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Director Mike Mills’ Beginners -- a different kind of coming out story

by Anthony Paull
Sunday Jun 5, 2011

Breathing fiction into real-life events, film director Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) returns to the film festival circuit with his second full-length feature, Beginners. The intimate tale of an middle-aged son confronting his 75 year old father’s decision to ’come out’ as a gay man.

The film’s premise stems from Mills personal recollections of his ailing father, who found a ’second wind’ after sharing his life-long secret. Previously known for directing music videos for world-renowned artists like Moby, Mills utilizes naturalistic techniques, along with a seasoned cast (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer) to explore the dynamics of a father and son dealing with the ugly truth of death, while discovering that, at any age, life can be beautiful.

In April, Beginners is scheduled to be the opening night film at The 54th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival. It is also part of the 2011 Sarasota Film Festival and the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. The film is scheduled for limited release on June 3, 2011.

Mills took a moment to chat with Edge about his work.

From videos to features

EDGE: After directing music videos for such acts as Moby, Yoko Ono, and Air, what inspired your jump to features?

Mike Mills: I love doing music videos, but I always hoped to make features. My videos were always story-based. With videos, I was practicing; trying different styles to become a filmmaker. For me, video making was like film school.

EDGE: Aesthetically, what mood were you trying to create with the film?

Mike Mills: I started writing it after my father passed away, and when a second parent dies, there’s a period of ’high grieving’ where you have so much to say. So visually, I wanted a dense bouquet of images in the film, with stills and drawings and people talking to the camera. I wanted the film to have a naturalistic quality, with a rich vocabulary.

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Watch the trailer to Beginners:

Avoiding stereotypes

EDGE: The character Hal was based on your father, who came out as a gay man late in life. Were there any gay stereotypes you tried to avoid when writing the role?

Mike Mills: I tried to avoid stereotypes in the gay characters as well as the straight characters. I knew that portraying my dad’s gayness would be different because he had played straight for most of his life. That’s why I thought Christopher Plummer would be good for the role. I felt the choice would surprise the audience. Plus, Christopher and Ewan had such great chemistry. Ewan genuinely liked Christopher as a person. Beyond that, we didn’t have a discussion as to a character being gay or not. It was more about how they loved.

EDGE: What was your reaction to your father coming out? And how did it compare to the reaction of Ewan McGregor, whose character was based on you in the film?

Mike Mills: I think Ewan’s character was surprised, but embraced his father, which was my reaction in real life. There was so much more vitality in my ’gay’ dad. His coming out was so positive. He was in love with the UPS man. He was shopping at French Connection. Overnight, he became 40. He wanted to talk about sex all the time. I think Ewan’s character reacted quite similar to me. He found it quite beautiful.

EDGE: As a writer, do you find that you write about what pains you?

Mike Mills: Sort of. More so, I write about my thickest mystery.

EDGE: So with Beginners, are you telling the story for you or for your dad?

Mike Mills: I’m telling it for everybody, but only because I know about it. As a filmmaker, I find that I have to truly know a subject to have the right to tell a story. I saw it (Beginners) as a type of memorial for my dad. He would have qualms with it - I’m sure, as he was a bossy, intense man. But I think, ultimately, he’d be into it.

Beginnerswill be the opening-night movie at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, on April 21, 2011. It will be screened at the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film Festival on May 8, 2011. It will go into limited release on June 2, 2011.

Watch this interview with Mike Mills, the director of Beginners:

Anthony Paull’s debut novel Outtakes of A Walking Mistake was recently chosen as an NPR Finalist for Best Teen Novel Ever.


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