The Mooring of Starting Out: Mike Mills on Beginners

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Published June 3, 2011

MIKE MILLS ON THE SET OF BEGINNERS. PHOTO COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES

Mike Mills is almost too cool. The 45-year-old graphic designer, artist, and filmmaker has directed music videos for Yoko Ono, Blonde Redhead, and Air and has designed CD covers for Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (look out for him in their highly anticipated short, Fight for Your Right Revisited.) He’s also done commercial work for Colette, Marc Jacobs, Supreme, and Subliminal—think cherry-patterned silk scarves and Patty Hearst-stenciled skateboards. And finally, in a match made in offbeat art-whiz heaven, Mills is married to Miranda July.

But it’s Mills’ capacity to evoke humanness though humor, and vice versa, that zigzags all that coolness into art that is magical and friendly and above all, finely intuitive. In Beginners, his follow-up to 2005’s Thumbsucker, the director’s portrayal of loss, love, and starting over, is a patchwork of chronology—of personal history and History (of the world). The movie, largely autobiographical, tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor) who is mourning the death of his father, Hal (Christopher Plummer). Through flashbacks, illustration, iconography, and Mills’ alloy of micro- and macro-moments, we learn that Hal, late in life and following the death of his wife, chose to come out.

Meanwhile, Oliver meets a French spitfire and disenchanted actress named Anna-inspired, it seems, by Anna Karina, and sublimely played by Mélanie Laurent. Their courtship is romantic and mischievous, but also prudent, and in some scenes, lonely. He also adopts Hal’s dog, Arthur (Cosmo), a Jack Russell terrier who understands “up to 150 words” but does not talk. Mills, whose preoccupation with hybrid art and the “tradition of collage,” what he describes as “mind expanding,” is explored in Beginners through the many ways people try and sometimes fail to connect. Like his drawings, where a single cartoon thought bubble is cathartic, Mills’ second feature affixes itself to you, and his story becomes yours too.

DURGA CHEW-BOSE: Part of what makes Beginners really special is that it takes the audience out of the love story between Oliver and Anna, and the relationship between Oliver and his dad, and looks at history in a much larger sense. Your background in graphic design really played a vital role; can you elaborate on that?

MIKE MILLS: I got into graphic design because I wanted to work in the public world, and then I got into record covers in the ’90s, and then I went into music videos, which led to ads, and then I had enough stuff to try and start over and do films. So to me, all the drawings in the film and all the stills, that’s kind of  how I see things. To me that’s a natural, visual, language—a bouquet of actually really simple elements. And this movie, I did start writing it after my dad passed away, and I was kind of in this mode of like, “Fuck it, everything I want and love, and everything I do, I’m putting in this movie.”CHEW-BOSE: It plays like a music video in some parts, too, like Mélanie Laurent’s Anna, who is introduced in the film without a voice. Or scenes at the Biltmore.

MILLS: Yeah, a lot of the love story, for me, was very French New Wave.

CHEW-BOSE: Mélanie’s clothes look very New Wave; her hats and dresses! And that scene where she and Ewan are on rollerskates in the lobby is sort of like the race at the Louvre in Band of Outsiders.

MILLS: We shot by the LA river and there’s a part where they go over the freeway, on the bridge, and he does the thing with the truck and when we were there I was like, “Everyone’s going to say we did Jules and Jim!”

CHEW-BOSE: Everyone says everyone does Jules and Jim, though!

MILLS: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly. But I love all those movies, so that was definitely a part of that story, and one of the first things I showed Ewan,was A Woman is Woman, just for the weird comedy of the guys in the movie, and that that kind of guy that has a dry sense of humor, and I was like, “Oliver has watched this movie and thinks those things are funny”—that’s what I wrote down.

CHEW-BOSE: Also the anonymous type of female in French New Wave who doesn’t always have a lot of backstory but definitely has a lot of character; Mélanie channelled that. Her face is so expressive!

MILLS: Yeah, yeah, and I do think that French women, European women compared to American women, or, let’s put it this way, French actresses and European actresses are pretty good at… it’s easier to find a rough and tumble, scrappy wildcat, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted a smart wildcat, and we reached out to her, and because she hasn’t been in that much, my financer was like, “You’re going to have to get her to audition.” So I told her, “Just make anything you want, just make something, just do the audition any way you want.” And she’s a director too, so she made this great little film out of three of four of the scenes where she changed outfits and changed settings, and I was like “Ah! This is so great!” The mind that made that is the mind I want in the movie. She was so inventive, and so brave, and cavalier, and Anna.

