Mike Mills: No Longer A Beginner

Directors, the innate storytellers of our generation, all seem to have one pivotal similarity: they all feel almost destined to present marvelously original tales to anyone willing to listen and watch.

Mike Mills—the director of Thumbsucker, and now Beginners—is the very definition of a storyteller. As quirky and as easy going as they come, Mills studied at an art institution for graphic design, but that stubborn, nagging concept of being a director never escaped him.

It lingered until old Jim Jarmusch films connected with his own vision of what he could create as a director. The Reporter recently sat down with Mills to talk about his upcoming film.

It’s imperative to understand that Beginners is an unconventional love story. It is more a memoir than an actual work of fiction.

Oliver—the protagonist played by Ewan McGregor—embodies much of Mills life. Yet, curiously enough, Mills reveals that Oliver’s love interest, Anna—played by the stunning Mélanie Laurent—is actually based partially on him as well when he states, “she’s a whole bunch of me, a whole bunch of my personal issues are in Anna. When talking to Melanie about it or doing those scenes, I take her really personally. Almost more than anybody else.” Quite an interesting fact to keep in mind when catching this flick at your nearest theater.

Anna, an exquisitely complex character, forms a deeply intimate bond with Oliver, a young man who seems to be losing his way as his father slowly loses his battle against cancer. While all this is playing out, Hal—Oliver’s father—announces to the world he is gay (mimicking Mills’ father’s coming out of the closet moment). With a reminiscing smirk Mills says, “I was super impressed and I really admired that he did it and the way he did it. It was the punkest move he ever did.”

But Beginners runs a little deeper than young love and old desire. Due to its profoundly personal nature it was only fair to ask Mills why he would tell it at all. Mills sincerely responded, “For me it was the most important story to tell. When your parent dies it does makes you think about why you’re here and what you’re doing. My dad coming out surprised me. It surprised me because he was pretty shy before, and very sweet but not that big. He was kinda self denying and polite. When he got sick, he knew he had cancer and he wasn’t going to be there for so long. The way it was going down was so intense and vivid, and all the big issues in life were on the surface. I felt like it was the biggest story that I saw, that I know about, that I can report about in an intimate personal way.”

When asked about his fathers homosexuality in respects to his mother, Mills reveals, “I asked him why he got married and he said ‘Your mom took off her Jewish badge when we got married in 1955 and I took off my gay badge’ and I was like ‘oh wow’. Now I know how to talk about it. It’s not just our story, it’s not just my parents, it’s my parents in a big swath of American history.”

Finessed to perfection, Mills was able to balance both love stories with small camera adjustments and angles implying a characters state of mind. “Everything from Hals tracking camera to involving Anna’s hand held and jump cuts. Lots of little craft things like that. But it didn’t work for a long time. It was hard,” said Mills about weaving both tales into one.

Through these technical tactics Mills was able to fabricate a film with household names, yet still display a raw and intimate depiction on screen, a rarity usually only seen in independent films.

“I like movies that feel emotionally real and alive. I don’t feel you need to do a whole lot else. Two people talking on a bed could be a whole lot to me, a whole world. I’m comfortable in that world,” said Mills about his way of portraying a love story. Subtleties such as these are riddled across Beginners, allowing the audience to interpret the intimacy.

“Love is exciting and it’s great but it also scares the sh*t out of you, especially in the beginning. It challenges you,” says Mills when talking about Oliver and Anna’s love affair. The reality of their relationship is almost daunting because of their immensely raw interpretation.

Mills deserves nothing but praise for creating a rare gem obscured by summer blockbusters. Beginners hits theaters June 24. It would be nothing short of a shame to miss out on this excellent film.