I found writer and director Mike Mills’ Beginners starring Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Mélanie Laurent to be nearly perfect. The story of a lonely artist named Oliver (McGregor), the movie weaves together disparate strands of narrative going from past to present with subtle ease. It follows our hero’s love affair with beguiling yet wounded French actress Anna (Laurent) while also showcasing his emotionally surreal relationship with his seventy-something father (Plummer), an esteemed art historian who has recently come out of the closet and is facing down terminal cancer.
Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor in Beginners © Focus Features
I sat down Mills and McGregor with a couple of other local critics to discuss the film during the pair’s brief stay attending the Seattle International Film Festival. Our wide-ranging conversation touched upon a number of topics, spiraling from here to there with energetic bravado, and while our time together was sadly much too short the information gathered was fascinating.
“This is where my parents met,” says Mills candidly. “They went to Garfield High. I keep thinking that this story [Beginners] kind of started here in a funny way. But I was born in Berkeley, California and we lived in Santa Barbara, so I moved the story to L.A. because that’s where I live and where I know.”
Working from his own experiences was important to the filmmaker because so much of the script was inspired by his actual relationship with his own father who had come out to him as gay after the death of his mother and proceeded to live the kind of life he’d denied himself up to then. But while the inspiration sprung from reality, that doesn’t mean events in the film paralleled Mills’ own life or the one of his father in any sort of concrete or discernable way.
“The body and soul and psyche and spirit and energy of [the film] is actually pretty different,” he admits. “Christopher [Plummer] isn’t my dad and that was never the goal. It was more to just take this man’s predicaments and desires and fears and to run with [them]. Christopher’s a bit more grand. He customizes in some very nice ways, and actually helped me tell a better portrait of my dad.”
“There’s this scene where he’s telling [Oliver] how the mom proposed to him and how the mom knew, and that scene was really short when we started filming. Christopher came to me and said that he needed to tell [his son] more because Oliver was being mean and judgmental and [Chris] felt he needed to defend himself. He just kind of roughed it out and I just filled in some of the facts and I loved that when it got to that kind of place I knew I was getting somewhere.”
At the same time, with so much going on, the nonlinear state of the narrative, the fact there’s a talking dog (speaking through subtitles), the potential for Beginners to lapse into melodramatic sentimentality or overindulgent whimsy is a constant threat. Yet the movie never does, a fact of which the director is proud.
“I remember saying [to the cast], oh my god, help me keep this from being a narcissistic self-pitying sentimental memoir,” states Mills. “I was like, you guys [the cast] have to do it now. You have to own the characters, take it over, make it your own story and communicate with the audience.”
“All I can really say is I was afraid of it being sentimental. I didn’t want it to be. I love films that are naturalistic and organic, where you feel that the truth of life is in there somewhere but hopefully not manipulative. That’s all the things I admire like that and I’m just trying to emulate what I admire, and these guys [the cast] are so good at making a connection between themselves and making their own relationships that isn’t me and my dad but something that is alive. Ewan and Christopher really have something very alive between them and I kept trying to put wood under that fire so [the film] wouldn’t be just my family and my stuff.”
“You’re very kind to say that,” interjects McGregor, “but it was also it would never be that way [overly sentimental] because the writing wasn’t that way. What you see was more or less on the page. It didn’t ever come across as sentimental or self-pitying. It was never like that.”
“And maybe a piece of that is [due] to my real dad’s energy,” questions Mills. “That’s the first thing Christopher said, ‘I love that it has no self pity. Not a drop.’ And I was like, you would say that Christopher because you were born in . That is that generation. You don’t complain, you don’t whine, you keep going forward. Especially when my dad came out, he was even more that way, going for more of [what] he wanted and never looking back.”
Writer/director Mike Mills on the set of Beginners © Focus Features
For McGregor, being a part of Beginners was a no-brainer. While the actor has appeared in projects big (Angels & Demons), small (The Pillow Book), in-between (Miss Potter), instant cult phenomena (Moulin Rouge) and culturally significant (the Star Wars prequels), his process of picking scripts hasn’t changed much since his Danny Boyle double-whammy days in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
“I don’t get my pick of material,” admits the actor. “I can’t call my agent and tell him get me this or get me that. I rely on what comes my way and I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve worked with and the stories I’ve been a part of. And I’m very uncomplicated about it. I read scripts as they come in and generally I don’t know very much about them [beforehand]. It’s what grabs me [and] this one grabbed me.”
Sometimes the call is so out of the blue and unexpected it can’t help but seem like a practical joke, or at least that was the case when McGregor was approached to star in The Ghost Writer. “I was on the set of Men Who Stare at Goats,” recalls the actor with a smile. “I was standing in a parking lot in the desert in New Mexico when my agent rung up and said Polanski wants you in his picture. It was like f**king hell, is this some sort of joke? Say that again. That was a good moment.”
