Los Angeles for Beginners

Los Angeles According to Mike Mills

In Mike Mills’ Beginners, Oliver (Ewan McGregor) deals with a new love, Anna (Mélanie Laurent), and the fact that his father, Hal (played by Christopher Plummer), is coming out of the closet at age 75. That all this happens in Los Angeles is not just a coincidence of production. Mills, who lives in Los Angeles, maps out in Beginners a personal geography of the places that define and endear him to LA. But these locations also identify the characters themselves –– where they live, what they like, how they love. To help understand Mike Mills’ Los Angeles a little better, we asked the filmmaker to highlight some of the real spaces in his film and tell us what they mean to him.

Richard Neutra Lovell Health House

The Health House was commissioned by the Lovell family and built in 1927. It is one of Richard Neutra’s most famous houses. But that is not why we picked it. It is gorgeously situated and the natural light that comes through is just amazing. It made sense, character-wise, that you would have this art historian man living there––and that would be the family house. Also I wanted to shoot in all natural light. And Richard Neutra is like the best gaffer in the whole world, with the light that comes through those windows. He has these built in sconce lights, and they create this amazing soft light. I love modern America architecture, and I know all about Neutra, so when Chris [Miller], my locations manager, showed me the house, I was, “You can’t be showing me the Richard Neutra Lovell House –– we can’t get in there.” But luckily the recession really helped us in that we could afford something’s we couldn’t normally afford. The Topper family has lived in there for, I think, like 40 years. So the house has a real patina, a real accumulation of stuff, like a real family has. The checkered bedspread that is in one of the scenes –– that is just the Topper’s actual bedspread. All the stuff that is in the kitchen, along the shelves, that is just the Topper’s stuff. I love going in to locations and treating them in a documentary way.

Biltmore Hotel, 506 S Grand Ave
I love the Biltmore. And it is neat to show that LA has history. The hotel was built in 1923. The Academy Awards used to be there, so you know that all those people from the 20s and 30s were there. I love walking where Jimmy Stewart walked. It’s gorgeous and again the recession really helped us because we normally could never shoot in there. The hotel’s amazing location manager was really kind to us and gave us a lot of access. We had this whole hallway. We had the suite the couple was in, but then also Cosmo had his own room, the hair and make up department had their own room, grip and gaffer had their own room, sound had their own room, So we would all go into the hall way when we shot the hallway, and then afterwards go back to our rooms. It was dreamy.
Elysian Park

He takes her on dates to Elysian Park, and that really connects to the LA River. I walk in Griffith Park all the time. Part of the film was me trying to make LA into a real character, a real place that makes geographic sense.  So if your girl is hanging out down at the Biltmore hotel, where are you going to take her for a quick walk? Elysian Park. And it’s gorgeous with the Eucalyptus trees and the light ––and it was pretty damn cheap.

Los Angeles County Art Museum (LAMCA), 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

Getting into LACMA was really not so easy, but luckily my dad really was a museum director, so I could use his name. There are some paintings at LACMA, like the David Park Paintings, all these Bay Area figurative painters –– well, my dad coined the phrase “Bay Area Figurative.” So I had an entrée and all the art historians and curators were a little touched that I was writing a story about my dad who was an art historian. I remember walking though that great wing in which we shot –– there was a huge Clyfford Still, a huge David Smith, a De Kooning, a Philip Guston –– and I was thinking, “whoa, they are showing us this room.” So I asked, “has anyone shot in here?”  And they said “not yet.” That was cool little code to me that maybe I could get in there. But we had to go to all those artists’ estates to get permission. And luckily my dad knew some of the people. I think that my dad’s ghost helped a lot. And it was so great that Mary Page [Keller], who played the mom, got to interact with the David Smith sculpture.

Glendale Narrows

To me the river is the heart of any city, but people don’t think that LA has a river. But my great friend Jay Babcock, who did Arthur magazine, showed me how you walk over the 5 Freeway and right there is the Glendale Narrows. Most of LA River is paved but that part, the bottom isn’t paved, and it has become this accidental wildlife corridor. The day that we shot there, there were all these Canadian Geese just hanging out. It was really important for me to show that that is LA’s nature, that’s LA’s river, that’s our watershed. It’s a very important and real geographic place.

Tacos Arizas, Sunset and Logan

The taco truck is Tacos Arizas. I go there –– and it’s tasty and delicious. I wanted to show a slightly grittier side to LA, but still totally romantic. This isn’t one of those Grade A restaurant trucks; this is more like a real street truck. I thought, that would be a great date –– him showing her a part of LA that is very real. She’s French and an actress. It was a way to test her –– can she deal with this? And she loves it. And so I thought, “oh, how romantic.”

Cosmopolitan Book Shop, 7017 Melrose Ave

and Counterpoint Records & Books, 5911 Franklin Ave.

We shot in two really amazing bookstores. One is Counterpoint Records & Books on Franklin, and one is Cosmopolitan Books on Melrose and La Brea. Cosmopolitan is like this towering mess. So we went in there and didn’t touch it. And the guy who owns the books store is in the film. I love that. Counterpoint is gorgeous and a little more organized –– great place to get old vinyl there and used books. I go to these places all the time so it was fun to shoot in them.

Billboard, Alvarado and Sunset

There’s a billboard on Alvarado and Sunset. Oliver lives in Silverlake, El lives in Los Feliz, and she’s downtown. They find a billboard on Alvarado. I was just glad to be able to stay in the hood and just be there.

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