'Thumbsucker' director Mike Mills is back in theaters with his second feature film, 'Beginners.' A highly personal film for the indie filmmaker, 'Beginners' followers Oliver (Ewan McGregor) -- a lonely, pensive guy whose old, widowed father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet in his final days, when he is stricken with cancer. As Oliver comes to terms with this new version of his father, as well as his father's mortality, he meets Anna (Melanie Laurent), a mysteriously charming woman who offers a romantic balance to the turmoil in Oliver's life.
Moviefone sat down with Mills last month and talked about how he took truths from his own life -- his father coming out and subsequently dying -- and crafted not a biographical portrait, but rather a look into happiness, loss, and self-discovery.
This is a very personal story for you. What inspired you to craft it?
Mike Mills: The basic architecture is my parents. They were married for 44 years, and my dad came out when he was 75 and then passed away. How could I not write about that? It was such an amazing story. It was bittersweet and beautiful to watch my dad flower into this much fuller, more engaged person. We started having real conversations about love and relationships -- kind of like arguments about what you can ask for, what I was doing right and wrong. And then it was gone.
I was also really interested in the idea of my parents as historical subjects. They were married in '55, and what was '55 like? I was trying to figure out where they came from and how a marriage like that was possible. She knew he was gay, and he knew that he was gay, and they got married anyway.
How do you tackle making such a personal story into a fictional piece?
I started writing memories on cards with my dad, because I was trying, in part, to make a portrait of him. It really became clear to me that memories aren't full. They're fragmentary. They slip away and change. It was kind of disconcerting that they're not facts; they're like little movies. From the get-go, my authorship was required just to piece things together.
I don't really believe that documentary is objective reality and fiction is all illusion. So it was kind of natural to take some real documents and facts, and then take my version of things, and things I invented, when I'm trying to describe what happened. I never drove my mom to the museum when I was 10. My dad didn't call me after going to a gay club and ask me about house music. But I feel like those scenes describe how it felt.
Did you ever find yourself getting a little too personal and needing to pull back and fictionalize things more?
Believe it or not, I'm not really into doing portraits of myself. But all art is a portrait in some way. At some level, even 'Transformers' is a portrait of that author. I love Bukowski, and he is really good at being so specific and real. But he's not doing that for himself. He's doing that to be contagious.
I'm trying to mine parts of my biography or my parents' that I feel are salient or shareable or part of the story. That's the biggest single way that this is not a documentary -- people are multi-layered and ambiguous, and just multi. Film, meanwhile, is kind of fragmented and dense. There are so many less layers going on and it's so much more fixed than real life. I've described it before as: Imagine you're in a plane crash -- this big tumultuous event that you lived through. Somewhere in the middle, you took a snapshot, and the snapshot is of the plane crash, but it's not the plane crash. It's a very different experience. So that's what it's like for me with this film.
So mining the theme, not your father's experience.
Yeah, exactly. It was so hard to make this film, and it didn't seem like it was going to happen for a long time. In a weird way, it made me put everything I like in it, or everything I know how to do in it. So it did become very me, me, me. But that's not how I experienced it.
A write-what-you-know experience.
What was the film I could make that no one else could make? I was in that crisis; my parent dying, approaching 40. Why am I here? What's my deal? This film, in some ways, became the box the answer went into. I can draw; I love animals, and I feel like I have a special relationship with them; I love history and showing how we are all products of history; I can have this graphic, filmmaking sensibility. But the intention was always to reach out, not to have people look in.
Speaking of animals, 'Beginners' includes a "talking" dog. He doesn't actually speak, his lips don't move, so it seems more of a commentary of how we anthropomorphize them.
Yeah, to make the dog's lips move would be repugnantly anthromorphosizing an animal and misunderstanding an animal. I talk to my dog constantly, and sometimes I answer back, so I started playing with that. It stayed in the film because it was a way to show Oliver's brain. I could show more than one voice -- he's ostensibly shy, but there's also a part of him saying "go for it."
Both 'Beginners' and 'Thumbsucker' intermingle comedy and drama so that they're neither one nor the other. Is that something you actively strive to balance?
That's my experience of life. Even my parents were like that. In their saddest, darkest moments, like when my dad was in the hospital, he would make jokes constantly, or say some very subversive, dry little funny, odd thing. I think it's a way to muscle back your life from sadness, from the hospital, from depression. It's been one of my favorite tools.
I love Woody Allen's films like 'Manhattan.' To me, 'Manhattan' goes all over the place. It's a very emotionally real, dramatic movie and it's very funny. Even 'Stardust Memories,' which is much broader, is still so naturalistic, in lots of ways. The emotional stuff he's talking about with relationships is so real, but then it can just get funny, and I like that. It comes really naturally to me.
Is there any genre that, one day, you'd like to dig into fully?
Not right now. I love the combo, I have to say. I can't imagine just doing a comedy-comedy; that would be too vacuous to me. However, I would like to make a much more silent film. I would love to make a movie that's way more metaphysical. I'm 45, and it takes me like 5 years to develop them, so I've got to crank it up, because I've only got a few left.
You've already started the silence with how Oliver and Anna meet.
Yeah. I feel like I'm a pretty wordy writer, from watching so much Woody Allen and dialogue-driven stuff. But when I was writing this, 'There Will Be Blood' came out. I remember studying it and thinking that there are 14 minutes without a sentence of dialogue, and I loved that. Even 'Tati.' I love 'Tati,' and telling a story that way. Or so many amazing films -- Terrence Malick, even early David Gordon Green films. I love how they work on a very deep level. Or even reading Carver. He is to literature what those very quiet, elliptical films are to film.
Speaking of elliptical, in both your films, you don't offer up endings, but rather the next beginning after an ending.
It wasn't conscious. It feels really natural to me. A film is like this little sliver, this little island in a big sea, so it doesn't end. There isn't an end. I think I make films to help bolster and feed the part of me that wants to remain in a positive relationship with the world and to engage in it. So hopefully in non-sentimental ways, I'm trying to make something that helps make me happy.
So maybe that's why they end with an opening.
'Beginners' opens in theaters on June 17.