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TSR Exclusive: 'Beginners' interview with writer/director Mike Mills

It's not rare for a film to come from the heart, but it's extremely rare for a movie to be as personal as Beginners, the latest feature from writer/director Mike Mills. In the past decade, Mills has been through some extraordinary life moments. His freshly out of the closet father passed away, and soon after, he fell in love (with filmmaker Miranda July). Having learned so much from these events, part-time graphic designer Mills shares his vibrant ideas about loss and love with a beautiful script that has no limits to its personal levels. When Oliver (Ewan McGregor) meets the irreverent and unpredictable Anna (Mélanie Laurent) only months after his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) has passed away, this new love floods Oliver with memories of his father who – following 44 years of marriage – came out of the closet at age 75 to live a full, energized, and wonderfully tumultuous gay life. Cast: Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Mélanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox (U.S. Premiere)

With his film being as honest as an emotional conversation between audience and filmmaker, it was only fitting that I was able to sit down at a roundtable and interview Mike Mills about the many components that went into Beginners. Mills was in Austin, TX at SXSW this past March to promote the film, which was having it's U.S Premiere at the film festival. While the film will not be released for a couple of months, consider this a detailed introduction to what could be one of the best movies you'll see all season, if not all year. Read my 9/10 review for Beginners here

Complete Coverage of SXSW Film 2011

Beginners is out in Chicago on June 10th.

TSR: So you said last night that you were a bit nervous. Was last night’s screening at all cathartic? Are you any less nervous that its been shown to an audience?

Everytime there are going to be people in the room I’m going to be jacked up.

TSR: Always?

Yeah. You’re excited. Nervous isn’t the only word. You’re all cranked up. When I have seen the movie … for a filmmaker, it’s the only time it really happens. This was only the third time [that the film has been screened] and I’ve been working on it since 2005. I’m ready to go.

Do you ever get sick of … how many times do you think you’ve seen it completely?

Oh no, I’m sick. I was trying to count. I think I’ve only seen it seventy times, in the editing room. I don’t need to watch it anymore. I like watching parts. But sitting through the whole thing is a little claustrophobic.

Are you the kind of person who sneaks in the back of the theater and …

Yeah. It’s the best thing. It's what you’ve been working for years for. It’s also really ncie to see little parts of the film. Like last night I saw the ending again through the little part of the door. That was sweet. That was great. And I was so proud of everybody, not just the actors, but my crew. I really love my crew. Dave’s piano at the end. I saw him record that. I just remember watching him play that and think, “I love music. And Dave, you are so fluid. You just came up with that.” It’s fun. The parts you get detached from yourself are really fun.

Today I went to your website. I think this movie, of all of your work, integrates everything you love. How are movies cathartic for you, and how do you integrate everything?

This one especially. I do graphic design, I do art, I do film. I don’t really separate them in my head. I have chosen galleries that have videos, and in my film work I have still stuff. That’s just a contemporary visual language. That’s my contemporary visual language. This film especially, I really think – I’ve been trying to describe this today – after my dad died, it’s my second parent dying, and part of grief isnot down and depressed, it’s like … life. I’m on the earth. I’m still here. I see death. But I’m here. So who am I, and what do I do? And what is my stuff? So I took everything I had and I put it in this movie. Everything I love. Not consciously, but just because I was in a toxicated life place. When someone dies for me, you’re in love with everything. If you like chicken, you f**king love chicken after someone dies. I was so lucky I got to do this. It’s really vivid in you. It’s not all down. My parents were 74 and 79 when they passed away. So it wasn’t like they got hit by a car at forty. Time flies.

What do you think was the most challenging part of this film?

By the time I got to shooting the film, that’s easy. Shooting the film is fun, it’s easy, and the thing I like to do most with my life. It’s the thing where I feel most alive, and what I was meant to do. And I adore it. The hardest part is getting through writing. Because you’re alone, and I’m not really a writer. It’s just a long dark tunnel. And then trying to get your film made. Hearing “No” so often. Hearing it being described and misunderstood in the worst way. You hear people justnot being interested for years is the worst part.

Do you think this is the most difficult thing, to get the money and the people to believe in it, or to take everything inside of you and write it out?

Taking everything I have inside and writing it out is difficult, but it’s a joy. It’s lucky. Whiel I am not a great writer, I am good enough that I can do it. I can myself happy doing it. Going around trying to get money and people, you don’t just go meet the actor, and meet the person with the money. You have to meet the agent, the lawyer, the agent, the manager, someone who knows them, someone who met them at a coffee shop. I’m excited to fight for my movie in any way. But often when you’re doing that in Los Angeles, you’re bumping up against the worst side of capitalism. And it’s like trying to get a loan from a bank.

Casting. At what point did Ewan and Christopher pop into your head for the parts?

