Beginners … a film about Sex, Life, Healing, Nature, and Magic …
At the recent Sarasota Film Festival, I had an opportunity to not only view the new film Beginners, which is scheduled to have a limited opening on June 3rd, I also had a chance to talk about it with Mike Mills, the film’s Director.
We met at the Brasserie Belge on Sarasota’s Main Street, across from the Regal Cinemas Hollywood Stadium 20, a huge multiplex movie house, and the home of the SFF. Since it was lunch time, Mike Mills was working on a plate of chicken salad and ice tea as we spoke. The sounds of a knife and fork hitting the plate are on the tape, but won’t show up in this interview.
I opened with a few soft questions to break the ice.
JustMeMike: Mike, in your last and most recent feature film, Thumbsucker, when the lead character, Justin Cobb shows up at his dentist’s office, I noticed a copy of the Ram Dass book, Be Here Now, on the table in the waiting room. I read that book 30 years ago. How did that book show up in this 2005 movie. And did you consider Tilda Swinton, the mother in Thumbsucker, for the role of Oliver’s mother in Beginners?
Mike Mills: That was my own personal copy of the book. It just fit the setting with Keanu Reeves as the New Age dentist. Tilda didn’t fit age-wise – so she wasn’t considered.
Beginners opens with Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor telling Arthur that he (Arthur) will be living with Oliver from now on. Arthur is a Jack Russell Terrier and he shared a home with Hal Fields, who was Oliver’s father, and was played by Christopher Plummer.
In the film, Hal has just died. Three years back, Hal had shocked Oliver by telling him that A) he was gay,
and B) he had a terminal cancer. All of the above is told to us in the first few minutes of the film.
Arthur is one of main players in the supporting cast. His four footed-ness notwithstanding, Arthur could easily be called – the strong and silent type, and he makes the most of his scenes. Okay, maybe he’s not so strong, but that word is clearly a relative term. Additionally, Arthur is not always silent. He hates to be alone, or left to his own devices. If this happens, he’s usually able to convey his dissatisfaction to his on the way out the door housemate, Oliver, a thirty-something graphic artist.
JustMeMike: I’m sure you’ve been asked this over and over, but I’d like to know, and I’m sure folks who see the movie would like to know too. So please tell us how the ‘subtitled dog’ came about? And what was the intent of having Arthur as a non-verbal communicant for Oliver … and also for we viewers via the subtitles.
Mike Mills: I inherited my Dad’s Jack Russell Terrier, and I have my own Border Collie, and so with so many things in this story, I did take things that were around me, and played with them. I kind of believed that because they were concrete to me, because I had like a real intimate connection with them, I could report something maybe a little better. But I played with it – obviously the dog doesn’t talk, and it came out of… you know, I started writing it [the screenplay] six months-ish after my Dad passed away, and it was my second parent to pass away…
And I wasn’t with someone in a relationship – and you’re awfully alone. You feel awfully …[empty]. The void of the other person rubs against you like a big elephant. And you’re like just feeling that all the time. So I was talking to the dogs, but I do that anyways; actually I talk to a lot of inanimate objects. It’s a weird habit… that’s ended up in the movie. It just kind of went from talking to the dog down at my feet, to talking to the dog up in the page. I was trying to get some levity in there.
JustMeMike: Yes, there’s no doubt that the ‘conversations’ between Oliver and Arthur do serve a purpose, and yes, that would be levity.
Mike Mills: A levity that both of my parents had. And sort of, the harder that things got, the funnier they got. So I was trying to keep that spirit in it.
Mainly the story of Beginners circles around Oliver who along with Director Mills, is trying to find his way through multiple story lines two of which is that Oliver must come to terms with his father’s death, and this bit of otherness (that’s Mike Mill’s term) – his father’s gayness.
Mike Mills: On a more serious level, I was trying to think about animals as having an ‘otherness’ to them. My Dad’s gayness was something ‘other’ in our family that I as a straight man know about. Oliver is trying to figure out his Dad; he’s curious about his Dad. So the dog became like another level to do that. Oliver is working through it with the dog, “Like you don’t talk, you’re a furry little person. You operate on a whole different paradigm.”
That led to a funny scene. Oliver takes Arthur to the dog park. Other dogs are scampering about, having their fun being dogs. Oliver is talking to Arthur but in reality he’s talking to find out about himself by talking about himself to Arthur. Arthur listens intently, and stays by Oliver’s side. Eventually Oliver says to Arthur. “Hey Arthur – we’re in the park; Go ahead – have some fun. Why don’t you go play with your own people.”
JustMeMike: I really liked that line. It made me laugh out loud.
Christopher Plummer was marvelous as Oliver’s father Hal. When Oliver’s mother Georgia, played by Marcia Page Keller, passed away, Hal came out. He not only was able to now live openly as gay man; but he was able to embrace the life style to its fullest. He joined Gay Pride groups, and wore the colors, marched in the parades, even took a younger man as a lover. For the audience it wasn’t about watching a man be gay. Instead it was about watching a man really enjoying himself, even as his life was winding down.
