Filmmaker Mike Mills redesigns his personal history with Beginners

The director/designer talks about making dramedy of his life experience


  • Focus Features
  • OLD DOGS, NEW TRICKS: Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor

As if being a graphic artist, designer, screenwriter and filmmaker weren’t enough for Mike Mills, he describes himself “As an autobiographer…” on one of his blog entries. For his acclaimed new film Beginners, Mills draws heavily on his personal experiences and family history. Ewan McGregor plays Mills’ surrogate self, Oliver, whose septuagenarian father Hal (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay, and contracts terminal cancer himself five years later. Beginners’ splendid performances and emotional truth have earned Mills acclaim, and he discusses the challenges of using his own life as raw material.

Can you tell me about the difference between your real experiences and what we see in Beginners?
The real answer is, even when I’m trying to make a portrait of something that really happened, by the time you’ve experienced it, abstracted it, written it, got Christopher Plummer to be in it, it’s completely different. Many parts are real: my Dad did have a party in his hospital room, my parents did live down the block from where Allen Ginsburg wrote “Howl,” and more.

Did you feel self-conscious casting a movie star to play yourself: “Hmm, who’s handsome enough to play me?”
I set myself up for a tremendous embarrassment for a year and a half: “Do you really think you’re as good-looking as Ewan McGregor?” For the film to work, it’s got to take some true feelings and actions. The goal is for the actors to communicate with people, not with me, to take nuggets and then forget about me and talk to the audience. Their bodies and souls and spirits make people care about the film. I made the film from my perspective, but I wasn’t that interested in myself.