Mike Mills - interview
Who's saying what
We caught up with Mike on Friday at his hotel to talk about how the film's story parallels his real life, how love is a political construct, therapy, what it means to be punk, and more.
Should we get right into this?
What inspired you to make this film?
A lot of it comes from my real dad, my real parents. They were married for 44 years and then my mum passed away and then my dad came out of the closet when he was 75, and had five very gay years then he passed away. So, that part of the film... it's not like, totally autobiographical, but it's a real portrait of my dad and real things that happened. When he came out, we started having much more alive, real conversations about love and relationships. They were quite exciting and fun and great and messy arguments, you know? From my perspective, being born in '66 and straight, and him being born in '24 and gay. The film is really sort of a continuation of that argument we were having. That very loving, fun, messy argument.
The film definitely discusses the internal and external pressures that society puts on people and how you deal with things.
I'd say society sort of limits even our most personal, innermost things. Like love, and relationships, and who we're attracted to and how we work on those relationships. The stories and laws and all that is available at different times, like 1955 versus 2003, really shape it, I think.
And were those conversation you started having in those last five years really, noticeably different to anything before?
What my dad talking about hot guys, and sex?!
Obviously the content! But had you had those really open chats before?
No, no. No, he was really sweet. We had a really nice relationship. But you know he's born in '24 and kind of proper a little bit. They were kind of British-y feeling, my parents. They didn't get into messier, confusing, more emotional places, that just wasn't their culture. They didn't go to therapy - you know, all that stuff, that wasn't their scene. All of a sudden my dad's going to therapy, he wants to talk about everything! It was totally different and he was much more alive.
[Looks out window]
Fuck we're up high.
And he was much more... young, like in his spirit and way more engaged with me. Before I could just say anything, like if he asked 'Why did you break up with so and so?' I could just say 'Whatever.' and after he came out he would say 'No really, why?' and challenge me more and that was great.
Do you feel like it's a therapy for you, writing the film and talking about it then?
Going to therapy is like therapy! And I have a very good therapist and friends, sisters, and that's where the real therapy happens. It's not smart to do therapy in films, because you need to know what you're talking about a little bit more than you do when you're doing therapy. I think you needed to do therapy to do the film. And while the film was personal, the goal wasn't to have therapy. The goal wasn't to write a memoir. The goal was like... this story, I feel, is very real, very deeply human and I kind of had a front row seat to it. This is the best thing I have to report back, this is the best story I have to put on the market and ask people half way across the world in Melbourne to watch. People always ask me 'Was it cathartic? Was it therapeutic?' and, ahhh, not really.
Beginners is really integrated in that it includes your design work, it was written and directed by your hand, and the story itself has aspects of your own life and memories. Did that kind of attachment make it easier or a lot more complicated?
Easier, because I knew how to do everything. [Laughs] I was kind of relying on things that I knew - even where it's shot are all places I knew kind of intimately, I didn't have to hire a locations guy. I just knew 'I'm going to go here and here and here and here.'
But again, I made a film, I get what it means to talk to strangers in a dark room [the film audience] and I'm excited for that, so that's the goal, that's what I really want to do. And you know, when your second parents dies, it's a trip because you're left. So now it's you, on the horizon line of life. And then it was really hard getting this movie made, and it didn't seem like anybody wanted to make it. It was this weird pipe-dream that I was doing, and as it got more weird and more pipe-dreamy I just ended up sticking more and more of myself in it. It was kind of suicidal, I was like 'Well, yeah, well fuck you! I'm going to draw in it too! I'm going to do my graphics!' All these other things I know about and love just ended up getting stuck in it, graffiti, whatever. But it was kind of a not really very logical approach. 'Oh yeah, you find it too personal, I'm going to put more [of myself] in it!'
When did you realise the scope of what you were writing? When did it become a real thing that Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer would be helping you tell the story?
That's always hard to believe. That still is hard to believe. I remember I was driving to meet Ewan and that feeling of 'Oh, he's never going to read it.' or 'The agent isn't actually even going to send it to him', which happens in LA, you really don't believe anything anybody says. And I hear, 'Oh, he read it, he likes it, go meet him, go meet him, you should' and I thought there's no way, but of course [I'll go meet him]. This really does happen where people tell you someone has read something and you go meet them and they have no idea.
That's so awkward.
The ethics of the film making world are strange. I was disbelieving it until I met him and then you meet him and he's actually just the nicest guy, totally down to Earth, most just normal, loves the film, loves it for all the right reasons. It was kind of like an out of body experience. And you know, he did it for scale, did it for no money, became like my great friend and collaborator and my buddy. But up until you're shooting you just think that someone's going to come and take it away, because it's so hard. These films are so vulnerable, they're not getting paid very much, films always fall apart and a big monster like a big studio film with a 150 million budget can just come and say, 'Oh no, he's working with us.' It's very unlikely.
It's kind of disconcerting to know that.
It's gnarly, yeah.
Did it change you, emotionally, seeing aspects of yourself realised on screen?
It's such a long process, right? I started writing it in 2005, I think back then writing some things, putting them on paper, aligning this scene and that scene, pulling a theme. And you know, talking about my dad? My dad is millions of things! In this 100 minute film, I've showed you like, 20, out of the millions of things. In the beginning, selecting that 20, carving out a theme, making this man to kind of make sense, it was just really personal. It was really emotional. Over the years of making it more and more of a script, finding ways of communicating things better, it really becomes a story. I see Christopher on screen and I never think, 'Oh that's Pop', but I feel really close.
What about with Ewan Mcgregor?
I never think that's me. I have friends that say he nailed me on this or that, but I never asked him to do me. People have said he walks like me, or talks like me, but I don't see that, I still don't see that, and Ewan is so not me, and in lots of ways he isn't me and Oliver isn't me. I mean there are things that are for sure from life.
I will say that I feel very close to my dad and it's not because he's on the screen, I feel my dad, like, here. [Indicates shoulder] I feel like me and my dad made the movie, that Christopher and Ewan were in.
That's so nice.
I've had so many weird conversations with my dad in my head, like 'What would you think of this Pop? If I did this, how would that go?' My dad is a very political, art historian complicated man, so I think he would get all the abstraction. Like the nuts and bolts of fictionalising somebody? He kind of fictionalised himself for a while. So that's been really sweet. When I'm really nervous and I have to go introduce the film in front of some huge amount of people, I feel like... I don't want to sound cheesy/spooky, but I can feel my dad around. Or, I can feel his advice. His advice is more palpable, easy to grab onto than it ever was. That's the best I've ever said it! You know what I mean?
I can just connect with him. I might just be getting older too. When you get in your 40's your whole trip with your parents really changes.
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