After the release of Thor last month — the headline contained the word “Thorible” — I was quizzed by a reader: “If you hate Thor so much, what do you recommend I see?”
My answer was Beginners, which wasn’t even open yet after its
Arizona release was bumped several times, even as glowing reviews poured in from New York, Los Angeles and . But Beginners isn’t just the anti-Thor: it’s a deeply personal and genuine film all on its own merits. And now it has a solid Chicago release date — this Friday. Arizona
It stars Ewan McGregor as a fortyish single man whose mother dies and a week later his father comes out that he’s gay. “She knew,” the father says. He’s played by the amazing Christopher Plummer, who has channeled Leo Tolstoy, Mike Wallace and Sherlock Holmes, but never a gay man. He’s remarkable.
But there’s more to Beginners than just its gay themes. It also has tender romance (gay and straight), a profound personal journey of the McGregor character, the lovely Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), a subtitled Jack Russell terrier, literal graffiti, comedy, and these nostalgic, dream-like storytelling devices that are refreshingly unique. They begin with McGregor narrating his character’s memories. I call them the “This Is What It’s Like” scenes. Photos flick onto the screen as if from a slide projector. “This is what the stars looked like in 1955 … the sun … These are my parents … This is where they were married.” The trick is poetic and wonderful.
The scenes were some of many clever ideas by the film’s writer and director, Mike Mills (Thumbsucker), who’s also an accomplished graphic designer and artist. Mills was traveling with Beginners on a national tour when I interviewed him last month.
Flix: Beginners is very good, which makes me wonder why you have to travel with it and publicize like you are.
Mike Mills: Well, I’ve learned that movies are sold in two ways: by word of mouth or by big-budget marketing campaigns. This movie isn’t going to get a bunch of marketing simply because it’s small and the story, about a 75-year-old gay man who’s dying. It doesn’t have that kind of big story — it’s not
So I’m touring with this movie for the next month or so. These small movies get sold by shoe leather, which is basically me going door to door. It’s kind of magical. You meet some wonderful people, which doesn’t happen all the time — a director a meeting their audience. Iron Man.
Flix: What has the response been from the gay and lesbian community?
MM: To be honest I haven’t read anything from anybody. The movie is so personal that I haven’t really sought out opinions from writers … gay or straight. My general feeling is that the response has been positive. Every once and awhile an older gay man will come up to me and say something really sweet about how the film mirrored their life, or touched them in some way. It feels good to hear things like that, especially since the film is told through a straight person’s eyes.
Flix: I know the film is semi-autobiographical, but how much of it is true?
MM: It’s very autobiographical, but it’s also, in a way, my dream, which are represented in some of the sequences. What is true, though, is that my parents were married in 1985. My dad was gay, my mom knew it. My mother died and my dad came out of the closet when he was 75. Then he passed away almost five years later. That’s all in the movie and it’s all very true. There’s a part of the movie where my mom was kicked off the swimming team in 1938 for being half-Jewish. That’s true as well. There are also a number of photos in the film that accurate, like the one of the location of my parents’ wedding, which was down the street from where Allen Ginsberg did some of his writing.
Flix: The “This Is What It’s Like” scenes are very memorable. Are those dreams?
MM: In a way they are, but they are also very factual to me. Really, they are all facts. This is what the stars looked like, this is what the sun looks like. Those are actual pictures of the sun and stars in 1955. It gets very dreamy. I love that conflation. It really hits at how dreamy facts are, and how factual dreams are. I was using a documentarian-like approach, but the end result is very lyrical.
Flix: Those are my favorite parts of the movie. I especially liked how you showed a quarter on the screen when it’s told to the father that he has a tumor the size of the quarter. First you show the quarter, then two dimes and a nickel, then five nickels, then nickels and pennies, then finally all pennies. It’s an interesting visualization. The film vilifies the quarter — something most people have in their pocket at any given time — and it also shows the spread of cancer.
MM: I’m glad you liked that scene. If you only knew how hard it was to convince people to do that. They were just like, “Really?!?” It’s just the way I think. I went to art school; I didn’t go to film school. There are a lot of artists who do similar kinds of work that inspired me. I feel very lucky that I had the nerve to show these elements as I naturally view them.
Flix: Was it hard securing your cast?
MM: It was, but not once I met them. Once I met them it became incredibly easy. Making movies like this is like swimming your way upstream. It’s also like running for president: You have to meet all these people and basically convince them that you are the right guy to make this movie. And you really have to campaign for yourself and the actors you want in it. As soon as Ewan and Christopher read the script they loved it, and they loved it for all the right reasons. Ewan and I had coffee together very early, and I kept thinking he was going to like it but be unable to do it because he was busy, or he was shooting another movie, or whatever. Or I also worried that he was going to be an ass, like someone I could never relate to. But then he shows up and he’s like the most down-to-earth dude I’ve met in a long time. He spoke of the movie using the right tone and you could tell he was there with the movie’s good intentions at heart.
Flix: I just reread Easy Rider, Raging Bulls, about New
’s transformation of cinema in the late ’60s and ’70s. In it, there are directors who want to become famous to make big movies, people like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and there are directors in it who want to become famous to make small movies, people like Francis Ford Coppola. Which group do you put yourself into? Hollywood
MM: Oh, no doubt, I want to make smaller films. I want to make more personal films, films with stories. The smaller/bigger movie thing is kind of a trick though, too. Consider Little Miss Sunshine, a small movie that made a ton of money. Lost in Translation was a small movie that found a large audience. So, in a way, I don’t want to self-ghettoize myself by saying I make small movies. I just see my movies about people getting in touch with who they are. And making those kinds of movies is so hard. It takes so long to get it all right. I feel like I lose a limb after each one.
Flix: There are many directors working now, though, who have made their bones on a small, well-reviewed independent movies and then inevitably start making movies like Thor or Green Lantern or Iron Man, movies that don’t have a fifth of the soul of movies like Little Miss Sunshine, Lost in Translation or Beginners.
MM: I think it’s a real struggle. I mentioned earlier that you have to swim upstream, and it’s really tough and it wears you down. Eventually you just tell yourself, “I want to go with the stream for once. I want to be supported.” I can see why directors would turn to these movies that are bigger and louder. I’m too old to switch gears. And I really don’t want to switch gears. Being a writer-director is the best job in the world. It’s the same job that Woody Allen has, the same job that John Cassavetes had. If I get to make movies that are anything like that I feel profoundly lucky and happy.