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The Big Interview: 'Beginners' director Mike Mills

You could call him an alt-culture Renaissance man. A former semi-professional skateboarder, Mike Mills has designed record sleeves for the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth. He's directed videos for Pulp and Yoko Ono, and shot Air on tour. He's worked with fashion designer Marc Jacobs.

And he has seen his photographic work exhibited in Paris, Milan and New York. Not to be confused with the REM bass player -- though he did play in the short-lived band Butter O8 -- it seems everything he touches turns to cool.

Such was his reputation, his debut feature, 2005's Thumbsucker, drew in such diverse talents as Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton, while its young star Lou Pucci won a Special Jury prize at Sundance and a Silver Bear for Best Actor in Berlin for his work.

Now 52, he sounds like he should be on the cover of Dazed and Confused or the subject of a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- and I haven't even mentioned the fact that he's married to novelist/filmmaker Miranda July.

All of which makes his second film, Beginners, entirely unusual. Probably the most personal film you will see this year, it doesn't reek of hipster chic. Rather, it's both a deeply felt memoir of his California childhood and a tribute to his parents, in particular his father.

Nothing unusual in that, until you realise that shortly after his mother died in 1999, his father -- a 75-year-old retired museum director -- announced that he was gay. After 44 years of marriage, Mills' widower father Paul began an active gay social life.

"When he came out, he came so much more to life," says Mills. "There was a brightness in his eyes. It was wonderful. This was the last thing I was expecting to happen and I was so happy he was more alive than less alive."

In truth, when Mills was 18, one of his sisters had conveyed her suspicions to him that their father might be gay. But did it matter when he finally found out?

"The only kind of conflict that came is that what brought him to life was something other than my family," he admits. "It was his gay community -- his extended family brought him to life."

If it left Mills feeling sad, that it took others to bring his father out, he didn't resent it, even when his father joined Prime Timers, a group for mature gay and bisexual men to come together. "They were an amazing community. I was worried about my widowed dad who was 75, and all of a sudden he's acting like he was 40, and he has this rich life.

"So, his gay friends are dear to me, for being fun and great but also because of the care they took with my dad."

Indeed, if there's a tragic dimension to the story, it's that his father died of lung cancer five years later -- cutting short this new-found freedom.

Like peeking into a very private family album, Beginners embraces all of these things, and more. Ewan McGregor plays Oliver, a softly spoken graphic designer who similarly must deal with his ageing father Hal (Christopher Plummer) stepping out of the closet.

Running parallel to this are flashbacks to Oliver's childhood and a later timeline observing his blossoming relationship with the quirky Anna (Mélanie Laurent) while he tries to cope with his father's declining health, some years after he has announced he's gay.

But Mills is swift to point out that Beginners is no autobiography (and compared to, say, Jonathan Caouette's account of his mother's illness, Tarnation, it's not).

"Obviously, it's personal because it's my dad, my family history in a way," he says. "But I turned it into a story -- with Christopher and Ewan!

"And I never think Oliver is me, even though he has a lot of my pieces. I did not want to just make a memoir. I like to use the word 'portrait' -- I think that's fair. I did a lot of fiction to describe my dad, but it was always an effort to describe him."

He adds that he has two older sisters (not featured in the film) who "would have a different version of this". So what did they think of Beginners? "Both haven't seen it," he says. "One [Meg] lives in Pittsburgh and, in this day and age, you don't mail DVDs. No one lets you. And Katie, my other sister, has been really supportive. She came to the set a bunch.

"We're close, I talked to them about it. She's a film studies professor at Occidental College [in California]. So she, more than anyone, gets how much abstraction, distillation and amalgamation goes on when you do something like this."

Even so, Mills admits to weaving in family facts to the film's fabric. "My parents were 13 in 1938. They were married in 1955. So, of course, all that 1955 stuff was true," he says. "When I show the church, this is where they were married, that's really the church. [Beat poet] Allen Ginsberg really did live down the street. My dad did come out a week after my mom died. My mom did watch Teletubbies while she had brain cancer. All those little fragments are little historical objects, little truths. And my dad did pass away almost five years after he came out."

It lends Beginners a very homespun, patchwork quality -- from the montages of still photos that accompany Oliver's narration to the magpie-like way Mills borrows from others. He cites the costume party scene where Oliver first meets Anna.

She has lost her voice, causing her to communicate through sign language -- this happened to Thumbsucker star Lou Pucci. "He had laryngitis. And his doctor said 'Don't talk for two weeks'.

"Then he went to a party, met a girl, and because he couldn't talk, he had a really strange, magical connection with this person. As he was telling me this story, I said, 'Lou, can I steal this?'"

Mills even brings his own love of dogs into the mix. The often- lonely Oliver spends much of his downtime at home talking to his pooch Cosmo, and imagining (via subtitles) what his answers might be. "I talk to dogs all the time," says Mills. "I talk to my dog all day long, when I'm home writing. And often I answer back." At his Los Angeles home, which he shares with July (best known for the indie hit Me and You and Everyone We Know), Mills has a 10-year-old border collie mutt named Zoe. "She's very border collie. She's always herding me around."

Given Beginners' idiosyncrasies, it's no surprise Mills says it's "miraculous" that he got it made. He started writing back in 2005, just as Thumbsucker was on the verge of release, but financing such a quirky tale in the midst of a recession proved almost impossible.

It hardly helped that Thumbsucker took under $2m across the globe. "Let's be honest, Thumbsucker did not get me any phone calls," he laughs. Instead, Mills returned to his day job -- art shows, music promos (including a quintet for Blonde Redhead) and a documentary, Does Your Soul Have a Cold? -- dealing with the Japanese and depression. He even "came out of record-cover retirement" for the Beastie Boys' latest album Hot Sauce Committee Part 2. "They operate on different speeds. Even if you're more successful than me, it still takes a few years to make a film. It takes a few weeks to make a Beastie Boys cover."

Despite the trials of getting Beginners off the ground, he wouldn't have it any other way. "I'm so proud to be a writer-director. I've got the same job as [John] Cassavetes and Woody Allen..."

Like these heroes, he can't ever see himself becoming a director-for-hire. "Filmmaking is so hard, I can't imagine doing something you didn't have a total connection with."

A brief history of Mike Mills


Helps form band Butter 08, playing guitar and background vocals, and oversees the release of their self-titled debut album (with a guest appearance by John Lennon's son, Sean, on one track).


Works with Air, designing the record sleeve for their mega-album Moon Safari, and directing the video for Sexy Boy, in which the band meet a toy monkey and fly off for a lunar adventure.


The first of three books collecting his art and photography, Gas Book 11, is published. Also releases Eating Sleeping Waiting and Playing, a film about Air on tour.


Rounds up Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton to make his feature film debut Thumbsucker, adapted from Walter Kirn's novel about a troubled teenager prescribed Ritalin.


Following on from Thumbsucker, Mills directs Does Your Soul Have a Cold? -- an anti-depressants documentary following five Japanese individuals suffering from depression.

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