FILM The central figures in Mike Mills’ Beginners — a grown son and his elderly, newly out father — share a relationship rarely featured on screen. But however unique the story seems, it’s based on real events in the writer-director’s life.
“I thought my dad coming out was the most awesome thing that ever happened in my life,” Mills (2005’s Thumbsucker) reflects. “What happened between us after he came out — it was the biggest story I had to tell. I like it when filmmakers make really personal stories.”
Even though Beginners is based on his life, Mills made sure the film would have a broader appeal. When he appealed to Ewan McGregor — eventually cast as Oliver, the son — Mills stressed the importance of expanding on the personal.
“The first thing I said to Ewan when I wrote a letter, I was like, ‘This has to be more than personal. It has to reach out to people. You can’t feel like you have to mimic or anything like that.'<0x2009>”
For McGregor, the truth behind the script was part of what attracted him to the project. Although he was committed to playing Oliver and not Mills himself, the actor also wanted to connect with the reality of the film.
“I thought it was a wonderful story,” McGregor says. “I wanted to know more and more about the real story. I think that’s always really important. That’s what makes you identify and commit to something wholeheartedly — believing in the story you’re telling.”
Veteran actor Christopher Plummer stars opposite McGregor as Hal, who comes out at 75 and proceeds to make the best of his twilight years. Again, Mills wanted the character of Hal to be distinct from his actual father, though he was charmed by the similarities between the two men.
“It was a real natural fit, I’ve got to say,” Mills admits. “Christopher got so many of the key points, like the humor.”
Indeed, all the actors — including costars Mélanie Laurent and Goran Visnjic — brought humor to their roles, helping Beginners achieve the bittersweet tone Mills intended. The film maintains a whimsical style, alternating between moments of joy and tragedy throughout. But on either end of the spectrum, it feels organic, something McGregor credits to the positive energy of the set.
“It was absolutely the best environment to create good acting, to create good work for us,” he notes. “It very much felt like we had this space — and the peace and quiet and the time — to live those scenes and to make them feel very, very real.”
Although McGregor says he doesn’t pick films based on their budgets, he does acknowledge the benefits of working on a smaller, independent movie.
“On a big film, there are maybe 500 people on the set — you don’t know who anyone is,” he explains. “All the direction is given through earpieces to everybody, and you can feel very lonely. But on a film like this, you’re just part of the process. It’s lovely, and it really feels wonderful.”
Mills is pleased with the finished product, which is one of the all-too-infrequent depictions of a happy older gay man. He believes that his father and the film-loving friends he met with weekly would have appreciated the portrayal. But he also notes the need for more.
“I’m very honored to get to treat a gay character in a movie hopefully with respect and curiosity,” Mills says. “The thing that would be more interesting would be a movie not just with an older gay man, but by an older gay man. We need more stories obviously through gay eyes, not just a straight guy telling a story about a gay guy.” *
BEGINNERS opens Fri/10 in San Francisco.