Monday, May 23, 2011

Reverend's Interview: Mike Mills Memorializes His Gay Dad in Beginners

No one was more surprised than graphic artist turned filmmaker Mike Mills when his father came out as a gay man shortly after the death of Mills' mother. Mills has parlayed his unusual experience into the alternately funny and dramatic new movie Beginners, which opens June 3 in Los Angeles and will expand throughout California and the nation next month. I had the opportunity to watch the movie in advance and speak with Mills about it.

"I have so much at stake with this project: My memories of my dad and my career as a filmmaker," the sensitive, soft-spoken screenwriter/director said. "I feel more like a sharer than an author." Beginners is only Mills' third cinematic outing, following the 2005 film festival favorite Thumbsucker and the 2007 documentary Does Your Soul Have a Cold? "This script was developed with the belief that something this personal can become universal."

Mills' father was 75 years old when he came out and had been married to his mother for 45 years. When his parents married in the 1950's, conservatism and homophobia were the norm in the United States. Mills' father told his wife-to-be he was gay prior to their marriage. She was Jewish, and faced as much difficulty fitting into post-war America as he did. Subsequently, Mills says, "My mom took off her Jewish badge and he took off his gay badge."

Following his mother's death and dad's revelation, their son watched with equal parts surprise, confusion and admiration as his father became heavily involved in Southern California gay life and began a relationship with a younger man. "He just started living this explosive new life," marveled Mills. "He became more emotionally alive than I'd ever seen him." Just five years later, however, the elder Mills was diagnosed with terminal cancer and passed away. His father's death served as the true catalyst for what would become Beginners.

Mills was fortunate to secure the participation of two fine actors in the roles based on his father and himself: Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music and an Oscar nominee for 2009's The Last Station) and gay favorite Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!, Star Wars Episodes 1-3). The filmmaker wrote them both very personal, impassioned letters asking them to be in his movie. While both actors were initially hesitant to play characters so close to Mills, they eventually agreed based on the strength of Mills' screenplay and his reassurance that they could make the parts their own. They deliver excellent performances, as do fellow cast members Mary Page Keller (as Mills' mother), Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds) and ER's Goran Visnjic, who plays Mills' father's late-in-life boyfriend. An impressive Jack Russell terrier also plays a pivotal role.

"The experience I'm most trying to communicate with Beginners is that of an adventure, the feeling of something breaking open," Mills shared. "While this film has illness and death, it's about beginnings, change, and how deeply funny life can be in its most serious moments." It is a touching movie with truly universal appeal. As Mills has learned via feedback from audience members at early screenings, his father's long-closeted homosexuality wasn't as unique as the filmmaker originally thought.

Beginners is composed of both autobiographical and fictional elements. "I wanted to root around between the way things really happened and the way we choose to remember them," Mills says. In the film, Mills goes back and forth between events in 1955, when his parents married, and 2003, when his father died. The historical sequences include a powerful gay rights montage set to words about "becoming real" taken from the classic children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

"The film is hopefully asking, 'What is real, anyway?' Are these memories real, or did I get them wrong?" according to Mills. "I lived with a man whose biography was somewhat fictionalized, a performance of sorts. He had to hide deep, personal, intimate things."

While Beginners tells a broader story than just a gay-themed one, there is considerable gay interest in it. "To be honest, the gay community is the audience I am most concerned about," Mills told me. "My dad's gayness taught me so much as a straight man, but it's definitely a film by a straight man curious about his gay dad and I'm not sure how that will resonate." I assured Mills I didn't think he has anything to worry about; between Plummer's liberated performance and the overall humanity of the film, Beginners will move gay and straight viewers alike.

"I do think my father would have loved coming out to the world through Beginners," Mills concluded. "He would have seen it as keeping the party going — but with a larger invite list."

Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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