When it comes to creative endeavours, filmmaking is almost an afterthought for Mike Mills. A long-time graphic designer, illustrator, and documentarian, the California-born artist had already done everything but play bass for R.E.M (that’s a different Mike Mills) before making 2005’s darkly comic coming-of-age tale Thumbsucker. Since then, he has also made several TV ads and music videos. But the deeply personal momentum behind his new film, Beginners, was just too urgent to ignore.
“It was a film that sort of had to be made,” says Mills on the line from Toronto, where he’s debuting his wonderfully original film, which opens here Friday (June 24). Using collage and time-jumping effects to tell a funny, heartfelt story, it stars Canadian great Christopher Plummer in one of his best-ever roles, as a successful art historian who only admits his true sexuality at age 74, after the death of his wife.
“It is based on my dad. He was the head curator at the Oakland Museum when I was growing up, and then the Santa Barbara Art Museum.”
Now 45 and based in L.A., Mills eventually headed to New York and followed his father into the biz—albeit a version of the arts at once more commercial and more intensely quirky. He has had numerous gallery shows and has a big following in Japan, as can be seen at the many sites stemming from mikemillsweb.com/. (It’s no coincidence—or maybe it is—that he’s married to artist and filmmaker Miranda July.) And despite his experience working with contemporary artists like Moby, Air, and Yoko Ono, the new film’s music is almost entirely from the 1920s and ’30s—a reflection of the world his father was born into.
“I also studied cultural studies and semiotics in college; I’ve always been interested in the intersection between the personal and the political. With my parents, the historical context of their love life was crucial. The emotional options were very limited for a gay man born in 1924, and I needed to convey that. This graphic-based film language came quite intuitively to me and, since I figured I’d probably never get to make another movie anyway, it gave me a weird rush to pretty much try everything.”
It must have been quite a buzz, too, to have Ewan McGregor play his on-screen alter ego, searching for love in his own fumbling way. (France’s Mélanie Laurent plays a potential paramour.)
“It’s really unusual to meet a straight, male actor—especially one who’s such a movie star!—willing to be so present and emotionally vulnerable. It was wonderful to watch him really blend with such different actors. He’s just so alive to what the other people are doing.”
That’s important to Mills; despite his stylized visual approach, he keeps the spirit of invention strong on his sets.
“I’m not really precious about my writing. I want the actors to collaborate. Especially when it’s so personal; I needed to invite everybody in. The people I admire, from Leonard Cohen to Federico Fellini, are all working out personal things, reporting from a unique perspective. I want to tell stories that only I can tell, but I want other people to be the biggest part of it.”
Watch the trailer for Beginners.