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Mike Mills’ ‘Beginners’ Sets Forth on Disc

28 Oct, 2011 By: Billy Gil

Mike Mills’ second film, Beginners, follows a man named Oliver (played by Ewan McGregor) who is coping with his father’s recent death from cancer.

The film takes place in present time, when Oliver meets a beautiful young woman (Inglourious Basterds’ Mélanie Laurent) and embarks on a relationship with her. Flashbacks of his life over the past few years recount his mother’s death and his father (Christopher Plummer) coming out of the closet at the age of 75. Through these flashbacks, Oliver learns to get through his grief and mid-life crisis by reflecting on the courage of his father to begin living his life anew with only a handful of years left to live.

Focus Features via Universal Studios Home Entertainment releases the film on DVD ($29.98) and Blu-ray ($34.98) Nov. 15. Both editions include a commentary from Mills and a short film about making Beginners. Home Media Magazine spoke with Mills about creating his acclaimed film and its home video release.

Mike MIlls and Melanie Laurent
Mike Mills and Mélanie Laurent at Beginners' New York premiere.

HM: Can you tell me about the short film included on the discs?

Mills: Aaron Beckum is a great younger filmmaker, and it’s a lot of the behind-the-scenes footage that he edited on his own. There are some nice moments between the actors and some interviews with me. It’s neat. It’s not as slick and EPK-ish as your normal behind-the-scenes thing. It’s more personal.

HM: I loved this film and have told a lot of people to watch it. I imagine many others have done the same. Do you anticipate this film finding a much bigger audience on home video?

Mills: Oh yeah. My other film (Thumbsucker) was too. I feel that’s unfortunately the plight of the smaller film. … But I’m happy just as long as anyone sees it in whatever form. I watch so many films at home, and it’s definitely part of my life, so there’s definitely a place for that. I watch a movie probably three or four nights a week at home. I love that, too (in addition to seeing a movie in theaters), the privacy. It’s almost like a book.

HM: There was a five-year break between Thumbsucker’s release and the release of this film. Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing and getting this film made?

Mills: Well, I was mostly just trying to get that one done. It premiered at the 2005 Sundance [Film Festival], and I started writing [Beginners] like a month later. By 2006 I had a script I was trying to get financed. … It wasn’t going red hot. It’s so difficult to get a film like this made. Thumbsucker didn’t leave me with a whole lot of power, and this film is very adventurous in a lot of ways. It was very different to convince people to get this film made. I spent a lot of years sort of desperately trying to talk people into it.

HM: One thing I personally loved about this film was the locations: Echo Park, Los Feliz and Silverlake, not only because I live there, but because it shows off a cool part of Los Angeles that doesn’t often get portrayed in film and to the outside world, who might only see L.A. as Hollywood. What made you choose that location?

Mills: I live there, too. It made it quite easy because I new everywhere in the area. As I’m writing over the years, I’m writing about things I love — the L.A. River, Elysian Park, the Moonlight Rollerway roller rink. I like it when a location makes sense in a film.

HM: The story felt pretty true to life. Were you inspired by any real events?

Mills: Yeah, my dad came out at 75. It’s not a documentary. It’s not a memoir, but it’s inspired by him. My parents did get married in the ’50s, my mom did die of cancer, …. A hunk of it comes from very real things.

HM: To what degree do you see Beginners as a gay film?

Mills: Well, I think it’s equally a gay and a straight film in some ways. It’s a strange combination to me because to me, it’s very proud of its gayness and its very pro my dad coming out and has a lot of gay history in it. Some of my favorite parts of the film were getting to include what it was like to be gay in the ’50s … getting James Dean in there, who was at least bisexual, if not gay. … I think it has a healthy chunk of gayness in it, but also [it gets] past a film being gay or straight. It’s about a father and son and … we approach the gayness of the film as if it was no big deal, as if it was just part of life — it’s a post-gay identity film.

HM: I feel like the film is pretty evenly split between Oliver’s and Hal’s personal stories, and if anything leans more toward Oliver’s. But the film seemed to be marketed more as about Oliver’s struggle with Hal’s coming out, when in reality, that didn’t seem to bother him much. Was that frustrating at all to have the story reduced to certain elements when in reality it’s a complex and sensitive story?

Mills: There’s no homophobia or anything like that [in the film]. … Once in a while, a journalist will interview me about Oliver’s difficulty with Hal’s coming out, and ask, did I have the same problem, and I’m like, did you see the movie? … Overall he’s pretty accepting. That’s not really the story. That’s the extent of me bumping into that, and that was always sort of confusing. IMDb can be such a pain in the ass. Before the film was made, the line got out: Oliver gets rocked by the twin discoveries of his dad’s cancer and coming out (Note: the line reads: A young man is rocked by two announcements from his elderly father: that he has terminal cancer, and that he has a young male lover.) I’ve tried to get that changed. … It’s a frustrating disservice [to the film]. On my page or whatever, it says trivia: His mother died of cancer in 1999. I wrote them and said: It’s not trivial!

HM: The film follows several characters and different conflicts. Was it difficult to balance the many different story elements to this film?

Mills: I tend to write like that. I want to have all these different angles. I like to have a dense film. I think the pieces of my film are simple and immediate, but there’s a lot of them. … I like kind of circling around. It is kind of complex, but it seems to me be the only way my brain works. I’m writing a script now, and unfortunately it shares that quality of not staying on one track. It’s a little bit more difficult to write, but I feel liberated by that kind of a style. I enjoy it, and I love sort of repositioning the viewer and seeing similar themes from different people, different perspectives, different moments in history. That’s what excites me.

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About the Author: Billy Gil

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