When filmmaker and graphic designer Mike Mills sat down to write the screenplay for his new dramedy, Beginners, he wrote the following note to himself: “This has already happened to everyone already.” Fair enough. There are countless stories, in print and on celluloid, about starting over following the loss of a parent to terminal cancer. But there have been very few in which the parent comes out of the closet at age 75.
That’s not the only aspect that sets Beginners apart from your basic Terms of Endearment wannabe. The film, which opened this past Friday at Regal Cinemas South Beach and the Coral Gables Art Cinema, blends fiction with actual events from Mills’s own life, and it also chronicles the budding romance that develops when Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a brooding graphic artist who, like Mills, designs T-shirts and album cover art, meets a free-spirited French film actress (Inglourious Basterds leading lady Mélanie Laurent) several months after his father’s death.
Mills, who I interviewed at Brickell’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in May, knew from the start that a conventional narrative would not do his movie justice.
“I feel much freer when the story’s broken apart and I can look at it from different ways and I don’t just have to follow one road,” he said.
Indeed, Beginners’ byzantine structure incorporates scenes of a school-age Oliver and his mother (Mary Page Keller) dealing with an absent father figure. At several points throughout the film, Mills also inserts stills and archival footage that represent a particular time period without going over into full-on docudrama mode.
“I wanted to contextualize my parents’ emotional lives, but I don’t like studying history in the normal way,” Mills said.
These nonfiction interludes function as a way to explore the elusive nature of memories and how reality may differ from our perception of it at the time.
“From my perspective, my dad looked like he was straight for the first 33 years of my life, and it looked like my family was normal, and it looked like he was a tie-wearing straight man,” Mills, who is now 46, said.
The audience only sees that strait-laced patriarch, played by Christopher Plummer in a performance that’s already generating Oscar buzz, during a series of flashback scenes, but his presence, and the gusto that the actor brings to the part, infuses the entire film.
“I think a lot of people who, like Christopher, were born in 1929, have this resilience, and a lot of that comes through a very subversive kind of humor,” Mill said. “My dad had that. The darker it got, the funnier he got, and Christopher understood that intuitively.”
To get McGregor and Plummer prepared for their roles, Mills opted for an unorthodox rehearsal process.
“On the very first day [of rehearsals] I asked Ewan to take Christopher to Barney’s,” he said. “I told Christopher, ‘You’re gay now, you want to look attractive, so go buy clothes.’ I gave him some money and he bought all these skinny jeans. He got obsessed with skinny jeans. It was nice for Ewan to help get him jeans, and that was very much like me and my dad [after he came out], and they started experiencing the story rather than learning it.”
The actors’ shop-therapy exercise brings to mind how a sizable portion of the film’s target audience will react to it, especially since Focus Features, the studio releasing it, has positioned it in the moviegoing calendar as this year’s The Kids Are All Right.
“My only issue with the gay audience is that I hope I don’t disappoint them, because [Beginners] is ultimately filmed from a straight person’s eyes, so I try to be very upfront about that,” Mills said.
That’s not to say gay viewers will be unable to relate to the problematic relationship that develops between the two straight leads, because it comes from a deeply personal place.
“The Oliver and Anna stuff is all made up, but it [involves] things that are important to me, it’s emotional problems that I very much have lived. Anna has at least as much of my stuff as Oliver does,” Mills, who is married to fellow filmmaker Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), said.
This baggage that threatens the characters’ stability became a stumbling block when Mills was trying to raise money to make Beginners.
“In general, when I was showing the script around and trying to get financing, the couple [Oliver and Anna] was kind of the hardest part [to sell], and I think a lot of that is because their problems aren’t external obstacles,” Mills said. “The film industry loves external obstacles.”
It also loves a Cinderella story, and it’s beginning to look that way for this Berkeley-born Renaissance man and his tale of multi-generational fools in love, one that was inspired by a man who came to embrace life just when it was about to end.
“I feel very indebted to my dad’s gayness,” Mills said. “My gay dad was a lot more interesting than my straight dad, and he taught this straight person way more than my straight dad ever did about love and sex and relationships.
“We were having these amazing conversations about relationships and love, about what we could expect, and that is really what the film is to me, a continuation of those conversations.”
Rubén Rosario is a freelance writer and video store manager living in Miami. He currently writes a film column for SunPost Weekly.