From Start to Finish, the Inspirational Journey of Beginners

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Ewan McGregor and Mike Mills Andrew TepperEwan McGregor (left) and writer/director Mike Mills (right) on the set of Beginners, a Focus Features release.

Only Time

“When my Mom passed away, there suddenly was this new person, this new Dad.”

That’s how it was, and that’s how it felt, for writer/director Mike Mills. Before there was a movie, there were those real-life events. His recently widowed 75-year old father had an announcement to make to his son; in whatever time he had left on this earth, the elder Mills wanted to live as an out homosexual man.

“He just started living this explosive new life,” marvels Mills.  “He became more emotionally alive than I’d ever seen him.”

Mills looked on with surprise and admiration as his father dove head first into the gay culture of Santa Barbara. The elder Mills dressed, acted, and lived as a man at least 20 years younger than he in fact was.

“I had so many gay friends and teachers that I admired,” says Mills. “So coming out was, I’d say, less of an issue for me than it was for him. But his gayness, this side of him, was still something mysterious to me. I found myself asking, who is my Dad?  I wanted to know more. And then he was diagnosed with cancer.”

As much as one might expect the disease to slow Mills’ father down, the effect was just the opposite. His father maintained what was already an active social calendar – actually hosting more parties than before; continued to see his trainer; and maintained a strict health regime. Mills senior remained aggressively positive, all but repudiating the illness that would kill him.

“He told me that when they got married, my Mom took off her Jewish badge and he took off his gay badge,” remembers Mills. “When he said that, it was like a light going off in my head.  I said ‘I’m writing about that.’ As it was happening, it just felt so big and real. I felt I had something to report.”

Five months after his father’s passing, Mills sat down to write, motivated at how crucial it was to capture that emotional state of “a kind of a fireworks-y exhilaration. Our time here is short.  It’s going to be gone fast. 

“You must voice it all. Whatever you’re afraid of. Whatever you haven’t done.  Whatever you haven’t been honest about. Whatever you haven’t really bitten into. I felt like it was the only time to do it. I don’t know if I would have been able to write Beginners if I hadn’t been in mourning.”

Mills reflects, “For me a lot of grief is like running in the dark in a forest, sprinting forward, trying to get to something.  I hope that’s what we captured in the movie, this mad grab for life.”

Meeting in the Middle

Over the course of developing the script for Beginners, many things changed, shifting in and out of focus – but one aspect remained constant; Mike Mills knew he was telling two stories, not one.

One thread follows father and son – Hal and Oliver Fields – as they come to grips with Hal’s new identity and illness; the second balances Oliver’s emotional regrouping from Hal’s death and his burgeoning relationship with Anna, a vivacious French actress.

Mills remarks, “I always thought of it as two stories. When someone you love has just died, the past is such a river running through you. It’s not a containable set of memories as much as it’s waves of conversation that are still alive in you. You’re always feeling it, processing and running it over in your head. I never imagined the ‘past’ as flashbacks.  It was always going to play out as a simultaneous, completely contained storyline.”

Ewan McGregor had been sent the completed script but had not yet read it. So the first the actor actually heard about the project was while sharing a ski lift with Mills’ agent at the Sundance Film Festival – who seized the moment, pitching the actor the project while the lift moved slowly up the slopes.  As soon as he got home, McGregor plowed through the script, read Mills’ personal note to him, and within a week was meeting with the writer/director.

“I immediately took to Mike,” McGregor recalls. “He is quite open, emotionally, and I’m a bit like that. It felt like we’d known each other for a long time.

“I’d seen his previous film, Thumbsucker, and liked it a lot. But once he sent me some of his shorts, art and graphics, videos and commercials, I realized that I was familiar with his work without having known so.”

As they discussed the project’s unique structure, Mills and McGregor came to the same conclusion; the two stories should be shot separately, back-to-back in continuity, to ensure dual layers of emotional honesty. This was key because McGregor is the only actor in both stories, as Oliver carries the experiences of one into the other. “It was so helpful to me,” notes the actor. “Playing scenes where Oliver was entering into the relationship with Anna, I could remember back to the scenes I’d filmed of Oliver with his father Hal.

“There is a convergence that makes Beginners very rich and complex. It’s a film about losing, about accepting – in this case, accepting your father for who he really is, accepting the fact that someone who is living life to the fullest is going to die, and then coming to terms with such a loss while falling in love.”

For the role of Hal Fields, Mills had his heart set on an actor who possessed the gravitas, wit, and charm to command every scene he was in – and who would be keenly felt and missed in his absence. Christopher Plummer had read the script, and Mills was quick to follow up with a personal note to Plummer. The Academy Award nominee’s commitment to the role came nearly as swiftly as  McGregor’s had.

