Interview: Writer/Director Mike Mills (Beginners)
Many of our readers have gone through the hardship of coming out to friends, family, and co-workers. But, for one moment, imagine what it must be like to be on the receiving end of such an announcement – especially when it’s coming from your 75 year old dad! Such is the premise of Beginners, starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. On the eve of the film’s DVD release, So So Gay’s Jamie Pohotsky had a brief chat with Writer/Director, Mike Mills.
SSG: Recently on So So Gay, we asked our writers to discuss their own coming out stories. What was it like to be on the receiving end of such an announcement from a parent?
Mike Mills: It’s strange. Coming from your father – and particularly your father who’s 75. But I met so many kids of gay parents when i was promoting this film. There’s a group called COLLAGE in the US and I didn’t know I had this new family of people! I have so many gay friends, so many gay people I admire, all of that, so it was never really an issue – I never had any vibration about that. But it is strange to have your 75 year old father be sexualised in any situation; talking about guys and having sex and legs and bodies and all that. That part was the most surprising and unusual to absorb. If anything, I’ve always dreaded being yet another white straight blue eyed man – the worst thing in my upbringing is to be another boring straight guy. My dad coming out made me more interesting and made my family more interesting!
It’s really hard to describe. My parents were married for 44 years and my dad came out when she died. They were very much a couple but there was something missing – there were voids, something not right and I could never quite describe it accurately but in a way this was very… it made things clear.
How did you find it, as a storyteller, to channel such a personal story into a work of fiction?
The hardest thing to overcome is that I started writing it 6 months after my dad passed, and having to deal with so much grief. Having your second parent depart is such a change in your life map; now you’re the only one. You don’t have parents, it’s really weird and I wanted to write about that. I thought there were some really profound and beautiful things about what my dad did coming out and dealing with his cancer. I thought ‘this is such a great story to share’, but my greatest fear was being memoir-istic and to be too narcissistic. It would be horrible if I had made that film! So from the get go it was ‘how do I communicate with people?’ My gay dad was like that – he insisted on no self pity and to always share, so it was very natural for this portrait to have that energy. It helped because you can get weighed down writing about your dead dad, to add irreverence, to seek humour, to always try to not be precious. My dad was very funny – about his cancer and life – and both of my parents had this born-in-the-20s, raised-in-the-30s irreverent anti-authoritarian sense of humour. I think all of that really helped just remembering that side of them – it really helped me as a writer.
What about as a director?
It was funny because I love being a director. I love making movies but it’s really hard. Most of the time it didn’t seem like the film was going to happen so by the time I was on set with Christopher and Ewan it was just thrilling. Most importantly, Christopher’s not my dad and Ewan’s not me. I’m doing this thing I love and it’s great that it’s about my family, but most of my energy is focused on the new family who made the movie with me. We would shoot something and the crew would be crying and I was just smiling, like ‘I’m so happy to be here.’ I also really adored Ewan and Christopher, we had a great time.
You’ve said in the past that we are more products of the world we live in than individual creations, especially with such recent changes in gay rights etc. Would you say that such forced melding still takes precedence?
Obviously, there is tremendous change. My dad had his first sexual desires when he was 13, but that was 1947, so very different from 13 and being gay now. But there’s that 13 year old kid who killed himself very recently. You know, my dad inherited a strong story that being gay is shameful and a disease and a horrible thing he internalised that very deeply. That story is much less potent now, there are so many more stories about being positive about being gay, but it depends on who you are around. I think our emotional lives; our real deep inner lives; our sex lives; who we think we are – that’s still very much shaped by the story that we’re in, where and how we grew up. I was just thinking, I went to art school, I’m very lucky – I remember in art school all the girls were graphic designers and all the straight white male guys were painters. There was this unspoken societal decision that girls couldn’t be real artists; if they went to art school they’d better be able to make careers out of it.
Looking back, what would you say you took away from the experience of making Beginners?
What did I get out of Beginners? A lot of people want to know if it was cathartic and the answer is NO! My relationship with my parents is so much bigger and more rambling than a film about them. It was wonderful to write from their perspectives; to be them, and I loved it, but it’s different than life. Life is much much bigger and more powerful and chaotic and confusing than making a film. But, i had a great time – I got to make another movie!
What, of the reaction to the film has struck you?
It’s always crazy when you release a film. It wasn’t that big, but such a bigger audience than anything else I do in my life. It’s crazy to see how many people love and hate and just how wide the experience is, but it’s been really heartening. I wrote this with the attitude of ‘I have to write from this personal place, I’m going to write as if it’s going to work. I’m going to use these personal artefacts and I’m just going to trust that they’re going to communicate’ and it worked! I love it when I can create a film and leave certain details unexplained but then people come up to me and say ‘I got it’ or ‘I know what you meant.’ It was very heartening to be able to communicate that to strangers.
Beginners is currently available on DVD.