anna.
Here Mills talks about the plight of the indie filmmaker, why any similarities between he and his wife's work, artist-director Miranda July, is purely coincidental and how he feels about opening alongside 'X-Men: First Class' this weekend.
On writing 'Beginners.'
Mills wrote 'Beginners' after his father's death, who like in the film, came out that he was gay after the death of his wife and later died of cancer. Though Mills admits that Oliver is loosely based on himself, he's able to see the film with an objective eye. "For me, when I watch the movie I never think Christopher is my dad, I don't think I'm Oliver," Mills tells Moviefone. "I just think, 'Oh, there's Ewan doing a great job.' It's quite impersonal."
Moviefone: You spent four years making this movie, what are the satisfactions of going through an experience like this?
Mike Mills: So many. Getting the opportunity to be a better writer and director. I just love directing. Often when I was shooting I was pretty aware that it would be hard to get better than this. It's rare in your life that you're having such a creatively rich and rewarding experience. And then doing the word of mouth screenings and meeting all of these strangers who have just given me 100 minutes of their heart and soul. That's really your end goal as a director, it's important to share this with people in a dark room.
This is a personal film, is a lot of Oliver based on you?
It's based on me or my perspective. Obviously I was making a portrait of my dad, or part of my dad, and a portrait of my mom, but Oliver and Anna aren't me and my wife, Anna is all fiction. I think they're also a portrait of so many men and women I've known and been in relationships and friends with.
So you're able to take a step back.
Oh, like eight.
When I write I don't have anybody in mind and then when I come out of writing it's a very messy, disconcerting process of figuring, oh, real people have to do this. But I was very lucky to think of Ewan and Christopher. I'm not a fancy director and think, "Yes, I'll go to so and so and it will work out," but when that idea came up I was like that's the dream.
This is your second feature and the landscape of getting a film show has changed dramatically from when you made 'Thumbsucker' in 2005. Can you talk about the challenges an indie filmmaker has to go through to get their movie out to the public?
There are so many fewer distributors. It's definitely harder than when 'Thumbsucker' came out. And I think the thing that I didn't realize is that because a lot of very good films with movie stars aren't getting distributed, it makes it really hard for us because my films don't get financed because of my script it's because of the actors that are in them. If these big actors aren't willing to take a risk on these littler films they won't happen. It's become a lot riskier for them because they can be in a film that doesn't get distributed, which is really a big negative mark on their career. When I did 'Thumbsucker' I had such huge people and I could have had other huge names, just because back then it was still fun and potentially profitable, and now it's much riskier for even an agent to give the script to their big actor.
Is it hard to see your film slated the same weekend as 'X-Men: First Class' and will be amongst super heroes, pirates and other studio tentpoles the whole summer?
We're taking them all down! [laughs] Actually, 'Thumbsucker' came out in the fall and I think that's worse because you're mixed with all these films that are like yours and gunning for the same audience so I'm excited to be in the summer.
Are you the kind of director that will track your opening weekend box office numbers?
You hear from people. It's so out of your control and it's so controlling of your career that I sort of run and hide. [laughs] I mean I do everything I can publicity wise, I do a blog and video diaries, but when it comes to the reviews or box office, to keep your sanity you have to somehow just remain yourself and know you can't control that.
Are you looking forward to seeing any indies films this summer?
Of course I'm a Terrence Malick fan so I'm curious to see 'The Tree of Life,' I want to see the silent film everyone's talking about from Cannes, 'The Artist,' that sounds really cool, I haven't seen the Apichatpong [Weerasethakul] movie yet, 'Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.'
And of course your wife, Miranda July, her film 'The Future' opens this summer.
Is there anything behind your movie having a major storyline around a dog and her's having one with a cat?
No. We don't control each other's creative lives. We've only read each other's script like twice in four years. So that coincidence was kind of random. That's just the weirdness of being us.
Would you ever consider doing a franchise movie if it was offered to you?
Features are so big and difficult and I feel every feature I do I lose a limb so I only have four easy to lose limbs on me, I can't imagine doing something that wasn't a real personal story that only I could tell that came more from my experience.
So the journey to make 'Beginners' hasn't burnt you out from telling personal stories?
I don't think I'll ever be this overtly autobiographical, but 'Thumbsucker' is very personal. I was talking about real family stuff that I knew about through Walter [Kirn]'s book that I adapted. I don't know how I could do something so obviously based on me again but it will always be personal. That's what I love to be in the audience of.