The writer/director found that both actors did harbor initial reservations about how someone who had lived through the events that inspired the story might respond to their interpretations of the characters inspired by real people. To that end, there were also candid discussions about whether creative constraints would be placed upon the actors. To the contrary; Mills made clear to McGregor and Plummer that he was counting on them to bring a collaborative spirit to the project.

Both actors wanted to get closer to the emotional truths by taking on aspects of Mills and his late father. Mills remarks, “Before he died, my Dad wrote a new version of Jesus’ death. I gave it to Christopher – and he had his own ideas of how it should be written, to make it sharper. You might think I would find that to be sacrilege – but I told him to go for it, to write something that he feels strongly about, that has his authorship; this way, our story becomes a public story, not a private story.” Mills also encouraged Plummer to infuse his performance with plenty of the actor’s own personality.

McGregor asked Mills to record the script’s dialogue in order for the actor to capture the cadences of his voice and how he would express himself. Once these recordings were internalized and fully absorbed, McGregor was encouraged by Mills “not to limit himself.”

A key component of Mills’ vision for the project was to make the audience question the line between autobiography and fiction – to root around between the way things really happened and the way we choose to remember them.

“None of my conversations with Christopher and Ewan had the tenor of ‘Here’s how we did things,’ or ‘Here’s how it was,” clarifies Mills.  “It was more like, ‘Here are these verbs and actions that my Dad and I experienced. Go live them out now in a way that’s real for you, so it will be real for an audience. Take away all the proper nouns and let it be your thing.’”

Accordingly, McGregor “didn’t feel like I had to play Mike, as such. I asked him to record the script for me, but I was not doing an impersonation of him. He wasn’t encouraging me to, either; he wanted for me to find who Oliver is. Physically, sometimes, I’d do something and think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit like Mike…’”

Given that his character of Oliver is an artist, McGregor knew that he did have to closely physically emulate Mills’ illustrative style. For hours at a time, the two sat side-by-side in Mills’ studio; the filmmaker would start a drawing, and then hand it over to the actor to finish. Although many of Oliver’s illustrations in the film were executed by Mills, just as many were either reproduced or completed by McGregor.

For the film’s romance to coalesce on-screen, the filmmakers needed an actress who could play an actress who could go a long way towards filling the void left by Hal’s absence. Mills remarks, “Anna shares a certain amount of Oliver’s generational uncertainties – and also gives the narrative a vital shot of life, energy, and complication.”

Mélanie Laurent, one of France’s busiest actresses, was keen to add to her repertoire and so had been studying English months before filming even began. The chance to practice what she had learned was one of the draws of Beginners, but “I really chose [to do] the script because of the story, which moved me,” says Laurent. So much so, that  she e-mailed Mills to lobby for the role after reading the script and then – at his request – conceived and submitted “something cool and different” on video which encompassed Laurent acting out parts of the script.

She adds, “As for the character, I’d played quite serious parts in my recent films in France, and I was happy to get to play someone more fun, more light. Also, after Inglourious Basterds, it was hard to find the right American project to do and I wanted to do an independent movie rather than a big movie.

“Even though she’s an actress making movies, Anna is actually not that close to me; I feel that, compared to hers, my life is easier. On this set, things were so free for the actors. Every day, Mike and I would discuss what was going on in Anna’s head.”

The role of Anna was arguably more open to interpretation than those of Hal and Oliver Fields – since Anna is the screenwriter’s invention, and has/had no direct correlation to a person in Mills’ life. To anyone who is quick to assume that Anna has/had some basis in Mills’ real-life wife – performance artist/musician/actress/writer/director Miranda July – the director reveals that, instead, “Anna is another incarnation of me.  All of her emotional underpinnings – her issues – are on my turf.”

Mills wanted to strengthen the bonds between his actors in ways both external and internal; as part of a week of rehearsals, he brought McGregor and Laurent to the Magic Mountain theme park ride(s). This allowed them to all to have a shared experience and build a rapport. During filming, Mills would often evoke the exhilaration and queasiness – emotional and otherwise – of rollercoasters and/or love by simply saying to the duo, “Magic Mountain.”

In addition to downtown Los Angeles’ historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel, the production spanned Los Angeles locations in Silverlake and Griffith Park, among others. The books-shopping scene for father and son was filmed on location at The Cosmopolitan Book Shop, “which is filled with treasures you didn’t’ know you were looking for,” enthuses Mills.

For Oliver’s spontaneous visit to Manhattan, Mills traveled to NYC with McGregor and convened a small filmmaking unit rather than try to have one distinctive city “play” another.

