In the fall of 2004 as Mike Mills was editing his first feature film Thumbsucker, his father died. Thumbsucker—a sly dramedy starring Vince Vaughn, Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton—premiered at Sundance and Mills immediately began writing his passion project Beginners, a semi-autobiographical father/son drama crossbred with a romance. Beginners debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be released across the states by Focus Features on June 3rd. In it, Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, an artist still recovering from his mother's death when his father Hal (Christopher Plummer) drops another bombshell: at 75-years-old, he's coming out of the closet. Mills identifies—it happened to him.
The young writer-director began writing in while still in mourning and took years to finish the film. "I do think when your parent dies, for at least the next year afterwards you're in a very awkward space and I definitely was," says Mills. "I was definitely intoxicated or inspired to keep the conversation going that I'd had with my dad for the past year. I thought I had a way of doing it without looking into my belly button."
His goal for Beginners was to think smaller than a sweeping representative portrait of an old parent coming out to their grown-up child (several other memoirs have covered that turf). "In terms of being a straight guy writing about his gay dad or his gayness," says Mills, "I feel like I only have the right to talk about my experience and my dad." Nor did he worry too much about sticking closely to his memories, allowing his actors to collaborate on the script while shooting. "Some of the biographical facts are based on memories of things that happened, but it's my version of things that happened. It's not my sisters', who were there but aren't on screen," adds Mills. "I can come up with three different perspectives that are fairly contradictory. I'm kind of doing a movie about a dream I had about my dad. I'm not asking you to be locked into my dad or locked into my script. If I make it precious, if I make it just about my memories, it'll be horrible."
Yet he was fascinated by the challenge of tying his father's story to the historical context that shaped his unusual life. Mills breaks up Beginners with photo montages of the past and present. "This is what the world looks like in 1955," pronounces McGregor as the film plunges into a sequence that links his parents' wedding to the surrounding conservative, but contradictory culture, noting the church they were married in was ten blocks from where Allen Ginsberg was writing "Howl."
"My parents were married in this church, and that's really the church in San Francisco in 1955," says Mills, "and really and truly Allen Ginsberg was ten blocks down the street writing ‘Howl.'" Wikipedia helped him make all the connections, providing not just a starting reading list but an instant reference point. "The way it's so constructed is so interlinked," Mills marvels. "Like in the Ginsberg Wikipedia entry, there's a link to the year of 1955." And over half a century later, he's able to tell his father's story in a way his father never could, while using his father's late-in-life bravery to inspire a romance between McGregor's perpetual bachelor and French actress Mélanie Laurent.
"In my dad's case, he would be potentially put in jail or in an insane asylum if he came out in the '50s," Mills notes, "and on the more straight side of the spectrum there's so many people of my generation who are afraid to be in love or stay in love. Beginners is very much an amalgamation of experiences I've had and things I've seen."