CHEW-BOSE: What’s your scriptwriting process like, then, since your approach and way of seeing involves a lot of ideas coming at you all at once?

MILLS: I love being a writer-director. I couldn’t imagine directing without writing it. You have to write and tell your stories, that’s what directing is to me. Even Thumbsucker, which was an adaptation of a book, but it’s not a normal structure, it’s not like McKee’s Story. You still have to reinvent the wheel, but I want to make a movie that moves people—I’m not way avant-garde. I had to find some way to organically make something that has all the lumps and bumps of the character and experience. Even though it took me years to write it, when I’m there and I’m shooting it, it’s all about the energy of the actors, and I try to treat it like a documentary. If we want to change the lines, if we want to change the scene, you know, it’s about what’s happening—it’s not about some plan. And then when you’re editing, it’s the same thing. It’s alive again. It’s new again. I want to keep it as open and free as I can.

CHEW-BOSE: Were there any books or music, or objects you kept with you throughout the production and into post to keep a sense of continuity?

MILLS: The book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I love that book. And it’s kind of similar to [Beginners] because it’s a love story but about history, and how history creates certain emotional options. That book is very multi-directional. Part of it is like a documentary about the Russian army changing all the street names in Czechoslovakia, and part of it’s a love story, and another part is about words. So I think my film’s a little bit like that—it’s polyphonic. There’s this great quote from Milan Kundera about kitsch, and how we all, humans, all of us, have this great desire to speak in terms of common places, in terms of clichés about our experience, but those just throw a veil upon our lives so we do not know what we lived. And that’s on the front of my script binder, “Do not speak in common places.”

CHEW-BOSE: Because Ewan’s character is so similar to you and based on your experiences, was it strange at first to direct him?

MILLS: Well, I think from the very first get-go, I wrote them letters, and the first thing I was said was, this isn’t us, this isn’t mimicking me, you can’t be limited by me. It’s not precious. This has happened to a lot of people. So many people’s dads have come out, so many people have died, obviously. And my goal was to make it, and have it be real for you. So I would remind Ewan of that all the time: “Make it yours. Make it yours.” And beyond that, we share a lot. We’re the same size, but everything looks a lot better on him.

CHEW-BOSE: Were those your clothes Ewan was wearing in the movie?

MILLS: Once in awhile, just out of poverty, he’d be wearing something of mine, and I’d be like, “Fuck. It looks so much better on him!” But yeah, I think what’s happening in Beginners is that, it’s not that he’s doing a good job of being me, it’s that he picked the right film. It’s very him. He has a lot of access to Oliver. And it comes really naturally. He’s a very fluid, organic, easygoing guy, so it was a nice combo. And he loved Christopher, and he loved Cosmo, and he loved Mélanie. I mean it, he really, as in creative partners, he was really into each of them in a way I think that doesn’t happen all the time. It was a very fortunate firework.

CHEW-BOSE: It’s great to watch a film where things are super-serendipitous and kismet-y; especially with this film that really had a level of magic.

MILLS: Yeah very kismety. A lot a lot of kismet. Shooting a film is like a kismet quest. You have thirty days and you need magic to happen. So that’s why I wear suits. I’m praying to the gods, and I’m doing everything I can to respect the powers of the world.

CHEW-BOSE: You wore a suit every day on set?

MILLS: Yup. To me it’s like, every time I’m a director, like today, you’re the captain of the ship, so you better dress like it. You’re the host of the party.

CHEW-BOSE: In terms of style in Beginners, from the costumes to the production design, your sensibilities were palpable in every shot. Was it hard to let go a little as a designer and allow someone else to take care of those visual details? There were moments when even Ewan’s yellow-striped sweater matched that huge yellow wall at his office—was this all you, or was it more collaborative? And if so, was it hard to let go a bit?

MILLS: Oh yeah, I painted that wall yellow on purpose. That’s an agnès b. sweater that I chose. In making this movie, I had a folder on desktop, and anything I saw that I liked, I put it in it. By the time the film came around, I had a couple thousand images. Jennifer Johnson’s our costume designer and she’s awesome, and I work with her all the time. She knows my taste, and especially how I like to dress women. But I’m pretty all over it and up everybody’s ass, you know. Hopefully in a nice way. But with this, all the production design, that’s my parents’ furniture—that’s my family’s stuff. And that came half out of poverty, we had no money to do all this. But I had all this great stuff. Shane Valentino did a great job of helping me work all of that together.

BEGINNERS IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY. TO VIEW AN EXCLUSIVE GALLERY OF MILLS’ SKETCHES FROM THE FILM, CLICK HERE.