The many scenes between Anna and Oliver in and around her suite at the Biltmore Hotel were filmed at the hotel over the course of a week, as a self-contained part of the shoot – adding to the levels of intimacy and displacement for the actors. 

“Oliver and Anna’s relationship in Beginners is not exactly a Hollywood ‘romantic comedy love story,’” notes McGregor. “It’s quite real and visceral – hot and cold, off and on, and as complicated as a true love story would be. Mélanie Laurent (left) and Ewan McGregor (right) star in writer/director Mike Mills' <i>Beginners</i>, a Focus Features release.

“I’ll never forget my time with Mélanie in the Biltmore. I must say that by the time we moved on from that hotel room, Mélanie’s and my brains were melting all over the place.”

McGregor’s heart melted for his costar – Cosmo, the quiet, soulful Jack Russell terrier cast as Arthur, the dog whom Mills refers to as Oliver’s “co-passenger” in the story. “He’s so gorgeous,” enthuses McGregor.  “I loved working with Cosmo. It’s tough, though, because you develop a bond with this wee dog, and then you have to say goodbye.”

Cosmo transformed himself for the role, in that his all-white fur was painted with brown spots. Head animal trainer Mathilde de Cagny, who had nurtured another Jack Russell terrier, Moose, in his role as Eddie through all 11 seasons of the television series Frasier, had Cosmo ready for his close-ups – and then some. For, as a lifelong lover of dogs, Mills early on conceived key scenes in the film where Oliver and Arthur would converse via subtitles.

Mills remarks, “Having shared my life with an actual Jack Russell terrier that belonged to my father, the idea that a dog would ‘say’ a line like ‘Tell her the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now’ just seemed both right and appropriate for the story I wanted to tell.”

The writer/director and the actors spent a great deal of time discussing what it meant to talk to the dog – not in a “cute” way, or even as an animal – but more as if conversing with another person.

Of conversing with his fellow actor Plummer, McGregor reports, “Christopher is fantastic to work with. I supposed I had certain assumptions about him being ‘old school,’ and how much he would play around with things. But when it comes to acting, he’s completely in the scene with you and works with you in a very contemporary way that a lot of younger actors could learn from. I learned a lot from him, for sure.

“Among my favorite scenes are the ones where Hal is ailing and the group of older gay men has gathered around him. We could all feel the wonderful spirit of emotional openness and support.”

McGregor reflects, “Christopher moved me to tears a lot – and he and I also laughed a lot, because he tells great stories!”

History Without End

The finished film of Beginners is, as Mike Mills sees it, an intimate tale wrapped up in a larger statement of how we perceive history. Thus the motivation for the film’s graffiti motif, in which Oliver tags concrete walls in black Krylon with phrases documenting seemingly banal events.

“Everything that flashes across the screen in the historical montage sequences is relating our intimate emotional lives to larger waves of history, our shared culture,”explains Mills.  “When Oliver spray-paints ‘Britney Spears Most Googled 2003,’ that is a real cultural indicator, and not just a humorous aside; it’s a statement about a particular time.”

Complementing the film’s exploration of autobiography and fiction, the bridge between history and memory is a choice avenue for the filmmaker. As Mills clarifies, “The ‘present’ storyline in the film of Oliver with Anna is in fact a period piece – taking place in 2003 – which makes it susceptible to revision in memory.

“So the film is hopefully asking, what is real, anyway? Are these memories real, or did I get them wrong? Do these historical facts help tell us what was real? Or is it more just, what is or what was possible at a certain time.”

Of his father, Mills reflects, “I lived with a man whose biography was somewhat fictionalized – a performance of sorts. He had to hide deep, personal, intimate things.  He had to learn ‘a role,’ study it and then re-enact it almost all his life.

“I sought to explore constructions – social constructions, historical constructions – that were part of my family history.  Why, in 1955, my parents chose to get married even though they knew my Dad was gay. In my head, I had so many conversations with him about the choices he made. I had these conversations not as a son, but as the author of the story – and that caused a lot of my perspectives to shift. It made me become more of his ally and peer than his son.”

Despite these seemingly weighty themes, Beginners brims with humor – another quality that Mills always saw as being essential to the story. It’s one he’s long cherished overall. He offers, “To me, humor is one of the more positive, subversive, progressive tools we have with which to face life. It’s my internal anti-depressant. I certainly can’t imagine making a movie without it…

“My father valued it, too. He approached his illness with such surprising humor. I do think he would have loved coming out to the world through Beginners; he would have seen it as keeping the party going – but with a larger invite list.”