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.”


“This was on our last day of shooting with Christopher Plummer—who plays his own wonderful version of my dad, who came out of the closet at age 75! It was amazing to watch Ewan and Chris play together as actors—as if they’d known each other for years and years.”

Photographer: Sarah Soquel Morhaim

“Ewan and Mélanie: From the first improvising we did in rehearsals you could see how much each one surprised and pushed the other. It was like some huge “game on” light switched on and they didn’t look back.”

Photographer: Todd Cole

“Cosmo! And that’s the hand of his wonderful partner—trainer, Mathilde. Cosmo has a deep, thousand-year-old kind of soul, and like Ewan, he was so sensitive to his fellow actors. They were really with each other.”

Photographer: Sarah Soquel Morhaim