Director Mike Mills annotates behind-the-scenes images from his new movie starring Ewan McGregor.
After his wife passed away in 1999, Paul Mills revealed to his son, writer-director Mike Mills, that he was gay—a secret he’d kept through 44 years of marriage. “He told me that when they got married, Mom took off her Jewish badge and he took off his gay badge,” recalls Mills. Five years later, his father died of lung cancer at age 79, but not before blossoming into an almost entirely new person. “We started having these wonderful conversations, very unlike the ones I’d had with my straight dad,” remembers Mills, who has captured the humor and pathos of this tumultuous time in his recently released Beginners, an elliptical story that seamlessly dissolves past and present. “That’s how this film came about. The conversation still isn’t really over.”
In the film, the father, Hal, played by Christopher Plummer, is intent on living as much of the lifestyle he was forced to abandon under McCarthy-era conservatism as he can in the limited time he has left, while his son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), looks on with alternating amusement and concern. After Hal dies, Oliver moves into his home and inherits an advice-doling Jack Russell terrier (his “speech” is subtitled) and a household crowded with memories now reshaped by his father’s revelation. He also meets an enigmatic French actress (Mélanie Laurent) whose emotional hang-ups mirror his—and the director’s—own. “My father was really concerned about my relationships with women,” says Mills, who is now married to writer and filmmaker Miranda July. “Especially the fact that I couldn’t seem to stay with anyone. He challenged my choices.”
After a lifetime spent unaware of his father’s secret inner life, Mills sees his continued presence, however spectral, as a reward, not a symptom. “People ask me if it was hard making this movie, but it wasn’t a somber experience at all,” he says. “When I talk about the film now, it feels like he’s not so gone.”