“But I don’t have any complicated process; it’s just if it [the script] grabs me. I was reading one the other day and I realized I was just looking at a series of scenes go by and I couldn’t make it into a movie in my head, and after about 40 pages I thought this just wasn’t going to be for me; nothing’s happening. And then another script, when you pick it up, if it starts playing like a movie in your head and you start imagining yourself as the character [that’s] good. You get that feeling like when you’re reading a novel and you’re getting towards the end and you start putting it down, reading a page at a time because you don’t want it to leave your life. If you have that feeling with a good script then that is a good sign.”
For most films dealing with the issues of coming out, of families dealing with members revealing their homosexuality, issues of religion, culture and other exterior forces always seem to come into play. In Beginners, Mills refuses to patronize, refuses to allow his characters an easy villain to blame misfortune, whether perceived, imagined or actual, upon. At the same time, the director does find a few places to point some fingers, even if his doing so is up to the audience to ascertain how pointed his criticisms are.
“There is sort of villain,” he admits, “and to me that is American History. There’s the psychiatrist who says [Hal’s] gayness is a mental illness, and the way the vice squad is in the film, that’s a real institutional villain. It’s quiet and it’s in the background but it is hugely there. Even the anti-Semitism that’s in the story with the mom who gets kicked off the swim team for being half-Jewish, it’s that history that they’re all up against.”
“In terms of love the villain would be these old stories, these old fears. There’s this monologue towards the end where [Oliver] says we finally stopped the stories in our heads and I could see Anna in 2003 saying I love you, crying, talking and all of that. For me, these are all the more insidious villains because they’re internalized; they’re the villain we half help crush us down.”
“It’s all those things, right? I don’t even know [the answer]. My real dad I don’t even know. In terms of what was his commitment to my mom? Was it all self-sacrifice? Did he really love her? It’s so ambiguous. One day I can feel one thing; one day I can feel another.”
Tackling all of these contrasting themes and making them resonate was important to McGregor, and although the film itself presented plenty of challenges, especially in regards to its nonlinear structure, the actor wanted to dig into every one of Oliver’s cells. The trick he and Mills came up with to help with this was a novel one making the actual shooting of the picture that much more engaging and energetic.
“We shot two films,” explains McGregor. “We shot the father-son story in its entirety as one film, and then we stopped and rehearsed the second one. After that we shot the second film, both more or less in order. My looking back, my remembering stories that took place with my father while with Anna, I was literally able to do that, I was literally able to recall those moments because we’d shot them already.”
“And we shot them differently,” adds Mills. “Christopher and Mélanie are so different, so it kind of changed the whole tenor [of the production]. It’s like me and Ewan went and met all these other people; that was my experience. We sort of had this traveling show, shot the dad’s story all blocked off and in very careful tracking shots. Theatrical. But the stuff with Mélanie was handheld and in the round. I’d always encourage people to not block it off and to go anywhere they wanted, especially with the love story. I didn’t want them to be controlled. I wanted them to be wild.”
Looking back, McGregor is reticent to state which characters have been his favorites or which films have meant the most to him. At the same time he seems to understand where he has come from, constantly looking to challenge himself and improve as an actor while not shying away from the performances he’s given in the past.
“They all have meant something,” he says proudly. “They all [the character] have to mean something. Different degrees, I suppose, but if you’re connected to what you are doing, and god hope that you are, then you’re always exploring elements of your own life. I don’t know which one meant more or less, it’s difficult to say because when you make a movie it’s for people to watch so it is up to them.”
“Some of the films obviously changed my life. A film like Trainspotting changed the course of my life because it was the film that kicked me into people’s consciousness in a more international sort of way. But there were other films that were really important to me that other people didn’t take much notice of and that’s fine. And I don’t wish that they would have gotten [more acclaim], it’s just the way things are.”
“It can be disappointing if people don’t see them, but I don’t really know and it doesn’t matter to me so much because people come up and talk about all of them at some point or another. A film like Velvet Goldmine which didn’t do as much business is probably one of the films people talk to me about the most. It maybe as a film didn’t work 100-percent of what we were trying to do but it was a great attempt at something different.”
“Or like The Pillow Book, which was so important to me. I can see how it defines me as an actor, that film. It was my second movie, and I remember it being like this beautiful dream. And he’s funny, [director Peter] Greenaway is just not at all what you’d expect. You always got the impression that nothing you could say would be of any interest to him. But what we achieved in that film is so beautiful, and I love what it is about and I learned so much.”
McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in Beginners © Focus Features
With potentially five films coming out in 2011, one wonders if overexposure is something McGregor worries about. It’s a question that shouldn’t be asked. “I like to work,” he says with a grin. “I really do. I like to make films. I’ve had a nice run of it, and it happens from time to time when they all sort of jam up but it doesn’t really matter to me. As long as you like what you’re in and you feel like it is worthwhile then it really doesn’t matter.”
- Portions of this article reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle