by Luke Hickman
Few directors have the ability to show something on screen that puts you in the role of the characters and truly makes you experience their same emotions. Mike Mills is one of those rare directors. Not a moment passes in his latest feature film, 'Beginners', where you aren't emotionally connected to everything on screen.
While promoting the film in Denver, Mills took a few minutes to chat with me over the phone to tell me how 'Beginners' came about, what the writing process was like, and how much the superb cast affected the outcome of his intimately personal film.
Mills' first feature-length narrative ('Thumbsucker') was an adaptation from a Walter Kirn novel of the same title. 'Beginners', his first feature-length original screenplay, it is a semi-autobiographical telling of his relationship with his father. In the film, Ewan McGregor plays the role of the son (Oliver) and Christopher Plummer plays the father (Hal).
'Beginners' is told in a non-linear fashion that bounces back and forth through three different periods of Oliver's life. Each time we shift to another period we learn things that help us better connect to the characters. The earliest of those times in his life is the period we see the least - Oliver's childhood. The other two periods are closer together in time and share the remainder of the film's runtime. The first of those two takes place when, just six months after his wife's passing, Hal tells Oliver that he is gay. The other takes place shortly after Hal's death when Oliver meets and falls for a beautiful French actress, Anna (Mélanie Laurent).
"Writing [an original] screenplay is wildly different from adapting." Being based on such influential moments from his own life, Mills recalls the experience of writing 'Beginners' as "exciting, depressing and difficult to stare at for any length of time."
"When writing something based on your memories … you see it from your particular slant on the situation. You see them the way you remember them - not the way they were. … 'Beginners' is the memory of my dad, his coming-out and his passing [told] with a funny hybrid of facts and fiction. Oliver is the cross-reference. I never intended for it, but he [ended up being] a slice of myself that I ran with."
Casting became an important factor for Mills. Making sure the actors were able to fully convey the intended emotion, he went for "live in the moment actors." McGregor and Plummer were quickly selected, but Anna's casting proved a little more difficult. Mills knew what he wanted from an actress, but didn't have one in mind. He was "looking for a European - someone far from home, strong, fiery, intelligent." She had to possess "independence and strength."
While Mills was seeking his Anna, Laurent was still unknown in the U.S. because 'Inglourious Basterds' had not yet opened. Based on suggestions from friends, Mills began scouring the Internet for European actresses who could display the previously mentioned characteristics. When he can across footage of Laurent, he immediately knew she was Anna.
"I found an interview with her. She was smoking and talking up a storm. The way she sat there and carried herself - even though I didn’t understand a word - I knew she was it."
Once she was cast and rehearsing began, Mills felt vindicated in his casting decisions. "Ewan and Chris were a great duo [that] formed a great relationship. Ewan admired Chris … [and] that translated to film. … Ewan and Mélanie really liked working together. Since we shot the film on digital RED cameras, we could shoot as much as we wanted. [Ewan and Mélanie] liked playing with each other. They would ask to do takes again just to play with the scenes. Those two went through emotional rollercoasters together. Both are very professional." Mills isn't exaggerating. The relationship between Oliver and Anna is so genuine and honest that it will make you experience falling in love for the first time again.
The 'Beginners' trailer opens with Ewan McGregor talking to a dog who, in return, responds through subtitles. Mills' wife, fellow filmmaker Miranda July, premiered her latest film 'The Future' at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. With 'The Future' narrated by a cat, I couldn't help but ask Mills about the talking animals in their films. According to him, "the dog came before the cat."