I don’t write with people in my head at all. Then I get done writing, and I’m very confused, because I have to get into this role and find people. It’s really hard. With this, I really wanted to cast the dad after I casted Oliver. I wanted it to look right, but if they don’t feel like family, it’s not going to be good. Christopher was always on my mind, and I thought he would be awesome. For Ewan, it just came like a pipe dream. Another great idea that’s not going to be happen. Luckily he read it, and luckily he liked it. In a way, it’s impossible, but once he read it, it was easy. They all worked for scale. They put their hearts into it. Ewan wasn’t obvious to me, I didn’t know he would do a movie like this. Doing small movies in this day and age from 2007 until now is not the most popular thing in L.A.

TSR: You’ve got some great performances in the movie, from Ewan McGregor especially. But is there something about you that you feel no actor could re-create when playing a character based on you?

Well, the main thing I said to all of them was “Don’t copy me. The idea is not that you’re mimicking us. You have to find a way to make it your own.” They’d be so smart about that. Christopher would be like, “Michael, tell me another story.” I’d tell him something about my dad. But he knew he had to be himself. He had to connect to people through the lens. Ewan did. He is so casual, easygoing. I adore him. The weird thing was that we are the exact same size. In everything. He does wear some of my clothes, just out of poverty, because we didn’t have enough money to make the movie.

TSR: [Looking at the poster] Is that your shirt?

No, but it looks so much f**king better on him. For me it’d be embarrassing and depressing. I think Ewan and I do share emotional frequencies. We are similar emotional guy. And being a straight guy, blue-eyed, European descent guy, which is the most privileged kind, there’s still some unsatisfying parts to it, fi you want to be emotional, vulnerable. You can get boxed in. Both of us experience that, and Oliver lets us play around in an emotional and vulnerable way.

How did you use music in creating Beginners?

Music is everything to me. I was in a band before anything, and it’s kind of how I figured out myself. And when I’m writing, if I know a scene needs to be a certain way, and a certain piece of music has that feeling, whether it be one chord or one change, I’ll put that piece of music on, noise canceling headphones, and put it on loop. For six hours, while I write. Because I want this one feeling. Music can really guide you like that.

My parents really like music too. My mom would play [the soundtrack] to The Sting all of the time. That’s how that jazz/blues piano got in. And my dad listened to classical music, so that’s where all those Bach cello suites that are done on the French horn. Those really helped me divide the movie up, as to which side of the movie you’re on. I love scores. I love George Delerue. And I love Jelly Roll Morton, so the score that we did was kind of Georges Delerue meets Jelly Roll Morton, hopefully.

This was shot in continuity. As an actor, it’s got to be awesome. But as a director, is that … ?

It’s awesome. It makes my life easier. Because we’re all experiencing the story together. I also insist on two weeks of rehearsal, which blows everybody’s mind. We started with Christopher in the hospital, and with Christopher dying. It took two weeks. And then it was Thanksgiving, so we had a week off. And Melanie and Ewan and I just rehearsed. And then we started at the party, adnwent to the end, until they got back together. Even within the day, I don’t like to shoot in the room. That’s how you’re supposed to do it. You’re in the room, you shoot the room, every scene, then you go out into the hallway. For us, we shot in the room, then in the hallway, then in the room, back in the hallway. I didn’t use a lot of lights, so it’s easy to do it.

Since you do have a very art background, do you feel you made a transition from one to the other?

For me, I’ll say it’s a huge transition. I started out doing music videos and ads, and getting into that from doing graphics was hard. That’s hard for the rest of the world. And it was hard for me to use crew, because graphic design is very solo. And now I love having thirty people, and I love being captain of the ship. And I love making a great experience for everybody. I love being the host. That’s what the director is, the host. Every time it’s a transition in terms of your interaction with the world. In my head, they’re all in a spectrum, they’re all the same. I’m trying to communicate to people. Like, I love red. I LOVE red. It could be on a shirt, it could be in the movie, it could be on Anna’s dress. For me, I am exercising my love of red.

TSR: I thought it was very interesting – and it worked – that you used the dog. And I think the dog symbolized the people, it needed affection, it was a loner, kind of like the Jelly Roll Morton of dogs. And I was wondering if you were wrestling with that concept at all, or if it was always definitely going to be there, with the subtitles?

I got to say that I owe a lot to my dad dying. That sounds so weird, but it’s true. That grief time, when you are intoxicated, and braver than you normally are, I was like, “F**k it. There’s going to be a dog in this movie. It talks.” And for all the time I talk to my dog, and I inherited my dad’s dog, and I’m talking to them about the script. My dog is a Border Collie, highly intelligent dog. Jack Russell, highly intelligent dog. They do know 150 words. So I’m talking [to the dog] and I’m like, “Well, f**k it, going to put that in.” That was a great thing that grief enabled in me, which was “Go for it. Do whatever you want.” And believe that that will work. I have a blog, which I really enjoy doing, and I wrote something about Chuck Jones. And there’s a book that he wrote. And their motto is, “It has to make us laugh, it has to surprise us, it’s not for kids, it’s for us, and it has to drive us crazy with fun pleasure, and if it’s doing that, it will work.” I just believe it. And I did that with this.

I like your talking to actors pictures [on the blog]. How do you cast a dog?