JustMeMike: Mike, let’s talk about Christopher Plummer. When I envision Plummer I think of him in the Mike Wallace role opposite Pacino and Crowe in The Insider. How did he come to the film, and what was it like to work with him?
Mike Mills: There’s no great mystery to how he came to the film. It was the typical process. I, as the director/writer, had meetings with his people, his manager, trying to convince them. They read it, they like it. They see something in the role they like for him. They show it to Plummer. He reads it. We talk about it.
When I finally met with him, Plummer really embodies the point of different. He was born of folks who grew up in sort of a Victorian family. It was another time, a different time, so I didn’t have to explain Hal’s difference to Plummer. Because of when he was born, Plummer understood what I wanted. Not only did he get it but he ran with it. Hal came quite naturally to Plummer. Plummer also referenced that he was so glad that Hal had ‘wit’. And I really like that. It was of key importance to me because of the way my Dad ‘argued’ with his cancer’ was to make jokes, and to display some subversive humor. Plummer knows that inside out – I don’t know quite how or why – so Plummer get’s that, and was able to run with it easily.
Oliver is at the center of the story and he represents Mike Mills himself. Oliver’s past relationships have failed again and again. I thought that Oliver had a pessimistic view of his relationships. Oliver said in the film that he set himself up to fail. “When maybe I never believed that it was going to work, so I made sure it never would work.” I asked Mike Mills about how he saw Oliver’s growth by the end of the film.
Mike Mills: I think that this film represents the path or the hike that Oliver took. That’s his story. Just about by the end of the film, he is able to say that for the first time and realize that he is doing that pessimistic thing. That he is killing things before they had a chance to see if it [the relationship] was going to live. In the very last scene of the movie, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but he is in a slightly different place.
Of course I believe that Oliver’s growth came from the two sources most important to him; his father and his girl friend, Anna, who was portrayed marvelously by Melanie Laurent, the Parisian film star who might remind you of a youthful Meg Ryan.
Anna is kooky, and different, and delightful. With her you must expect the unexpected. Oliver and Anna meet at a costume party. Oliver comes as Sigmund Freud. He’s completely in character with a vested suit, a beard, eye glasses. Anna on the other hand isn’t in a costume per se. When she’s asked what she is supposed to be for the costume party, she writes on a note-pad, ‘I am a silent movie star‘. Of course, having a severe case of laryngitis helped.
So McGregor’s Oliver and Laurent’s Anna hit it off. Their relationship has its ups and downs, its periods of being off rather than on, and so forth. But this isn’t standard movie fare where a couple meet and everything is great. Their relationship had enough bumps in the road to make it very believable for the audience.
I asked Mills to talk about working with Laurent as Anna.
Mike Mills: She’s amazing. She’s super talented. She knows what she’s doing. She’s incredibly intuitive. She’s a super effective actress.
Since the film is clearly autobiographical I asked Mills what kind of obstacles did he have to climb over to bring this story to the screen and share it with the world.
Mike Mills: Well living it was is a whole lot harder than making a film about it. Making a film about it was a breeze. I enjoyed myself doing that. I enjoyed reporting about my Dad. I enjoyed my Dad coming out more. It wasn’t like I was crossing some boundary here. About myself, I’ve had enough therapy so that I don’t care. It was fine.
And all the directors that I really love do this. They share real struggles. Stuff that they really need to get around, or figure out, or understand – they make films out of that. So I felt like I was in good company. All my heroes do this.
My Dad would be okay with it. I’m okay with it. So essentially, it wasn’t that hard. It’s also like, to me who lived through it, like a taking a picture of a tornado. If you lived through a tornado coming though, and wrecking your house, it’s a whole crazy event. Then having one picture of it, is like an abstraction. The picture refers back to the tornado, but it is a still picture. So this film was like that in 100 ways for me.
Like filming scenes in the hospital – people would ask, ‘Is this heavy for you?’
Fuck no. Doing the film was easier than being in the hospital for real. I’m in control. And I’m having a great time. I’m doing the thing that I love to do more than anything at all – directing.
So Mills brought the story to the screen. As a viewer I enjoyed the film. Sure, one can find little things about this film to gripe about. Or that didn’t quite work. But to me, those were all just little nickel and dime things. Not worth even bringing them up.
Mills told his story, and brought the characters of Oliver, Hal, and Anna to us in a way that was refreshing, enjoyable, and interesting. The film was certainly entertaining and should and will provoke you to consider that Oliver’s (and Mills’) personal journeys are very much worth your time.
My last question to Mike Mills would have to come sooner than expected – we had to accelerate somewhat because we were on the clock.
JustMeMike: Mike which of the characters in the film are really you, Oliver, Hal, or are you both of them?
Mike Mills: Neither – I think I am Anna. Really, .. honestly … – Anna’s got more of me than any of them.
JustMeMike: Thank you …!
Mike Mills: Nice meeting you…!