There are canine actors. They have a resume. Cosmo has worked on a lot films. They all came in, and I met Cosmo. And it’s really the combo, the canine actor and the trainer, and Mathilde is an amazing French, totally organic and interesting person. And she also does the Beverly Hills Chihuahua [dogs]. She drives up my drive way and pulls out a Chihuahua out and hands it to me out through the car window, and it’s like, “This is great. This person is loose, and easy and fun.” And Cosmo is just a deep soul. That guy is like 1,000 years old. He just looks at you. I think Jack Russells do have this thing where they just stare at you, it’s a part of their breeding. And he does that. He’ll just look in you the eyes for a long time, and it’s an unnerving, great thing.

With this movie being so personal, was it what you expected when you finished editing it, etc.?

I think a movie … like when I do a record cover, it’s short. It’s kind of like dating. And dating can be what you expect. It can be a one night stand. It can kind of be what you expect. But when you’re in a marriage, or a long-term relationship, it’s what you expected, and utterly unique, and utterly different. A movie, both of my films, is more like a marriage. They’re great, and they’re difficult. And they’re moments of joy, and moments of where you feel like you’ve screwed up so bad. I sleep at night. So I feel like I must have done okay. You can imagine the ways that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night doing this story. My dad would have a long list of things that I got wrong, and he’d be okay. That’s kind of the main issue for me.

Are you happy?

Yes. That’s what I’m saying. I’m as happy as I can be. I’m not the kind of guy that can say “Yeah that rocked!” I just don’t do that. But I’m not crying. So I must be happy. I’m not going insane, so I must be okay.

Talk about your mom a little bit.

Mary Page Keller played her, and I thought she was so wonderful. I love the mom in the young Oliver scenes. They came together so easily. To me, the mom is the secret weapon and the secret message of the whole film. The film is a bit about absences. The dad is absent from that scene, and those scenes. The mom is absent from the gay dad’s world. And there are these irreconcilable gaps, irreconcilable lacks. And holes. “Where’s the mom and the new dad? Where’s the dad and the old mom?” And that’s what my life is a little bit like, my real experience. But they utterly impact each other. And while my use of the mom is very economical, like little slithers, to me it is key to the structure of the story, and Oliver’s evolution.

TSR: Speaking of the importance of the mother character, early in the film you have Ewan McGregor dressing up in a costume party as Freud. How conscious were you of the Freudian elements of this story?

Conscious? [Laughs] But I knew what I was doing with that one. For me, the love story – well, put it this way – I said that the piano, the blues/jazz piano, is the mom’s. He learned that from the mom, it’s part of his and his mom’s relationship. But that music plays over all of his and Anna’s love scenes. So that answers your questions. I think all of our love relationships, if you want to admit this or not, that’s your business, are echoes of our primary relationships, with our parents. I think there are a lot of echoes between Georgia and Anna.

You recorded the dialogue for Ewan.

He got the accent, which I think he did an amazing job on. He asked me to record the whole script. And I said, “As long as you promise to not imitate me. I do not want you to get locked in.” I would do a line, and say, “Now Ewan, do not say it like that.” And I would say a line, and then say, “Don’t!” And make all of these jokes. But I think that’s how his dialect coach works, to get a specific voice. To study something, instead of having an abstract idea as to what an accent is.

His voice is amazing.

Yeah. And one time he was having problems. He has a heavy Scottish accent. We were doing monologues, and it started chipping up. And then she would do this thing and say this thing back to him, “Oh ah ee ee ee” and little mnemonic things, and I said, “How do you do it?” And he goes, “Well, I don’t think about it. It’s like playing the drums. If you play the drums, you lose it. I just have to let go.”

When he’s not doing the scene, does he go back to normal accent?

Yeah. And Tilda [Swinton] did the same thing in Thumbsucker. She’s much more high British accent. Same thing with my father, who came to the set. He was watching the monitor, and Tilda was doing American, and he met Tilda, and she had this fancy British accent. And he said to me, “What? There are two women that look exactly the same.” And I said, “No, that’s Tilda.”

What did you learn about filmmaking and about life from making Thumbsucker and now this?

I learned so much from both. It’s like two marriages, or two complete trips going to college. I learned a ton during Thumbsucker. Maybe the thing I learned the most, or the thing I enjoyed the most, was the actors. Creating an environment where the actor can do something that surprise themselves and you. Creating an environment that invites the unpredictable, or the real reactivity as to what is happening in the moment. I can do that. I can provide that. Something about me, I am good at doing that. Or, I like it. And [the actors] seem to respond to that. And I love that. Formally, I’m a very shy person. I’m not shy anymore. I used to be very shy. What an actor does blows me away. When they’re doing it – when they’re really free over there – I’m like probably their best audience in the world. I am so impressed. I am so envious. I wish I could be like that. That seems so free and mindblowing – how do you do that? Creating that environment is what I learned last time. And this time, I think it’s being braver. Like, trusting that you can tell a concrete story that’s really specific, and that it will be sharable, and trusting that I can be funny. I think with this one that I embraced that my family is funny, and that I can be funny … and trying to be more comfortable about that.


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